Black History Month

October is Black History Month so Sapphia, an assistant community librarian based in the north of the city has compiled this list of titles that she recommends.

Sapphia HenriettaThe immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

In 1951 America an African-American woman goes to hospital and finds out she has cancer. This non fiction title looks at how colour and class affected hospital care In 1950’s America but also how ethics were dramatically different for all of us.
Using a sample taken from Henrietta Lacks without her permission on a hospital visit, the first first immortalised cell line was made. The cells known as ‘He-La’ have been mass produced and helped create vaccines for Polio, research Cancer, AIDS and the effects of radiation and much more. He-La cells have been reproduced to the weight of over 20 tonnes and has over 11,000 patents. Yet still her family were only informed of the importance of Henrietta’s cells in the 1970’s after the original He-La cells were contaminated and scientists tried to get samples from family members to investigate their genetics further.
By both informing you of who Henrietta was, and looking at the struggle and fight of Henrietta’s family to seek truth, ethical fairness, and recognition this is an incredible story, that should never be allowed to happen again. It’s hard to believe in this day and age, it could of happened in the first place.

Sapphia HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

Skeeter is the daughter of a white family who own a cotton farm in 1960’s America. After graduating from university, intent on becoming a writer against the ambitions of her mother she embarks on her first piece of writing. Constantine, Skeeter’s maid who cared for her as a child and brought her up has left the family home, quitting and going back to family in Jackson. This seems completely out of character for Constantine and Skeeter is determined to find out the truth. Talking to ‘help’ from other families Skeeter learns that she has truly lived another life compared to the often faceless men and woman that are employed as ‘help’ for the white families she represents. Skeeter will find out what happened to Constantine but she will also create a written account of the stories of the ‘help’ from her small town near Jackson. The stories will show them as individuals, with personality, loving and kind but also highlighting some of the deplorable conditions they faced everyday. This happened. This story may be fictional but is based on a history that was quite recent and the way that black people were treated as ‘help’, as a subordinate human is hard to conceive. But in some places, for some cultures it still happens. We need to learn from our history so that our future shows that we have changed.

Sapphia Hidden FiguresHidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterley

During World War 2, the civil rights movement and mass labour shortages, Hidden figures looks at the true story of four African American women whose great intellect got them jobs working as ‘human computers’ for NASA. They defied segregation, forged alliances and overcame the prejudice that was common place for that time, for being black, and for being women. Their guts and determination is exemplary and these women need to be acknowledged and revered for their amazing accomplishments. Without these women the first American astronaut wouldn’t have made it to space, taking on each and every hurdle, changing their lives but also changing their countries future.
The film version of this book has been used to educate young, impoverished black women in America to show them that they can aspire and that they can reach the stars. I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I hoped. It wasn’t the story. It was the way it was written. I’m just happy that these amazing black women have had their stories publicly acknowledged and inspired millions more.

Sapphia Born a CrimeBorn a Crime : Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

I don’t think I can even describe how much I loved this book. I loved Trevor Noah before but now I am in awe. His biography tells you his childhood stories, starting with his first; that he was born a crime. Born to a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father in apartheid South Africa, Trevor was hidden indoors and always an outsider no matter what community he was in. Whether in poverty or becoming a business man in the ‘hood’. He is a mischievous yet endearing boy mentored by a determined, unconventional and loving mother who you can feel with every story Trevor’s love and admiration for. The memories are beautiful and vast, wether humorous or heartbreaking and seen through the eyes of a child living in a dangerous time, armed only with the aspirations his mother ingrained in him and hope.

Sapphia MockingbirdTo kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Written through the eyes of a child, To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in 1930’s Alabama. Scout and Jem’s father Atticus has been given the hardest case of his life, to defend a black man accused of raping a white girl. For a town steeped in prejudice, ignorance and violence the irrationality of Maycomb’s adult population leave Tom Robinson’s life in the balance. This is a heart rendering story, I almost cried on a bus. It’s sometimes hard to read with language that was the norm at the time, with the treatment of black people as second class citizens and getting lost into a story that you think couldn’t be real but most certainly was rife at the time. Atticus tries his hardest to get Tom Robinson justice and acquitted of the crime he clearly hasn’t committed, however the verdict is predictable and unfortunate. As a teen Jem is ashamed and betrayed by the adults around him for their lack of rationality and goodness. ‘Baby steps’ as Atticus says, is just not good enough, where is there humanity? I don’t want to tell you too much of the story in case I ruin it for anyone but I will say that it’s heartwarming to be captivated into a book because you see life from the perspective of an innocent. Reading this story as an adult you feel ashamed for being an adult and for the stereotyping that you do in your everyday actions, and although not to the extremes of the 1930’s we are all a little guilty if it. Even simply judging a book for its cover. But it’s lovely to reflect and force yourself to challenge these prejudices and to take every day as it comes.

