Black History Month has arrived! Each year, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History selects a theme for the month of February. This year, “African Americans and the Arts” and “Art as a Platform for Social Justice” are the themes. Each week, they will focus on a different artistic medium.
BCLS has plenty of books to read or listen to for each of these categories. Below, you’ll find just a sliver of what we have to offer to honor Black Art as Protest.
Literature & Poetry
Black writers show all aspects of Black life and culture in both their joy and their sorrow. While there are many thought-provoking Black writers, below you’ll find just a few examples of great works by Black authors.
Kindred by Octavia Butler
On her 26th birthday, Dana is transported from her modern home and life in California to a slave plantation in the antebellum South. She returns again and again, confronting new dangers until she is unsure of whether she will survive the next journey to the past. Also an early example of Afrofuturism, this book by Octavia Butler explores how the oppressions that Black folks experience today are deeply connected by the oppressions of the past.
The Source of Self Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison
Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison released this non-fiction collection in 2019 just a few months before her passing. Spanning four decades of work, it is themed around death: Part 1 being a prayer for those who died in the attacks of 9/11, Part 2 a contemplation of the life of Martin Luther King Jr., and Part 3 a eulogy for James Baldwin. Toni Morrison has been writing since 1970 publishing The Bluest Eye and in this collection of essays she writes criticism and reflection on her own work.
The Selected Works of Audre Lorde by Audre Lorde
This collection of her work was edited by Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist. Containing over 60 poems and 12 essays, you’ll hear the many of the same themes that contemporary Black poets and writers speak on today such as queer theory and intersectional feminism. Audre Lorde described herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” and each piece of writing in this collection proves this description to be true.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Jamaican author Marlon James, who now lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, writes a novel from multiple perspectives on the attempted assassination of Bob Marley just before his Smile Jamaica Concert in 1976. This whopper of a historical fiction spans the 70s, 80s, and 90s incorporating violence of gang wars in Jamaica and the crack wars of the 80s in New York. This novel took four years and a team of researchers for contemporary author, Marlon James, to complete and includes perspectives from both gang members and a CIA agent.
Theatrical performances are often used as societal criticisms for audiences that may be unaware. Below, you’ll find three Black playwrights that use the genre to explore tensions and social issues that plague Black folks.
Fences by August Wilson
Part of Wilson’s ten-part “Pittsburgh Cycle,” Fences takes place in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania in the 1950s. Focusing on the family of Troy Maxson, a 53-year old garbage collector who once had dreams to play Major League Baseball, but has since had to choose a plan of survival. His sons, on the other hand, have hopes of a better future that Troy, after decades of oppression, struggles to believe can come true. August Wilson shows the struggles of a working class family in his own hometown, and it resonates across the country.
Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin
Known for his novels, essays, and poetry, James Baldwin also wrote this social commentary drama in 1964. Loosely based on the murder of of Emmett Till, the play focuses on a small Southern town in which a poor white man murders the son of a Black preacher. The play weaves between the past and the present and tells the son’s, Richard Henry’s, story. James Baldwin shows the anger, deep seated and fiery, that Black folks feel against social injustice.
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange
Trigger Warning: This play consists of a series of monologues that cover topics such as sexual violence, domestic violence, and abortion.
Written in 1976, this unique play is performed as a series of choreopoems: poetic monologues that are choreographed to music. Ntozake Shange deftly weaves together stories of love, loss, empowerment written in Black English that shows how Black women are all part of a sisterhood. This show became the second play written by a Black woman to be produced on Broadway. Shange updated the play to include a new poem in 2010 and references to the Iraq War and PTSD.
Black art is often a form of protest, depicting the ways in which Black bodies are manipulated, but also depicting the beauty of their culture. Read on to find how Black artists use a variety of mediums to resist societal constraints.
By Her Own Design: A Novel of Ann Lowe, Fashion Designer to the Social Register by Piper Huguley
Ann Lowe was the first nationally-known African American fashion designer who designed Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress and yet wasn’t given credit. Piper Huguely takes the life of Ann Lowe and writes a beautiful historical fiction that will have you feeling closer to the famous designer than ever before.
The Black Joy Project by Kleaver Cruz
There is much to celebrate as a Black individual and this book shows off many reasons to relish in Black Joy. With 117 full color photos accompanied by eight essays, you’ll be feeling proud to be Black or excited for those who are.
Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence edited by Elizabeth Hutton Turner
The Great Migration occurred soon after World War I and did not stop until the 1970s and is one of the largest movements of people in US history. About six million Black folks moved from the South to the North, Midwest, and West in an effort to start a new life away from racial discrimination. Jacob Lawrence, a dynamic cubist painter, depicts this migration in a series of 60 panels which are contained within this book.
Black musicians created many genres aside from Hip-Hop and R&B as forms of expressing themselves when they were often silenced. The books below show how Black musicians use music to express what’s deep in the soul.
Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop by Danyel Smith
This unique combination of a memoir, a history, and social criticism, Danyel Smith discusses how Black women’s music built the foundation for American pop. Smith discusses not only the history of Black women like Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved poet, but also how her own life was influenced by these women. Consisting of five years of research and writing, this book will feel like you’re being let in on a beautiful secret of the American pop industry.
The Come Up: An Oral History of the Rise of Hip-Hop by Jonathan P.D. Abrams
Told through the voices of hip-hop industry people, this book details the humble beginnings of hip-hop in the Bronx in 1973 to the explosive popularity of today. You’ll go behind the scenes and hear from those little-known but groundbreaking hip-hop artists that made the genre what it is today.
More Myself: A Journey by Alicia Keys
Part narrative biography by Michelle Burford, part autobiography by the woman herself, this book details her journey from withholding parts of herself to being the truest version of herself. Not only told from her own recounting, the story also involves the people that have surrounded her throughout her life.
Prince: The Beautiful Ones by Prince
Named after the song of the same name, The Beautiful Ones, this book describes his climb to become the multi-talented superstar he became. Part memoir and part biography constructed by editor Dan Piepenbring, you’ll learn of the incredible life of a man who went from an imaginative child to a flamboyant, acclaimed musician.
This week explores the idea of Afrofuturism – the combination of science fiction, Black history, and fantasy as a means to connect Black folks through their shared experiences and propel them into the future. Afrofuturism imagines a world that contests racism and ethnocentrism while acknowledging the experiences of the past.
The Deep by Solomon Rivers & Jonathan Snipes
In this afrofuturist fantasy novella inspired by the song “The Deep” by rap group Clipping, the descendants of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard have built an underwater society. The memories of their mothers are too traumatic to remember; only Yetu holds the memories of their ancestors. In her need to understand the trauma she holds within her, she discovers the land her people left long ago.
Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto by Tricia Hersey
Afrofuturism can also mean a reimagining of how Black folks currently participate in society. In a Capitalist world, we are often expected to be constantly productive. Tricia Hersey argues that being well-rested and energized allows us to reclaim our power from a society that seeks to exploit us. This book will teach you how to change the way you think about self-worth and how to unlearn equating what we produce with our success.
The Wishing Pool and Other Stories by Tananarive Due
This collection of short stories is an innovative selection of afrofuturist writing. Due writes horror, science fiction, and suspense stories that all contain a sense of dread balanced by hope. She uses her attention to detail to convey the terribleness of racism.