The Essential Black History Month Library
- Arusa Qureshi
- 18 October 2016
To celebrate BHM, we've put together a library of works to get people reading, researching and talking about the history of the African diaspora
In the current political climate in both the US and the UK, being a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic individual can be trying at the best of times. In the US, the strange ascent of Donald Trump and the escalation of police brutality has given way to much-needed resistance in the form of Black Lives Matter and other major anti-racist protests. Meanwhile, in the UK, the events surrounding Brexit have resulted in an air of hopelessness, with the outcome legitimising the racism and xenophobia of the hateful and bigoted. In such a climate, celebration and remembrance is fundamental which is why Black History Month is so necessary.
Taking place in February in the US and in October in the UK, BHM is the annual observance of the events and people that have had an impact in the history and culture of the African diaspora. It offers a chance to learn about a history that is often erased and commend the achievements of those that are occasionally forgotten about.
To celebrate Black History Month, we have compiled a library for you to explore, meditate upon and possibly recommend to others. Though we could have included hundreds of other suggestions, we've narrowed it down based on our personal favourites. It's also important to note that as BHM originally began in the United States as 'Negro History Week', this library places an emphasis on African American literature, music and film, but works from British and European artists are also included in the mix.
Book: Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
Hurston's masterwork tells the story of Janie Crawford as she navigates the complexities of love, relationships and community as a black woman in the South. The novel ruminates on the nature of gender roles, with Janie's strength and perseverance being the cause of her ultimate survival.
Poem: Langston Hughes – The Negro Speaks of Rivers
In 'The Negro Speaks of Rivers', Harlem Renaissance sensation Langston Hughes uses the image of the river as an extended metaphor for the spirit of Africans and African Americans. As centuries of black men have become at one with these rivers and perceived their eternal essence, so too will the soul of the black man endure and '[grow] deep like the rivers'.
Song: Nas – I Can
A Beethoven sample and children's choir; can a song really get any more uplifting? With 'I Can', Nas takes a step away from commonly recognised themes in hip-hop to write something for the kids. The song is part education, with a verse on African history, and part affirmation with 'I know I can (I know I can!), Be what I wanna be (be what I wanna be!)' as the primary hook.
Film: Hoop Dreams
What initially started out as a 30-minute documentary soon became a landmark cult hit. Hoop Dreams follows teenagers Arthur Agee and William Gates over five years as they attempt to live out the American dream of playing basketball professionally, escaping the poverty of inner-city Chicago in the process.
Song: Nina Simone – To Be Young Gifted and Black
The 'high-priestess of soul's' Civil Rights anthem, 'To Be Young Gifted and Black' is also an ode to self-love and an inspiring statement on identity: 'When you feel really low/Yeah, there's a great truth you should know/When you're young, gifted and black/Your soul's intact'.
Film: The Great Debaters
The Great Debaters is the well-known story of the Wiley College debate team who managed to succeed against the odds and against a backdrop of Jim Crow, eventually being invited to debate Harvard University. The film has a fantastic and touching script and a top-notch cast of actors including Denzel Washington, who also directed the film, and Forest Whitaker.
Book: Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man (1952)
Invisible Man is an examination of the invisibility that can occur as a result of race and societal constructs. A work of fiction as relevant today as it was in 1952, Ellison's novel looks at the struggles that one faces when attempting to reinforce individualism or personal identity.
Book: Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me (2015)
Ta-Nehisi Coates addresses his second book to his teenage son, explaining what being black in modern day America really means. An honest and often bleak analysis, the book highlights the reality of institutional racism where fear of tragedy and harm is a common, everyday emotion.
Song: Brother D with Collective Effort – How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?
Considered the first rap record to be political in its content, 'How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?' places emphasis on racial uplift and education, responding to hip-hop's tendency to focus on pleasure. The song acts as a call to arms for the black community, advocating a need for understanding and resistance.
Film: Malcolm X
One of the most influential African Americans in history, Malcolm X was known for his often militant rejection of racism and pacifism. The film dramatizes his life, from his criminal career to his conversion to Islam, showing how his legacy as a civil rights hero is justified and intact.
Song: Akala – Find No Enemy
North London rapper Akala is recognised for his blistering attacks on government, modern politics, racism and discrimination through his poetry, music, lectures and speeches. 'Find No Enemy' is an intelligent look at how social awareness is vital to changing patterns of history.
Book: W.E.B. Du Bois – The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
A hugely important book of essays by scholar and activist Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk is a seminal piece of work in the history of black protest. The book's first chapter is where the concept of double-consciousness (the 'sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others') was first fully explored.
Song: Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit
'Strange Fruit' was made famous by Billie Holiday's 1939 recording of the song, providing a powerful message against intolerance. Originally written by Abel Meeropol as a poem intended to protest the lynchings of African Americans, the song remains one of the most poignant cries against racism to date.
