Here are some favorites out of tons of books I got to slow down and read this year, articles I printed or tore out to keep. Some are written by or feature friends. Others touched me for personal reasons. All are important to where we find ourselves as survivors going forward to a new year in more urgent hope than ever.
Books- Please consider getting one from a bookstore!
Sugar is a classic reissued 20 years later. I believe Lakewood was the most underrated novel of the year but Megan Giddings clearly has the talent and mind for a long career, so that should not happen to her again. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies drew me on title and recognition of the exemplary Black church lady circa 1970-1990 on the cover, and the three longest stories read like staring into a mirror. Wuhan Diary is an exercise in no-matter-what writing few writers could match. The Happily Ever After was a special, rare surprise books can cease to be after so long of reading and working in them. It’s Not All Downhill From Here was never mine because it always seemed like the perfect gift until I put my foot down and kept one. Ricanness is a ‘Stop’ sign warning to everyone who storms Black or Brown Studies for job security since other academic fields are saturated. The Second Mother is allegory to the reality women’s quests for equality in work and financial freedom can almost kill us. This Is My America is the smart YA that respects its audience as closer to adults than children for reading it. Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick is just Zora.
Shorts- Please click and enjoy!
- “Remembering Toni Morrison, the Bird Whisperer” by Sandra Guzman for Audubon, Winter 2020. This new gift from a producer of “The Pieces I Am” shares a simple private glimpse of Mama Morrison her deep readers (as Ms. Guzman calls us) will never stop searching for. A publication insert details her novels where birds play the largest part. I guessed Sula would be at the top of that list. This favorite novel of mine has my favorite character, Sula, arrive back to her small Midwest hometown not dissimilar from my own, amidst a plague of robins portending the downfalls to come.
2. “Gayle Lynds: My First Thriller” by Rick Pullen for Crimereads, September 2020. This is an absolutely incredible construction of a writer’s life and mind in destiny to the job. It shows how much writers on writers, a fading journalism artform, really matter and require us all not to scroll past their work. By the time this interviewer pulled out Mrs. Lands’ fond memories of eavesdropping on women talk at her childhood kitchen table, as young girls like I was did, I felt I knew her and was made better to have discovered her books.
3. “Stop Calling Young Black Girls ‘Grown.’ They’re Kids” by Tiffany D. Jackson for Cosmopolitan, September 2020. If you say you care about Black women but you do not read this, then you don’t care about Black women- or, more importantly, girls. Brown and black female bodies have considerably lower treatments and respects from very young ages unto years when even a senior must refuse to stand her tired body up on a bus. I’ve seen many writings try to express this painful way of life, as I have created myself, and this one is superb.
4. “On Witness and Respair: A Personal Tragedy Followed by a Pandemic” by Jesmyn Ward for Vanity Fair, The Great Fire Issue, September 2020. This blues song in words is strong rebuke to our oversharing culture where every celebutante or person with a phone or owner of website domain can exploit the ups and downs of life into the world’s job to pay attention to. If you can’t do it this seriously and benevolently and universally, then don’t do it at all. This offering of private pain and loss is so many things beyond the eulogy for a husband it begins as, and I read nothing this year that came within miles to it as a eulogy for us all.
5. “Why Oprah Gave Up Her Cover for the First Time Ever to Honor Breonna Taylor” by Oprah Winfrey for O Magazine, August 2020 newsstands. I can say I lived to see the day when O Magazine, as common at the checkouts as chewing gum and breath mints, could be missed because it’s cover star was not on it. Ms. Taylor was not here to see that equivalent of a great prize no one has ever been more important for. It symbolized Oprah’s many other civil rights actions for Breonna to place her in the same breath as Rosa Parks. Oprah is beyond a woman who still has to explain herself, but I am glad she did lest anyone be mistaken: We will fight.
