Tag Archives: African American Fiction

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

I’ve almost always been pretty reluctant to read any books that are deemed as classics. It has something to do with going to school and having a teacher telling you what book you should read. I never really wanted to read those books. Anytime a teacher said that this is the book that we are going to read for an assignment, I always pulled away from it and never really read the book like I would if I was reading it for pleasure.

I made a promise to myself that I would go back and re-read the books that I was “forced” to read in high school and see if I could enjoy them without the threat of an incomplete grade hanging over my head. One of the books that I selected was Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston. I started with Their Eyes Were Watching God because it was also given to my son as an assignment for a college paper. I tried to act really tough by telling him that it was a great book and that he would love it, but on the inside I had to tell myself, “you don’t even remember reading this book.” I felt pure shame with my motherly fib.

I took one for the team and started to read. The book tells the life story of a woman named Janie. Janie is a very beautiful woman who hasn’t been that lucky in love. When she meets Tea Cake, her world changes. He’s unlike any man that she has met before and Janie is swept off her feet in a whirlwind romance that is both beautiful and sad.

This book is told as if Janie is telling the story of her life to a friend named Pheoby. Janie is what Southern blacks considered different. She had very fair skin and could pass for white. As a small child, her grandmother worked for a white family and she was practically raised like one of their children. She even wore their expensive hand me downs.

As Janie matured, she was deemed beautiful and exotic by men and women didn’t really like her because she was so different from them. They took to gossiping about her behind her back and sometimes within earshot so that she would know how they really felt about her. Janie wasn’t the type of woman that tried to fit in. In fact, she marched by the beat of her own drum and this drove the women in her small town crazy with jealousy and envy. She really only had one true friend and her name was Pheoby Watson.

At the beginning of the book, Ms. Hurston writes about how there was this woman, who had just come back from burying the dead. Not just any dead, however. The “sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment.” It’s one of those openings that piques your interest. Why was she with dead people? What brought her to this fate.

This is one of those books that you read without prior knowledge of past events and then it takes you on a journey into the past when black people didn’t have all of the rights that white people did. It shows how they tried to come together as a community and have something that was a little bit better than what they previously had. It is also a love story. One that is so raw with emotions that I often found myself putting the book down so that I could let certain events seep into my brain. There were several instances when I had to read certain passages over and over to allow the message within to sink in.

This is one of those books that you want to read. It shouldn’t be one that people feel that they are forced to read. When the true beauty of Ms. Hurston’s words come to fruition, you feel the pleasure just from having picked it up.

If you’ve never read Their Eyes Were Watching God, you need to head to your nearest library branch and check out a copy. You will not be disappointed. Happy reading.

– Reviewed by Damera, Okolona Branch

Native Son by Richard Wright

I usually do not like recommending books to the average stranger, because my tastes, though wide, are more precise as I age. But I’m telling you, EVERYONE should read these two books NOW!  Native Son (1940) is a work of fiction that astounds me.

For years I have wanted to read Wright but never got around to it. In my twenties, I read a handful of Black authors and liked them but became a little burned out on the subject, much like telling a talker, “OK, I get it.”

Well, as I aged, I learned a lot about how things work and how people are, and about how I am. I am a white male. And as I became older and wiser, I discovered I had racist issues as is expected, since society is full of racism. My racism wasn’t hatred or feelings of inequality, but such that I bought into a lot of stereotypes that society threw at me.

Recently, I’ve gotten into a writer, Nelson Algren, who was a close friend with  Wright. They met at the Federal Writer’s Project in Chicago, and this gave Wright the time and money to produce Native Son.  Both were “Communists” in the 30’s and 40’s. Both experienced life from the bottom of society. Native Son, as well as Algren’s early novels, delves deeper into the intricate ways that the top and middle of American society preys upon its poor and black people than any work of fiction that I have read.

It is an exceptional novel that begins with high drama and is able to sustain the climax for the entire novel. The protagonist is Bigger Thomas, a 20 year old African-American male, who at his mother’s urging gets a real job. He is a young “thug” surviving by stealing and using his wits. Wright intentionally makes him a stereotypical thug for effect. If Bigger is an acceptable young man, who fit into society, it would be easy for everyone to let him pursuit the “American Dream.” But Bigger is trapped in 1930’s society in Chicago slums. The Jim Crow effects reach northward in more subtle ways, but they are not subtle if you are black. Bigger was not allowed to be an AMERICAN. He was only a “Negro Nationalist” living in America. Bigger was unwanted by his OWN PEOPLE and “his” country of birth.

Bigger knows how to survive in a tough black reality. He is exceptionally smart and can figure out the con in every game. But all he knows of the white world is to avoid it. It is ok to rob a black liquor store, but not a white one. He knows the Cops will come down on you hard if you mess with white folks.

So the real action begins when Bigger gets a job as a chauffeur for a rich, white family.  One night out with the beautiful daughter (Mary) of this rich man, and her Communist boyfriend (Jan) forces Bigger to cross many boundaries he doesn’t want to. He soon learns that one small action can change  the lives of many. We are all interconnected in a very simple, yet complex way although we seem all separate from one another.

If I had to give one book to Middle School to College aged people to read, Native Son is the one. The language is so simple and Wright makes the complex ways of interconnectedness so clear than everyone can see.  This modern world is made to make us a cold money making machine. And we roll along with this machine as it grinds out human lives beneath it.

To some, who are not willing to open their minds, it may feel that white people are on trial here but it is more that society is on trial. Individuals only make up a tiny part of it. But individuals and their actions can shape the world at large. In groups, we go easily along with what is inhumane in society.

The great baseball player Curt Flood, speaking about The St. Louis Cardinals owner August Busch, who was astonished to learn that black players could not stay at white hotels during spring training, said: “It shows you how you can segregate yourself into the back seat of a limousine and not know what’s going on.”  In the novel, the wealthy Mr. Dalton is one that rolls along with it. He is a great philanthropist and supporter of black people but he also had made his wealth in real estate at black people’s expense.

There is an innocent intelligence to the main character Bigger Thomas. He knows what is going on, but not quite. His survival in his black world is much different than his trying to stay alive in the white world. The rules are much different.  He learns as he goes. Experience is his teacher. In the end, what Bigger (and the reader) has to learn goes SOUL DEEP. It speeds by all the rules of civilization. The REDS, the WHITES, and the BLACKS are all weighing on Bigger’s mind wanting something from him that he cannot give. He is truly an outsider who must face a reality he could never have imagined.

Another book that I highly suggest is The Fire Next Time (1962), a work of non-fiction by James Baldwin, an adversary of Richard Wright. It is very enlightening, collecting two Letters, written during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.  Each Letter looks frankly at the state of American race relations from the black perspective, as well as Baldwin’s personal history.

It was a suggestion offered by a Facebook friend, who said it should be taught in school. It did not disappoint me. In fact, it inflamed me even though it is 55 years old.

We have both books in three different formats. I used all three with both books. I read both the Hardcover versions, the eBook (when around a computer), and listened to the Audiobook as well.  I usually have a hard time following along with an audio version but both books were a joy to listen to. The Native Son CD is beyond excellent.

Reviewed by Tom, Main Library

Caught Up by Shannon Holmes

caughtupholmesDixyn Greene is living the life that she believes she has always been meant to live. She has a beautiful daughter and is finally going to marry the man of her dreams, her daughter’s father, Bryce Winters. Bryce is a hustler and it isn’t until he is arrested in a raid of their home that Dixyn realizes the consequences of living the life with a narcotics dealer.

How will she cope in the aftermath?

If you are looking for a book that is fast-paced, Caught Up is the book for you. Mr. Holmes has created an intriguing plot that will keep you on the edge of your seat. It has all the elements of a gritty tale of the street: drugs, murder, and mayhem. It’s a page turner and I’m happy that I had a chance to read it.

shanon-holmesImage courtesy of African American Literature Book Club (http://aalbc.com/authors/shannon_holmes.htm)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Caught Up made Library Journal’s 2015 Best Book Books for African American Fiction.  If you are interested, their other picks in this and other genres can be viewed here

Formats Available:  Book

Reviewed by Damera, Okolona Branch