Book Review

Black History Month in Review

As Black History Month concludes, I wanted to share with my readers what I’ve been exploring over the last 4 weeks. I enjoy reading a diverse selection of books all year round, but I focused primarily on the Black experience during February.

Books
GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER by Bernadine Evaristo

I received this book for my birthday over a year ago. It took a while for me to get into it. I’m not sure if it was a stylistic challenge or if the story just didn’t grab me in the beginning. There are no periods- only commas- throughout the entire book. It may seem like a small thing playing with punctuation, but it took time for me to adjust.

The story is told through 12 different perspectives, which seems a bit random at first. By the end, the characters’ lives are intertwined in some way or another. It’s really clever how the author achieves this sense of cohesiveness.

The novel focuses on the lives of (mostly) women from the African diaspora, living in Britain, America, and the Caribbean. Feminism, immigration, sexuality, colourism, racism, and classism are topics Evaristo deftly explores through several generations. We meet characters in the early 1900’s all the way up to present day Britain. It’s incredible how much content is packed into 452 pages.

I didn’t want this novel to end. It’s rare that a book will make me laugh out loud one minute and cry the next. I just loved the humour. Evaristo is so witty and her mastery of language is something to behold.

I read both of the Booker Prize winners of 2019 and strongly feel this book should have stood alone. There is simply no comparison between it and The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. I gave this book 5 stars on GoodReads but it deserved 10. It’s simply phenomenal. If you haven’t already, go read it now!

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyasi

This is the second novel by Yaa Gyasi. Homegoing is one of my favorite books so I couldn’t wait to read this one. (See my review of her debut book here). Transcendent Kingdom is completely different, which shows Gyasi’s scope as a writer.

Gifty narrates the story of her life growing up in Alabama with her Ghanaian family. They are the only black people at their Evangelical church. As a child, faith sustains Gifty. That changes when a tragedy occurs in her family.

As an adult, Gifty tries to process the events of her life and understand the inner workings of the human mind. The story flips between her present day experiences as a 5th year candidate in neuroscience at Stanford School of Medicine and the past. Through her experiments with mice, she studies reward seeking behavior and the neural circuits of addiction. Her mother comes to stay with her because she is chronically depressed and has a history of being suicidal. It’s clear that Gifty’s work is directly related to the suffering she’s watched both her mother and brother succumb to, and she hopes to help others with her research. This story is deeply reflective. It’s about love, healing, and faith in one another.

THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennet

This is another 5 star novel. I was engrossed from the very beginning and didn’t want it to end.

The Vanishing Half explores the lives of Stella and Desiree Vignes. They’ve grown up in a small town in Louisiana called Mallard. The twin sisters are descendants of the town’s founder. He envisioned a black community that would become lighter with each generation.

The residents of Mallard refuse to marry anyone with dark skin. Despite their hazel eyes, red hair, loose curls, light skin, and other Caucasian attributes, they are not protected from racism or the brutality of the south. The twins’ father is lynched without explanation, which sets the course for their young lives.

The girls are physically identical but their personalities set them apart. At the age of 16, Desiree convinces her sister to run away to New Orleans with her. Stella appears to be the timid one, until one day she makes a bold decision to reinvent herself. Without a word, she disappears, leaving the past behind forever. She starts a new life as a white woman in an effort to gain opportunities and financial security.

Meanwhile Desiree migrates to Washington DC where she marries a dark skinned man in defiance of her upbringing. Her daughter is very dark too. Desiree eventually flees back to Mallard and moves back in with her mother. As the book progresses, colourism continues to be examined. It’s not a subject I’ve read much about in fiction, but I’ve experienced it firsthand growing up in America. This novel sheds light on internalised racism among other things.

I won’t reveal what happens with the next generation. I will say the characters in this novel are well-developed and unforgettable whether you like them, sympathize with them, or not. In addition to exploring racial identity, this book also features a transgender character. Bennet treats all of her characters with compassion as they struggle to become who they want to be. I highly recommend this novel.

I am part of the GoodReads group Literary Fiction by People of Color. On March 1st the discussion will begin about The Vanishing Half since it has been selected as the book of the month. You can join by clicking here.

CASTE by Isabel Wilkerson

This is the only nonfiction book on my list. Unfortunately I have not finished it yet, but I still wanted to include this masterpiece. It’s been called “An Instant American Classic.” To say it’s powerful is an understatement.

