This post is the tenth and final in a series of posts I am making about books by black authors who impacted me. (The rest are below). I decided to wrap up this series and project of mine by going local and sharing Recurrence Plot by Rasheedah Phillips.
Rasheedah lives in Philly and I had the joy of discovering her work by going to an event put on by Metropolarity, an inspiring collective of Afrofuturst/queer/speculative fiction/sci-fi writers and artists who put on events and release work. The scene and crew I met through Metropolarity pretty much define why I moved to Philly - because I wanted to be challenged and inspired and to be around a community of creative people working together and helping to dream of a better world.
I wasn’t super familiar with Afrofuturism as a term but got excited when I started to explore it. Central as a tenet to me seems to be the idea that it will be through imagination that we are able to craft new, different, better modes of existence and organization of our society. I believe this and feel this in my bones. Artists help people connect across difference and dream, and that is why art and creativity are so vital to bettering the world.
Recurrence Plot begs the question to the reader of whether or not time flows in just one direction. The main character, a young woman named Khepri, is transported throughout the book to her own mother’s death. The books takes place in Philadelphia, and Khepri and her colleagues discover experimentation being conducted on young men in North Philly. She attempts to expose it but is in a perpetual race against time and space, often having to write letters to communicate with her future and past self.
The plot of the book is engaging and fast-paced, and Khepri commands your attention. The book made me think a lot about how our past can define our future - but also how we can intervene and define it ourselves. I’ve gotten to see Rasheedah read her writing, and I’m grateful to know her. You should definitely pick up this book!
Thanks to folks for checking out my little series of book reviews. I shared them because books are a huge part of how I dream and how I think about pursuing a better world. Both of those things seem imperative to me now.
Pick up the book and check out other Metropolarity stuff here:
This post is the ninth in a series of posts I am making about books by black authors who impacted me. (The other posts are below). Today’s book is Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More by Janet Mock. I read this memoir earlier this year when it came out.
Janet Mock is a transgender woman and was formerly a staff editor at People magazine. A beloved presence on Twitter and in media, she is a trans rights activist and thinker. The memoir is courageous, detailing her earliest memories of knowing she was a girl/woman and her process towards transition. She discusses her experience with survival sex work in both the book and in a series of videos she released on YouTube when the book came out. She’s challenged laws and policies that target and criminalize trans people, sex workers and people of color, and is a force to be reckoned with on Twitter and in the media.
Her story also charts difficult but loving relationships she has had with family members, and the challenges she faced in her love life. Reading about her relationship with her partner and his journey towards accepting his love for her is especially heartening and eye-opening. Some of my favorite media appearances with her have been on those occasions where she and Orange is the New Black actress Laverne Cox (a genius and badass in her own right) have been brought on to speak together. Mock regularly speaks at conferences and events, and started the #girlslikeus hashtag to elevate issues facing trans women. She’s an excellent writer but even more so an incredibly brave, fierce advocate. Whether you are well versed in transgender issues or you do not feel you know much, this book is a fantastic and moving read. Pick it up!
This post is the eighth in a series of posts I am making about books by black authors who impacted me. (Other posts are below.) Today’s book is Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Davis. I have to start this post by utterly geeking out and letting you know that my copy of this is signed, and if my house was burning down this is one of two things I would take with me while fleeing the building.
A lot of cultural attention is paid to the feminist contribution of white women in music. Riot grrrl was incredible and important to many of us, but was predominantly white. Often absent from discussions of feminist advancement through music are the voices of black women. This book tells the story of three in particular: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday.
Angela Davis is a brilliant activist and scholar, well known for her seminal work Women, Race and Class (it’s a must-read). She is also outspoken on issues such as the prison industrial complex and the situation in Palestine. In this book, she uncovers the ways in which blues artists challenged domestic violence, racism, and gender stereotyping. It is a page turner, offering up snippets of lyrics throughout to illustrate how transgressive and subversive these artists were. Davis gives them a due they should have been afforded long ago, but hey - much of history does not have a light shined upon it, including music history. If you are passionate about music and feminism, please pick up this book!
This post is the seventh in a series of posts I am making about books by black authors who impacted me. (The other posts are down below). Today’s book is Another Country by James Baldwin. I took this book with me when I was lucky enough to go on tour with my band to Europe, so my memories are of reading it as we drove from country to country.
Baldwin is gifted at dealing with subtleties of social interaction across race, gender and sexuality. Another Country is a compelling story of the life of Rufus Scott, a jazz drummer, and those close to him. Rufus is heavily impacted by the racism he faces in the world, and while he is a creative force he grapples with his demons and eventually succumbs to them. A large part of the story is about the return of Rufus’ first male lover, Eric, to the United States from France after his death.
