Beloved, by Toni Morrison – I read this book in an American Novel class while pursuing my undergraduate degree in Literature. As a white, middle-classed male born in the 1970s, there’s no way on earth that I can truly comprehend what the life of a slave must have been like. Morrison, however, gave me the closest glimpse of that which I think is humanly possible. [Spoiler ahead] When the main character, Sethe, is faced with being caught and returned to slavery, she chooses kills her own daughter by severing her head with a saw in a shed (she also tries to kill her other children, but is caught before she can) – this was how badly she wanted to preserve them from the life of a slave. I had a fairly young child of my own at this time, and I remember how I shook as I read those lines. I put the book down; it was beyond my ability to comprehend what I would have to be faced with to take the life of my child. I spent several days just thinking about that scene – I can’t imagine ever having a more personal understanding of what slavery must have been like for those enslaved. No, that doesn’t give me much, perhaps, but that knowledge is forever burned into my heart and my mind. Morrison’s other works are magnificent as well…this is just one scene from one novel that connected with me in a real and visceral way.
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African – This autobiography, though not nearly as well known as it should be, was a powerful work for me to read. Instead of slavery being an evil institution I learned about, or read about in a fictional work, this book put a face and a name and a true story on slavery. Olaudah Equiano’s life was amazing, and he chronicles the entire thing in this work. He was captured in Africa as a child (his sister was taken at the same time) and brought to the New World on a slave boat (his description of this is another of the most jarring things I’ve ever read). He is enslaved, teaches himself to read by studying the Bible, and he eventually succeeds in gaining his freedom. He becomes a businessman, does very well for himself, and writes this magnificent autobiography to share his journey with us all. If you have not read this book, please take the time to pick it up and read it (depending on edition, it’s only about 200 +/- pages long).
Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison – This was one of the books on my reading list from high school. I don’t remember it nearly as well as I should, and I’ve decided to go back and re-read it (since I thought of it while writing this post). I do remember it being another very powerful work, looking especially at social issues as well as issues of place and self-understanding, personality and individualism for the main character. The whole notion of invisibility is also central, especially thinking about the way white America was largely relating to black America during the 1930s-50s – basically refusing to see them, to acknowledge them, and to relate. The scene that has always stuck in my mind is when the narrator is given a scholarship: he is first forced to fight with other black students, all blindfolded, and then they are set loose to pick up as many gold coins as they can. The coins are fake, and the rug they are on, as well as the coins, are electrified, so all of the boys are continuously shocked as the scramble to pick up the coins they mistakenly think are precious.
There are so many other great African American authors that could be discussed: Maya Angelou the great poetess, Langston Hughes the jazz poet, Alice Walker, Phillis Wheatley, Richard Wright the author of Black Boy…the list goes on. Their contribution to literature in America is second to none, and I’m proud to remember that in this small post today.