Black History Month Reading

I mentioned in my last books post that in honour of Black History Month in February I was reading books written by a POC or about the black experience. It took a while for my holds from the library to be available (and I still have a bunch of holds so I’ll be reading more of these types of books for a while — I don’t mind!) so I only ended up getting through three in February. All were fantastic. Here they are.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Synopsis:

The unforgettable New York Times best seller begins with the story of two half-sisters, separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. Written with tremendous sweep and power, Homegoing traces the generations of family who follow, as their destinies lead them through two continents and three hundred years of history, each life indeliably drawn, as the legacy of slavery is fully revealed in light of the present day.

Effia and Esi are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

This book was incredible, but also horrific. I have obviously read about slavery in the past but every time it hits me anew how horribly these people were treated. It is deeply saddening and disgusting. It makes me so angry that white people thought it was okay to discriminate against people who looked different than them. It’s beyond words awful and, being of British descent (somewhere over on my mother’s side), it makes me feel ashamed.

This book really drove home the point of how slavery and oppression and segregation has affected black people for hundreds of years, and how it still is. It will stay with me for a long time to come. And it was so well written — everyone needs to read it!

My only complaint is that you don’t get to spend a lot of time with each character. Every chapter is about someone new, a descendent of Effia, then a descendent of Esi, repeat, and I got so attached to some of the earlier characters that I could have read an entire book about just them! It moves on quickly, but it’s also pretty long, so I don’t think the author could have fit anymore in. I also enjoyed how the author made the characters imperfect, as they would be, for example in the more recent years the novel spanned, the addict who abandoned his children. People aren’t perfect. They weren’t all necessarily good people, they were absolutely flawed, but they didn’t deserve their circumstances.

It’s a stunning novel and I absolutely loved it. It was a perfect Black History Month read.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Synopsis:

Fifteen-year-old Kambili’s world is circumscribed by the high walls and frangipani trees of her family compound. Her wealthy Catholic father, under whose shadow Kambili lives, while generous and politically active in the community, is repressive and fanatically religious at home.

When Nigeria begins to fall apart under a military coup, Kambili’s father sends her and her brother away to stay with their aunt, a University professor, whose house is noisy and full of laughter. There, Kambili and her brother discover a life and love beyond the confines of their father’s authority. The visit will lift the silence from their world and, in time, give rise to devotion and defiance that reveal themselves in profound and unexpected ways.

This was the next book that became available on my library holds list and it wasn’t the first book I wanted to read by Chimamanda, but it was her first so I guess it worked out. I really enjoyed it and had a hard time putting it down. I loved Kambili and was so heartbroken for her. Her father was an abusive POS and I wanted to reach into the book and slap him across his smug face. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Kambili and her brother (and her mother) living under his rule, for pleasing him to be their only goal in life. Awful.

I don’t think the synopsis does it justice at all — it’s beautifully written and an incredibly moving and intriguing story with a lot of depth. I loved it.

I also loved learning a bit about the Nigerian culture — the Igbo language, politics, religion and cuisine. One of my former coworkers turned friends (and the woman who is making our wedding cake!) is from Uganda and she would always bring in these dishes for lunch that had a savoury sauce made from groundnuts — usually over plantains or chicken. She explained to me that groundnuts were sort of like peanuts, but had a bit of a different taste. I loved it so much that a couple of times she actually made me a dish to bring home for dinner! In both this book and the next book I read (by the same author) those groundnuts were prominent. I didn’t realize how much of a staple they were in African cuisine. It also made me wish there were more African restaurants in Toronto, beyond the trendy Ethiopian and Eritrean ones.

Anyway, I highly recommend. I couldn’t put it down.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Synopsis:

From the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun, a dazzling new novel: a story of love and race centered around a young man and woman from Nigeria who face difficult choices and challenges in the countries they come to call home.

As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.

Another absolutely incredible read. I don’t know how I can even begin to review it because there is so much depth to this novel and there is a large cast of memorable characters. I loved Ifemelu and Obinze, together and apart, and I loved Ifemelu’s blog posts that would pop up from time to time. I could fully picture Ifemelu, she had so much substance and her character development was one of the strongest I’ve ever read in a book. She was a real person to me and I feel like I want to know her in real life!

What I found the most interesting was Ifemelu’s thoughts about race after she moved to America, specifically that she had never really thought about it, she never had to. She never thought of herself as “black” until she moved to America, because that was the label Americans gave her.

It’s an amazing read and I highly recommend.

I loved reading books written by people who have had much different life experiences than I did, growing up sheltered in a bubble in the middle of nowhere. I cringe when I think of the person I was before college, and before I moved to the city, when I met people who were different than me. I think it’s important to hear and learn about the various experiences of other people, so that we can try to understand them. This really inspired me to branch out from my usual, and I want to keep that up in the future!

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One response to “Black History Month Reading

  1. As a black reader of your blog, I appreciate that you are reaching out and reading and learning.