By Timothy Collins
Congressman John Lewis was once asked why it was important for Black authors to tell their stories.
The response from the legendary civil rights advocate was telling.
“The movement without storytelling is like birds without wings.”
The truth is that storytelling has a long history in the Black communities of North America. Sometimes those stories are peppered with jokes. Other times they reflect a deep faith in the gospels or tell of the love of music or the challenges of growing up in a world where discrimination is ever-present.
And sometimes, the stories have a razor’s edge and tell of the horrors of lynchings or segregation.
The words of Black authors were given fresh inspiration by the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 and inspired readers to read, not only new works by contemporary authors but to revisit the words of Black authors who had come before.
Old or new, at the heart of Black literature is the fundamental fact that we all need a witness and literature was, and is, a way of representing a people as something other than property, allowing them to shape an honest narrative of life.
Storytelling, after all, is as important to the human spirit as breathing is to life.
In these profiles, we’ve chosen just a few of the writings of Black authors and we recommend that our readers seek out the stories for themselves.
With luck, it will be the first step on the road to greater understanding.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
To understand this great American writer and poet’s work, it might be instructive to look at the origins of its title.
Angelou was inspired by the words of another African American poet who penned these words in this poem, Sympathy.
“I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core”
That prayer was central to Angelou’s autobiography recounting the racial tensions of the American South. That backdrop provided her with the canvas on which to paint the story of her struggles as a child and her transformation into a confident, dignified young woman.
Angelou’s story includes some of the topics that became common after the civil rights movement gave a voice to Black women. It celebrates the importance of Black motherhood and the challenges of a broken family. It examines racism, rape and the importance of literacy in allowing personal dignity and independence to survive.
In short, it is a story of struggle, strength and inspiration.
The Skin We’re In by Desmond Cole
This book is a must-read for anyone who still believes that racism, particularly against Black people, is primarily an American phenomenon.
It’s the work of Toronto writer Desmond Cole, whose 2015 cover story for Toronto Life magazine showcased Cole’s personal experiences when he detailed the dozens of times that he had been stopped and questioned under Toronto’s controversial practice of carding.
His story garnered a new level of public interest, shaking some of the mistaken beliefs of Canadians that racism against our Black population was not a significant issue.
The Skin We’re In chronicles just one year – 2017 – a year that saw Canadians call for stricter border controls as Black refugees struggled across frozen fields to cross into Manitoba from the United States.
It examines the way that police officers across the country sprang to the defence of an officer accused of murder in the killing of an unarmed Black man.
It also recounts when Cole disrupted a Toronto police board meeting by calling for the destruction of all data collected through carding. His activism prompted the Toronto Star to terminate Cole’s position as a columnist with the paper and later, when he returned to a subsequent police board meeting with the same demand, was used as a cause for his arrest.
The book gives a snapshot of the entrenched, systemic racism that still exists against Blacks in Canada and has the potential to challenge the complacency of many white Canadians.
Born A Crime by Trevor Noah
When South African comedian, Trevor Noah, was born to mixed-race parents during South Africa’s apartheid era, his birth was, quite literally, a crime.
His autobiographical account of growing up in a place where he was forced by his (Black) mother to deny his parentage because he would have been removed from his home, is approached with humour and pathos and gives rise to the questioning of the nature of racism.
Although the Immorality Act that had made Noah’s birth a crime was rescinded in 1985, the attitudes that had given rise to the laws persisted. Noah’s story tells of how, as a “coloured person” he was neither Black nor white in South Africa and how he found it quite surprising when, upon arriving in the United States, he was suddenly classified as a Black man.
From the opening chapters of the book, (when Noah is thrown out of a minibus by his mother when she thought that the driver, a man from another South African tribe, was going to kill them) to his journey to find his way in through race religion and prejudice, the book is a must-read.
In fact, First Lady Jill Biden, an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, assigned Born a Crime as required reading for an introductory English course.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Becoming is a memoir by the former first lady of the United States – the first Black woman to ever occupy that position in the country’s history.
Described by Obama as a deeply personal account of her life, the book describes her journey and how she managed to find her voice.
It starts in an upstairs apartment in the South Side of Chicago (once described by Jim Croce as “the baddest part of town”) then follows her road from the naïve girl plinking her way through her first piano lessons to the confident Black woman who found herself during her time at Princeton University and Harvard Law School.
While some time is spent on her romantic relationship and marriage to the country’s first Black president, it also discusses her role as a mother and activist.
“My happiness isn’t connected to my husband, or my boss or my children’s behaviour. You have control over your own actions… your own well-being…”
With those words Obama sums up her view of her role in life, going on to say, “Your story is what you have. It is something to own.”
Obama’s second book, The Light We Carry continues the narrative.
Both are worth the read and may provide some insights on navigating the difficult times in which we find ourselves.