A Time to Celebrate (and Some Books to Read)

I am so excited this year. I live in a country that finally elected an African American as president for no other reason than he is the best, most qualified person for the job. It makes me feel like we’re growing up as a culture — becoming more mature, more rational, and more just. I may be fooling myself, but hey, that’s my right.

This past year was one of many changes in my life — one of which was a broken leg — and in all my “free” time I read some truly remarkable books by and about African Americans. I offer them to anyone who might be interested as we celebrate Black History Month.

First, I discovered Zora Neale Hurston and her remarkable semi-autobiographical, Jonah’s Gourd Vine.  This amazing book led me to read Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Hurston’s retelling of the Exodus story in Moses, Man of the Mountain.  Hurston’s writing is lyrical, evocative, and touching.  Library of America is collecting Hurston’s work, and all three of these amazing novels are together in one volume.

Another feast from Library of America is James Baldwin’s, Collected Essays.  Including “Nobody Knows My Name,” and “The Fire Next Time,” Baldwin paints a picture of sorrow, loss, frustration, and a deep hunger for justice and acceptance.  These are humbling and powerful essays.

Perhaps my favorite find of 2008 is The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible by Allen Dwight Callahan.  Though this is a scholarly piece, it is a highly readable analysis of the presence and power of the Bible in African American culture.  This is an exceptional survey of biblical influences across time and a refreshing perspective on history.

The best biography I found last year is Richard Newman’s provocative, Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers.  It was painful to me to discover, on almost every page, how little I knew about Allen and the AME church.  More than just a first-rate biography, Newman presents a social history and supplies an important part of our story too often absent and ignored.

I also revisited two classics: W.E.B. Du Bois’, The Souls of Black Folk, and Martin Luther King, Jrs, Stride Toward Freedom.  Du Bois describes the social and cultural conditions of African Americans at the dawn of the 20th century in raw, honest, and concise terms.  Anyone who doubts how much has changed need only spend a few hours reading this heart-wrenching book.  Du Bois does a striking job of championing the goodness, nobility, and pride of a people so unjustly and hatefully abused.  King’s story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott reads like a finely crafted novel.  This is a truly fantastic story of triumph during a truly terrible period in American history.  Both of these books remind us how far we’ve come, and instill an even greater commitment to go further.

Last, I would be remiss if I didn’t share James Weldon Johnson’s, God’s Trombone: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, an impulse buy at a Cokesbury display that caught my attention and that I have read and reread a half dozen times.  Reflecting on these powerful poems is like encountering scripture for the first time.  Truly beautiful.

It is impossible for me — a middle-aged, privileged, middle-class white guy — to read these incredible works without feeling a deep sense of humility, embarrassment, and shame.  At the same time, these historic literary gems kindle in me a vision of a hopeful, just, and harmonious future where we all can learn from the past, and of which we can all be proud.

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