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Essential African-American Literature

By Badia Sahar Ahad, PhD

Looking for a good book this winter? Badia Sahar Ahad, PhD, of the English department, offers suggestions on African-American literature everyone should read.

The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
While Ellison’s work is notable for its depiction of his invisible narrator’s journey for an authentic self, Ellison was pleased with the novel’s stylistic accomplishments. Straying from the naturalist impulses of his literary peers, Ellison sought to convey the complex “reality” of black experience through the use of experimental techniques like surrealism and expressionism. Aside from being an entertaining read, the novel offers an astute commentary on the infinite possibilities and tragic failures of American democracy. Ellison’s novel provokes readers to grapple with what it means to be an American in a context that deliberately limits “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for an entire class of citizens.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
The dilemma for me was not if a Toni Morrison novel should be included on this list, but what Toni Morrison novel? I finally decided on Song of Solomon for purely selfish reasons—it is the novel that inspired me to teach literature. Song of Solomon has something for everyone—love, drama, rage, suspense, betrayal, history, fantasy, and the list goes on. It is an epic narrative that everyone should experience. You will be changed.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The novel explores fairly conventional literary tropes—man versus nature, man versus man, and the journey for selfhood. However, in every other respect the novel challenges literary convention by framing these issues around the portrayal of Janie, a black Southern woman unwilling to settle for the pittance that the world thinks she deserves. Though the novel is heralded as an early black feminist text, many would argue that its true achievement is the language in which it is written. If a reader finds rural Southern black dialect difficult to understand, I suggest reading the novel aloud. It is pretty amazing how doing so transforms the novel into a lyrical melody.

The Known World by Edward P. Jones
The central character of Edward Jones’s narrative is Henry Townsend, a prominent slavemaster in the fictional Manchester County, Virginia. However, what makes Henry a somewhat unusual protagonist is the fact that he is Black. Aside from this “twist,” the novel does a magnificent job of offering the reader a world not neatly defined by a (black)slave/(white) master binary. A nod to William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, The Known World ultimately comments on the inevitable fallacy of building a “dynasty” premised on an immoral and decaying institution.

Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks
I may be skirting the rules by selecting a book of poetry as an essential African-American literary text. But, because I am a native Chicagoan and a product of Chicago Public Schools, Gwendolyn Brooks occupies a huge space in my heart, as well
as in the city’s literary culture. Brooks made visible and beautiful the lives of those who exist on the margins of society and are not often considered worthy of poetic contemplation. Her deceptively simple poem, “we real cool,” is a masterpiece. It is equally significant for the 10 year-old who encounters the poem for the first time as it is for the scholar of literary studies. Like Invisible Man, “we real cool” is a poem I encourage my students to revisit every 10 years because it matures in pace with its reader.

Erasure by Percival Everett
Within the past two decades there has emerged a cohort of African-American writers who maintain an awareness of American racial history without being defined or burdened by it. Percival Everett is by far one of the most talented and important writers of this new generation. Everett’s protagonist, Theolonius Ellison (his moniker is a self-conscious reference to Theolonius Monk and Ralph Ellison), explains to the reader: “The hard, gritty truth of the matter is that I hardly ever think about race. Those times when I did think about it a lot I did so because of my guilt for not thinking about it.” In the same way, Erasure is less about “race” than it is about the absurdity that this biological fiction continues to endure.

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