6. “‘We already have a Black writer’: Black Chicago crime fiction author Tracy Clark, others talk about the fight for recognition” by Milan Polk for The Chicago Tribune, August 2020. Well… sigh. On the one hand, this article and any like it defy the anger and depression I feel about how exclusive most industries are, while arts and literary landscapes remain near the top of the list. After all, they show Black people who leaped over the exclusivity to become success stories worthy of major press. But on the main hand, the brilliant Black women here give voice to why there’s little to celebrate in their featuring at expense of too many others. The special place in my heart for this particular addition to the exposing racism genre comes from my just recent learning that many Black writers work in the crime, mystery and thriller spaces I am working in more.
7. “How to release a book in a pandemic” by Jenny Milchman for Medium, July 2020. Prior to 2020 lockdowns, Jenny had already set the standard for book touring as one of the most self-toured authors in history. This essay outlines her plans and visions to revise her own standard to fit new times, providing another gift for other writers to learn from and take notes on. She wrote out the vulnerability and anxiety an entire industry succumbed to, from publishers to bookstores to everyone but it seems Amazon, which tripled it owners’ wealth during the pandemic. Hopefully we won’t need her guidance for this again, but if we do, here it is.
8. “Mother-Wit” by Jeffrey Renard Allen for Granta, July 2020. No matter how exquisite the writing or films many Black men create about their mothers, it has never been lost on me that mainstream arts and entertainment prefer fraught or problematic portrayals of Black women raising Black men, too often alone. This memoir excerpt is a refreshing departure from that prejudiced formula. Jeff keeps the focus on the problems his mother faced– structural racism, hard work/life balance, forced masculinities– so that we never see her as the problem. It is also a history lesson on Chicago and the Great Migration, effortlessly threaded into scenes from his childhood that prove Black women are indeed capable of raising well-adjusted men.
9. “”I Believed I Would Never Catch Up” Bestselling Author Tayari Jones Reveals the Strange Magic Behind Her Literary Stardom” by Olivia Marks for British Vogue, June 2020. Number one, the sister looks beyond gorgeous; I needed to see women who looked like me, cornrows and all, in high fashion magazines when I was young and I never saw it. Number two, I agree with every said about writing while black and woman in America. We need two or three books just to get to the starting line and an extra gear just to stay in the race. Strange magic indeed… Beyond race, Tayari gives voice to a reality all novelists face: The attention and demand required to gain power in the field creates the opposite conditions necessary to write new books.
10. “‘Why we can’t turn away from ‘Gone with the Wind’” by Jacqueline Stewart for CNN Opinion, June 2020. Before I stumbled upon this essay by the college mentor and grad school professor I studied early Black film and images under, I thought I was the only one mad cancel culture had made it impossible for me to see Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben in my kitchen. I was happy to have their faces stare in cultural memory of similar faces who fed me, drove me, protected me and raised me well. In clear and congenial terms, Jacquie explains why White shame over their crimes of racism does not equal Black shame over those who were its victims. She gives the correction that our Mammies existed first for us long before Whites decided to see them and they should remain the national treasures they are in new contexts rather than comforting erasures.
11. “Amistad Launches #BlackoutBestsellerList on Social Media” by Calvin Reid for Publisher’s Weekly, June 2020. Amidst protesters flooding the streets with companion social media reality shows of their individual participation, Amistad came along to suggest people put their money where their mouths and phones were. The phenomenal result of one week where a viral graphic told people to buy a book by a Black author translates beyond publishing to every industry. The American caste system originated by economic mandate placing Black wealth out of reach with the country’s hardest, and only tortured, laborers producing wealth for others. Centuries later, the gap that mandate insisted on and its devastating remnants stay conveniently left out of racial justice conversations and movements. It was a joy to see an ephemeral time where book buyers of all colors thought to prefer Blacks for their dollars. Maybe one day that will be true for more than a week.
12. “Well, that escalated quickly” by Tiffany Gholar for her personal blog, March 2020. This dizzying, tangential, wild, outstanding screed rolled out in March 2020 as the most apt display I’ve seen of all our unique dashes to deep personal wellsprings for some anchor in the storm our minds and spirits faced when the pandemic began. Drifting topically from her artmaking to her science academy education to 90’s pop culture to a good cry disguised as jazz song, Tiffany demonstrates how we always have what we need inside our very own minds to try to understand crises, and how the human mind is hardwired to resist going mad.
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