Books for Black History Month: Novels depict African-American experience

Illustration by Steck Von.

Walter Chidozie Anyanwu, Contributing Writer

At the Black History Book discussion held Feb. 13 at the Office of Multicultural Affairs, many historical and inspirational titles were listed and discussed by attendees. These books have shaped the thoughts of African-Americans over the years, and they hold a significant place in African-American history. Here are the highlights.  

“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison (1952)

The narrator in Ellison’s novel begins his story by declaring himself to be an invisible man, and while he may not be invisible in the literal sense, his condition is derived from society’s choice not to see him. What follows is a reflection on the past by the unnamed narrator, the invisible man, who is now older and making his home in an underground room away from society.

Following the narrator back to his teenage years in Harlem, the reader sees how he has experienced this “invisibility.” After winning a scholarship for an all-black college, he’s expelled in his junior year, unable to return — the narrator bounces from one misfortune to the next.

He works at a paint factory and draws the ire of one of his bosses, who sets him up in an accident that leaves him hospitalized. Doctors, who concluded he was fit for experimentation, subjected him to shock therapy and other procedures.

Later, he finds himself at the helm of a pro-black social group called “the Brotherhood,” after a very public display of bravery and defiance, causing him to become an unconventional hero. But the experience is short-lived. Conflicting forces threaten his stability, determination to expose “the Brotherhood” as an organization controlled by white people, and disillusionment with the organization altogether.

After moving around, unable to find his place, the invisible man adopts a new identity and sets off to undermine “the Brotherhood” on his own. He encounters challenges and ultimately finds himself at the center of a conflict, with the participants being roused by another character to kill him. He flees and goes into hiding.

As the story comes to an end, after years of solitude, the invisible man finds himself ready to show himself to the world.

“Native Son” by Richard Wright (1940)

Set in 1930s Chicago, “Native Son” tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man who could have ended up in jail for any number of reasons, including larceny or assault. His charge is different  –– rape and murder. Thomas finds himself in a downward spiral after he murders a young white woman in a flash of hysteria.

The novel is divided into three books –– “Fear,” “Flight” and “Fate.” Each section deals with a different aspect of Bigger’s life. In “Fear,” Bigger’s fear of white people leads him to commit a crime. In “Flight,” he fails to save himself, heading to an inevitable conclusion. “Fate” shows us that Bigger has come to terms with the results of his actions. He understands the relationship between black and white people is more than just black and white.

The book highlights the experiences of people living in inner cities and how their self-perceived hopelessness can lead to even more problems. The 1930s were not kind to black people in America. The story of Bigger Thompson serves as a reminder of those who attempted to better their situations, only to encounter obstacles they weren’t equipped to handle.

“Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

This book-length letter from the author to his young son is reminiscent of “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin. It uses the same narrative structure to tell an autobiographical story.

Coates discusses the history of violence experienced by black people, as well as the residual aspects of that history that, he says, can be seen today, such as in the over-policing of young black people. He discusses various themes with poetic wit and bleakness that emphasizes the experiences he had growing up, as opposed to more positive depictions of the struggles of black people in America.

Through a shortened account of the events that have occurred in his life, Coates ponders the many nuances that come with being black in America. From the navigation of the very complex social setting of Baltimore –– continually living under the threat of violence or physical harm  –– to interacting with his environment and living within it.

Coates’ stance on black freedom goes against the hope that Martin Luther King Jr. had for integration and the hope that Malcolm X had for nationalism. He argues that true freedom cannot be achieved while systems of oppression and white supremacy remain.

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