The premise of the book is that America has a caste system similar to India’s. Comparisons are also made to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. White people are part of the dominant caste in America, while Black people comprise the subordinate caste.

 Caste is the bones, race is the skin. Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning and shorthand for who a person is. Caste is the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place. Caste is fixed and rigid. Race is fluid and superficial, subject to periodic redefinition to meet the needs of the dominant caste in what is now the United States.

Isabel Wilkerson

I’m nearing the end of Part 3: The Eight Pillars of Caste. It’s absolutely chilling. In Pillar Number 4, Purity Versus Pollution, we learned about the struggles the subordinate caste faced as swimming pools became integrated between the 1940’s- 1960’s. It was believed that the water would become polluted by Black swimmers, so the water had to be changed before the dominant caste could swim again. To this day African-American children are more likely to drown in pools than white children as a result of racial disparity. Click here for further reading on this subject.

I’ve had to take breaks from reading because I’ve found some of the book’s content too harrowing, particularly the accounts of Southern lynchings. I’ve actually had physiological responses to the more brutal passages. I became nauseous, light headed, and thought I might get sick.

When I told my friend, she recommended I also read My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem. She said it’s really important to have a circle of support with people from the same background before undertaking reading that challenges me the way Caste has because trauma is still imprinted in Black and Brown bodies. My Grandmother’s Hands has exercises to help ground oneself. Resmaa Menakem is a therapist specializing in trauma and body-centered psychotherapy. With the help of his insights, I should be able to complete Caste while also healing.

Journaling & Colouring

I’ve continued working with my Brave Sis Journal for the second month. To read my full review of the planner click here. You can purchase a copy for yourself on sale at the moment. Pictured below are (top row) Raye Montague (portrayed by Janelle Monae in Hidden Figures), Willa Brown, Eva Jessye, (second row) Susan Cuddy, and Maria Tallchief. Brave Sis is an inclusive project that celebrates the achievements of women of colour. There’s space to write, doodle, and colour. It’s a great way to unwind while my preschooler colours beside me.

Podcasts

These are my top three choices for Black History Month. I’ve found them to be both informative and fascinating.

  • We Need to Talk About the British Empire is an Audible original narrated by Afua Hirsch. It’s free to subscribers. I found the entire series riveting. Episode 3 features Joseph Opala & Emory Campbell. Opala is an American historian who is known for establishing the Gullah Connection, a historical link between the indigenous people of Sierra Leone and those of South Carolina and Georgia. His research began at Bunce Island, off the West African coast, where ruins remain of the slave trading castle dating back to the mid and late 18th century Middle Passage. Emory Campell is also interviewed. He’s a descendant of enslaved West Africans and is committed to preserving the culture of the Gullah-Geechee people of South Carolina. This podcast was informative, not only about the British involvement in the slave trade, but also because of the implications for African-Americans.
  • Check out Spotify’s Season 6 of Dissect: Beyonce’s Lemonade. This series is packed with so much interesting material. I’m halfway through and enjoying every minute. A range of topics and concepts are covered. I’ve learned about weathering among other things.

Discrimination and marginalization can also slowly chip away at one’s health, causing those who are at the receiving end of discriminatory attitudes to age or even die prematurely.

In health, this effect of premature biological aging and associated health risks as a result of being repeatedly exposed to social adversity and marginalization bears the name of weathering.

Read more of Ana Sandoiu’s article at Medical News Today

There are references to Malcolm X’s speech Who Taught You to Hate Yourself, which I had never heard before. (It reminded me of the concepts explored in The Vanishing Half). There’s so much food for thought in this podcast, not just about the personal aspect of Beyonce’s music, but also the broader historical Black experience. In a bonus episode, narrators Cole Cuchna and Titi Shodiva visit a plantation in Louisiana and talk about what that experience was like. There is a visual guide to the podcast which you can find here. This series is almost like literary criticism since music can be a form of storytelling in itself. Warsan Shire’s poetry is spoken between songs throughout Lemonade, adding to the literary dimension. I’ve been a fan of Beyonce since her career began, but I think this podcast could interest anyone wanting to learn more about Black History.

  • In Search of Black History is narrated by Bonnie Greer. This is another free Audible podcast. There are 8 episodes, each more fascinating than the next. Check out the brief trailer below. Then do yourself a favor and listen to the whole series!

Thanks for taking the time to read my reviews. What has inspired you during Black History Month?

3 thoughts on “Black History Month in Review

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