Friday, June 15, 2012

Great Books for Entering Black Freshmen

What books should African-American freshmen be reading at the onset of their college careers?  Some of the nation's leading scholars offer their choices of recommended readings and why these books may have a profound effect on the lives of African-American students.  Reprinted from The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 2 (Winter, 1993-1994), pp. 97-101

Many of us, reading a particular book at a particular time in life has had a dramatic and profound effect on our view of the world and our outlook for the future. This can be especially true for a young student entering college. It is a time when young people, many of whom are away from home for the first time, are bombarded with a massive array of new life experiences. It is a time when their inquisitive minds are open to vast new horizons of knowledge. College freshmen particularly are at an impressionable age, where new ideas are not rejected out of hand but tend to be given a fair hearing. Under these circumstances, certain books have the power to open one's eyes to an entirely new field of scholarly pursuit or to dramatically change our political, social, or religious views. The great works tend to steer us onto a new career path, or even alter the way we view ourselves and our world. For African-American freshman students, the beginning of the college experience can be a most exciting time. Yet it can also be a period when there is a great deal of apprehension. For black students who come from largely segregated public school systems to attend a predominantly white college or university, the adjustment can be something of a shock. Black students, who have attended predominantly white suburban high schools and have chosen to attend a historically black college or university, also make major intellectual adjustments. As they adapt to their new environment, what they read can be extremely important to their ultimate academic success and overall happiness. With this in mind, we asked a select group of scholars for a list of books they would recommend to entering black freshmen. The works of W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and Toni Morrison were frequently mentioned. Some of the others may surprise you. Here are the replies we received:

Henry Louis Gates Jr., chair of the Afro-American Studies Department and WE.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, offers a list of recent nonfiction books that incoming black freshmen could read with profit:

Race Matters by Cornel West. Wide-ranging and penetrating analyses of black America's current crises, both cultural and political.
In My Father's House by Kwame Anthony Appiah. What does it mean to be an African? What does it mean to be an African American? This book probes fundamental issues of identity, and provides the most incisive conceptual analysis of race and racism available.
Slavery & Social Death by Orlando H. Patterson. A challenging, sophisticated book that explores the crucible of slavery and its legacies. A model of scholarship and comparative study.
Invisibility Blues by Michele Wallace. A dazzling assortment of essays by the author of the best-selling Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman; it doesn't just assert the strengths of the black feminist movement, it displays them.
Reflecting Black by Michael Eric Dyson. Just published, this collection by a young African-American cultural critic brings together reflections on popular culture with thoughtful inquiry into black intellectual debates.
The Black Atlantic by Paul Gilroy. A rigorous consideration of the cultural meanings of Diaspoa, by one of the / leading figures of black British cultural studies.
When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Sex and Race in America by Paula J. Giddings. Already a classic, this book stands as a powerful analysis of the race gender conundrum.

Rita Dove, Poet Laureate of the United States and Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia, recommends:

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. If students have not read this book yet by the time they enter college, they should read it immediately. It is simply one of the most eloquent expressions of the trauma of discrimination in this country.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. From one of our early modem African-American feminists, Hurston's book is a must.
Harlem Gallery by Melvin B. Tolson. A fantastic book length poem which delineates the dilemma of the black artist with humor, acumen, and dazzling linguistic pyrotechnics.
Middle Passage by Charles R. Johnson. A hilarious, fictional romp through this grim period of African-American experience, this novel nevertheless is intensely moving.
Omeros by Derek A. Walcott. The Nobel Laureate's masterpiece is an epic detailing the traumas of slavery from a contemporary. Caribbean perspective in a poem to rival Dante's Divine Comedy.
The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Beloved, and Loved all by Toni Morrison, our newest Nobel Laureate in literature, a must for all students.

