Top 10 Book Recs to Round Out Your Reading for BHM

 

Recently I came across something called "Top 10 Tuesday" on social media and since I thought it was too good to pass up, I dove right in. 

I excitedly shared my T𝐨p 1𝟎 𝐁o𝐨k R𝐞c𝐬 𝐭o R𝐨u𝐧d O𝐮t Y𝐨u𝐫 𝐑e𝐚d𝐢n𝐠 𝐟o𝐫 𝐁H𝐌 on PL's Facebook and Instagram pages - all books that I'd read personally and could give a hearty must-read recommendation to our Pretty Literate Community. Hastily, I crafted social posts (and even sent an email to my best book buds!) because this month is too-quickly coming to a close and I hoped to get the book recs to my reading BFFs before it was too late.

After the email was sent and the social media posts were...well...posted, I did a solid facepalm because a book rec is nothing without some context and a reason (or two!) to read it. 

"Top 10 Tuesday," then, is the inspiration behind this week's Pretty Literate Blog - to slow down and share a little more in-depth why I chose these particular books in my T𝐨p 1𝟎 𝐁o𝐨k R𝐞c𝐬 𝐭o R𝐨u𝐧d O𝐮t Y𝐨u𝐫 𝐑e𝐚d𝐢n𝐠 𝐟o𝐫 𝐁H𝐌 earlier this week.

Grab a cuppa your favorite sippable and settle in for some girlfriend time as I share not only a bit of context for each book, but why I think it's a solid book rec for YOU to read, too.

Jubilee by Margaret Walker

☑️ WHY I READ IT

I discovered Jubilee by Margaret Walker within a year of reading (and loving) Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and I think that contributed greatly to my enjoyment of the 1966 classic.  The two novels counterbalanced one another beautifully, leaving me with a more holistic view of the south during Reconstruction than would have been possible reading only one of the titles.

☑️ OVERVIEW

"Jubilee tells the true story of Vyry, the child of a white plantation owner and his black mistress. Vyry bears witness to the antebellum South in both its opulence and its brutality, its wartime ruin, and the promises of Reconstruction.

Weaving her own family’s oral history with thirty years of research, Margaret Walker brings the everyday experiences of slaves to light in a novel that churns with the hunger, the hymns, the struggles, and the very breath of American history."

The bestselling classic about a mixed-race child in the Civil War-era South that chronicles the triumph of a free spirit over many kinds of bondage. (The New York Times Book Review).

☑️ WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT

Read it for the story (based on the oral history of the author's real-life great grandmother). Get lost in Vyry's saga and, in the process, discover a balanced view of the post-Civil War South. 

Kindred by Octavia Butler

☑️ WHY I READ IT

I read Kindred for the first time a few years ago and it was utterly unputdownable. I chose Kindred based on the fact that it involved time travel and I am up for a good time travel book just about any day of the week. It ended up being so. much. more. It is the perfect blend of sci-fi, romance, fantasy, and historical fiction, and lest you are rolling your eyes about the recent screen adaptation (one that did not get renewed for a 2nd season, leaving the rest of the story woefully untold) - THE BOOK IS SO MUCH BETTER!

☑️ OVERVIEW

"Dana, a modern Black woman, is celebrating her 26th birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin."

The visionary author’s masterpiece pulls us—along with her Black female hero—through time to face the horrors of slavery and explore the impacts of racism, sexism, and white supremacy then and now. (Goodreads)

☑️ WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT

If you're looking for a solid escapism of the best kind this month, Kindred is it. Hands-down.

Passing by Nella Larsen

☑️ WHY I READ IT

I read Passing for the first time a few years ago as I was researching upcoming novels to read in PL's Monthly Book Club. Nella Larsen's 1929 novel compares and contrasts the lives of 3 African-American women - all light of color enough to pass as white in their everyday lives.

One does just that, marrying a racist white man who does not know she is passing (as white).

One does not, marrying an African-American doctor and living the American dream as a prosperous black family. 

One serves as a hybrid of the two positions, married to a white man, but living the life of an interracial couple openly.

