2019: the year in black literature
December 19, 2019
As the optimistic multiculturalism of the Obama era gave way to a global wave of ethnocentrism and tense borders, Black writers met the urgency with a fervor to remember, to unbury, to speak into the silences of the record. What the next decade will look like — who will hold power, how they’ll wield it, who will be held accountable for our shared losses — is yet to be determined. But it’s storytellers who shape the contours of what is possible.
Who gets to tell the story? And what will it be? In the United States, with a presidential election on the horizon and an impeachment behind us, the next years promise much wrangling over these questions. I felt it brewing at the start of 2019, when the six-episode, Lifetime mini-series Surviving R. Kelly aired out a litany of abuse allegations against the R&B singer — some, “open secrets” since the early 1990s. The documentary’s stories, built upon years of reporting in the Chicago Tribune, encouraged Kelly’s record company to drop him, and for prosecutors from three different states to hold him accountable for crimes committed against Black girls and women. Later that same month, the most diverse Congress in history was sworn in. And in June, Ta-Nehisi Coates delivered an aching, eloquent testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in favor of H.R. 40, the bill to study reparations for slavery. In it, he confronted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who’d insisted, “none of us currently living are responsible” for slavery’s horrors:
“Coup d’états and convict leasing. Vagrancy laws and debt peonage. Redlining and racist G.I. bills. Poll taxes and state-sponsored terrorism. We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard. He was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama and a regime premised on electoral theft. Majority Leader McConnell cited civil-rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader.”
Confrontations would continue. Over the summer and fall, thousands took to the streets in San Juan and Port-au-Prince demanding corrupt bureaucrats resign. September’s youth-led climate strikes drew nearly five million protesters around the world urging policies to calm the warming, rising seas.
Talking back, using language to speak into existence new worlds has long been bedrock to the Black literary tradition. Much new work troubles genre boundaries and categories, living in between — and through — multiple means of communicating. MacArthur fellow Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, uses a method Hartman calls “critical fabulation” to tell the stories of Black women in urban centers from the turn of the 20th Century. It reclaims the histories of our cities. National Book award winner Sarah M. Broom engages a similar endeavor with The Yellow House, the history of her family’s shotgun house becomes a history of New Orleans and New Orleans East, a coming of age tale, a chronicle of the climate crisis, a remembrance of Hurricane Katrina. This urge to unbury animates fiction too: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, or Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone, which, like HBO’s adaptation of the DC Comics series Watchmen, reimagines the 1921 destruction of Tulsa. Eve Ewing retells the story of Chicago’s race riots of 1919 in her latest collection of poems.
Other writers have turned to interiors, layering flesh and texture onto their characters, conjuring a thrilling sense of intimacy in new, exciting ways. Imani Perry, in her memoir Breathe, employs the direct address. Saeed Jones uses a poet’s lyricism in the Kirkus Prize-winning memoir, How We Fight For Our Lives. Incisive essay collections like National Book Award finalist Thick, by Tressie McMillan Cottom and Emily Bernard’s Black is the Body blend personal and critical writing and are sophisticated, complex documents of how we live today and what it all might mean.
Perhaps the most notable literary event of the past year was a loss. On August 5th, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison died at the age of 88. She was the author of eleven works of fiction (including Sula, Beloved, and Song of Solomon), nearly a dozen volumes of nonfiction, children’s books with her son, and a libretto. Morrison made a career editing books by Lucille Clifton, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, and Henry Dumas before publishing her first novel.
These 25 books from 2019, arranged loosely by theme, stood out and spoke to me, for their beauty, for their clarity about the past and the moment we’re in and the way they point to a future:
Living History and Historical Fiction: An Urge to Unbury
Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone jumps back and forth in time, between three generations and remembers the Tulsa massacre. Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys fictionalizes the real-life horrors of the Dozier School for Boys, deep in Florida, and opens with a literal excavation. In his fiction debut, The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates brings to life Hiram, a young man living during slavery with great gifts of memory and “Conduction.” Angie Cruz’s Dominicana brings us Ana, a teenager in the mid-1960s, who leaves the Dominican Republic for Washington Heights to live with her new, much older husband. Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King reimagines the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, in which Benito Mussolini’s armies sent Haile Selassie into exile until the send of the Second World War.
The Intimacy of Real Lives: Memoirs, Essay Collections, Oral History
Bridget Davis’s memoir, The World According to Fannie Davis, recounts her years growing up with her mother, a well-known Numbers runner in Detroit of the 1960s and ‘70s. In The Yellow House, Sarah M. Broom tells her family’s story, of life in New Orleans from the 1900s to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Imani Perry’s Breathe is fashioned as a letter to the author’s sons, on how to thrive, despite white supremacy. In How We Fight For Our Lives, Saeed Jones’s remembers growing up in Lewis, Texas with his gorgeous, protective mother. Jaquira Diaz remembers a fraught relationship with her own mother in Ordinary Girls and moves through her family’s years in Puerto Rico and Miami. The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability and Other Reasons to Fall in Love With Me by Keah Brown is a collection of essays about pop culture, that wonders about the paltry representation of disabled Black people. I’m Lying But I’m Telling the Truth is Bassey Ikpi’s memoir (in essays) about her struggles with bipolar disorder and anxiety; Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Thick: And Other Essays deftly merges theory with folksiness; Black is The Body features Emily Bernhard’s essays asking and answering questions about the material conditions of Blackness; Honeypot: Black Southern Women Who Love Women is E. Patrick Johnson’s inventive oral history/surrealist ventures though Black queer life; Reniqua Allen’s It Was All A Dream: A New Generation Confronts the Broken Promise to Black America includes dozens of interviews with Black millennials about their lives and hopes.
The Near Future and the Recent Past:
The dark comedy We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin imagines the horrors of a future South; Kiley Reid’s debut, Such a Fun Age, animates the internet era and the fault lines of all kinds of interracial relationships; Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie gives us a 25 year old Black British heroine and her romantic mishaps in a contemporary moment; The Booker Prize winning Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernadine Evaristo tells linked stories of twelve Black British women and moves through time.
Literary Recoveries and Criticism:
Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary, edited by Nina Collins, is the second volume of works by Kathleen Collins and includes her screenplay, “Losing Ground,” previously unpublished plays and short stories, and several journal entries. Zora & Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal by Yuval Taylor aims to uncover why two literary titans ended their friendship after years of letters and collaborations.
Books About Our Music:
Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest is (occasional AFROPUNK contributor) Hanif Abdurraqib’s cultural history of the hip-hop group. The Beautiful Ones, Prince’s memoir, completed after the artist’s death, is a collage of his handwritten notes and personal photos and the account of its creation by editor and collaborator Dan Piepenbring. Robyn Crawford’s long awaited memoir, A Song for You: My Life With Whitney Houston, offers an intricate, tender account of Houston’s rise to stardom and love of Black music.
On Black Glamour:
The scholar Tanisha C. Ford’s Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion is a memoir that uses fashion to tell a social history of the Black Midwest, especially during the latter years of the 20th century. Along with Deborah Willis, Ford also contributed to the monograph, Kwame Brathwaite: Black is Beautiful; Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem uncovered the many evolutions of Harlem; The New Black Vanguard, by curator and critic Antwaun Sargent, looks at a new, cosmopolitan cadre of fashion Black photographers like Tyler Mitchell and Awol Erizk; The Rihanna Book, published by Phaidon, is a 500-page “visual autobiography” of the singer, with glamorous behind the scenes photos of her at work and play and ephemera from her life before stardom
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