In the UK, October marks the beginning of Black History Month, a national initiative aiming to promote and celebrate the contributions of those with African and Caribbean heritage to British society and to foster an understanding of Black history in general. It was partially inspired by US Black History Month, celebrated annually every February.
To mark the occasion, Not for Vanity wants to showcase 10 books (five fiction and five non-fiction) that we think are worth reading this month and beyond, based on our existing reading lists. At the end of our article, we are also presenting a brief overview of the origins and evolution of Black History Month in the UK.
5 FICTION BOOKS
# 1: Another Country (James Baldwin, 1962) | Set for the most part in 1950s New York, the novel is renowned for its frank portrayal of bisexuality and interracial relations, published in a time when these subjects were taboo. Shortly after narration begins, Rufus Scott, a black jazz musician, commits suicide, impelling his friends to search for the meaning of his death and, consequently, for a deeper understanding of their own identities (Sub-genre: classic fiction).
# 2: The Broken Earth Trilogy (N.K. Jemisin, 2015 – 2018) | Post-apocalyptic saga set on a massive continent called the Stillness, in a far-future Earth wracked with periodic disasters known as Seasons, the result of an open war between this planet & the people who live on it. With the trilogy, N.K. Jemisin became the first Black woman to win the Hugo Award (a prestigious award for science fiction & fantasy) in 2016 and the following two years (Sub-genre: fantasy).
# 3: Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi, 2016) | The novel traces the descendants of two half-sisters Effia and Esi, born into different villages in Ghana. The sisters’ lives follow different paths: Effia marries a wealthy Englishman and lives in Cape Coast Castle, while Esi is captured during a raid and sold into slavery. Homegoing follows the parallel narrative lines of their descendants through 8 generations, portraying the African & African American experience in the aftermath of enslavement (Sub-genre: historical fiction).
# 4: Punching the Air (Ibi Zoboi & Yusef Salaam, 2020) | 16 years old Amal is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit – assaulting a white boy during an altercation in a gentrifying neighbourhood – and sent to prison. Despair and rage almost sink him until he turns to the refuge of his words, his art. As weeks turn to months, Amal reflects on life inside/outside of prison, the positive & negative experiences that fuel his creativity and the people that make him believe in a brighter future. (Sub-genre: YA, novel in verse)
# 5: The Selfless Act of Breathing (JJ Bola, 2021) | Michael Kabongo is a teacher (and son of Congolese immigrants) who seems to have it all, but he’s conflicted by the state of the world around him. After a life-changing loss, he decides to leave everything behind in search of something greater and moves to America. On this transformative journey, Michael travels from New York to San Francisco, partying with new friends, sparking fleeting romances, and splurging on big adventures, with the intention of living the life of his dreams until his money runs out (Sub-genre: contemporary fiction).
5 NON-FICTION BOOKS
# 6: Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (Peter Fryer, 1984) | A panoramic history of black Britons stretching back to the Romans, encompassing the court of Henry VIII, and following historic figures from Mary Seacole to the abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. First published in the ’80s, amid race riots and police brutality, Fryer’s history revealed how Africans, Asians and their descendants had been erased from British history. His purpose was to show that instead these communities did influence political traditions, social institutions & cultural life. The book represents a true political act against the ultra-nationalist agenda.
# 7: Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (Reni Eddo-Lodge, 2017) | In 2014, award-winning journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote about her frustration with the way discussions of race and racism in Britain were led by those who weren’t affected by it. She posted a piece on her blog, entitled: “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” which went viral. Comments flooded in from people who wanted to share their own experiences. For this reason, she decided to dig further into the source of these feelings and write the book. Exploring issues from eradicated black history to the political purpose of white dominance, whitewashed feminism to the link between class and race, she offers a new framework learn to see, acknowledge and counter racism.
# 8: The Good Immigrant: 21 writers reflect on race in contemporary Britain (Nikesh Shukla, 2017) | A collection of essays by emerging British BAME writers, poets, journalists & artists to confront the issue of being an immigrant in the UK. Focusing on race and immigration, they paint a picture of what it means to be “other” in a country that wants you, doesn’t want you, doesn’t accept you and needs you for its equality monitoring forms. The book explores why immigrants come and decide to stay, what it means for their identity if they’re mixed race, where their place is in the world if they’re unwelcome in the UK, and how this affects the education system. Curator Nikesh Shukla has long championed diversity in publishing and literary life in the Britain.
# 9: Brit(ish) (Afua Hirsch, 2018) | Journalist and broadcaster Afua Hirsch explores race, identity & belonging in 21st century Britain. She touches on personal experiences and challenges society, questioning what exactly it means to be British. “You’re British. Your parents are British. Your partner, your children and most of your friends are British. So why do people keep asking where you’re from? We are a nation in denial about our imperial past and the racism that plagues our present. Brit(ish) is Afua Hirsch’s personal and provocative exploration of how this came to be – and an urgent call for change”. (source: waterstones.com)
# 10: Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World (Layla F. Saad, 2020) | Layla Saad is an East African, Arab, British, Black, Muslim woman living in Qatar who came up with a 28-day process called a “personal anti-racism tool” designed to teach those with white privilege how systemic racism works and how they can stop contributing to world white supremacy. The book blends practical exercises with real anecdotes and reflections on the contemporary historic and cultural context/debate around race. It all started when the author began an Instagram challenge called #MeAndWhiteSupremacy, encouraging people to own up and share their racist behaviours, big and small. Thousands of people participated, and over 90,000 users downloaded the book.
Origins of Black History Month
The origins of Black History Month can be traced back to National Negro History Week, started in 1926 to advocate for the inclusion of Black History in the US national public education system. This week gradually evolved into the month it is today, especially thanks to the momentum and support of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, a Ghanian activist and Special Projects Coordinator for the Greater London Council was instrumental in bringing Black History Month to Britain, as he wanted to boost the self-esteem of Black British children and young adults by educating on them on the achievements of Black people in the UK. Black History Month was first celebrated in London in 1987. It quickly spread to other parts of the country, with many boroughs beginning to formally recognise October as Black History Month. Celebrations have since expanded to include the history of African, Asian, and Caribbean peoples and their contribution to Britain’s history.
This year’s theme for BHM is “Time for Change: Action Not Words”, a series of initiatives to encourage everybody to focus on the future, come together around a shared common goal to achieve a better world for everyone by tackling racism, reclaiming Black history and ensuring Black history is represented and celebrated all year round.
N.B. Books in this blog article are listed in chronological order.
Featured image credits: blackhistorymonth.org.uk