The WBUR Read-In: From the desks of Black women
During the summer vacations of my childhood, my mom would sit my brother and me down in front of the TV and pop in VHS tapes of the 1987 documentary series “Eyes on the Prize.” It was a special kind of education she provided for us that she knew we wouldn’t get in the classroom (in small-town Arkansas in the early 2000s). I found the films riveting, and they made me feel proud, even if I didn’t completely understand why. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to search for a throughline between myself, a Black woman, my family history and the history of this country. The importance of women’s history, in general, is a contemporary idea, and Black women’s history is even more so.
“Great-grandmama told my grandmama the part she lived through that my grandmama didn’t live through and my grandmama told my mama what they both lived through and my mama told me what they all lived through and we were suppose to pass it down like that from generation to generation so we’d never forget,” wrote Gayl Jones in her 1975 novel, "Corregidora." In my experience, this is how it has been.
The stories which have been recorded—thankfully, there are more and more every year—are treasures. They can be therapeutic, mind-opening and even powerful narrative learning materials. In honor of Black History Month, stories written by Black women take center stage in this week’s Read-In. Read on for details on Gayl Jones' tour-de-force, critical fabulation from Saidiya Hartman, and, in my opinion, Toni Morrison at her best.
'Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments'
By Saidiya Hartman
Historically, Black women’s stories and ideas died with them. In Saidiya Hartman’s 2019 book, she relies on a method she coined called “critical fabulation," a creative way of filling those gaps in the historical archive. Hartman tells intimate narratives of Black womanhood in 20th-century New York and Philadelphia through a mix of scholarship, speculation and literature. The women in this book have recently moved North with the great migration and live radical lives, sometimes unintentionally. “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments” examines what freedom looked like for one of the first generations of Black women with it.
By Gayl Jones
This novel is one of the most important works of Black art, although it disappeared beyond the walls of academia for a while alongside its author Gayl Jones. It follows Ursa, a blues singer, as she navigates generational trauma and the pain of remembering. "Corregidora" was before its time. Jones connects the African diaspora from Kentucky to Portugal and explores the history of sexual violence in slavery and how it reverberates through generations of black femininity. Violent, vividly imaginative and not for the faint of heart, this book is a tour de force in contemporary Black letters.
By Toni Morrison
It sometimes seems like “Tar Baby” is one of Toni Morrison’s most underrated novels. This book materially changed my life the first time I read it. The story begins when a mysterious man called Son arrives on an island called Isle des Chevaliers, originally built 300 years ago by enslaved people who were brought to the island. Son hides out in the home of a wealthy family, where he meets their daughter, and they begin a fraught relationship. This novel is incredibly revealing, exploring the tensions between nature and civilization literally and metaphorically. All of Morrison’s novels explore identity through race and gender, but in this one, gender is at the forefront, with the women being ultimately bound by their anatomy. This is a read that takes pretty intense concentration, but it’s absolutely worth it.
- A magazine that helped kids navigate racism from 100 years ago is discussed in the Atlantic
- An illuminating Q&A about Black Studies in the New Yorker
- This photo essay highlights descendants of American Slaves who recently graduated from Howard University Law School