It isn’t Black History Month, but I’m like 90% sure it’s okay to talk about Black History even if it’s not February. (/sarcasm)
So I’m reading Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis* and in the back she writes, “I was poking through military records to find information about my grandmother and I discovered an America I’d never seen. After slavery and the Harlem Renaissance, there’s a jump in the history we learn at school to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. What happened before the mighty river that was the civil rights movement is that little streams started trickling. I never found out about my grandmother, but I found others like her. This is the story of their time.” and I was like, “That is SO damn true. One would think that that Black history (in America) goes like this:
forever ago – 1865 – SLAVERY. Damn, this sucks.
1865-1920 – No slavery, so everything was probably okay for Black people, right?
1920-1935 – Harlem Renaissance! Who knew Black people were artistic? (Aside from spirituals, of course!)
1935-1955 – Nothing big happens, just a fuzzy sort of racism. Plus segregation!
1955-1968 – Civil Rights Movement! MLK, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, the end of segregation, etc.
1968-now – No more racism! Phew!” **
There and you’ve got it! Black History. Except… what about those big gaps? Like before the Civil War, in between it and the Harlem Renaissance, and then again in between it and the Civil Rights Movement. Black History isn’t just about those big movements. (And of course, let’s not forget that the Civil War, unlike the other two, was not fought by Black people*** and was also not fought for them. Banning slavery was a political move, a side effect of other goals.) What about Frederick Douglass? What about the great debate between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington about how best to secure the future of Blacks in America? (There’s a great alternate history novel there, I’m sure of it.) What about the millions of other stories and experiences that I can’t even mention because I don’t know about them? And it made me wonder, reading Davis’ words, how much of that history we could fill in through fiction, poetry and biographies. I can think of four novels and a couple of autobiographies off the top of my head to start filling the timeline in and will add more as I think of them.
Books in this color are historical fiction.
Books in this color are not. (That is, they were written around the time the book takes place.)
1775 – 1803? – The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Volume I: The Pox Party and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson
1815 – Kindred by Octavia Butler
First half of the 1800s? – Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs
1818-1845 – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
1850s – Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
1863 – A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott
1900 – The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chesnutt
Early 20th century – Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
1930s – Native Son by Richard Wright
1940s – Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis
James Weldon Johnson
Nonfiction that I’m not including on the timeline for whatever reason
W. E. B. Du Bois – The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
Zora Neale Hurston – Mules and Men (1935)
SO HERE’S THE PROJECT: We are going to fill this timeline in! Going as far back as we can, and going up until the Civil Rights Movement (because I feel that there is plenty of literature for that time period, plus I have to cut off the window for historical fiction as some point… If I’m wrong, let me know!), let’s collect fiction, poetry, and biographies (because we’re interested in the people of these time periods. However, if there’s is non-biographical nonfiction that you think should be included, go ahead and suggest it! The one request I have regarding nonfiction is that it be very readable and accessible to the average reader.) chronicling the history of African Americans. (I’m specifying African Americans, but should we open it up to include the histories of the whole African diaspora? A similar project for other minorities would be totally awesome, but I’m going to hold onto my Ambition Hat here and just limit it to Black history.)
This is more important than it may seem. Part of the horror of being a slaves and other displaced/repressed person, or descendant thereof, is that your history is lost. Only rich, privileged people had time to write, whether autobiographies, novels, or histories. That is why the trend of slaves and ex-slaves writing narratives in the middle of the 19th century is so rare and wonderful and why historical fiction written from the viewpoint of POC is also rare and wonderful. Any book that highlights these unique, mostly untold stories, deserves and needs to be spotlighted and applauded. (Sorry for all the bold, I just feel like that whole paragraph is damned important!)
Now it’s your turn. What books do you know of that will help us fill this timeline in?
~Here is a link to the page I made for this project. Please comment either here or there with your own comments, additions, and suggestions!~
*Tanita Davis is a native Californian who lives in Scotland, according to her jacket copy, with a baker! I have the one part of that that you can’t retcon (being a native Californian), so can I please request from the universe a baking Scottish boy who will fall in love with me and come take me away? kthxbai
**Please note that that is a very sarcastic timeline, espousing views that I absolutely do not hold to.
***There were African American soldiers, but I mean that the impetus for the movement was not from within, but from without.