Through these characters, Baldwin was able to paint a story of the alienation felt by black people in the US. His prose is lyrical and a joy to read. It’s of note that Baldwin himself was a gay black man living in the US, and at 24, disillusioned by America’s treatment of blacks and gays, he decided to move to France. He spent many years of his life in Europe and is largely considered to be a writer in self-imposed exile with a very specific view of African-American life.
Another Country deals also with the idea of being willfully ignorant. Characters ignore one another’s obvious bids for sexual love, people overlook cheating, and domestic abuse and racial tension are also regularly ignored. But all of this seethes in the background and colors how the story unfolds. Baldwin was a passionately political person, returning to the US for a bit and joining SNCC and other groups. He was decried for some of his work by Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver who was vehemently anti-gay. (In my humble opinion though, Cleaver is a good person to have dislike you - he was a violently sexist and homophobic person.)
This book depicts the pain of human longing and the trouble with building loving, trusting relationships in a culture rife with inequality and oppression. I wish it didn’t ring so viscerally true and apt today.
This post is the sixth in a series of posts I am making about books by black authors who impacted me. (The others are in earlier posts on this tumblr). Today’s book is Kindred by Octavia Butler. I read this book this year on tour, aloud in the car with my bandmate Diane. This book is a non-linear work of science fiction, with elements of both fantasy and slave narrative. It is hard to pin down and describe. The novel begins with a shock when Dana, the protagonist, awakens to find her arm amputated. As readers we don’t know what this means right away, but soon after we see that she is slipping back and forth between her modern life in 1815 and antebellum Maryland, circa 1815.
In a time/space warp, she continues over and over to connect with slaves and slave owners with whom she shares ancestry. She brings her modern-day awareness to a world of slavery, and has to figure out how to adapt and survive each time. She also has to make sure that events occur that will not upset the trajectory of history that led to her birth. Eventually, her white husband is flung back in time with her, and the juxtaposition of the treatment they receive in Maryland in the 1800s is gutting.
The book deals with guilt, shame, ancestry, race, and the interconnectedness we find ourselves in with one another - hence the name Kindred. It is a riveting, compelling read, and unlike any novel I’d ever quite encountered before. Butler’s book provides readers with an insight as to what it might have been like to be a black woman living under slavery, treated as property with no rights and choices. The book also touches on a theme that feels urgent for us to grapple with today - trauma and how it relates to history memory. Scholars have said the book also begs conversation about the lasting damage slavery might have on the African-American psyche. The book also depicts an empowered female hero who is clever and compassionate, with the endurance and fortitude necessary for survival.
Before I read this book, I popped into a book signing at Busboys and Poets in DC where Octavia was autographing copies. I remember what a presence she was sitting on the stage, and the buzz of excitement people in the room had at finally meeting her. Butler used science fiction and literature to critique history and envision new ways of being. I first heard the term “Afrofuturist” in reference to her work, and will discuss that a bit more in posts later this week.
If you have been wondering what book you should pick up and read lately, I can’t recommend Kindred enough. You will not be able to put it down and you will not be able to shake the characters and storyline from your memory. The indelible nature of her work is one of its superpowers.
This post is the fifth in a series of posts I am making about books by black authors who impacted me. (The others are below). Today’s book is Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde. I had read a few of the essays included in this text here and there throughout college, but finally sat with the book in full later in my mid-twenties. Audre Lorde was a black feminist and a lesbian, a poet and a civil rights activist. In addition, she wrote poetry and also shared her battle with cancer. Audre Lorde was the poet laureate for New York City for years, and had her poems regularly published in a number of poetry magazines. If you are interested in her work, this collection is a great primer.
I was moved immensely by her quote: “Your silence will not protect you.” This line and her work inspired a song Diane and I wrote with Trophy Wife which is on our first album called Sister Outsider. It’s here if you want to listen: http://trophywifetheband.bandcamp.com/track/sister-outsider-2
I recommend this book as well as her poetry. I’ve visited it often over the years - it provides me with immense comfort and clarity.
Today is the third day in a series of posts I am making of books that impacted me greatly by black writers. (I explain the series further down on my timeline if you are interested.)
I got interested in Toni Morrison when I was in college, I think primarily because bell hooks had referenced her work and, as I noted in the last post, hooks meant the world to me. Her work is lush and beautiful - her stories transport you to another place and you are immersed deeply in the characters described. There was one sentence in particularly I remember reading in this book over and over because it was so gorgeously crafted. It was like mind candy. She also won the Nobel Prize for Literature for this work in 1993.