Manning Marable, professor of history and political science and director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, writes: I think that the best approach is not to craft some type of multicultural curriculum with a set of required works. Rather, students should be acquainted with what I could term "the black intellectual tradition" in the humanities and social sciences. That is, the various writings of key women and men whose ideas continue to challenge and to stimulate us. The critical works of the black intellectual tradition would include any of the following:

The Souls of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction by W.E.B. Du Bois.
Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James.
Caste, Class and Race by Oliver Cromwell Cox.
Native Son by Richard Wright.
The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual by Harold Cruse.
How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney.
Wretched of the Earth and also Black Skins, White Masks by Frantz Fanon.
Black Awakening in Capitalist America by Robert L. Allen.
Sula and Beloved by Toni Morrison.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.
From Margin to Center and Ain't I A Woman by Bell Hooks.
Race Matters by Cornel West.
Women, Race and Class by Angela Davis.
The Truly Disadvantaged by William Julius Wilson.
There is a River and Hope and History by Vincent Harding.

The approach which we must take is to permit young people to explore the full range of works of these and other significant African-American writers and black intellectuals throughout the world. We must apply the information to our own unique setting at the present time, making scholarship serve the conjunctural demands of the present.

Franklyn G. Lenifer, president of Howard University, offers a list of 19 books he would recommend to incoming black freshmen:

Go Tell It On the Mountain, The Fire Next Time, and Stranger in the Village by James Baldwin.
Bronzeville Boys and Girls and Children Coming Home by Gwendolyn Brooks.
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois.
The Measure of Our Success by Marian Wright Edelman.
Invisible Man by Ralph W. Ellison.
Slave Narrative by Olaudah Equiano.
When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Sex and Race in America by Paula J. Giddings.
Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry.
The Best of Simple by Langston Hughes.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.
Blues People by Imamu Amiri Baraka.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.
Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington.
The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson.
Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley.
Jubilee by Margaret Walker.
Native Son by Richard Wright.
Black Apollo: Biography of E.E. Just by Richard Manning.
Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern by Ivan Van Sertima.

Leonard A. Slade II, professor of Africana Studies at State University of New York at Albany, writes: The creative writers and literary critics candidly evaluate the interconnection and values of the American people and American dream. The authors of these masterpieces give us a slice of the American scene in all its indigenousness to the controversial and challenging past and present:

Clotel by William Wells Brown.
Walden and Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau.
The Hope of Liberty by George Moses Horton.
Invisible Man by Ralph W. Ellison.
Native Son by Richard Wright.
Beloved and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.
The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden by John Steinbeck.
The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.
Selected Poems, by Langston Hughes.
Middle Passage by Charles R. Johnson.
Cane by Jean Toomer.
Annie Allen by Gwendolyn Brooks.
Grace Notes by Rita Dove.
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry.
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois.
Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington.
Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe.
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville.
Daisy Miller by Henry James.
Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule B. Marshall.
The Man Who Cried I Am by John Williams.
Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King Jr.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.
Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown.
The Piano Lesson by August Wilson.
The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.
As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.
A Passage to India by E.M. Foerster.
The Journey Back by Houston A. Baker Jr.
A Southern Odyssey by John Hope Franklin.
Signifying Monkey by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Black Writers of America by Richard K. Barksdale and Keneth Kinnamon.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.
The Color Purple by Alice M. Walker.
History of Afro-American Literature by Blyden Jackson.
From the Dark Tower by Arthur Davis.
Playing in the Dark by Toni Morrison.
Langston Hughes (biography) by Arnold Rampersad.
Richard Wright (biography) by Margaret Walker.
Praisesong of Survival by Richard K. Barksdale.

Sharon P. Holland is a member of Stanford University's English department. In formulating this list, Dr. Holland would have liked a forum to point out some of the problematics of literary canon formation. A "canonical" view of African-American literature, she contends, must consider blacks' political, spiritual, and sexual baggage.

