*Friday’s Five Books is a bi-weekly post on Between the Covers that highlights book recommendations from the reading community.
Meet Sunset Brown (@SunsetSoFresh). She’s a professional singer and community activist. By day, she runs a non-profit after school enrichment program in South Los Angeles. By night (and some days) she is the lead singer of Homegrowne, and guest features in other ensembles. Sunset is the ultimate lover of African-American Literature and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English from Spelman College. The love of African-American literature, specifically Historical Fiction, was birthed by her mother who raised her in Pan-Africanism and had nearly every Black/African Diaspora classic piece of literature right at her fingers in their home library. Below she shares 5 of her all-time favorite books.
As aforementioned, I am a lover of African-American literature, so excuse the lack of diversity in my selections. Other than the Transcendentalist authors and early Philosophers, whom I adore, I am most intrigued by women authors of African descent. With that said, I assure you that the below books are most enjoyable, and written in very compelling storytelling and/or narrative voices.
Blood Colony — by Tananarive Due
Blood Colony is the last in a 3-part series which Science Fiction writer Tananarive Due calls The African Immortals, so you may want to start from book one, Living Blood. Though a very fluid series, Blood Colony can stand on its own. It mixes science, race, gender roles, horror, religion, health, fantasy and humor together so seamlessly that I’m surprised Tananarive is not more well-known and acclaimed. In this book we follow Fana, a young immortal black woman from a sect called “The Mission.” Its members use their immortal blood to help sick people all around the world. Fana’s blood is some of the strongest they’ve seen. They live in secrecy because they are considered a threat by the U.S. When a friend of Fana’s becomes sick with HIV, Fana and best friend Caitlin set off on their own crusade and form an underground railroad to heal the infected with Fana’s blood. Stories of the healing power of her blood, which is now being called GLOW on the streets, cause a series of gruesome violent acts and strange occurrences including a twist involving a religious sect. Tananarive Due is brilliant at tying lots of themes and plots together; you’ll never know where she’s headed next or what social commentary and themes will slide in.
I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem — by Maryse Conde
I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem gives a fictional voice to the real woman Tituba, a slave from Barbados who is brought to America and later tried as one of the first women in the Salem Witch Trials. THIS BOOK IS NOT ABOUT SLAVERY! It’s the amazing journey of a young woman born of a slave and slave master. She sees her parents (mother and adopted father) killed, and then is exiled where she lives free in the woods with an African healer who teaches her ancient rituals, healing and the art of communicating with the ancestors and spirit realm. This book amazingly deals with theme of love as Tituba, who is living as a free woman, VOLUNTARILY re-enters slavery to be with a man she loves and has met during her travels. In slavery she begins to assist white women with their ailments and when animals die and a few women get sick, she is named a witch (along with two white women) and jailed as one of the first women tried in Salem for witchcraft. She also finds love in jail with a female cellmate, and later with an older Jewish immigrant who purchases her from jail, becomes her lover, and helps her return to Barbados where she dies in a revolt as the lover of a revolutionary. There are times of humor throughout. One point of humor recurs as Tituba’s mother speaks from the spirit realm and shakes her head at many of her daughter’s exploits. The book also makes fun of the hypocrisy and naivety of the Puritans. There is even what I call a “guest appearance” by Hester Prynne. Author Maryse Conde is an amazing story-teller and gives a beautiful voice to Tituba, whose story has been told before in other pieces of American literature as a mere side note.
I’m not a fan of poetry, not even in its modern spoken word form, but what can I say…I LOVE Langston Hughes. First, I must give credit to my professor Dr. Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper, one of the leading scholars and analysts of Hughes’ work, for bestowing her passion on me. This compilation is one of the true gems of my library. In it, the reader gets introduced to the true genius of Hughes. As worldly and educated as he was, he had an ability to connect all that he’d experienced to his audiences through extremely simple words and images. This work includes five decades of poems from Hughes. The reader is able to lyrically experience music, politics, religion, art, the movements (Black Arts Civil Rights), the unique plight of biracial people, and most prominently, his deep admiration for Harlem. When it comes to painting Harlem, Hughes’ choice colors are humor, realism, vernacular, and a song-like flow. Just read the lovely lullaby–and one of my favorites–“Juke Box Love Song”:
I could take the Harlem night
and wrap around you,
Take the neon lights and make a crown,
Take the Lenox Avenue busses,
And for your love song tone their rumble down.
Take Harlem’s heartbeat,
Make a drumbeat,
Put it on a record, let it whirl,
And while we listen to it play,
Dance with you till day–
Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl.
If poetry just doesn’t move you, please pick one of his novels, autobiographies, short stories (his “Simple” stories are a hilarious sitcom-like collection of a Harlem wino’s life), poems, essays, plays, or operas.
The Mastery of Love — by Don Miguel Ruiz
One reviewer of this book noted, “This is not self-help…its real wisdom.” I couldn’t agree more. Ruiz uses ancient Toltec wisdom to guide you through relationships of all kinds. These very simple and somewhat obvious truths are broken down through stories and examples that make the light bulb that you thought turned on a long time ago really glow. There are many lessons on love, but the most powerful to me was his explanation that we seek love because it is not within us. It is not something we can achieve on our own, thus sometimes creating unreal and unusual expectations. On the other hand, though we can’t achieve it on our own, we can’t fully receive it without a loving relationship toward self. I find the examples most useful, because like previously stated, these are simple truths and things that we already know. Ruiz just has a great way of “Makin it plain,” as the church folks would say.
A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story — by Elaine Brown
Many members of the Black Panther Party have written books about their experiences leading up to and in the Party. None are as candid, scandalous, yet still informative as Elaine Brown’s tale. Brown’s story begins with the end: being in charge of the party while Huey is in jail, and the party’s eventual fall. She then backtracks through humorous and painful tales about herself and her New York crew, from childhood to college. She explains the experience of being a bad hood girl while on her block, then wanting to be white (Jewish) while at school, and the privilege of looking almost white, which was revered by her mother. She then migrates to California and heads straight to the night life and the company of many wealthy white men, including Frank Sinatra. It is one of those wealthy white men, an intellectual, who becomes her lover and teaches her about her deeper history. Her thirst for more knowledge and black culture lands her in the middle of the Black Panther Party and in sexual relationships with many of its most famous members, including Huey P. Newton. She tells all about sexism, the impressive youth leadership of the party, her sexual escapades, murders, the LAPD, the US organization and Maulana Karenga, UCLA’s relationship with the Panthers, drugs, domestic abuse, and so on. Brown is accused of making up many of the situations. Most believe that she has too many quotes and vivid memories and knows things that no one else seems to recall. I met with Brown and she is adamant about it all being true and that no one had the guts to put it out the way she did…and boy did she put it ALL out there. It reads like a historical soap opera and I loved every minute of it.
Thank you for the recommendations, Sunset — I plan on looking into all of these. They all sound fantastic!
**If you choose to purchase any of these titles using the links below, I will receive a small percentage of the sale (to be used toward site maintenance and buying more books).