Book: Toni Morrison – Beloved (1987)
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988, Beloved provides an unprecedented insight into the horrors of slavery through the story of Sethe, who escapes life as a slave but remains haunted by her painful memories. Beloved is heart-breaking, engaging with African American history in a way that is raw and distinct.
Song: Run DMC – Proud to be Black
Though 'Proud to be Black' is undoubtedly a celebration of identity, Run DMC also provide a brief history lesson in the track, detailing the bravery of Harriet Tubman and name-dropping African American heroes like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, George Washington Carver, Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali.
Book: Sam Selvon – The Lonely Londoners (1956)
The Lonely Londoners follows the movements of West Indians in London in the aftermath of World War II, where working-class black immigrants are marginalised due to their status as outsiders in the city. Selvon's use of vernacular English and dialect throughout the novel adds a rhythmic lilt, with the language being used as a filter for the experiences of his characters.
The 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches were a pivotal point in African American history, contributing to what resulted in the Voting Rights Act of the same year. Ava DuVernay's Selma traces the events that lead to the marches and to Lyndon B. Johnson lifting any restrictions on voting.
Poem: Claude McKay – If We Must Die
In 'If We Must Die', McKay accentuates a refusal to give in to oppression, with the poem acting as a radical call for militancy, voicing a desire to revolt against the appalling treatment of African Americans.
Film: Do the Right Thing
Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing is a comedy-drama that places an excellent spotlight on racism and police brutality through the story of a community in Brooklyn on the hottest day of the year. As racial tensions rise due to conflicts between the characters, fissures begin to appear in the community, resulting in tragedy.
Song: Fela Kuti – Zombie
Through his music, lyrics and activism, Fela Kuti was the spokesperson for many young and frustrated Nigerians, infuriating the political establishment of the time. His songs were revolutionary and defiant, like the animated 'Zombie' which takes aim at the Nigerian military.
Song: Public Enemy – Fight the Power
Public Enemy consistently focused their energies on trying to educate the black population on what was happening in society and what needed to be done to counteract any injustice.
'Fight the Power' perfectly illustrates their defiance against African American oppression and suffering through Chuck D's brutal attack on American society, Government and corporations.
Song: Kendrick Lamar – Alright
Kendrick Lamar signals a new resistance in hip-hop, akin to that of Public Enemy in the 80s and 90s. His third studio album To Pimp a Butterfly was a perfect example of this, with its racially charged themes and lyrics intended to voice racial inequality. 'Alright' has become associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, offering a mantra of hope amongst the anger.
Book: Nikesh Shukla – The Good Immigrant (2016)
The Good Immigrant is an examination of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic experience in modern day Britain. The collection of 21 essays by a variety of creatives explores what it means to be a person of colour when debates rage on about immigration and diversity. The book is a massively important addition to recent dialogues on race and racism, offering a viewpoint that isn't always made visible.
Poem: Maya Angelou – Still I Rise
With the stunning imagery used throughout the poem, 'Still I Rise' is a lyrical statement against discrimination, carrying a message of positivity. Having overcome a huge amount in her own life, Maya Angelou's poem speaks of strength and determination in the face of racial adversity.
Song: Solange – F.U.B.U
Solange's A Seat at the Table is a response to the struggles that many African Americans, and in particular, black women, face on a daily basis. Through 'F.U.B.U' (For Us By Us), Solange makes clear the need for empowerment through the creation of a song that is unapologetic in its intentions.
Film: Cecile Emeke – Ackee and Saltfish
Writer, poet and director Cecile Emeke's short film (and now also a web series) follows two best friends as they search East London for the Caribbean salt cod dish named in the title. Through the film and web series, Emeke manages to portray black friendship, sisterhood, popular culture and identity in a way that is both refreshing and highly relatable.
TV: Luke Cage
Marvel's latest Netflix series has arrived at a relevant time as the world mourns the unnecessary deaths of African Americans and support for Black Lives Matter grows. In his take down of the corruption that surrounds him, Luke Cage, the bulletproof superhero in the simple black hoodie (perhaps a tribute to Trayvon Martin), symbolises black power and resistance.
Writer-director Céline Sciamma's third feature film follows 16-year-old Marieme, who befriends a girl gang that provide her with a profound sense of belonging. Girlhood is an emotional but empowering story of sexuality, camaraderie and personal growth.
Poem: Audre Lorde – Coal
Audre Lorde was a black feminist hero, whose poetry beautifully and fiercely depicted the injustices and internal conflicts faced by black men and especially by black women. 'Coal' is a celebration of black identity, emphasising how rage can be transformed into strength.