☑️ OVERVIEW

"Married to a successful physician and prominently ensconced in Harlem's vibrant society of the 1920s, Irene Redfield leads a charmed existence - until she is shaken out of it by a chance encounter with a childhood friend. Clare Kendry has been 'passing for white,'  hiding her true identity from everyone, including her racist husband. Clare and her dangerous secret pose an increasingly powerful threat to Irene's security, forcing both women to confront the hazards of public and private deception. Her fictional portraits of women seeking their identities through a fog of racial confusion were informed by her own Danish-West Indian parentage, and Passing offers fascinating psychological insights into issues of race and gender." 

The genius of this book is that its protagonists . . . are complex and fully realized. . . . The work of a highly talented and thoughtful writer. (Richard Bernstein, The New York Times)

☑️ WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT

You will find the lives each woman led intriguing, their marriages so alike even as they differed, and the prejudices held even within one's own race gripping. And get this - the sweet icing on Nella Larsen's cake is the awesome surprise ending. Who doesn't love those? 

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

☑️ WHY I READ IT

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is one of the most engaging autobiographies that I've ever read. The short chapters kept me moving forward at a quick pace through the unforgettable and unique slave narrative written entirely from the perspective of a woman. 

☑️ OVERVIEW

"Harriet Jacobs—writing under the pseudonym Linda Brent—relates the story of her girlhood and adolescence as a slave in North Carolina and her eventual escape...set in the complex terrain of a chauvinist, white supremacist society. Resolutely addressing women readers, rather than men, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl seeks to make white women understand how the threat of sexual violence shapes the lives of enslaved Black women and children."

Harriet Jacobs’s narrative bears rare witness to the female experience of slavery, highlighting the threat of sexual exploitation and appealing directly to women. (Betsy Reed, The Guardian)

☑️ WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a must-read because of its uniquely female perspective, a rarity in the slave narrative sector. Although it is technically nonfiction, Jacobs' memoir reads easily like fiction - captivating, compelling, absorbing fiction that will completely capture the heart of the reader. 

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

☑️ WHY I READ IT 

Kathleen Grissom's The Kitchen House was a book that was most recommended to me to read a few years ago. I was excited to discover that my library had a copy available for checkout and quickly snatched their copy to find out what all the fuss was about for myself. The book traced the fictionalized history of one southern plantation through two generations of ownership, highlighting topics that specifically related to the novel’s two main characters:

  • Lavinia - an orphaned white indentured servant from Ireland that came to live on the plantation as a young child and was raised in the Kitchen House among the slaves whom she immediately began to love as family
  • Belle - the beloved daughter of the plantation owner and one of his black slaves (who died before the events in the book); in happier times, Belle spent her childhood in the Big House enjoying the benefits of education and love until her father remarried and she was sent to work & live in the Kitchen House

☑️ OVERVIEW

"Through the unique eyes of Lavinia and Belle, Grissom’s debut novel unfolds in a heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful story of class, race, dignity, deep-buried secrets, and familial bonds."

In this gripping novel, a dark secret threatens to expose the best and worst in everyone tied to the estate at a thriving plantation in Virginia in the decades before the Civil War. (Simon and Schuster)

☑️ WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT

The story follows the lives of the two women mentioned above, both comparing and contrasting each woman's life of servitude, which is compelling to say the least. Other aspects of southern living during slavery are also addressed that you will find equally fascinating, issues like the complicated concepts of family in the slave-economy of the south (both the family you are born into, as well as the ones you create); love & relationships; the advancement of women as a whole; and the lasting impact each of us can have in the lives of those around us. 

The Kitchen House had a similar feel to me of Octavia Butler's Kindred (above)so if you enjoyed that 1979 gem, you will love Grissom's The Kitchen House (c. 2010).

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict

☑️ WHY I READ IT  

The Personal Librarian initially caught my eye because, honestly, my guilty pleasure was watching The Real Housewives of New York, one of whom married J.P. Morgan's son (or was it grandson?) and I wanted a glimpse behind the curtain of the Morgan empire. Plus, "everyone else was reading it" and that generated quite a bit of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) for me, so I downloaded the audiobook version of The Personal Librarian to accompany me on an upcoming trip and found myself enthralled by this fictionalized account of the real-life librarian of J.P. Morgan. Belle da Costa Green was a woman of color that lived not only a life passing as white, but she became a woman who was revered in a male-dominated field during the Gilded Age. Oh! and she did it with impressive style and in heels, no less! 

