February “It’s Lit” Review

March 6, 2020

It’s Black History Month!!! Yayyyy. During the month of February, I am extra intentional about the things I read. I am always reading Black stuff, but in the month of February, I take it up a notch – or at least I try to. This month was full of great reads.  There’s a good mix. Some history, current events mixed with foolery (thanks, Amanda Seales), a blast from the past, some oldies and lots of goodies (like TWO books on food)! Ok…here we go.

To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: An Informal Autobiography by Lorraine Hansberry had me wondering why she couldn’t have stayed on this Earth a little longer.  Why do the good ones die young? This is the story of Lorraine’s life, done Lorraine’s way.  This book was so different from any autobiography I have ever read. The story is told through snippets. There are letters she has written to family and friends, notes, and notes in her handwriting.  The book is peppered with her work. You could be reading and all of the sudden, here’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” She is thoughtful and insightful and worried about the world and her place in it. She had the desire to help liberate us and she gave us her activism through art. This book just made me love her more (if that’s even possible). I am glad this was my first choice for February. It was a good one.

I love Lorraine Hansberry and I love one of her best friends, James Baldwin, just as much.  The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race by Jesmyn Ward was inspired by James Baldwin’s 1962 The Fire Next Time, which was written as a letter to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Fire This Time is a collection of essays from this generation’s black writers addressing today’s issues in this “postracial” society.  What’s sad is that James Baldwin’s words still ring true. What’s sadder is that this book is necessary.  It is very difficult for me to neatly sum up the broad range of essays. But, just so you know, I enjoyed every single one of them.  The best I can do is leave you with a quote from the book, from Jesmyn Ward (and Lorraine Hansberry): “To inhabit our citizenry fully, we have to not only understand this, but also grasp it. In the words of the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, “The problem is we have to find some way with these dialogues to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.” And, as my friend the critic and poet Fred Moten has written: “I believe in the world and want to be in it. I want to be in it all the way to the end of it because I believe in another world and I want to be in that.” This other world, that world, would presumably be one where black living matters. But we can’t get there without fully recognizing what is here.”

When you think of the “Little Rock 9,” what immediately comes to mind? Daisy Bates? Pictures of “the 9” entering Central High School? That one picture of Elizabeth Eckford, with sunglasses on, walking to school with an angry mob of white people shouting at her is the image that I see in my head most often.  After reading Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High School by Melba Patillo Beals, I will never think of that time in history the same again.  I think that the way we learned about the Little Rock 9 was so limiting and so clear cut. The battle that these teenagers fought was years long. The pictures that we see were in the beginning. But, they went to school and suffered extreme trauma on a daily basis. In fact, reading this book traumatized me. I cannot imagine being 15 and 16 years old and dealing with regular teenage problems and also being this type of trailblazer. As a mother, I cannot imagine sending my child into this kind of fire – yet I understand. The story begins when Melba and her classmates returned to Central High to be honored as heroes.  The story takes us through her junior year at Central and the daily fight she and her classmates endured. The things that happened to them, the adults that turned their backs, the government that didn’t care, the isolation from the Black community, the repercussions for the families of the students and the bravery of the nine…it was just so much. I recommend this book because it’s the whole story. It’s difficult. But it’s the whole story. And it’s worth your time.

“So much was lost—names, faces, ages, ethnic identities—that African Americans must do what no other ethnic group writ large must do: take a completely shattered vessel and piece it together, knowing that some pieces will never be recovered. This is not quite as harrowing or hopeless as it might sound I liken it to the Japanese art of kintsugi, repairing broken vessels using gold. The scars of the object are not concealed, but highlighted and embraced, thus giving them their own dignity and power. The brokenness and its subsequent repair are a recognized part of the story of the journey of the vessel, not to be obscured, and change, transition, and transformation are seen as important as honoring the original structure and its traditional meaning and beauty.” – Michael Twitty

The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty was food for my soul. History and food. There is so much history in the foods we eat, in the recipes that have been passed down, and in our traditions.  Michael Twitty traces the origins of our food back to Africa while tracing his own familial roots – which makes this book quite interesting and unique.  I certainly learned a lot. Rice, tobacco, okra, black eyed peas, collards. It’s all there. From the vegetables and spices that our ancestors used to eat for nourishment and healing to the way some of my people cook that Charleston style red rice – what an amazing journey.  History is everywhere, and I don’t think we think enough about the stories in our traditional foods or the fact that we are cooking and eating just like our ancestors (all the way back to Africa) and we don’t even know it. My main takeaway was “your heritage foods are your health and your wealth.” We were not meant to eat a lot of the things we eat and that is why we suffer from high blood pressure, lactose intolerance, etc. If we can get back to our heritage foods, we can thrive.  I loved, loved, loved this one.

