Updated: Feb 26, 2022
In a world where the very core of public education is failing and middle school students do not realize that L. L. Cool J was once a rapper, it is reasonable to assume that many students have not been introduced to the following books or the brilliant authors who wrote them, primarily in the 20th century. However, some of the writers are still alive and well and continue to share their wisdom with new audiences.
As an English instructor, I was privileged to teach several of the works on this list. Each title expanded my conscious awareness as an individual living in a wonderfully flawed society like few others.
Therefore, I highly recommend that 21st century young people be given the opportunity to fan the flames of their transformational, burgeoning intellects with the powerful concepts and beliefs contained in the pages of these inspiring, psychologically challenging, soulfully written books.
1. Cane (1923) by Jean Toomer: This collection of vignettes focus on life, love and race in the South. The stories of Karintha, the child object of grown men’s sexual desires and Becky, the ostracized white woman with black sons are especially memorable.
2. Homemade Love (1986) by J. California Cooper: Cooper proves the expression “there is a pot for every lid” in this honest, interesting collection of stories of oddball people finding true love amidst the most unexpected circumstances.
3. Our Kind of People (1999) by Lawrence Otis Graham: This man defined ‘black-ish’ well before the television show. Graham reveals the behaviors and ideologies of upper middle class African Americans who deemed themselves above racial injustice. Juxtapose this book with the current events leading to the Black Lives Matter movement for an eye-opening look at the evolving socioeconomics and philosophies of black people.
4. Peace From Broken Pieces (2012) by Iyanla Vanzant: Problems disappear after reading this book! Vanzant lyrically and candidly chronicles her own personal successes and failures in efforts to help others triumph over their own negative life experiences.
5. So Long a Letter (2008) by Mariama Ba: This African novelist chronicles the emotional pain and humiliation associated with plural Muslim marriage in a series of letters written between two friends. So Long a Letter ranks as one of the top 100 literary works written by African authors.
6. The Blacker the Berry (1929) by Wallace Thurman: Thurman, a Harlem Renaissance writer, relays the tragic story of Emma Lou Morgan who was born too black or dark-skinned for the tastes of her family and community. This was the first novel to address intraracial conflict or racially charged prejudices that blacks bestow upon other black people.
7. The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans (1992) by Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson & Ronald Hall: This book presents revealing historical evidence and personal anecdotes to explain the resentments held between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks in America.
8. The Prisoner’s Wife (2000 ) by Asha Bandele: Regardless of how some people feel about women ‘dating’ prisoners accused of murderous crimes, Bandele weaves an engrossing, provocative tale of her own personal relationship and eventual marriage to a handsome inmate.
9. The Wedding (1995) by Dorothy West: West writes of life in 1950s Martha’s Vineyard of which she was personally familiar. The main character, Shelby, is torn between the white jazz musician she is set to marry and the black businessman intent on capturing her heart and reveling in her social status. The Wedding is one of the last novels edited by the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
10. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982) by Audre Lorde: Zami is the awesome autobiography (biomythography as she titles it) of the ultimate ‘sister outsider’ black lesbian author, activist and poet Audre Lorde. The lush language and imagery in this book must be personally experienced, not merely described in a brief summary.
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Ashan R. Hampton is a long-time English instructor turned entrepreneur. She is also a proud graduate of the Donaghey Scholars Program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock under the direction of Dr. C. Earl Ramsey, Emeritus. Through her company, Onyx Online Education & Training, she offers online writing courses and print books for academic and professional development to individuals and corporations. She is also a prolific published author of several books on a variety of topics. To find out more about Ashan's work, visit www.arhampton.com.
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