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Black History Novels

We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. -- Carter Woodson (father of Black History Month)

 

Blood on the Forge

A novel, perhaps THE novel, of the "Great Migration" of the twentieth century. Three sharecropper brothers flee the South and come to work in the steel mills of the Pittsburgh region. The descriptions of industry and its effects on the environment and the workers is unparalleled in literature for its uncompromising brutality. Attaway's narrative provides a sober contemporary perspective, and the stories of African-American migrants echo the experience of all immigrants who preceded and followed in suffering.

 

Invisible Man

In this drama stuffed with character actors, which is also a racial bildungsroman and an illusory act of political rhetoric, Ellison describes the failed creation and successful unraveling of a very recognizable man peeking out of history's darker corners.

 

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

A novel playing with questions of historical identity. Gaines writes a fictional autobiography from the perspective of an African-American woman born a slave and witness to the Civil Rights actions of the 1960s. Through 100 years of radical transition, the unified perspective provides an acute first-person retelling of the shifting meaning of "African-American."

 

Middle Passage

In 1830, a newly freed slave accidentally finds himself on a slave ship heading from New Orleans to Africa. Johnson uses a variety of narrative styles to roll out the cacophony of issues that this one bad decision exposes, acting as an exploration of historical experience, and in particular the slave trade, and a parable of the relations between Africans and Europeans throughout history.

 

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned

Mosley presents a collection of stories unified by the strength of Socrates Fortlow, an ex-con finding his way around another kind of prison: an impoverished neighborhood in Los Angeles. Socrates, now living in repentance for his crimes, finds the straight and narrow as difficult as prophesied.

 

Nairobi Heat

A criminal investigation serves as historical meditation and critique of the cultural relationship of contemporary Africans and Americans, written by the American-born son of one of Africa's most famous twentieth-century writers.

 

The Street

The story of a single African-American mother who has a strong belief in the American Dream and a desperate need to secure success for her child. But with the realities of race and class in urban America, the dream recedes into nightmare.

 

Damballah

John Edgar Wideman reconstructs the community of Homewood with this book of interconnected stories of one family living the history of the African-American experience. The stunning dedication tells of the impossibility of hiding from history. Every decision is tainted, none free.

 

Native Son

A hard-fought consideration of the relationship of society to the individual, asking impossible questions about responsibility. If the individual lives in a racist society, those questions become simultaneously more absurd and more visceral. This is twentieth-century tragedy at its finest.