Barnes and Noble faced some backlash last Wednesday over a misguided attempt to celebrate Black History Month—the bookseller had commissioned a series of classics with new covers that prominently featured people of color. Except that the selected titles were exclusively books written by white authors about white characters: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Emma, Frankenstein, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Romeo & Juliet, among others. Barnes and Noble has since cancelled the collection, but that doesn’t change the fact that its marketing department thought creating the appearance of diversity in a literary canon that has quite often excluded authors of color, rather than lifting up the voices of classic and modern black authors, was a good idea.
Would this have happened if there were more people of color in leadership positions across organizations? Of course, the onus should not be on people of color to point out racism when they see it, including in the workplace—the onus is on all people making important business decisions to have the sensitivity to recognize what may be in poor taste, first and foremost. But the whole point of having diversity in organizations is to have diverse viewpoints—so that people can look at issues and proposals differently and bring different ideas to the table and, ostensibly, so these kinds of mistakes don’t happen.
Raising up black voices is so profoundly important that the case for doing so shouldn’t have to be made time and time again. But it seems that we all still need reminding. Below is a revised Black History Month collection to replace Barnes & Noble’s white-centric version. They’re all contemporary works released within the past few years. I encourage you to read them and, furthermore, encourage you to tune in to the black voices who speak to you from other places, be it on social media, in politics, in the news, and especially in the workplace.
How Long ‘til Black Future Month? – N.K. Jemisin
Good question, N.K. This story collection does to race and society what sci-fi and fantasy (and N.K. Jemisin) do best: it reveals the truth even through the seemingly absurd.
The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle
As a self-diagnosed LaValle stan, I can comfortably say that everything he’s written is worth reading. This novella is a re-visit to one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most hateful stories, reworked and seen from a black man’s perspective
Such a Fun Age – Kiley Reid
Emira, young nanny to a white family, is accused of kidnapping the child that she cares for. The mom, appalled, insists on “getting justice” for Emira, who simply wants the situation to go away. The ensuing conflict upends both women’s perceptions of the other.
The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead
Following his astronomical success, The Underground Railroad, Whitehead revisits historical fiction to tell the story of two boys sentenced to a cruel reform school (read: prison) in Jim Crow-era Florida that’s based on a real-life institution.
Thick: And Other Essays – Tressie McMillan Cottom
An academic by trade, Cottom shifts form to an essay collection with Thick, writing on culture, beauty, and capitalism, among other things. This book is witty, incisive, and transgressive in a way that many essayists fall short of achieving.
How We Fight for Our Lives – Saeed Jones
Already a celebrated poet, Jones’ memoir describes his youth as a gay black man in the Deep South. It’s a deeply poignant memoir, crafted in prose and poetry, about finding space for oneself in the world.
Heavy – Kiese Laymon
This book is heavy in every way—Laymon tells his life story, encompassing his complicated relationships with his mother, a professor; with food and his body; with gambling; and with our society as a whole.
The Source of Self-Regard – Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison’s passing was perhaps the hardest loss for literary types last year. This, her last book, is a collection of her essays, speeches, and meditations, collecting so much of Morrison’s wisdom in one place that it makes her loss feel even more acute.
The Revolution of Birdie Randolph – Brandy Colbert
Birdie studies hard to secure the future she knows is waiting for her—but when a cute boy and her complicated aunt join the picture, Birdie realizes that her path isn’t as simple as it seemed.
Slay – Brittney Morris
Teenager Kiera Johnson is the “incognito” developer of an underground, online game primarily played by black gamers. When a conflict from the game spills into real life, the space that Kiera has built comes under fire, and she has to decide how best to protect it.
Red at the Bone – Jacqueline Woodson
Another from one of the masters of YA fiction, Woodson’s latest novel explores two families’ responses to an early pregnancy—exploring class, education, and expectations.
Pride – Ibi Zoboi
People keep redoing Pride and Prejudice, but Zoboi’s “remix” in Bushwick, Brooklyn centered on the complexities of gentrification is hands-down one of the strongest reinterpretations out there.
Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet – Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates’ incarnation of this classic hero is lyrical, complex, and beautifully drawn—and exactly what the comics deserve post-MCU revival.
Bingo Love – Tee Franklin
Hazel and Mari meet at church bingo in the ‘60s, fall immediately in love, but are forced apart by their families. They meet at church bingo again decades later, as grannies, and fall in love all over again. Can you say cute?
March – John Lewis
Congressman John Lewis has represented Georgia’s 5th District for more than 30 years, was one of the original Freedom Riders, and was a key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. In this autobiographical graphic novel, Lewis reveals his experience of the March and its place of honor in history.
Prince of Cats – Ronald Wimberly
Romeo and Juliet, set in 1980s Brooklyn, told from Tybalt’s perspective. It seamlessly blends the slang of the day with Shakespearean meter and rhyme, and the art is brilliant. And if that doesn’t sell you on it, Spike Lee just optioned it for his next movie.
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