James Baldwin said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak is unprecedented in the history of the world, and then you read.” I would add, you often think your joy and your personal experience is unique, but if you read far enough and wide enough, you realize every identity, even yours, has a corollary in a book. I know that’s why I began reading and why I continue to do so. I have found myself in Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in the heroine of the Claudine novels, and in the language of Wide Sargasso Sea.
When you also wish to be a writer, though, there is a special thrill in finding yourself in the work of other women of color. Here are people who look like you, who probably share, on some level, at least certain aspects of your material life. And they are imagining your spiritual life, the parts of yourself you sometimes have to suppress or at least judiciously edit to fulfill the roles of daughter, sister, mother, partner, friend, or co-worker that are required of most of us to get through life.
So, below are some of the moods and selves and experiences I’ve uncovered and the books you can find them in. I hope the titles can serve as a kind of blueprint for the many selves we have the pleasure to create over the course of life as a woman of color.
1. A Book for Your Black Witch Phase
Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo by Ntozake Shange
I think a lot of bookish people go through a magic phase. Why? Perhaps because the first stories we read are unapologetically about magic, and we miss that. I also think magic gives us the fantasy of control over a world that relishes chaos. And it validates the chaos we know lies underneath modern life. Ntozake Shange’s Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo is the book for when you are feeling your most witchy, for when you want to read about three sisters who use the magic of creativity in different ways.
2. A Book to Remind You of the Dangers of Black Bougie Life
Linden Hills by Gloria Naylor
I lived a weird half-life of having connections to old-school, black middle-class organizations like the Links and Jack and Jill, while also struggling below poverty level with a mother who spurned her debutante past. It has always made me look on that world with both longing and trepidation, and Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills speaks to the paranoia and anxiety that accompany aspirational living. It’s an ambitious novel that mimics Dante’s Inferno as it describes the social-climbing of various women in mid-eighties suburbia. Today, we may giggle at the idea of #goals, but the desire to accumulate images of all the things we wish we could have and lives we wish we could live speaks to a longing and loneliness that, if it goes unacknowledged, can curdle into something much fiercer and darker.
3. A Book to Read When You Wish You Could Pack It All In and Just Be Missy Elliott
Bling by Erica Kennedy
Unlike Linden Hills, there is very little unsettling darkness in Bling, Erica Kennedy’s dishy novel set in the early 2000s music scene. When I first graduated from college, I read this book over and over again for a year, losing myself in the glamorous, scandalous, very funny world that Kennedy created. At the time, I was living in a four-bedroom apartment with a bunch of very nice, hippie white girls who were all vegans who didn’t know how to cook and loved Broken Social Scene and did not know what to do with me. Kennedy’s book was an escape, a reminder that another, blacker, more glamorous life was possible.
4. A Book to Read When You Meet That One Black Person Who Insists They Are Not Like Other Black People Because They Speak German or Something
American Cocktail by Anita Reynolds
I think most of us have met this girl. Perhaps, once upon a time, we were this girl. She is the black person who insists that she is not like other black people because of one “obscure” (but not really obscure — black people are everywhere and we have gotten into everything) interest. She will lament, “People are so mean to me because I happen to enjoy Japanese glaze pottery and no other black person likes that,” and when you point out that someone like Doyle Lane exists, she goes silent. American Cocktail is a super fascinating exploration of this phenomenon — a memoir written by Anita Reynolds in the first half of the twentieth century that wasn’t published until 2014.
Reynolds is fascinating in her candid description of family members who passed as white — and how, at least for her family, passing was less a deep dark secret than an occasional lifestyle choice. Reynolds herself eventually traveled to Europe and fell in with some of the most influential artists of the mid-century, including Man Ray. She also, of her own admission, had an affair with a Nazi officer while living in North Africa for part of World War II. One of the reasons I recommend this book is because I am interested in the people who make the wrong choices in history, the people who are not necessarily role models but are compelling in their own right.
5. A Book to Read When You’ve Decided the Wind Is Now Your Lover and the Forests Are Your Home
The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart
As a kid, I used to always skip over descriptions of nature in fiction. They never held any fire for me, seemed there just to prove the writer could write a pretty sentence. It wasn’t until I got a bit older that I began to appreciate all the weird and wonderful ways of the natural world. In her novel The Bridge of Beyond, Simone Schwarz-Bart describes the island of Guadeloupe in ways that remind you of all the things the land can hold — our memories, our traumas, our pains, and our joys. I can’t do it justice in a few lines, so I’ll just quote the author herself: “The summit still shone in the sky, though all the earth was plunged in darkness, under the uneasy, unreal trembling of the stars, which seemed to have been put there by mistake, like everything else.”
