Next week, on September 9, Central Library will be hosting the conversation “Racial Justice in a Post-Ferguson World.” To support this important conversation, Scribbler offers an extremely partial, highly subjective selections of books we have read recently that approach the topic from a literary angle. For a much more extensive list, please visit the Black Lives Matter reading list at Left Bank Books (PDF format), or the St. Paul Public Library’s Resources on Race.
Citizen, Claudia Rankine (Graywolf, 2014)
Among the most-acclaimed literary works of 2014, Rankine’s timely exploration into race in America works on both the macro and micro levels, exploring broad historical topics such as Hurricane Katrina and the death of Trayvon Martin as well as a series of unsettling, hurtful encounters or “microaggressions” in the life of an unnamed narrator. Rankine’s work is an experiment in both form and perception, compelling the reader to re-examine her perceptions and language. Rankine will lecture at Graham Chapel as part of Washington University’s Assembly Series on Monday, September 21.
Annotations, John Keene (New Directions, 1995)
One of the most underappreciated short novels about St. Louis, Keene’s reconstruction of a black childhood on the north side of the city and in west county is a poetic, beautifully complex work. Keene ranges from abstract speculation to wondrously specific recall: he remembers “Brick houses uniform as Monopoly props lined the lacework of street for miles.” A book both about the past and the writing of the past, this is not so much a childhood memoir as a series of notes toward that memoir, and much of the book’s richest material is in its footnotes, as Keene elaborates on his allusions to Scott Joplin, Chatillon-Demenil, Carondelet, and others, filling out his portrait of the city he calls “a minefield of myth and memory.”
In the Midst of Loving, Cheeraz Gormon (Alchemy 7, 2014)
Emerging from the St. Louis spoken word scene, Gormon’s collection of love poems, fourteen years in the making, is inspired by “her deep passion for humanity and issues affecting various communities.” She explores topics such as urban violence, gentrification, self-image, and grief, while showing the many different forms that love can take. The final pages of the book, left blank for the reader to include her thoughts, highlights the engaging and collaborative nature of her project. You can watch a video of Gormon reciting her excellent poem “Who Moved My Memories” — based on the disappearance of her grandfather’s house in North St. Louis — at the 2012 TEDx Conference in St. Louis.
How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, Kiese Laymon (Bolden, 2013)
“I thought of the essays as tracks,” Laymon writes in the preface to his essay collection, six years in the making. “I thought of some of the pieces in the book as songs with multiple voices and layered musicality. I thought of ways to bring the ad lib, riff, collaboration, and necessary digression to the page. I wanted a book that could be read front to back in one sitting. I wanted to explore the benefits and burdens of being born a black boy in America without the predictable literary rigidity.” Laymon achieves all of these goals in a propulsive, raw, and hugely pleasurable collection, including poignant portraits of relatives, accounts of campus racial politics in Mississippi and Oberlin, Ohio, and hot takes on Kanye West, Michael Jackson, Bernie Mac, among others. The essay “You Are the Second Person,” exploring the author’s struggle to publish a “non-commercial novel” in the absurd world of corporate publishing, and the magnificent title essay, are alone worth the price of admission.
Sula, Toni Morrison (Knopf, 1972)
While Morrison’s work will be familiar to most readers, it’s sometimes easy to forget how strange, hallucinatory, and darkly funny her work can be. Set in a Ohio community called “The Bottom” that is actually at the top of a river valley, above the white community in the town of Medallion below, Morrison’s wonderful novel is a both a reminder of the resilience of black communities throughout American history and an act of protest. Featuring a character who celebrates “National Suicide Day,” a trio of feral children called the Deweys, and a mysterious white man called Tar Baby, Sula is part family chronicle, part horror movie, and a magical account of a community’s tribulations and underlying strength.