Books for Black History Month

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

Author Chimamanda Adiche was born and raised in Nigeria.  She now splits her time between Nigeria and the United States.  One has to wonder how much of Ifemelu, one of the two main characters in Americanah, is modeled on the author’s own experience.  Ifemelu is a strong, vibrant woman who immigrates to the United States during her final years of college.  She leaves behind Obinze, her thoughtful, deliberate boyfriend.  One particularly desperate event during her early years in the U.S. causes Ifemelu to break contact with Obinze.  Ifemelu eventually finds her voice in the America after she begins a blog written for the “Non-American Black.”  Her blog allows her to explore race relations in the United States through the lens of witty observation.  Meanwhile, Obinze eventually becomes an undocumented immigrant in the United Kingdom.  Fifteen years later, they are reunited after Ifemelu’s return to Lagos.  This is ultimately a story of racial identity, both an exploration of self-perception and societal expectation.  At one point, Ifemelu declares that she never knew she was Black until she moved to America.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Like many Americans, I had never heard of Trevor Noah’s comedy before he became host of “The Daily Show” in 2015 after succeeding John Stewart.  Noah’s memoir of growing up in Soweto, a predominantly black township in South Africa, explores his early life under apartheid.  The title, Born a Crime, refers to the miscegenation laws that meant that Noah’s very existence as the son of a South African Black mother and Swiss-German father was illegal.  The memoir is ultimately a love letter to his mother, Patricia, and her ability to have instilled in him a certain cultural fluidity and resilience that undoubtedly has influenced his comedic success.  In an interview with CBS This Morning, Noah describes the fact that he grew up thinking of himself as the hero of his own story but now realizes that he is his mother’s “punk-ass sidekick.”  It is one of the best memoirs that I have read in the last few years.  After reading it, I also recommend watching Noah’s stand-up special on Netflix, called Son of Patricia, which reflects similar themes.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing is the first novel by Ghanaian-American writer, Yaa Gyasi.  This sweeping epic begins with the story of two half-sisters in 18th century Ghana.  One of the sisters is enslaved and brought to the dungeons of Cape Coast Castle where she will await her fate on the Middle Passage and will eventually be brought to a southern plantation.  Meanwhile, her sister will remain in Africa amid war and intermarriage.  After the initial stories of the two sisters, each chapter represents a new generation and switches back and forth between Africa and the United States.  The chapters dedicated to the African-American descendants carry their stories through enslavement, escaping from slavery, being free blacks in 19th century Baltimore, the Harlem jazz age, etc.  I have never read any novel whose breadth captures so much of the American Black experience.  I should note that my mom criticized this novel’s structure; she never acclimated to being introduced to entirely new characters every chapter.  While I would have liked Gyasi to explore certain characters more in depth, the result was that I was just left wanting more.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

In early 2020, many people were talking about Just Mercy again because it was made into a major film by the same name, starring Michael B. Jordan and Jaime Foxx.  The movie is excellent.  The book is better.  Bryan Stevenson is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a civil rights organization based in Montgomery, AL.  Stevenson and his team have been defending the legal rights of those who have been wrongfully convicted, unfairly sentenced or abused in prison since 1989.  Although one cannot read Just Mercy without being (further) exposed to the grave inequities of the criminal justice system, the book reads more like a novel.  The story follows one of Stevenson’s earliest cases, representing Walter McMillian, a man on death row for the murder of a young woman.  The case against McMillian was laughable, based on preposterous and nonsensical testimony from witnesses who would have been considered far from credible.  Stevenson later uncovered a tape withheld from defense, where one of the so-called witnesses complains to the sheriff that he is being coerced into lying.  McMillian’s original trial was also a farce, complete with systematic exclusion of African-American jurors.  Although the jury found McMillian guilty, they sentenced him to life in prison.  The original judge overrode jury recommendation, which is not even legal in most states, to sentence McMillian to death.  All of this occurs in Monroeville, AL, the setting of To Kill A Mockingbird.  Stevenson isn’t too heavy-handed with the parallels but McMillian is undoubtedly a real-life Tom Robinson.

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