Aerin Fortes, Contributing Writer
While black culture should be celebrated year-round, Black History Month is a great opportunity to honor influential black figures in literature.
Chronically overlooked, here are works by three female writers to remind you of the power of words. I chose them as my top picks with the intent of showcasing the range of stories that black women are capable of telling across genres.
‘God Help the Child’ by Toni Morrison
Morrison has been called a leading figure in American literature, and she is praised for her exploration of the complexities of black women. This text, perfect for the new decade, illuminates the effects of colorism and childhood trauma through a girl named Bride.
It begins with her mother describing herself as “light-skinned with good hair,” subsequently giving birth to Bride, who is much darker. Bride experiences a childhood of abuse and rejection from her family. Later in life, however, she rejects internalized racism by reclaiming her trauma through her makeup line for women of all complexions.
Many critics were unimpressed, claiming the characters were too flat and the scenery was unusually boring in comparison to her previous work. While it may not be as utterly captivating as her 1970 debut novel, “The Bluest Eye,” ignoring this story would mean missing out on 200 pages of therapy and education. I relate to the internalized oppression in this story as a nonblack person of color. Looking through Bride’s lens told me I am not alone and taught me how black women deal with this similar hardship.
I was lucky to be introduced to Morrison in an English class, where many of my peers — including myself — chose to do their final projects on how she influenced their worldviews. Toni Morrison prevails as one of the most enchanting writers; a woman who became the backbone of the black American literary canon in a time of predominantly white male novelists.
‘How to Love a Jamaican’ by Alexia Arthurs
This series of short stories is set in Jamaica and the U.S., demonstrating what life is like as an immigrant. An immigrant herself, this novel reflects aspects of Arthurs’ own life. Arthurs was born in Jamaica before growing up in both New York and Iowa, mirroring the 11 stories that transport readers from the East Coast to the Midwest.
Each narrative has a little theme of its own. “Island” tells the story of a woman exploring her sexuality while “Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands” tackles generational wealth. All are united by the themes of identity and making a home in America as a black immigrant.
‘Parable of the Sower’ by Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler stands apart from the others in this list as the only science fiction author. Twenty-seven years ago, Butler wrote about what California would be like in 2024; a land broken by climate change and class conflict. Water is a luxury, the poor cannot leave their gated communities and the protagonist, Lauren, has hyper empathy, or the ability to feel others’ pain and pleasure, as a result of her mother’s drug addiction while pregnant.
Known as the mother of Afrofuturism, Butler was one of the first authors to write black women into sci-fi while combining their culture and aesthetic with ideas of the future.
The story is told through Lauren’s journal as she narrates her journey to refuge. On her way, she is joined by other black allies, all of whom band together to share stories of incarceration, gun violence and how racism pervades through it all. She aims to find safety in Northern California and establish the religion she has created to save humanity, called Earthseed.
I was horrified at the similarities between this envisioned dystopia and our modern reality. In a speech delivered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Butler said, “This was a cautionary tale, although people have told me it was prophecy. All I have to say to that is: I certainly hope not.”