6. A Book to Read When Apocalyptic Projections of Our Current State of Affairs Have Got You Down
Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown
When I was a child, my sister told me the world would end by the time I turned thirty. She said it so matter-of-factly, too. Here I am, in my thirties, and it seems like she’s right. I’ve been dreaming of apocalypse for most of my life and dreading it the whole time. It was a revelation to discover Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy. She is matter of-fact, too, about the coming destruction we face—of our environment, of our resources, of our governments. Her philosophy, based on Octavia Butler’s guiding philosophy of the Earthseed books, is that God Is Change. Rather than run from it or resist it, we should embrace it, look to what the plants, animals, and genomes can teach us about adapting to survive and to thrive.
7. A Book to Read When You Are Wondering What It Would Be Like to Love in Another Lifetime
The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker
One of the most romantic songs to me as a teenager was Erykah Badu’s “Next Lifetime.” Imagine loving so deeply and strongly, the emotion would follow you through reincarnation. Alice Walker’s epic, massive novel The Temple of My Familiar follows thousands of years of human history across the Diaspora, from Africa to Central America to Asia to Europe to the Caribbean to the United States. It is a wonderful feat of the imagination that follows, at its heart, an unconventional love story. Bonus points—if you read it in conjunction with Evelyn C. White’s Alice Walker: A Life and also google some OG Alice Walker gossip from the mid-nineties, you can begin to see where Walker may have drawn inspiration from her own life to make a fictional history of love and a people.
8. A Book to Read After Scrolling Through Pictures from AfroPunk
Black by Design by Pauline Black
Oh how I wanted to be a punk in high school, but that look was hard to pull off without any money. Believe me, I tried. I wish I had read Pauline Black’s autobiography Black by Design back then. Black is British, the former lead singer for a seminal ska band. She also was a biracial adoptee, adopted by white British parents in the 1950s. Her autobiography is a glimpse into the life of someone who continually, bravely, forges her own way.
9. A Book to Read When Someone Tries to Shame You for Enjoying Cardi B
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Y. Davis
One of the best lessons I ever received in my intellectual development was the falseness of the idea of highbrow or lowbrow culture. These categories shift over time, and what was once considered low culture is always, without fail, adopted and monetized by the ruling classes. Things that are supposedly beneath notice or too rude for polite society often operate in a liberated space, where cultural makers can say the things and make the associations that “civilized” people banish them for.
Angela Y. Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism does two things — it rescues Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday from the stultifying air of nostalgia and reminds us of why they were such dangerous and revolutionary artists in the first place. And it also reminds us that their art articulated a black feminism that is robust, complex, and a direct intellectual ancestor to all the female artists today who are dismissed for being too raunchy, too “problematic,” too obsessed with sex or money — when really, they are critiquing it all.
10. A Book to Read When You Are Searching for Your Way in the World
Black Women Writers at Work by Claudia Tate
How do writers become writers? How do artists become artists? How did Chloe Wofford become Toni Morrison? How did Miltona Mirkin Cade become Toni Cade Bambara? The answers to these questions always seemed mysterious and out of reach. Then I read Claudia Tate’s Black Women Writers at Work. Tate interviewed dozens of black women writers in the early 1980s, women whose books would become canon. She asked them about their work, their craft, and how they saw the world. What becomes clear is that each of these women was supported by a writing community of black women artists. And that these women loved their craft and took it seriously. It’s not always clear how we are supposed to make things for our selves—we only feel the keen imperative to do so. The interviews for this book provide a blueprint for creative self-sufficiency.
At first glance, reading and writing are solitary acts. They require you to ignore the distractions of screens and conversations with the living to focus on the page. But as anyone who loves reading and writing quickly learns, both activities allow you to commune with the living and the dead, to listen to the thoughts of those who have come before you and argue, cajole, and sing praise for them in response. ●
From the book WELL-READ BLACK GIRL Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves by Glory Edim. “Books for a Black Girl’s Soul” Copyright © 2018 by Kaitlyn Greenidge. Published by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, one of the New York Times Critics Top 10 Books of 2016. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Glamour, Elle.com, BuzzFeed, Transition Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Believer, American Short Fiction, and other places. She is a contributing editor for LENNY Letter and a contributing writer to The New York Times.
Well-Read Black Girl is out Oct. 30.