At Home with Muhammad Ali: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Forgiveness by Hana Ali is a beautifully written memoir about “the Greatest.” Hana was truly a daddy’s girl and this book tells the Muhammad Ali’s story through the eyes of his child.  Muhammad Ali was a man before his time who had a grasp of the importance of history.  He kept audio diaries and recordings, letters and journals and then gave them to Hana.  Some of them were from when she was small, and she could hear herself and her conversations with her daddy.  It was so sweet.  It’s not a secret that Muhammad Ali had several children with several different women, but he always made sure that all of his children knew each other and spent time together. The story unfolds as Hana goes through storage units, old boxes, listens to tapes and talks to her mom about their life.  Muhammad Ali had written love letters to Veronica (Hana’s mom), that she had never even read. They were so beautiful. Nearing the end of the book, I began to have anxiety for Hana. She was so close to him and I didn’t even want to read about his end. Muhammad Ali was a complex man, who loved deeply. He will always be “the greatest” in the ring, but this book made me appreciate the whole man.

I needed to take a break from the heavy stuff, so I picked up Small Doses: Potent Truths for Everyday Use by Amanda Seales because she’s funny as hayle, smart and tells it like it is. This book is self-helpish.  To me, it was a mashup of her IG, her standup comedy and her Smart, Black and Funny show.  It’s a book of essays on everything from pop culture to lessons she’s learned along the way.  The topics aren’t funny, but the way she breaks it down kinda is. I’m a fan and I was pleased. Go get it. You will learn a few things and get a few cackles along the way.

‘…And then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and when we came to get the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.’ Harriet Tubman

In Men We Reaped: A Memoir, Jesmyn Ward tells her story, but she does it by telling the stories of the five men that she has lost.  Their deaths have come at the hands of drugs, accidents, suicide and the hard lives that they lived.  The story takes place in a small town in Mississippi.  They live through poverty and racism.  She’s the only one that got out, and managed to pursue higher education, but struggled with living that life while her loved ones continued at home. Among the men who were lost was her brother, Joshua.  I won’t lie. This book was hard to read. It is haunting and sad. But, she writes it so well and in such a way that it honors these men and all of the men (and women) we know back home.  Most of us can relate to this story. Most of us know Joshua and the other men who didn’t make it.  It is her story, but it’s ours too.

Slowly but surely, I am making my way through all of Jacquelyn Woodson’s work.  Brown Girl Dreaming is the story of her life, but it’s written in poetry form, which is interesting.  We learn about her parents and their struggles, growing up in South Carolina (my homestate – yay) and New York, growing up black during the movement, her struggles with reading (can you imagine that?) and finding her gift.  This is a young adult book and I definitely recommend it for the young ones in your life, but I think it’s good for the seasoned folks too.

Audible is stepping up their game with the “Audible Originals.”  Our Harlem: Seven Days of Cooking, Music and Soul at the Red Rooster by Marcus Samuelsson was such a delightful departure.  Chef Marcus invites guests to discuss Harlem, history and food.  He cooks with them, laughs with them and they all add to the conversation. He ties it all together with his own recipes. My favorite was the short ribs that he prepared for 44, while Jelani Cobb talked about the Obama presidency.  There was also lots of food history, which was mostly traced back to the South.  This could actually be a tv show. I would watch. If you’re looking for something different, fun and educational – this is it.

My last read for February was Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. I read this one way back in the day, but it’s always a joy to revisit my childhood favorites as an adult.  The story is all about the land. Cassie doesn’t understand why it’s so important. When I first read this book, I really didn’t get it either. Back then, I was 100% on board with Cassie’s fire and her unwillingness to accept the status quo. Today, as a mother, I understand the complications and the gray areas more. Cassie was not here for games. She knows her worth. The adults know the danger of that. Over a year’s time, she learns lessons in life and what it is to be a black girl in America.  This was a whole different story this time around. I encourage you to pick up a book that you loved back in the day and read it again. It’s amazing how the story changes. 

Did you read any good books this month?

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