Sapphia PoemsThe complete Collected Poems by Maya Angelou

Simply put Maya Angelou rocks. She is full of a wisdom that enlightens the soul. She was a civil rights activist and personally selected by Dr. Martin Luther King jr to be a co-ordinator for the Southern Christian Leader Conference. Just read her poetry. Think about what’s she’s saying to you. She knows what she’s talking about. Simply beautiful.

Other titles to consider:-

The Secret Life of bees by Sue Monk
Scottsboro by Ellen Fieldman
George the Poet (collection)
The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae
Their eyes were watching god by Zora Neale Hurston
Kindred by Octavia Butler

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International Women’s Day – The Lemonade Syllabus

This blog is from Kat, a librarian based in the North East of the city.

The Lemonade Syllabus

Beyoncé may not be everyone’s kind of feminist but no one can argue with the effect she has had upon a generation of Independent Women who grew up listening to Bills, Bills, Bills, Independent Women, Survivor, Irreplaceable, Single Ladies and Run The World (Girls). One of the greatest moments of my life was seeing her perform Single Ladies at Glastonbury – I have never seen so many men look confused at all the enthusiastic women in the crowd.

Last year she released a visual album Lemonade (which is available to borrow from the Music Library) which inspired doctoral student Candice Benbow to create the #LemonadeSyllabus hashtag and social media campaign. As a result of this Candice released the syllabus as a free downloadable resource of over 250 works centred around the lives of Black women. Within the first week, it was downloaded over 40,000 times.

A selection of the titles featured are currently on display at Chapeltown Library and features both fiction and non-fiction coving a range of subjects which centre around Black Womanhood :

kat-raisin-in-the-sunA raisin in the sun by Lorraine Hansberry

Set in 1950s Chicago, A Raisin in the Sun is the classic play about a black family’s struggle for equality. The play was originally published in the USA in 1959 but has since become a standard text in American schools.

kat-americanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

From the award-winning author of ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, a powerful story of love, race and identity. As teenagers in Lagos, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are fleeing the country if they can. The self-assured Ifemelu departs for America. There she suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race.

kat-blues-legaciesBlues legacies and black feminism by Angela Y. Davis

In this work Angela Davies provides the historical, social, and political contexts with which to reinterpret the lyrics and performances of Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday.

kat-snow-birdBoy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

‘Boy, Snow, Bird’ is a deeply moving novel about three women and the strange connection between them. It confirms Helen Oyeyemi’s place as one of the most original and dynamic literary voices of her generation.

 

kat-letter-to-my-daughterLetter to my daughter by Maya Angelou

Dedicated to the daughter she never had but sees all around her, Letter to My Daughter reveals Maya Angelou’s path to living well and living a life with meaning. Told in her own inimitable style, this book transcends genres and categories: guidebook, memoir, poetry, and pure delight. Here in short spellbinding essays are glimpses of the tumultuous life that led Angelou to an exalted place in American letters and taught her lessons in compassion and fortitude: how she was brought up by her indomitable grandmother in segregated Arkansas, taken in at thirteen by her more worldly and less religious mother, and grew to be an awkward, six-foot-tall teenager whose first experience of loveless sex paradoxically left her with her greatest gift, a son.

kat-a-piece-of-cakeA piece of cake : a memoir by Cupcake Brown

‘A Piece of Cake’ is the story of a girl named Cupcake, which begins when, aged 11, she is orphaned and placed in the care of sadistic foster parents. Neglected and sexually abused she fell into drug abuse and gang culture before turning her life around.

 

kat-the-bluest-eyeThe bluest eye by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison’s first novel, a book heralded for its richness of language and boldness of vision. Set in the author’s girlhood hometown of Lorain, Ohio, it tells the story of black, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove. Pecola prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she will be as beautiful and beloved as all the blond, blue-eyed children in America. In the autumn of 1941, the year the marigolds in the Breedloves’ garden do not bloom. Pecola’s life does change- in painful, devastating ways.
With its vivid evocation of the fear and loneliness at the heart of a child’s yearning, and the tragedy of its fulfillment the Bluest Eye remains one of Tony Morrisons’s most powerful, unforgettable novels- and a significant work of American fiction.

kat-the-book-of-phoenixThe book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

