Updated: Oct 7
So far this year, I have read at least twenty-four works of fiction; only one of them (Small Island by Andrea Levy) was written by a black woman.
Earlier in the spring, I had finally started reading The Colour Purple by Alice Walker, but I only got through twenty-six pages before putting it aside, to be read - yet again - at a happier moment in my life. I found it too intense.
And that’s exactly the problem. As soon as I gave it a thought, I realised that my vast ‘to be read’ list is full of such cases, black stories and truths from which I have had to avert my eyes because they were too difficult to look at.
So here are five of the books by black women writers that I have intensely wanted to read for a long time, but I haven’t:
Their eyes were watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston follows the life of African-American woman Janie Crafword, from her sexual awakening through two marriages and one love story. Set in post-slavery Florida, it reflects on the themes of enslavement and gender norms. Incipit:
Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Jubilee(1966) by Margaret Walker is a historical novel. Spanning from the time of slavery to the Reconstruction, it is the story of Vyry, a biracial girl living on a white plantation.
“May Liza how come you so restless and uneasy? You must be restless in your mind.”
“I is. I is. That old screech owl is making me nervous.”
“Wellum, ’tain’t no use in your gitting so upsot bout that bird hollering. It ain’t the sign of no woman nohow. It always means a man.”
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) is the first volume of an autobiographical series by Maya Angelou, following her life from its humble origins in Arkansas to her arrival in San Francisco.
“What you looking at me for?
I didn't come to stay …”
I hadn't so much forgot as I couldn't bring myself to remember. Other things were more important.
Sethe, the protagonist of Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987), kills her child to save her from a life of slavery. Grown to womanhood, Sethe’s child comes back to confront her mother.
124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims.
Girl, Woman, Other (2019) by Bernadine Evaristo is a patch work of twelve stories, twelve lives of black women spanning over decades in Britain.
Amma is walking along the promenade of the waterway that bisects her city, a few early morning barges cruise slowly by to her left is the nautical-themed footbridge with its deck-like walkway and sailing mast pylons …
How come that someone who reads as much as I do can get through half a year only having read only one - one - book by a black author? The answer is that it is easier. It is easier to avert one’s eyes, it is easier not to have to put in the effort. But then, what is the point of art if we don’t let it push us out of out comfort zone? By letting all of these breathtaking books (and many others) languish at the bottom of my ‘tbr' pile, in some cases for years, what I have really been saying is that their stories are not important. What I have been saying is that I do not care.
If like me you are an avid reader and you recognise yourself in my wilful deafness to black voices, you may want to consider doing what I did: turn your reading list upside down. Start from the bottom, from the voice that you have refused to hear, that makes you uncomfortable, that sounds nothing like your own.
Soon you will find yourself listening to the powerful refrain: Black stories matter. Black voices matter. Black lives matter.