☑️ OVERVIEW

"In her twenties, Belle da Costa Greene was hired by J. P. Morgan to curate a collection of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork for his newly built Pierpont Morgan Library. Belle became a fixture in New York City society and one of the most powerful people in the art and book world, known for her impeccable taste and shrewd negotiating for critical works as she helped create a world-class collection.

But Belle had a secret, one she protected at all costs. She was born not Belle da Costa Greene but Belle Marion Greener. She was the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard and a well-known advocate for equality. Belle’s complexion isn’t dark because of her alleged Portuguese heritage that let her pass as white—her complexion is dark because she is African American.

The Personal Librarian tells the story of an extraordinary woman, famous for her intellect, style, and wit, and shares the lengths she must go to—for the protection of her family and her legacy—to preserve her carefully crafted white identity in the racist world in which she lives."

Benedict, who is white, and Murray, who is African American, do a good job of depicting the tightrope Belle walked, and her internal conflict from both sides—wanting to adhere to her mother's wishes and move through the world as white even as she longed to show her father she was proud of her race. Like Belle and her employer, Benedict and Murray had almost instant chemistry, and as a result, the book's narrative is seamless...I became hooked. (NPR)

☑️ WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT

The Personal Librarian is nothing short of amazing! It contained conflict, identity crisis, complicated family relationships, struggle, overcoming...all wrapped in a relatable & flawed main character that the reader roots for from the introduction all the way through to the historical notes at the end. I also think you will appreciate the attention to detail the author employed to anchor the story in real-life elements (like the sinking of the Titanic), which help ground the novel in a readily familiar historical context.

If you're looking for a novel that all women - regardless of color - can rally around, it is the inspiring life of Ms. Belle da Costa Green as told in The Personal Librarian

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

☑️ WHY I READ IT

I first read Uncle Tom's Cabin while I was teaching. I'm a mood/theme reader and I wanted to read this classic that I'd heard about my entire life in the context of history, so as we began studying the Civil War, I took the opportunity to pick up Stowe's 1852 classic. I couldn't possibly tell you how many years ago that was, but I can tell you that I reflect back on that book more often than any other on this Top 10 List. Growing up (and still living) in the South, so many of the sights and sounds Stowe shared in her groundbreaking novel were familiar to me and as I read and reflected I could see in my mind's eye the story unfolding in the familiar context of the world around me.

☑️ OVERVIEW

"Few novels in American history have grabbed the public spotlight and caused as great an uproar as Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Across the north, readers became acutely aware of the horrors of slavery on a far more personal level than ever before. In the south, the book was met with outrage and branded an irresponsible book of distortions and overstatements.

The heart-wrenching tale portrays slave families forced to cope with separation by masters through sale. Uncle Tom mourns for the family he was forced to leave. The novel also takes the perspective that slavery brings out the worst in the white masters, leading them to perpetrate moral atrocities they would otherwise never commit." (excerpts from USHistory website)

So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war. (President Abraham Lincoln upon meeting the author)

☑️ WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT

To say you will fall in love with Uncle Tom is an understatement. You will begin to know what true investment in a character means as your heart breaks, emotions rise and fall, and your breath is held while following the fate of that beloved man.

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

☑️ WHY I READ IT

Solomon Northup's story Twelve Years a Slave was my first foray into the world of the slave narrative. It was truly horrific to read and I was mortified by what happened to Northup, an educated New England man who found himself kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south. I yearned alongside Northup while he dreamed of his family who had no idea what had happened to him and held my breath as he endured misery and mistreatment. Twelve Years a Slave was a gripping portrayal of the economic system that enslaved the south before Lincoln's emancipation of millions - and one I think every American should read.

☑️ OVERVIEW

" Solomon Northup was a free man, the son of an emancipated Negro Slave. Until the spring of 1841 he lived a simple, uneventful life with his wife and three children in Upstate New York. Then, suddenly, he fell victim to a series of bizarre events that make this one of the most amazing autobiographies ever written. Originally published in 1853, Northup's autobiography is regarded as one of the best accounts of American Negro slavery ever written by a slave." (LSU Press)

This novel gives insight into the slavery practice, judicial authorities of different states, inhumane punishments for black people. (Goodreads)

☑️ WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT

The injustice of it all, the uncomfortable reality of the slave trade, the brutality of a system that caters to the fickle feelings of a few, an agonizingly honest inside look at the day-to-day life of a slave in the Deep South, and so much more make this 1853 memoir a must-read for us all.

Cane River by Lalita Tademy

☑️ WHY I READ IT

Like The Kitchen HouseCane River was another novel from the Brilliant Books for Black History Month list that was one of the most recommended and a few pages into it, I easily understood why. Set in south Louisiana, the novel traces the history of the author's family, generation by generation, from slavery to blessed freedom. I read it at the suggestion of my book besties and am so excited to be able to honestly and wholeheartedly pass along the recommendation to you. 

☑️ OVERVIEW

"Beginning with her great-great-great-great grandmother, a slave owned by a Creole family, Lalita Tademy chronicles four generations of strong, determined black women as they battle injustice to unite their family and forge success on their own terms. They are women whose lives begin in slavery, who weather the Civil War, and who grapple with contradictions of emancipation, Jim Crow, and the pre-Civil Rights South. As she peels back layers of racial and cultural attitudes, Tademy paints a remarkable picture of rural Louisiana and the resilient spirit of one unforgettable family."

Extraordinary... illuminates the soul of heritage... historical fiction of the highest order. (Philadelphia Enquirer)

☑️ WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT

The novels voice is very personal, almost like a love letter to who the author is and where she came from - which I found absolutely beautiful. The author, while not glossing over the less savory aspects of our nation's history, wrote a truly enlightening novel, sharing real tragedy and the breadth of the human experience without abusing the reader in the process. (Think: Indian-American filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan's movies which show just enough to know what is happening without exposing the moviegoer to the full picture.)

If you are amazed by strong, black women and the sacrifices they make for their children's futures, or marvel at their determination in the face of overwhelming odds, this novel is for you. 

If you want to read a real "overcomer" book, this novel is for you.

If you need a healthy dose of perspective, this book is for you.

Black No More by George Schuyler

☑️ WHY I READ IT

The synopsis on the back of this 1931 classic novel is what intrigued me because I love good sci-fi stories and this one seemed perfect to read - not only during Black History Month, but any time of the year because genius-level speculative fiction can be savored year round!

☑️ OVERVIEW

"It’s New Year’s Day 1933 in New York City, and Max Disher, a young black man, has just found out that a certain Dr. Junius Crookman has discovered a mysterious process that allows people to bleach their skin white—a new way to 'solve the American race problem.' Max leaps at the opportunity, and after a brief stay at the Crookman Sanitarium, he becomes Matthew Fisher, a white man who is able to attain everything he has ever wanted: money, power, good liquor, and the white woman who rejected him when he was black." 

What would happen to the race problem in America if black people turned white? Would everybody be happy? These questions and more are answered hilariously in Black No More, George S. Schuyler's satiric romp. (Goodreads)

☑️ WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT

It starts with a bang and only gains momentum as you turn each satire-driven page. If you want to enjoy a good, fun read packed with powerful perspective, Black No More should be your next book.

Now It's Your Turn

Since I'm a reader and always on the lookout for a good book rec just like you, which titles have YOU read & would include in YOUR T𝐨p 1𝟎 𝐁o𝐨k R𝐞c𝐬 𝐭o R𝐨u𝐧d O𝐮t Y𝐨u𝐫 𝐑e𝐚d𝐢n𝐠 𝐟o𝐫 𝐁H𝐌?

I hope you'll share your titles in the comments, both here on the PL Blog and on PL's Facebook & Instagram pages.

Wondering Where to Begin? 

If you've never targeted a book for Black History Month, no worries. I gotchu, girl.

Check out the Pretty Literate SHOP for a few of my favorites listed above paired with a bookish souvenir to create a reading experience that you'll want to experience again and again!

Better yet, come read with us inside PL's Monthly Book Club! Not only will you enjoy a monthly opportunity to read more broadly during important times of the year like Black History Month, but you will begin reading your way through sensational classics all year through, tried and true authors who have stood the test of time and a lot of lit that you've probably never heard of before, as well!

Find out more here.

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