What to Read This Black History Month

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In light of the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the globe in 2020, Black History Month is getting more attention than ever before. In spite of COVID-19, people are still doing the best they can and meeting up as much as possible online. There are Black news websites focusing on Black achievements, as well as many McGill Zoom events taking place, including the workshop series Being Black At McGill and the Vision Celebration Gala, which presented awards to Black Montrealers who excel in the arts on January 30th. In the spirit of engaging with Black creators and platforming their voices this month, I decided to look over my bookshelves and select some of my favourite reads by Black authors. While this list is by no means comprehensive, here are a few recommendations to start your reading journey.

Books That Will Shape You Into a Better Ally

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Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Loge

I have never read a book that has so expertly broken down anti-Black racism, both systemic and individual. Although I do not live in the United Kingdom, it was eye-opening and refreshing to see a history of antiracist activism that did not come from the United States. Reni Eddo-Loge is able to translate scientific studies on discrimination into terms that anyone can understand. From there, she masterfully uses interviews and testimonies to show how Black people in the UK are currently being impacted by racism. This book is, in my opinion, essential reading for anyone looking to gain a better understanding into how to be a good ally.

The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde is one of my favourite poets, making her collected poetry required reading for this list. Lorde’s writing is enchanting; her images are powerful. There are so many poems to enjoy in this book, such as “A Litany for Survival” and “A Woman Speaks.” The final stanza of “A Litany For Survival,” “So it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive,” gives me chills every time I read it. The tone of Lorde’s poetry makes it clear that this is not just a creative project for her, it is literally a matter of survival. By telling her own story, she can connect to others, and she can show her Black readers that their voices matter.

Classic Historical Novels

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The Woman of Colour (anonymous author)

Although the author of this novel is technically anonymous, many in the literary community have theorized that the book was actually written by a woman of colour. The story follows Olivia Fairfield, a mixed race woman who was raised in Jamaica and brought to England after her white father’s death to collect her inheritance. Although this book contains some outdated language, I still really enjoyed reading it. Olivia’s view of English high society and the way in which she deals with the traditional elements of a marriage plot weave into a very fun read. If you’re looking for good historical fiction that illuminates Black history, this is the book for you!

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

This book deals with incredibly heavy subject matter, including domestic abuse and sexual assault, but I was greatly impacted by it. The Color Purple is a beautiful story following the plight of Celie, a young Black woman living in the south during the early 1900s. The use of the epistolary form brings out Celie’s voice strongly through every word. I cried three times while reading. It is honestly one of the best books I have ever read, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall

When I read this novel, I was amazed by just how expertly Marshall dropped me into the streets of late 1930s/early 1940s New York. Although Selina Boyce comes from Barbados, many elements of her immigrant story resonated with me, including her struggle to thrive in a new country and family tensions. This is another beautiful period piece, and the use of Bajan-accented English really adds to the feeling of the story. I got this book secondhand, and I could tell that whoever had it before me loved it a lot. Hopefully, I can inspire someone else to enjoy it just as much.

Lush Science-Fiction and Afro-Canadian Fantasy:

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Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

There is a reason why Octavia Butler is such a well-known science-fiction author. Parable of the Sower takes place in California in the early 2020s, where climate change is wreaking havoc and people are becoming scared for their survival. It is honestly incredible to think that Butler first wrote this in the early 1990s, as it feels so close to our current reality and climate anxieties. Although some of this story feels more like science-fact, Lauren is a compelling and compassionate protagonist. While this may not be the book to help you escape from what’s going on right now, the hopeful message can help soften some of the blow of current events.

Down Among the Dead Men/Pays Sans Chapeau by Dany Laferrière

Danyi Laferrière is one of Montreal’s most famous French writers. I originally read his book in French, but there is a very good English translation available. His account of the journey from Montreal back to Haiti, his home country, mixes family roots with supernatural elements, making for a stellar novel. Laferrière masterfully captures the mix of home and distance that an immigrant feels when returning to their birthplace after spending a long time away.

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

This enchanting tale brings the magic of Caribbean mythology to life in Canada. A gorgeous mix of urban decay and West Indian spiritual practices, the story follows a young Black woman named Ti-Jeanne, and her journey dealing with both her new spiritual powers and the dangerous “Posse” that runs the streets of what was once inner-city Toronto. Every sentence is packed full of action, and Hopkinson is a master at building tension. There are a few graphic scenes of violence, but otherwise, this book is an imaginative and entertaining read.

La Petite Suceuse by DM Cassendo

This comic book was both written and illustrated by DM Cassendo, a local Quebecois writer who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several times. It is only available in French, but if you can understand even a bit of the language, I promise you will enjoy it, as their art style is amazing. The story explores what might happen if vampires suddenly appeared in the 21st century and were forced to coexist with humans or risk being exterminated by them. The vampiric protagonist’s frustrations are profoundly human, and I was completely sucked into the book’s universe. I look forward to seeing the continuation of the series (and maybe even a translation for English readers.)

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I could keep going, but I feel like these are some good starting points. Feel free to comment your own favourites down below, or ask me for more recommendations! If you’re interested in learning more about McGill’s programming this Black history month, visit here .

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