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The Black History Month: what should I read?

Aga Zano By Aga Zano Published on February 15, 2016

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We are now celebrating the Black History Month - which is time of acknowledging the black heritage, cultural input and achievements in the US (however, the Black History Month is also being celebrated in Europe now). Recent years have been very fruitful, with many remarkable books published by the black authors and dealing with issues and topic that are still, sadly, largely represented in the popular discourse. There's no better moment to take a look at these new works of both fiction and non-fiction, created by both experienced and long-loved authors, and incredibly talented, promising new gems on our literary sky. Their writing deserves to be celebrated all year round - but if you haven't had a chance to take a look at these books yet, now is a very good time to get to know them.

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RUBY by Cynthia Bond

RUBY is, surprisingly, a literary debut - although you would never believe it when reading this novel. Even Oprah couldn't believe it, and then she claimed Bond's novel a "a vivid, searing first-time novel that penetrates through the page to the reader's heart" and recommended it in her Book Club immediately. 

RUBY is not an easy read. It's a haunting, heartbreaking and deeply lyrical novel that will pierce right through you. The main character, Ruby, was once a girl so pretty "it hurt to look at". It's all changed though, as Ruby's youth has been tainted with suffering too deep for the words to handle. Ruby takes the first chance she gets to run from her small Southern hometown and moves it to New York. It's 1950s and the city hypnotises her with its seedy charm. However, years later comes the day she has to go back and face the demons of her past once again. 

Bond doesn't spare us any ugliness that surrounds Ruby, the pretty girl: racial abuse, rape, violence and harrowing images of the past are weaved through the lyrical and somewhat eerie images of the rural South, painted with effortless skill. We breathe the red dust covering the roads in hot afternoons. We catch distant echoes of an old piano playing in a dingy New York bar. And as harrowing as RUBY is, you will not want it to end.

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BETWEEN THE WORLD  AND ME has won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction - one of the most prestigious American literary awards and took all the bestseller lists by storm, reaching #1 on the New York Times list, and being named one of 10 best books of the year not only by NY Times, but by about a dozen other sources, including Vogue, Publishers Weekly, and Washington Post.

Ta-Nehisi Coates' voice is bold, mature and deeply personal - there's a reason why he's been hailed the best writer on the subject of race in the United States. 

He takes us through the complex history of the United States, as well as through the still-unresolved racial conflict, experienced very vividly by people of colour in America today. The U.S. have been built upon the idea of 'race' that is harmful to everyone - most of all, however, to black women and men, whose history is weaved of hundreds of thousands of voices telling stories of suffering, abuse and injustice, stories of segregation and slavery. Today, they are still subject to harmful stereotypes. What does it mean to live in a black body in America? How to deal with the painful history? Is it possible to set it free?

Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses these and other challenging questions in a form of a letter to his growing-up son. He shares his story of self-discovery  and the experience of others, creating a deeply moving and personal tale.

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BOY, SNOW, BIRD by Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi may be young, but she's been already namede a prodigy following the steps of the greatest: she's been compared to Haruki Murakami, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, or Angela Carter. She has a rare gift for weaving the tales that are both strikingly present and eerily timeless, with a great deal of grace and dazzling charm.

After leaving New York in 1953, Boy Novak finds herself in a small town in Massachusetts, where she soon marries a local widower, Arturo Whitman and becomes a stepmother to his daughter named Snow. The trouble starts when Boy and Arturo have a daughter together - named Bird - who turns out to be dark-skinned, like her mother. Whitman and Snow, however, are light-skinned African-Americans who are trying hard to pass for white - which leads to creating a peculiar dynamic between Boy, Snow and Bird - making the characters, and the reader, question race, vanity and the power of beauty, all of this enveloped in an unsettling, slightly uncanny and richly imaginative fairy-tale atmosphere. 

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STAND YOUR GROUND by Victoria Christopher Murray

Only in 2015, black people in the U.S. were nine times more likely to be killed by the police than any other ethnic group. According to the available data, black people were killed twice as often as white people in America - and large number of these crimes went without punishment. Many were committed by the police, and the victims were often unarmed and not exhibiting any provocative behaviour. According to some sources, as many as 102 unarmed black men were killed by the police in 2015 alone. One of the most covered cases of recent police killings was the case of 18 year old Michael Brown in Ferguson - an unprovoked killing from the hands of a white police officer, which has sparked weeks-long protests in Ferguson, after the jury decided not to press charges against the policeman. This is one of the most controversial and painful issues in the U.S. right now - and one people still feel incredibly helpless about. 

STAND YOUR GROUND tells a story of any mother's worst nightmare: Janice Johnson's 16 year old son was killed by a policeman. The boy was black, and the officer was white - and he was not brought to justice. The story explores the problem of racial injustice and personal tragedy from two sides of the fence, though: the other narrative belongs to the white officer's wife, who knows more about the situation than anyone suspects.

The question that remains unanswered is: was the killing really unprovoked, or did the officer act in self-defense, according to the stand-your-ground law? Murray's searing novel explores the problems of racial violence and social injustice on both universal and painfully personal level. It's a gripping and deeply emotional read that should definitely go on your must-read list.

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HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi

26-year-old Yaa Gyasi's debut novel is due to be published in March 2016, and it's already expected to be one of the biggest books of the year. The rights to the novel were bought in the U.S. in a seven-figure deal, after a heated 10-bidder auction (!), and it caused a sensation at the last year's London Book Fair.

HOMEGOING tells a story of two half-sisters, born in 18th century Ghana in different villages - the siblings have never met. One of the sisters ends up married to a wealthy Englishman, while the other is sold into slavery and shipped to America - that's however, only the beginning of the story. Yaa Gyasi's novel takes us from the villages in Ghana through the Civil War all the way to modern-day Harlem, making this a travel through geoghraphies and through times, asking difficult and poignant questions about heritage, race, fate and, above all, love. It has already been halied a masterpiece - so you better see for yourself if this extraordinary piece lives up to such praise.

And when you're done with these... Go and explore. There is plenty more waiting for you, and it's just as good - I promise.

Cover photo credit: Andre Chung/for The Washington Post

Translator, linguist, copywriter, literary agent. Enjoys bad puns, exploring ruined buildings and being the weird one.

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