Friday, February 1, 2008

African American Books Slightly Under the Radar

I'm staying in the Black History Month (officially it started today) groove.

African American literature has become central to American literature, so the names Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and James Baldwin have the same literary heft as Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, and Ernest Hemingway.

At the edges of the limelight, however, are some fine books; they're not so well known, and maybe the same is true of their authors. In no particular order . . .:

The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem, by Rudolph Fisher. If you like detective fiction, you may already know this book, but if you somehow missed it, give it a read. Its plot is wonderfully structured, it mixes realism, comedy, and a bit of the gothic well, it has two (arguably, three) great detectives, and it present a memorable picture of Harlem in the 1930s. In addition to being a fine writer, Fisher was a physician. Unfortunately, he was a pioneer in X-ray technology, experimented on himself when the effects were still unknown, and contracted cancer, dying before he was thirty. Otherwise, a series would have developed from this novel. I've recommended the book on LibraryThing in several venues, and I may have noted it on the blog before, but another recommendation can't hurt. If you're a mystery-reader, are in one of those phases where you can't find "a good one" to read, and haven't read this one: go for it. A nice treat in Winter.

From the same era, Plum Bun, by Jessie Redmon Fauset. It's one of the better novels on the theme of passing, in my opinion, and its dissection of social class, desire, ambition, and romance (as well as racism) is worthy of Jane Austen; the book is that strong.

The poetry of Countee Cullen, also from the Harlem Renaissance. "Yet Do I Marvel" used to get taught in high schools, but I'm not sure it does anymore.

If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin. I think it's fair to say this is one of his least well known novels and books in general, but its quality is as good as that of Giovanni's Room and Another Country. He takes a chance by using a young woman as both protagonist and first-person narrator, but he just nails the narrative voice.

Black Ice, by Lorene Cary. An autobiography, much of which concerns her experience at an almost-all-white, extremely exclusive East Coast prep-school, at which she had earned a scholarship. The book's about 15 years old now, I think, but it is--among other things--highly pertinent to current presidential politics, where ethnicity, gender, and class are mixing it up in fascinating ways.

Harlem Redux, by Persia Walker. This is regarded as more of a popular novel than a literary one (whatever that distinction may mean). It came out around 2000, maybe a wee bit earlier, but it's set in the 1920s in Harlem, so it's an historical detective novel, with rich social texture. It may not be heavy enough for a reader fresh from a Morrison novel, but it's well written, smart, and immensely entertaining. Still available in paperback as far as I know.
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