A Condensed Library for the End of the World
Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd are just three very recent additions to a long list of lives lost to systemic racism, arguably one of America’s oldest traditions. The violence that has followed makes me think that the end of the world is closer than I’d like to imagine—the riots and fires and devastating uncertainty.
Where are we supposed to go from here? I don’t know the answer and I don’t know for sure that there is one. But while we’re looking for answers, we need to acknowledge how we got here. That’s the one thing I do know, even if I don’t have any answers. And almost everything I know has come from words and books. This is a very short list of titles to which I owe a lot of that understanding. They’re stories about a history that no one wants to remember, but one that we can’t afford to ignore.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a correspondent for The Atlantic who writes about culture and politics as well as social issues. He has three nonfiction books—Between the World and Me, The Beautiful Struggle and We Were Eight Years in Power—all bestsellers. Coates is a brilliant writer. The Water Dancer is his first novel and it’s everything I could have hoped for.
The protagonist is a young man named Hiram Walker, born into slavery with a strange and special power. After he crashes a carriage into a river, Hiram almost drowns. He escapes with his life thanks to a mysterious and powerful force. This near-death experience further drives Hiram’s desire to escape bondage. The Water Dancer is a mind-blowing piece of work and it’s like nothing I’ve ever read before. Coates tells a painful history with elements of magical realism that help unmask something beautiful underneath.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
We use the phrase “Great American Novel” to describe a piece of work that captures the unique American identity, including “its social fabric and its troubled conscience, its individual voices, and strivings, our loves and losses.” It’s a broad, slightly pretentious, and coveted title, and scholars debate over several works including The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Moby Dick, arguably mostly written by white authors. But one of my professors in college said she thinks the Great American Novel is actually the late Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
Beloved is heartbreaking and beautiful and left my brain in tangles. It’s based on historical events, inspired by a woman named Margaret Garner. She escaped slavery in Kentucky with her husband and children and fled to freedom in Ohio. But slave catchers tracked the family down and Garner attempted to kill her children to save them from enslavement.
Morrison’s character Sethe is a representation of Margaret Garner. She is a free black woman, a former slave living in Ohio after the Civil War. The novel uncovers Sethe’s past as a slave, her journey from captivity to freedom, and the choice she made. It explores motherhood, family, and the psychological effects of slavery on the Black community as individuals and as a whole. Morrison presents slavery as a collective memory that is inescapable, despite our best efforts to ignore it.
When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Asha Bandele and Patrisse Cullors
With award-winning author Asha Bandele, Patrisse Cullors brings readers through her own experiences with racial prejudice and those of people around her. Cullors co-founded Black Lives Matter in 2013 as a direct response to systemic violence and racism against Black people.
The history of physical and psychological bondage and generational trauma in The Water Dancer and Beloved represent where we started. These novels are by modern writers telling a very old story that continues to follow us—a system that relies on its Black constituents but constantly fails to see, hear, and protect them. When They Call You a Terrorist and the Black Lives Matter movement is where we are now, an attempt to make Black people seen, heard, and protected.
Have you read any of these titles? Leave your book suggestions in the comments!