Book Groups Read My Jim

Seattle Reads - 2009I have had the pleasure now of facilitating two book group discussions of this year’s featured work for Seattle Reads, My Jim by Nancy Rawles.

What I have seen (and heard from others) about the reactions of readers to Rawles’ book is that it makes a powerful impression.  My Jim also gives readers plenty to talk ab0ut.

Yes, for some readers the dialect in which it is told can be difficult to grapple with; in some cases, it took reading it more than once to become accustomed to the cadences and rhythm of the language. But more readers that not commented on how the language and the oral tradition that it embodies drew them in and made Sadie’s story more real.

If you haven’t read it yet, My Jim is the story of Sadie Watson as told to her free-born granddaughter Marianne, in which she recounts Continue reading “Book Groups Read My Jim”

Want to read more African American historical fiction?

image-of-nancy-rawles-my-jimOnce you read Nancy Rawles’ My Jim, a compelling slave story about Sadie (the wife of Huck Finn’s friend Jim), who chose to remain a slave and stay with her family on the plantation, you will likely want to read other stories like it: narratives that sweep you back in time and make you think. Most slave narratives, unlike My Jim, are the stories of men and women who strove to escape. Some African American historical fiction reveals slavery’s cruelty and harsh conditions, but very few novels feature strong, admirable slaves who chose to stay together rather than attempt personal escape.

Another painfully lyrical family story is J. California Cooper’s The Wake of the Wind, in which a homestead settled by freed slaves provides the backdrop for the story of another strong family determined to survive. Mor and Lifee struggle through the Reconstruction period — the obstacles of racial hatred and their resulting poverty— and leave strong, capable children who value their freedom and strive for justice, to keep the family together. Continue reading “Want to read more African American historical fiction?”

Writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Part II

 Here is a continuation of the Writers of the Harlem Renaissance post from Tuesday:
jesse-redmon-fauset Jessie Redmon Fauset
Though she is not very well-known today, Fauset was, along with Zora Neale Hurston, one of the most prolific African America writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Two of her four novels, There is Confusion and Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral, deal with the issue of light-skinned blacks “passing” as whites. The Chinaberry Tree features two heroines struggling with illegitimacy and personal identity in a middle class black community. Comedy, American Style portrays a female protagonist who wishes to be white, and her husband and son who are proud of their African American heritage. Often accused of having middle class idealized values, Fauset is nevertheless one of the main black writers of her time and her work is well worth exploring. 

Nella Larsen
Imagine an African American librarian in New York in the 1920s: quiet, intelligent and insightful. These are the qualities Larsen brings to her Continue reading “Writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Part II”

Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: Part 1

The period between the 1920s and the beginning of World War II marked a blossoming of African American literature, especially in New York. Events that precipitated this period, now referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, included a widespread migration to northern cities by African Americans from the South; job and educational opportunities for African Americans; the publication of periodicals specifically aimed at the African American audience and a rising consciousness of a black identity as a result of the work of leaders like W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey and Philip Randolph. Educated middle-class black authors as well as those living on hard times in Harlem, rushed to publish their ideas in poetry, fiction and essays widely circulated and, in many cases, still well-known. As Seattle Reads My Jim by Nancy Rawles this spring, a book that emphasizes the importance of passing our stories on to the next generation, read some of the voices of the Harlem Renaissance express their own experience in writing.

Langston Hugheswhite-folks
Most of us know Hughes chiefly for his poetry, especially his signature, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” but his fiction has the same lyrical and insightful flavor. Hughes’s first novel, Not Without Laughter, features a family experiencing racial discrimination. His first short story collection, The Ways of White Folks, illuminates for his readers the complexities and humor in black/white everyday relationships. Hughes is also the creator of Jesse B. Semple, an African American everyman you can get to know in the Simple stories, which are often incredibly funny!  

Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is an all-time favorite of mine. How can you help but admire Janie Crawford, a strong black woman who married three men, was accused of murder and is accountable to no one? Hurston used colloquial dialects in her writzora-neale-hurstoning, which infuriated many black writers who accused her of encouraging racial stereotypes. Now she’s admired for her accurate portrayal of black life, of women in particular, and her writing is widely read and studied. Try a sampling of her stories and essays in I Love Myself When I am Laughing… and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive, or one of her other novels that explore the vagaries and conflicting desires of the human heart— Seraph on the Suwanee or Jonah’s Gourd Vine.

Countee Cullen
Cullen, a prolific and highly regarded Harlem Renaissance poet, was raised by a man who was not only a pastor, but also the president of the Harlem chapter of the NAACP, and learned early that racial politics and injustice demanded his talent as a writer. His taut poetry reins in, but never truly subdues, the rage that lends it such incredible power. His work was often published in The Crisis under the editorial aegis of W.E.B. DuBois. Best-known for his prize-winning poem “Ballad of the Brown Girl,” Cullen published his own poetry anthologies, beginning with Color in 1923. You can read his work in My Soul’s High Song and One Way to Heaven, a reprint of a 1932 edition.

Banned Book of the Month: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Consistently among the most challenged books in schools and libraries, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has courted controversy since its original publication back in 1885, though not always for the same reason. It was first removed from the collection of the Concord Free Library in Massachusetts over its “rough, course and inelegant expressions.”

cover-of-the-annotated-huckleberry-finnI suppose it is a sign of progress that one of those expressions, once deemed merely impolite and “trashy,” is now universally regarded as the deeply hurtful hate speech it is. Yet the ongoing controversy occasioned by the book’s frequent use of racial epithets, as well as characterizations which seem to both lampoon and to embody stereotypes, shows that the racial  issues raised and addressed by Huck Finn are far from academic. Author Toni Morrison captures the crux of the problem when she praises the book’s “…ability to transform its contradictions into fruitful complexities and to seem to be deliberately co-operating in the controversy it has excited. The brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument it raises.”

It should be acknowledged that most of the clashes over Continue reading “Banned Book of the Month: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”