Black History Month is not just a celebration of Black achievement and Black joy, it is a time of reckoning and reflection on the ongoing echoes of America’s painful past.
In Perceval Everett’s stinging dark comedy, The Trees, that past is laid as bare and bloody as the open wound that it still is. Part social justice polemic, part revenge horror, part buddy-cop procedural, it is a searing indictment of institutionalized racism in America.
In Money, Mississippi, two detectives from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation are called in to look into a series of gruesome murders with the same MO - a white person garroted with barbed wire and a bludgeoned black man, bearing an eerie resemblance to Emmett Till. In an eerie turn of events, the black man’s body keeps disappearing from the morgue and turning up at the next murder scene.
Ed Morgan and Jim Davis, the black detectives investigating the case, are wise-cracking cops whose witty quips belie the horror they are witnessing. Faced with bald-faced racism at every turn, they manage to give as good as they get. They are only two of an enormous cast of characters that grows with every chapter.
Everett depicts the white residents of Money as relentlessly, cartoonishly racist and backward, relishing in the stereotype of the ignorant Southern cracker. The Civil War has not ended for these people, and they have been emboldened by the rhetoric of the 45th President. The author takes obvious glee in airing their filthy laundry, much of which consists of white robes.
Names are important to Everett, and he wields them as weapons. His character names are wryly Dickensian, e.g. Reverend Fondle, Helvetica Quip, Junior Junior. But the most affecting chapter in the book is a list of the names of actual victims of lynching, a chapter that goes on for ten pages. Many names will be familiar - Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Matthew Shepard. There are many Asian and Italian names on the list, and many are just listed as “unknown male,” their legacies dissolved by the acid of racism
The sardonic, pitch-dark humor of the book brings to mind the writings of Paul Beattie (The Sellout) and Colson Whitehead (Harlem Shuffle) and the films of Jordan Peele (Get Out), in its insistence that we not look away from the horrors depicted. The Trees is not a perfect book. At times the humor is so broad and the stereotypes so thick that they collapse under their own weight. But as a denunciation of the deeply ingrained racism that continues to plague our country, it is a timely gut-punch of a novel.
So many inviting picture books have been published in recent years about the Black experience in America. It is unfortunate that, in some areas, book bans have prevented children, parents, and teachers from enjoying and learning from these great works. Here is a sampling to explore and share -
Trombone Shorty by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, art by Bryan Collier
This engaging Caldecott Honor book is as much a love letter to New Orleans as it is the story of Andrews’ devotion to the trombone. Award-winning illustrator Collier contributes lively, dynamic art that pulls the reader right into the pages.
Life Doesn’t Frighten Me poem by Maya Angelou, paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat
This brilliant pairing of Angelou’s defiant text with Basquiat’s chaotic art is the perfect antidote to childhood fear. The monsters on these pages are entirely vanquishable.
I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes, art by Gordon C. James
This exuberant book just oozes positive vibes, celebrating the joy, confidence and creativity of the Black child. The action pops off the pages in James’ swirling illustrations.
Opal Lee and What it Means to be Free by Alice Faye Duncan, art by Keturah A. Bobo
Duncan relates the history of Juneteenth, and Opal Lee’s decades-long campaign to make the date a national holiday. Bobo uses rich, muted hues to enhance Lee’s triumphant story.
The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales told by Virginia Hamilton, art by Leo and Diane Dillon
This modern classic is a must-have for any children’s library. Retold by distinguished author Hamilton, with gorgeously shaded black and white illustrations by the Dillons, it is a compelling collection.
Magnolia Flower by Zora Neale Hurston, adapted by Ibram X. Kendi, art by Loveis Wise
This adaptation of a 1925 short story by Hurston is lovingly retold by Kendi. The story of Magnolia Flower and John, her longtime secret love is stunningly illustrated by Loveis Wise.
I Promise by LeBron James, art by Nina Mata
This is a cheery collection of affirmations using (of course) basketball metaphors. James encourages kids to aim high, to respect others, and above all, to stay in school. Mata’s adorable illustrations are brightly-hued and joyous.
H is for Harlem by Dinah Johnson, art by April Harrison
This lushly illustrated alphabet book is a fun celebration of a vibrant place with a colorful history. Harrison’s richly textured, collage-like art brings to mind that of Faith Ringgold.
I Have a Dream by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., art by Kadir Nelson
The entire text of Dr. King’s signature speech is reproduced here with warm, glowing illustrations. This is a keepsake book if there ever was one.
Sulwe by Lupita Nyongo, art by Vashti Harrison
This is a heartwarming fantasy of a little girl who yearns for lighter skin. Nyongo’s sweet story is beautifully enhanced by Harrison’s luminous illustrations.
Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold
This sweet, fantastical story is told through the eyes of Cassie, who soars above her New York City neighborhood with big dreams for the future. Ringgold’s iconic illustrations are bordered with jewel-toned quilt squares.
Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat story and art by Javaka Steptoe
This Caldecott winner tells the story of Basquiat from childhood to becoming a sensation in the New York art world. Steptoe tactfully draws the curtain a the height of Basquiat’s success, addressing his tragic death at 27 in an afterword. His angular collages capture the joy and messiness of the artist’s short life.
Respect: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul by Carol Boston Weatherford, art by Frank Morrison
This is a loving homage to a soul icon, told in short verses. Morrison’s rich illustrations have an almost three-dimensional quality.
Eulogy for Racehorses
My dead owe money and I too will die
in debt, arrested in the state of repayment
I have learned to call love.
Someone was always looking for my father,
and occasionally my mother would answer the door,
a knife tucked under her breast.
My father loved horses, svelte bay foals
already inured to the sound of gunfire.
His dead were all animals who knew how to run.
They did not care to finish anything.
It is time to tell the children
there were no queens, no kings,
only cassava farmers and criminals.
They should know their lineage
as a kind of lawlessness.
I don’t want to know any more people
who knew my father. I do not care
to finish anything. Only beginnings are true,
wanton single cells and the hair along a man’s arm
and a burgeoning sensitivity to the height of his sleeves.
It’s the endings that are false,
my father home from the war,
spine jeweled in shrapnel,
speaking German in his sleep.
The language comes to me
whenever a man helps me into my coat,
or lifts me into his lap,
the soft possession of my tongue
a kind of promise my dead
will never be finished with me.
~ Raven Leilani
Coming in March -
Above Ground by Clint Smith
This sweet collection of poems is a loving diary of fatherhood. Smith (How the Word is Passed) revels in the joys of watching his children grow, celebrating such mundanities as strollers, baby monitors, and hiccups. At the same time, he is plagued by a parent’s fear of school shootings, climate change, and racist attacks. In direct, unadorned language, Smith lays open the complex heart of what it is to be a Black parent in America.
The Gospel of Orla by Eoghan Walls
This debut coming-of-age novel from poet Walls is packed with dark, quirky charm. Rebellious young Orla has just lost her mother to cancer, and her father is trying to wash away his grief with booze. During an attempt at running away from home, she meets a scruffy, inscrutable man who may or may not be Jesus. He seems to have the ability to resurrect the dead. Orla sees this as an opportunity to bring back her mother. The two set out to travel from northern England to Ireland, where her mother is buried. The road trip is full of pitfalls, as Jesus is not always on board with Orla’s plans. The Gospel of Orla is the strangest of all buddy stories, full of snarky, broody humor.
For Further Reading -
Click here to read Caleb Smith's thoughts on revival as healing in Toni Morrison's Beloved.
Click here to read Dan Berger's look back at the activists who fought for voting rights in the deep south during Freedom Summer.
Click here to read about the rare and special friendship between James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry.