Michelle Lugalia-Hollon’s Reading List for Black History Month

 

michelle1Michelle Lugalia-Hollon loves reading. She credits her mother and father for planting this seed in her. Reading is her meditation. When she’s not reading, she is a mama to an incredible 3 year old and married to a dream boat who writes amazing poetry. She is also the Director of Program Initiatives at the San Antonio Area Foundation, graduated from the Harvard School of Public Health in 2010 and from the University of Chicago in 2007. She has worked in government and with several non-profits focusing on maternal and infant HIV/AIDS prevention, sexual and youth violence prevention, homelessness, trauma, youth development, education and public health. She was born in Kenya, and has also lived in Houston, Chicago, Boston and recently relocated to San Antonio.

 

 


This was the best book of 2016. African authors have been nailing their debuts for the past 5 years and every time I think I have a new favorite, another one proves me wrong! Yaa Gyasi ‘s story spans centuries and generations. It begins in Ghana during the slave trade and tribal wars and follows the trajectories of two sisters, one married to a white slave-trader and the other enslaved, then follows their descendants through histories of slavery, marriages, births, tragedies, love, injustices, revenge, self-discovery. It is magnificent how Gyasi manages to use time and a family tree to weave this epic exploration of the daily reality, repercussions and impact that slavery had on generations. My favorite passage deals with the very challenge Gyasi overcame to complete this masterpiece. A character in the book is suffering from writer’s block because he finds it hard to write about a specific time in history without acknowledging the snowballing and interconnected events that define any given moment, he wants to tell the full story but how far back in the past should his story begin in order to do any given moment justice? Gyasi does this amazingly with this book and brings to life the history of African-Americans pre, during and post-slavery through the lives of one bloodline.

I read Whitehead’s latest right after Homegoing, which is an order that I highly recommend. Whitehead paints a world where the underground railroad was an actual series of underground railroads that slaves used to escape to free states. He focuses on the story of a female slave, from a rebellious line of foremothers who plans her escape after witnessing and experiencing a heartbreaking share of the horrors of slavery. We can all agree that slavery was the worst, but it is difficult to viscerally comprehend the daily terror, anxiety and overall inhumane injustices that slaves experienced EVERY DAY. Movies like 12 Years A Slave, places like the Whitney Plantation museum, and the new National Museum of African American History and Culture bring us closer to an unfiltered, de-romanticized visualization of just how horrible slavery was. Whitehead does this too in this book and that is what I appreciated the most about this story. Through Cora, his main character, we are taken on a most terrifying and foreboding journey as she plans and pursues her escape from a Georgia plantation. It is unsettling, graphic, unforgiving, rough and perfect.

Jaqueline Woodson knows how to tell a short story. This book is 192 pages long and you get the sense that she didn’t need or want to waste any words. She cuts right to the heart of each character and their essence. She captures budding adolescence—the neediness, the flightiness, the fickleness, the fierceness, the fading yet prevalent innocence, PERFECTLY. Then she explores how everything that happens during those precious, heart-shaking ages, sticks with us, defines us and sometimes breaks us. The four girls whose lives we follow, located in Brooklyn in the 1970s, are familiar. Woodson is such a wordsmith:

“If we had had jazz, would we have survived differently? If we had known our story was a blues with a refrain running through it, would we have lifted our heads, said to each other, This is memory again and again until the living made sense? Where would we be now if we had known, there was a melody to our madness? Because even though Sylvia, Angela, Gigi, and I came together like a jazz improv—half notes tentatively moving toward one another until the ensemble found its footing and the music felt like it had always been playing—we didn’t have jazz to know this was who we were. We had the Top 40 music of the 1970s trying to tell our story. It never quite figured us out.”

Need I say more?

I’ll start by saying that I have a hard time reading poetry. Warsan Shire is the first poet whose work stung me clearly. I understood everything that she was saying and everything that she wasn’t. She’s gained more popularity nowadays due to the very amazing fact that Beyonce’s Lemonade album was partially inspired by her writing and heavily featured her work. Warsan Shire is so cool that Beyonce brought her on to write for her pop album. Her poems are concise, surprising and they feel.

  • Salt by Nayyirah Waheed

Her poems read like meditations or revelations and a little bit of self-help. I love how short and clear they are. Some are simple, just one sentence. Yet they capture so much. “I don’t pay attention to the world ending. It has ended for me many times and began again in the morning.” Or another titled masculine: “there have been so many times I have seen a man wanting to weep but instead beat his heart until it was unconscious.” She makes me more comfortable with poetry and motivates me to just get to the heart of it.

When I finished this book, I held it to my chest and sat quietly. I wanted to feel everything that it evoked in me for as long as possible. Such a gorgeous, unexpected, heart-wrenching story about the fragility of humanity. How we struggle to rebound from the shame of our sins. How our guilt can lead us to unexpected peace. How we punish ourselves for falling short when we needed to be better. What kind of life does that all add up to? Set in Zimbabwe, this book tells that story and it is hilarious, stunning and quietly beautiful.

As an immigrant, I hunger for stories that capture the lives and experiences of migrants, especially those from my birth continent, Africa. Mbue does a marvelous job exposing us to the conditions that drive people to leave their home countries, the dedication and back-breaking diligence that allows them to survive and support themselves and their families, the lust for a better life, the disappointment of this Mecca and sometimes the return home. Her characters struggle with what it means to succeed in life and in America and this story asks: Who wins in this land of opportunity and when is not worth the struggle? Is success just as sweet if it didn’t happen exactly the way you wanted it to?

  • Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes

Obviously, Shonda is a genius and she has the accolades to back it up. This is why this book was so surprising to me. She documents a year in which she challenged herself to say yes to the things that she would have typically said no to. Who knew that someone so accomplished and empowered had so much to work on? So much to gain? The way she tells it, it was as if her success in Shondaland was the best part of her and she channeled all her energy into that work. As a result, her relationships with her children, family, friends, her body and other parts of herself suffered. Each chapter shares a new challenge that she takes on and ends with how liberating the outcomes were and how joyful it was for her to unlock and release these other parts of herself. I was inspired to do the same.

Isabel Wilkerson is such a readable historian. Her epic book The Warmth of Other Suns traced great migrators and documented their plights, dreams, disappointments and accomplishments. This article continues this tradition and was amazing to read because it gave me new language that enabled me to see the painful reality of black death and police brutality through a historic lens. I love this article for the same reasons that make me love Homegoing and Fox Butterfield’s work. Focusing on the death of Tamir Rice, Isabel contextualizes their lives by taking us back to their ancestors, who fled the south to escape the state-sanctioned violence of slavery and Jim Crow. She makes us see how the same families continue to live and die, mistreated by a new iteration of the same oppressive system. We have not progressed. History and now tells us so:

“The men and women of the Great Migration were asking questions that remain unanswered today: What is to be the role of the people whom the country has marginalized by law and custom and with state-sanctioned violence for most of their time on this soil? How might these now 45 million people, still the most segregated of all groups in America, partake of the full fruits of citizenship? How can deeply embedded racial hierarchies be overcome? What befell Emmett and Tamir reflects how racial interactions have mutated over time, from the overt hatreds now shunned by most Americans to the unspoken, unconscious biases that are no less lethal and may be harder to fight. For all of its changes, the country remains in a similar place, a caste system based on what people look like.”

Goddamn!

Life in America is hard and unfair to black people. Before and since Trayvon Martin there have been many organizing from the margins, resisting, insisting that Black Lives Matter. We thought things were surely going to get better now that so much is coming to light but they are not. It is difficult to be hopeful. It is difficult to capture all that I feel and want to say about these days. With this poem, Danez Smith does it ALL for me. He captures it all. I am so grateful for this poem. It is my daily prayer.

I read this book in graduate school. I was taking a class on Childhood Trauma. As a public health professional, I’m trained to see everything as interconnected. Things never happen in a vacuum and those who want to make a difference in this world have to take heed of that. History is SO important and Butterfield’s very journalistic take on “the American Tradition of Violence” demonstrates how. He focuses his story on the life of Willie Bosket, a teenage murderer whose crime led to a historic change in the New York state law that made it possible for children to be tried as adults. In an attempt to understand what led Bosket to this morbid place, Butterfield takes us to the very beginning of his story. My favorite part of Butterfield’s work is that he begins Willie’s story with his great-grandfather. He takes you on a journey that will challenge everything you think you understand about criminality and how it begins. Butterfield does amazing journalism with this book and, in line with my beliefs, holds society just as accountable for Willie Bosket as his family. We’ve got so much work to do to heal this world and I love books that show me where to begin.

I read this article after the Charleston shootings. Bryan Stevenson articulated how this violent crime was tied to our failure, as a country, to deal with our history of racial injustice honestly. “Very few people in this country have any awareness of just how expansive and how debilitating and destructive America’s history of slavery is.” He posits that it is a lack of awareness and understanding that prevents us from identifying and knowing how to move forward in a healing way.

…how the “narrative of racial difference that was created during slavery that resulted in terrorism and lynching, that humiliated, belittled and burdened African-Americans throughout most of the 20th century. The same narrative of racial difference that got Michael Brown killed, got Eric Garner killed and got Tamir Rice killed. That got these thousands of others — of African Americans — wrongly accused, convicted and condemned….is the same narrative that has denied opportunities and fair treatment to millions of people of color, and it is the same narrative that supported and led to the executions in Charleston.”

He makes a strong case for how the United States needs to document and publicly acknowledge the racial terror of lynching, in the same way that Germany has erected markers that identify where Jewish families were taken from their homes.

I love Bob Marley. Even more, I love the legend of Bob Marley. The myths that surround his life, his music, his religion. In Jamaica, the Rastafarians that give tours of his home and burial ground tell many true and some outlandish stories about his life. When we sat on his bed in his old bedroom, they warned us to be careful or we might get pregnant. They speak with awe about his love for football and embellish on the details of how he survived an assassination attempt. James starts there. He takes this story that has reached mythical proportions and builds a world around it. A world filled with CIA spies, jealous lovers, vengeful colleagues and industrious gangsters, and weaves the wildest literary ride I have ever taken. The book is not short on details and it took me a while to acclimate to its rhythm but it was worth it.

Helen Oyeyemi is a genius. The Nigerian author and global citizen wrote this story, her first book, while in high school. I have a weakness for fiction that depicts child characters well and this book does so exceptionally with its main character, 8-year old mixed-race Jess, who is teased at school and struggling with strange illnesses and life changes. The book connects a Nigerian mythology about twins, tensions of assimilation, and a child’s attempts to cope with adverse circumstances. It is one of my favorites for the complexity of what it says and honors with its story. I love how it deals with the dangers of cleaving to partial identities and the consequences of abandoning the very traditions that could save your life at the right time. What happens when we abandon our ancestors and their beliefs? Do they remain with us, despite our denial? Do they exist, despite our refusal to acknowledge them? Can we resist them?

This book upset and intrigued me in very specific ways. Victor Lavalle writes fiction with main characters struggling with mental illness. Similar to Oyeyemi’s, this book’s main character is a child whose best friend goes missing. The book is part magic realism, part horror, and overall perfect. Without giving too much away, its “punchline” is one of the best I’ve ever read. The story challenges societal notions of mental illness. It raised so many questions for me. What is normal behavior in children who are grieving, terrified, trying to understand and cope with a painful adult-oriented world? This is one of my favorite stories ever.

 

 

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