Essays and Speeches by Maria Stewart. The first black woman to speak to a mixed (male and female) audience about the need for the abolition of slavery - her speeches are filled with political metaphors which call for African-American women to rise up against the oppression of slavery, taking up arms if necessary.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Multivocal narrative exploring one black woman's quest for sexual and personal freedom in the 1920s.
Native Son by Richard Wright. Analysis of the brutality of class and race relations in 1940 America. The story of a black man's struggle to achieve agency inside an institution whose doors are soldered shut.
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin. Brilliantly written story of the emotional struggle of a gay white man in France, circa 1950. A novel whose bare language of emotion makes it one of the best examples of the art form.
Gemini by Nikki Giovanni. Essays written by one of black America's most renowned poets of the 1960s. Giovanni offers this book as a diary of life as a black poet through turbulent times in this nation's history.
Meridian by Alice M. Walker. Set during the civil rights struggle, this novel captures the beauty and the contradiction inherent in any revolutionary struggle. Much of the tension of the novel occurs between African-American female and male protagonists, suggesting that our next hurdle as a people might revolve around gender issues.
Zami by Audre G. Lorde. Lorde chronicles her own coming out story in what she calls a "biomythography," a blending of myth, her story, and fiction. This work is a powerful testament to one of the world's most renowned black lesbian poets and intellectuals.
Sister Outsider by Audre G. Lorde. Lorde's second collection of political essays and speeches spanning over 10 years and focusing on subjects from the United States' invasion of Grenada to the contemporary women's movement.
A Visitation of Spirits by Randall G. Kenan. Haunting portrayal of a gay black youth who commits suicide and returns to narrate his own story, set in rural North Carolina. Kenan's first novel is tragically and magically real and contributes to the rarity that is southern fiction.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Striking portrayal of African-American women and the effect of American standards of beauty on their lives as children, mothers, and lovers. Remarkably devastating.
Beloved by Toni Morrison. Multidimensional narrative about the return of the dead to the land of the living. In this story of fleshy haunts, Morrison attempts to unveil the damaging language of slavery and the responsibility we all have to its living ancestral legacy.
Platitudes by Trey Ellis. A postmodern pastiche of the desires of one sixteen-year-old youth and his adult counterpart, a struggling author. Hilarious and strange, this novel blurs categories of blackness and whiteness and challenges our conception of what constitutes a "black" text.

Richard A. Goldsby, is the John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer and professor of biology at Amherst College, replies: Lists of book recommendations for incoming African-American freshmen are often too narrow in scope. Why should a young black be told by blacks they regard highly to limit themselves to contemplation of their ethnic navels? Why is there so little recommended that was written prior to last night or yesterday? Why is there generally so little effort made to assure that young African Americans have some sense of who the great black writers of past were? This is bad role modeling and bad intellectual guidance. I offer the following list to broaden the perception of what and who is perceived as important by incoming black freshmen:

Black Boy by Richard Wright. A powerful classic that reminds us of a time not so long ago when legal access to public facilities was, for blacks, an aspiration yet to become a right. This autobiographical piece, far less widely read now than it deserves to be, provides an example of the work of an American writer of extraordinary power who wrote in a time when a black writer was unlikely to be recognized by the award of Nobel or Pulitzer prizes.
Simple Speaks His Mind by Langston Hughes. A wry, pungent and often hilarious evocation of the sharp and insightful social commentary that was easy to hear in the neighborhood barbershop - in prior generations, the major men's club of the black community.
The Double Helix by James D. Watson. Few forces will be as important as the ongoing revolution in genetics in shaping the world and destiny of all incoming freshmen. This irreverent, instructive and still informative memoir by one of molecular biology's "founding fathers" is a must for all who wish to understand the forces that will shape their future.
Rabbit Is Rich by John Updike. A chance to look into the minds and study the motivations of America's most powerful emerging minority, the prospering white middle class. This is a group that blacks must come to know and understand. No one provides a more deft description than this remarkably gifted writer.
Eichman in Jerusalem by Hanna Arendt. The holocaust remains the sharpest and most horrible example of what a powerful, determined and bigoted majority can do to a targeted minority. As with slavery, no single work can tell the whole story of the holocaust, but a profound knowledge and understanding of the destruction of European Jewry can come from this book.

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