As the world changes, so does the publishing industry. There was a time not too long ago when the annual glut of books targeting Black History Month seemed like the only time of year the industry released and promoted new books by black authors or books about black life. That no longer appears to be the case. Anecdotally speaking, based on the books publishers send to the media for review, the number of books in those categories has increased in recent years, and they’re being published year-round, not just in February.
Benefits of a more robust publishing presence include an increase in overall quality and a more varied diversity of voices and topics. This year’s roundup of recommended reading for Black History Month represents an exceptional selection of new books that includes a dystopian novel, a historical look at the birth of “separate but equal,” a couple of poignant memoirs and two thought-provoking essay collections. And the good news is, there’s more to come next month and beyond.
Tressie McMillan Cottom, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who grew up in North Carolina the daughter of a member of the Black Panther Party, kicks off her collection of personal essays by addressing the contention popularized by a 2017 New Yorker piece that the “personal-essay boom is over.” If that were true (which it’s not), then Cottom could be credited with single-handedly resurrecting it with “Thick,” eight dazzling meditations on life as a black woman who defies societal expectations, white standards of beauty and myriad efforts to confine her to a box that never fit. On the surface, her topics are about Miley Cyrus, Twitter, R. Kelly, LinkedIn and Barack Obama. But deep down, they’re about the fragility of status, the perceived unruliness of a black woman’s body and the truncated lifespan of black girlhood. While her essays are rooted in rigorous analysis befitting the scholar that she is, they are far from academic in style or tone, and they are pierced with bright shards of humor that provide occasional relief from the unyielding pressure she applies to her carefully crafted assertions. (The New Press, $24.99)
Set in New Orleans in the not-too-distant future, Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s debut novel is a chilling, satirical look at an openly racist culture where the schism between black and white has widened. “We Cast a Shadow” pits an African-American father against a “Get Out”-worthy world of white imperialism. Forced to humiliate himself in order to advance his career at a law firm, the unnamed man goes to extreme lengths to land a promotion. But it’s not greed or glory that stokes his ambition. He’s frantic to get enough money to pay for a radical medical procedure that will make his biracial son look white so he’s spared the life of a second-class citizen. Complicating his efforts is the man’s white wife, who opposes the operation. (Penguin Random House, $27)
In 2011, Jodie Patterson was a beauty industry entrepreneur and a mother raising five children in New York City when her strong-willed 3-year-old, Penelope, announced one day, “Everyone thinks I’m a girl, Mama — and I’m not!” Suddenly, the child’s adamant refusal to wear pink and pleas to cut her hair short made sense. Born and raised in New York City, Patterson comes from a long line of strong Southern women. “(M)y South Carolina-raised mother sprinkled our upbringing with Southern dust,” she says in this new memoir. When young Penelope’s demand to identify as male shakes Patterson’s foundation, she travels south to her mother’s home in Peachtree City to reconnect with the spirit of her foremothers and to find the strength to navigate her family through uncharted waters and help Penelope live life on his own terms. (Penguin Random House, $28)
A former editor at The Washington Post for 30 years, Steve Luxenberg has written an ambitious and deeply researched nonfiction account of the 1896 Supreme Court trial Plessy v. Ferguson, which legalized racial segregation as “separate but equal” and provided the foundation for Jim Crow laws, the implications of which still reverberate today. The case was orchestrated in an attempt to end segregated train travel. A light-skinned black named Homer Plessy purchased a train ticket and attempted to board a whites-only car on the East Louisiana Railroad, where a conductor and a detective, in on the plan, confronted Plessy and arrested him. Plessy’s lawyers were convinced that by invoking the 14th Amendment, the Supreme Court would find on the side of Plessy. They were mistaken, and so began a long, dark history. Luxenberg, whose previous book was a memoir called “Annie’s Ghost,” about an aunt he never knew who spent over half her life in a mental institution, draws on letters, diaries and archival collections to bring the true story to life. (W.W. Norton, $35)
Subtitled “Stories From My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time and Mine,” Emily Bernard’s lyrical voice enlivens this memoir of linked chapters that explore her experiences with infertility and adoption, interracial marriage, and an injury she sustained in a random, mass stabbing at a coffee shop in New Haven, Connecticut. In her prologue, the Nashville native and University of Vermont professor says her book’s intent is to “contribute something to the American racial drama besides the enduring narrative of black innocence and white guilt … there are other true stories to tell, stories steeped in defiance of popular assumptions about race, whose contours are shaped by unease with conventional discussions about race relations.” (Knopf, $25.95)
Memphis native Nishta J. Mehra is Indian, “born brown in a city divided by black and white.” Her wife, Jill, is white, and their adopted son, Shiv, is black. In addition, Mehra was born Hindu, was raised in the Episcopal Church and attended Catholic schools. She’s basically the definition of intersectionality when it comes to race, sexuality and religion, and her collection of 12 essays explores that concept in one way or another. Topics range from nosy questions from strangers about her son’s parentage and racial colorblindness as a form of white privilege to the pressures to conform to heteronormative behavior that comes with gay acceptance and the cultural appropriation of sacred images as yoga studio décor. The result is an informative, multifaceted examination of the world from a unique perspective that manages to enlighten and entertain at the same time. (Picador, $25)
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