Reading as resistance — a year-end book list that challenges the mainstream

A woman reading Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. (Flickr/Gwen)

A woman reading Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. (Flickr/Gwen)

Last week, I was crowd-sourcing a list of must-read books by black women writers when someone pointedly claimed to read race-blind.

“I choose my books by content rather than the color or gender of the author,” he said.

Frankly, I cannot imagine a less rewarding approach to reading. Literature lovers rely on recommendations from fellow bibliophiles, scholars, magazine articles, bookstore displays (if your town even still has one) and those ubiquitous, cannon-establishing lists. All of these sources are influenced by personal and societal biases, which more often than not favor the white middle-class heterosexual male Judeo-Christian American. Our society’s too-often-illustrated inability to see beyond this perspective certainly extends beyond our bookshelves — but what better place to start broadening one’s vision of the world than with one of the most fundamental sources of knowledge itself, the book?

As a black woman, I read black women writers to see my experiences and identity reflected in art. I proactively seek out these writers because I have to. By 2013, most readers accept that Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Toni Morrison, is amazing, but the cannon of black women writers is so much deeper than leading lights like Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. Consuming books by authors of silenced races, nationalities, gender expressions and sexualities offers the reader greater insight into the world and all its realities. And because I care about this world — including that vast majority of people who are not white-middle class male heterosexual Judeo-Christian Americans — reading in this purposeful way is a small act of resistance against a mainstream that tries to erase everything but this one dominant voice.

Below is my best-of list — with all its attendant biases — of books written by black women in 2012. You will find some literary giants, like Toni Morrison and Zadie Smith, who both released new work this year, as well as new writers like Laina Dawes, who wrote a fascinating exploration of black women in punk and heavy metal. As 2013 begins, let’s begin a year of resistance by listening to — and amplifying — the voices that too often went unheard and unappreciated last year.

NW: A Novel by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith, author of the much-lauded White Teeth, follows Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan, as they build their adult lives away from the Caldwell council estate in London where they grew up. Watch the author read from the book.

On Intellectual Activism by Patricia Hill Collins 

In a collection of essays, noted sociologist Patricia Hill Collins examines the role of the public intellectual, distinguishing, according to Professor Elizabeth Higginbotham, between “speaking truth to power and speaking truth to the people.” Watch Collins discuss what she calls “answering the call to community service.”

Gathering of Waters by Bernice McFadden 

This sweeping work of magical realism tells the story of three generations of an African American family in the South, weaving dramatic historical events — including the flood of 1927 and the brutal race-fueled murder of young boy in 1955— into the narrative of these fictional characters.

Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice by bell hooks

bell hooks probes modern notions of race, gender and class with a series of essays that explore “constructive ways scholars, activists, and readers can challenge and change systems of domination.” Her essays include analyses of the films Crash and Precious as well as a recent biography of Malcolm X.

Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis 

Building on the groundbreaking work of Isabel Wilkerson’s nonfiction masterpiece, The Warmth of Other Suns, Ayana Mathis employs fiction to recall The Great Migration, the historic movement of six million African Americans from the South to the North between 1910 and 1970.

What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal by Laina Dawes 

Music journalist Laina Dawes “questions herself, her headbanging heroes, and dozens of black punk, metal, and hard rock fans to answer the knee-jerk question she’s heard a hundred times in the small clubs where her favorite bands play: ‘What are you doing here?’” Read more in the review “The Only Black Chick in the Mosh Pit.

Home by Toni Morrison 

From one of the United States’ most beloved authors comes a modern Odyssey: the story of a traumatized veteran who returns to 1950s Georgia, only to find that, for African American men, the greatest enemy is often found not at war, but at home. While the novel is set more than 60 years ago, its themes and subject are devastatingly relevant today.

The Summer We Got Free by Mia McKenzie 

The story of a family ostracized and traumatized by a violent event, this debut novel is “a brilliant tapestry filled with exuberance and anxiety,” writes literary critic Jewelle Gomez. Read an interview with the author.

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