They call her many things – a research project, a test-subject, a specimen. An abomination. But she calls herself Phoenix, an ‘accelerated woman’ – a genetic experiment grown and raised in Manhattan’s famous Tower 7, the only home she has ever known. Although she’s only two years old, Phoenix has the body and mind of an adult – and powers beyond imagining. Phoenix is an innocent, happy to live quietly in Tower 7, reading voraciously and basking in the love of Saeed, another biologically altered human. Until the night that Saeed witnesses something so terrible that he takes his own life. Devastated, Phoenix begins to search for answers – only to discover that everything that she has ever known is a lie.

kat-we-should-allWe Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

What does “feminism” mean today? That is the question at the heart of We Should All Be Feminists, a personal, eloquently-argued essay—adapted from her much-viewed TEDx talk of the same name—by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning author of Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun. With humor and levity, here Adichie offers readers a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century—one rooted in inclusion and awareness. She shines a light not only on blatant discrimination, but also the more insidious, institutional behaviors that marginalize women around the world, in order to help readers of all walks of life better understand the often masked realities of sexual politics. Throughout, she draws extensively on her own experiences—in the U.S., in her native Nigeria, and abroad—offering an artfully nuanced explanation of why the gender divide is harmful for women and men, alike. Argued in the same observant, witty and clever prose that has made Adichie a bestselling novelist, here is one remarkable author’s exploration of what it means to be a woman today—and an of-the-moment rallying cry for why we should all be feminists.

kat-you-cantYou can’t keep a good woman down by Alice Walker

A natural evolution from the earlier, much-acclaimed collection In Love & Trouble, these fourteen provocative and often humorous stories show women oppressed but not defeated. These are hopeful stories about love, lust, fame, and cultural thievery, the delight of new lovers, and the rediscovery of old friends, affirmed even across self-imposed color lines.

In case you were wondering my favourite song from Lemonade is Hold Up, and my ultimate Beyoncé track would have to be Survivor – I will survive and keep on surviving!

#FF Poem of the Week

Touched by an Angel by Maya Angelou

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free

Maya Angelou

 And still I riseMaya Angelou, the charismatic American author and poet died this week aged 86. A role model and activist who recorded and celebrated the experience of being black in the United States, she was born Marguerite Johnson in St Louis, Missouri on 4 April 1928. Her parents soon divorced and her mother, unable to cope with two small children, sent them to live with their grandmother, who kept a general store in the black section of Stamps, Arkansas. The name Maya came from her brother’s childish way of saying “My-a sister”.

She spent the next 10 years growing up in one of America’s poorest regions, experiencing first-hand the racial segregation and prejudice of the Deep South. These experiences are brought to life in ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’, published in 1970, it was the first volune of her bestselling autobiography.

Aged seven, on a visit to St Louis, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. When she told her family what had happened the man was arrested, tried, released from jail and shortly afterwards murdered – probably by her mother’s brothers. She didn’t speak for five years. “I was a volunteer mute. I had voice but I refused to use it. When I heard about his murder, I thought my voice had killed a man and so it wasn’t safe to speak. “After a while, I no longer knew why I didn’t speak, I simply didn’t speak.”

Although mute, she was a voracious reader and was persuaded to speak again by her grandmother’s friend, who recognised her passion for poetry and told her that, to be experienced fully, it had to be spoken aloud. 

Going to live with her mother in San Francisco, she renewed her relationship with her father and aged 15  badgered a streetcar company into making her the city’s first female cable car conductor.  At the age of 16 she gave birth to her only child, a son, after a one-night stand.

Her career  included stints as a dancer, waitress, prostitute and pimp, actress and singer (she recorded an album of calypso songs), appearing on Broadway and travelling to Europe in a touring production of Porgy and Bess. She was married two or three times –  the facts are vague -and took her surname from her first husband, an aspiring Greek musician called Enistasios Angelos.

In the sixties, she was involved in the Civil Rights Movement and worked with Martin Luther King,  then followed a South African freedom fighter, Vusumzi Make, to Cairo, where she became a journalist. Later she took her son to Ghana, where she met the black activist Malcolm X. She returned to the United States in 1965 to work with him, but he was killed shortly afterwards. A few years later Martin Luther King too was assassinated. 

It was the writer James Baldwin who helped persuade her to write her first (of six) volumes of her autobiography. She also began publishing poetry, wrote a feature film screenplay, wrote and presented a 10-part TV series about the blues and black Americans’ African heritage. She played Kunte Kinte’s African grandmother in the ground-breaking TV series Roots, about the black experience of slavery.

She was probably the world’s best-known black female writer and one of America’s best-known black women

Life, she said, was to be lived. “The excitement is not just to survive but to thrive, and to thrive with some passion, some compassion, some humour and some style.” Maya Angelou’s books in Leeds Libraries