I was in awe of the fact that there is a character in the story named Guitar who is juxtaposed against the main character, Milkman. There are so many haunting and beautiful scenes in this work which trace Milkman’s journey from boyhood to adulthood. He and Guitar are so close but have so much strife in their friendship - Guitar has neither a mother nor a father. They are both passionately close and wrought with mistrust of one another. We also follow the complex web of relationships Milkman has with his family, and witness his pursuit of wealth and fortune. There is tragedy in this book, and it faced a lot of banning from schools. It is full of power, heartbreak and fury. While Beloved is of course also brilliant, Song of Solomon remains my favorite Toni Morrison book.
(Part Two in a series of posts on books - see my timeline for the first.) The second book I wanted to write a bit about is bell hooks Ain’t I A Woman. This book was published in the early 80s but she actually wrote it as an undergrad (she was 19 when she penned it). I was 18 when I read it. I was introduced to bell hooks in two ways: one, through my college classes at University of Maryland, College Park (in particular through Comparative Lit and Women’s Studies) and two, through zines and records - namely the liner notes of a Heavens to Betsy record and a few awesome zines discussing intersectionality.
Before I read bell hooks, I honestly could not sit and say that I was a feminist. It didn’t speak strongly enough to me. I knew there was gender discrimination in the world; I knew my friends in high school were shamed for their sexuality simply because we were not boys; I knew there was a world and a history of subjugation. But it wasn’t until I started delving into bell hooks that a political framework could emerge for me - a way to connect all the dots of what I saw. Because she is essentially the main thinker who brought me to feminism, it has been disappointing to say the least to see the myriad of ways in which feminism has and does fail to be intersectional. The mainstream feminist organizations in this country with the broadest financial backing are often not held, feet to the fire, to examine how they operate and who they serve.
hooks purposely doesn’t use footnotes - and she has been criticized for that. It’s not that she doesn’t cite sources - she does - but in interviews she has talked about ways in which footnotes could alienate readers outside of academia. An ardent academic, hooks is passionate about writing in a way that is accessible for all who are interested.
When I first went to see her speak it was at a little bookstore in DC, Sisterspace, that I fear is long gone. From the strong, incisive voice in her texts I expected a looming, loud presence - but in reality she was soft spoken, and very gentle in presence. She fielded questions time and again with humor and acumen. When I went to her next local reading in College Park, I had written her a thank you letter and made her a mix tape. Not sure if she liked Bikini Kill and Norman Mayer Group but I gave it a try! My dorky way of expressing thanks. When she saw the tape she said, “People have given me things at reading before but this is a first.” She gave me a great smile and it made my day/week/maybe even year?
bell hooks is from Kentucky and resides there most of the time now. In later books she has really interesting and thought provoking things to say about space, the south, aesthetics, land, and family. Race, class and gender are not the only topics she’s influenced my thinking on.
I am unbelievably grateful for her work and her words.
The other day I made a post that simply said “read books.” I said this because I kept thinking of the friends books have been to me throughout my life and the portal they have been to understanding different perspectives, histories and ideas. I have felt heartbroken by the blatant disregard for black life in our country (time immemorial, underscored so squarely in recent weeks). I thought a small act of hope and love I could try to participate in as a white person is sharing just a few of the books that have changed my life by black people. I feel really lucky that I was a student in schools who taught these books. This won’t fix all the brokenness and pain and injustice - not even close - but these posts will be my small act of hope.
When I was in sixth grade I went to school on a military base in Germany. It was a DOD school and you had to form relationships and make friends quickly because everyone moved a lot. My teacher Ms. Valiant assigned us Richard Wright’s Black Boy. I had never read anything like this book in my life and I could not put it down. The stories of growing up as a child navigating the anger of men made instinctual sense to me. The failure to feel a connection to religion despite family members did, too. This book was a portal for me to look at the world through the eyes of a young man experiencing poverty, hatred, racism and violence at every turn. Insubordination was severely punished in Wright’s world. Because the experience of reading a book is a solo act even if you discuss it later in class, I had a lot of private space to think about what a different world I lived in. I actually was encouraged to question authority. I didn’t have to live under daily threat of physical violence. In that private world of me and this book, I could think a little more about what that meant. I could sit with it.
To this day I am in awe of the fact that Ms. Valiant in sixth grade assigned me this book. It started me down a path of wanting to read more stories and truths. To uncover things. Over the next few days I am going to share a few more of the books that meant this much to me because I am grateful for them. Thanks for taking time to read. I know this is only one small act of hope. If you haven’t checked Black Boy out yet, or other works by Richard Wright (Native Son is also really wonderful) I highly encourage it.