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Black History Month:

Book recommendations, and a look at the treatment of Black authors

Josie Laur, Copy Editor
Originally published March 17, 2021

Cartoon by Sam Rainville

It’s February, which means (just like every other month!) that it’s a great time for reading a book. Unlike every other month, though, February is also Black History Month.

    Black History Month is an annual recognition and celebration of Black achievements and contributions throughout history (which, really, we ought to be celebrating all months of the year). Beginning as “N– History Week” in 1926, and officially recognized as a full month by President Gerald Ford in 1976, every February since has been officially recognized by the current president of the United States and given a specific theme. 

    As we talk about Black achievements, it’s important to pay special attention to the ones that have been accredited to and/or overlooked in favor of white people. A good example of this is in the fiction industry.

    We all know the spiel—white man writes a story about a white man who has to like…fight a bear, and he rockets to the top of the best-seller list. According to a study by SuperSummary, as seen in an article by Book Riot, “books with male protagonists sold an average of 10 million more copies than those with a female protagonist.” In short (and as news to no one), sexism is and has been rampant in the publishing and writing industry since—well, forever.

    All of this sexism and bias against women in the publishing community, however, is exponentially worse for Women of Color. Systemic sexism and systemic racism combine to create a beast that no one should have to tackle—and yet female Black authors do, every single day of the year.

    Luckily, especially in concurrence with the surge in the Black Lives Matter protests that occured in the summer of 2020, people are starting to notice this discrepancy. For example, the viral Twitter hashtag #PublishingPaidMe in June of 2020 compared the average pay of Black and white authors—and the results are both striking and a moving case for why it can be dangerous to keep salaries, advances and anything of the like a secret or a taboo subject.

    The #PublishingPaidMe seems to be having at least something of a positive effect—several big publishing houses had a “day of action,” where they reached out and communicated with Black authors, published their demographics and publicly declared their intent to do better. Of course, that doesn’t mean much if they don’t follow through with actually diversifying their authors and offering them better pay.

    Even so, a promise made under public pressure within the last year doesn’t undo decades and centuries of hurt, whitewashing, exclusion and unequal pay. Here are two articles that I really recommend to learn more about it: “‘A Conflicted Cultural Force’: What It’s Like to Be Black in Publishing,” which includes interviews and thoughts from Black people in the industry. Also, “A Letter From a Black Woman in Publishing on the Industry’s Cruel, Hypocritical Insistence That Words Matter,” which is both a powerfully written call to action and a reminder to not let ourselves (as white people) become complacent.

    With all of that said, it’s important to support diverse work and authors ALL YEAR ROUND, not just during February. Diversifying your reading and your sources will honestly do nothing but make you a smarter, stronger person capable of better critical thinking and having the hard conversations that need to be had.

    To help you out, I’ve compiled a list of books—all written by Black authors—that you can start with:

The “Playbook” series by Alexa Martin: This is a four-book series, focusing on football, strong women and romance! They’re mostly light-hearted, fun books that are rom-coms more than anything, but Martin does a good job of focusing on the heavy stuff when she has to. 

The fourth book, for example, was unplanned, but Martin felt that she had to talk about players taking a knee (i.e, Kaepernick), and she does so with a style and capability that reflects the rest of the series.

“A Phoenix First Must Burn,” written by 16 different authors and edited by Patrice Caldwell: As Caldwell says in the introduction, “too often media focuses on our suffering. Too often we are portrayed as victims…These sixteen stories highlight Black culture, folktales, strength, beauty, bravery, resistance, magic and hope.” 

It’s just as she says; this anthology features young Black women and non-conforming individuals, set in cultures and environments all over the world. One ends up on an alien planet, another falls in love with a gay vampire. A wonderful blend of many different voices and perspectives, “APFMB” is an easy and enjoyable way to introduce yourself to multiple talented authors.

“A Song of Wraiths and Ruin” by Roseanne A. Brown: This is the first book in a duology inspired by West African folklore, and is a worthy new entry for the fantasy genre. The story is told from the perspectives from our two young protagonists—Malik, who just wants to find a new home, and Karina, the Crown Princess of Ziran—and set against the backdrop of a very cool and rich world. 

Death brings the two together and keeps them there (specifically, the intent to quite literally murder each other), but what happens when they start to fall in love instead?

“A Song Below Water” by Bethany C Morrow: Combining social commentary and fantasy, this book tells the story of Tavia and her best friend, Effie—sirens and pseudo-sisters. Told from alternating perspectives and set in Portland, Tavia and Effie deal with secrets, past drama, death and their anger for a system that’s failing them.

    Not the lightest read, but worth it for Morrow’s writing skills and unique, interesting story!

    “Grown” by Tiffany D. Jackson: TW for sexual abuse, murder.

    This is definitely the heaviest book on this list, and for good reason. “Grown” tells the story of Enchanted Jones, a young aspiring singer who is drawn into a web of hurt, manipulation and mystery. A thriller (and thrillingly written), this book was the Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Young Adult Fiction (2020) for good reason.

    A fierce battle cry against rape culture and misogynoir in the music industry, “Grown” will make you cry, crack your heart in two, and leave you intensely shaken.

    “Charming as a Verb” by Ben Philippe: Onto something lighter! Charming, outgoing Henri and “intense,” introverted Corinne star in this is a coming-of-age rom-com that involves dogs, a “mutual hustle”….and the college search process.

    Funny and honest with some actually relatable teenagers, this one is a fun weekend binge-read!

    “Happily Ever Afters” by Elise Bryant: Another light-hearted romance! The premise of this one was an immediate “oh yes” from me. Tessa Johnson is a 16-year old who loves to write and read romance, and she’s tired of not seeing leading ladies who look like her.

    When she gets accepted to a writing program at an art school, she finally gets to write those stories herself! Only problem is, she’s suddenly lacking any and all inspiration. Luckily, her best friend comes up with a solution; Tessa just has to fall in love herself. What could go wrong?

    To read more about Black History Month, be sure to check out our other article! https://www.ballardtalisman.org/a-features/the-origin-and-meaning-behind-black-history-month 

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