February is Black History Month in the United States. In honour of that observance, and in light of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, here are a few books on the Black experience in North America that will enrage, enlighten, and fascinate.
The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill
This compelling and award winning novel gives a sweeping vision of the 18th century slave trade. At the request of British abolitionists, Aminata Diallo writes her life story, beginning with her abduction from an African village, her life as a plantation slave, her transfer to Nova Scotia following American independence, and finally her journey to England. All of this is fascinating, but it is the narrator’s voice and character that make this book sing.
The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
“We have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it,” observes Alexander. And she lays out in devastating and scrupulously researched detail how mass incarceration in the U.S. (nearly at the levels achieved by Stalin) has created a new version of the abhorrent Jim Crow laws – which permitted racial discrimination in the American south. A disturbing but essential and timely read.
The Hanging of Angelique, by Afua Cooper
We don’t ordinarily associate the idea of Canada with slavery, except perhaps as the terminus for the underground railway. This is the historical account of a Canadian slave who was convicted of setting a fire in Montreal in 1734, but who may have been guilty of nothing more than being a woman who refused to accept bondage.
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Still showing up on all kinds of bestseller lists, this short book looks at what it means to be Black in America today. Structured as a letter to his teenage son, Coates writes of his childhood, his education, his fears as a parent, and underlying all this is the issue of race. There is rage, kindness, love, and a kind of painful wisdom, all delivered with a James Baldwin vibe.
The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, by Jean Theoharis
Famous for refusing to give up her seat on an Alabama bus, Rosa Parks has entered the civil rights pantheon as a mild, self-effacing, almost accidental activist. This biography sets the record straight, revealing her life as a protester both before and after the bus incident. She may have been quiet, but she was also thoughtful, passionate, and dedicated. A true hero of her time.
If you’ve read all of these, here are a few other books on this topic that aren’t to be missed: The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin; Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup; I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou (or anything else by her); and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.