Saturday is June 17, the day slaves in Texas learned they had been freed two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It is now a federal holiday.
Some have turned to the books to deepen their understanding of Juneteenth and past social injustices – and their long-term consequences. Author Kiese Laymon says that while he understands the demand for informative books over the past year, he’s “more interested in edgy and innovative books.”
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He recommends Bird Uncaged, Thick, The Secret Lives of the Church Ladies, The Prophets, and Sing, Unbury, Sing.
Laymon has just revised and re-edited his own first novel Long division. “Last year I reflected on what accountability means for storytellers and for storytellers. And I just didn’t want this book to hurt,” he told NPR. “If I can go back to a text and not only make it better, make it more breathable, but also make it more ethical, I would be a fool not to do that.”
Laymon says his reading recommendations, “If you give yourself the chance, you’ll feel good about the work we have to do, which may sound oxymoronic. But I think that’s what these books do. We do. want to feel like you’re being cared for artistically. And I think these books do. “
Bird without cage, by Marlin Peterson
Bird without cage is a special book for me. I was editor at onlooker maybe 7 years ago, and I published this essay by a young writer named Marlin Peterson about his time in prison and his relationships with young people in his community whom he met through letters. A few years later, Marlon transformed this essay, titled Bird without cage, in a book that explores, among other things, his experience of coming here as the child of a Trinidadian immigrant. And, you know, he really turns the traditional incarceration narrative upside down. And what I really like about this book – and all the other books I talk about today – is that the sentences are so beautiful. You know, you talk a lot about what people deserve, what people of color deserve, what black people deserve. And I think sometimes we don’t necessarily like to say that black people deserve, among other things, beautiful phrases and innovative art. And Marlon Peterson uses beautiful sentences to explore something that on the surface is not so beautiful. But I think what it shows us is that the inside – and if we use our inside to really engrave around what we see and explore [and] have been said is inevitable – we can find something … socially revealing. It’s just an amazing book for me.
Thick, by Tressie McMillian Cottam
Tressie Cottam is one of the smartest people I know – and I think [this] is that rare essay collection where every essay is strong and surprising and it’s like entry portals. But I think a lot like Damon Young’s book, What doesn’t kill you makes you blacker – all the tests of Thick may exist on their own, but they sort of become like superheroes – like this collective essayist superhero – when connected to the essays that precede and precede them. One of the things i think Thick does he take us seriously as readers. Tressie says: I know you mean politics and the traditional Red or Dem ways; I know you mean race and traditional white or black manners; I know you mean beauty and traditional ways. And she keeps repeating: I’m not doing this, you’re going to have to work with me with this book. And I just think that’s what makes it one of the most amazing essay collections I’ve ever read. There is solid sociological work done there, but it is also incredible prose that wraps around these incredible sociological topics. I’m very impressed with how Tressie expects us to go into these essays with traditional notions of race and power – and she doesn’t spoon-feed, she sort of makes this really essayist move where she is just like: You’re gonna catch it. And at the end of the book, you feel like you’ve read a novel because all the essays build on each other in these really innovative ways.
The prophets, by Robert Jones, Jr.
The prophets is by far the most superb love and writing tutorial I have read in the 21st century. I think the only book that I read [that] comes close to a higher degree of difficulty than this is a book that’s really different from this one in many ways which is Imani Perry’s Breathe – she addresses her two sons in a way that seems phenomenal. What Robert Jones is doing here is putting us in Mississippi, and we’re in the romantic relationship between Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved queer black men. The book doesn’t slowly walk you through the relationship. Robert Jones places us in the throes of their love, their desire, their fear – from the first chapter. But he also does this thing where he challenges us to understand origin stories differently – like Robert Jones and The prophets says emphatically on every page: Our stories of origin in this world are black and queer; I will not try to convince you, I will accept it and I want you to accept it. And then accept that our origin stories are in our gods, are and our understandings of the disaster, are not only black but also queer. He says that like our revolutions, our consequences will be different if we understand this. It’s very historic, but it’s so richly written.
The Secret Life of the Ladies of the Church, by Deesha Philyaw
I read this book maybe over a year ago on my computer, as a draft, and I was maybe a third of the way, and I literally said out loud that whatever we were calling the new American news, I think Deesha Philyaw should name it. It’s amazing … You don’t want to do your homework. You want to feel immersed in the lives of others. Deesha writes through the lives of these black women and their relationship with food and desire and the church and secrets and secrets and secrets in this way – on nine stories. It’s a collection of short stories that reads like an evocative novel, but every character is taken seriously and what she really does is recast that notion of universality. There are no white characters in this book. These are black women who deal with black women. And it feels like when they leave this book as if they’ve been immersed in life, secrets, church and, most importantly, that very thin line between intimacy and terror that Deesha Philyaw writes so beautifully. It’s an incredible collection of short stories. And I also think based on what happened last year with a lot of books that people said we should read – and these are amazing books – I just think sometimes the news gets lost. A short story is often lost. And I think Deesha Philyaw is here to bring it back.
Sing, not buried, sing, by Jesmyn Ward
I think most of the social justice conversation is going to have something to do with Mississippi, where I’m from. Sing, not buried, sing is literally the greatest novel ever written by a Mississippi writer. And I think Mississippi’s greatest writer is Jesmyn Ward. I think that says a lot. And I don’t know if I can give the book more props than saying that. But deep down, Jesmyn is rewriting the American travelogue and the American prison narrative. She talks about what some call the afterlife of slavery. We see and hear a 12 year old incarcerated with adult men tell parts of this story. The book does not try to convince us that the prison system was bad. What he actually does is ask us to hear the spirits of prison. And it may seem too overwhelming or too deeply traumatized. But what it actually is is that it allows us to breathe almost as much as any book I’ve read in the past five or ten years, because it uses multiple narratives, it uses multiple voices and she uses the travelogue to bring us into something that is totally, colloquially unknown – which is the life of the 12 year old boy … Meanwhile, she does what only Jesmyn Ward can do with the way the real environment, Mississippi smells sound, brings history to life. So on the surface it seems to be steeped in a lot of heaviness – and it is – but I think his prose brings out the lives of all these different characters and also makes us rethink what it means to travel with spirits, like Jesmyn. looks like we all do.
This story was edited for radio by Courtney Dorning and Elena Burnett and has been adapted for the web by Meghan Sullivan.