Historical novels for Black History Month

For the last many months, I’ve been reading historical fiction based in the United States. More about that in another post, but because it’s Black History Month, I’m recommending a few novels with African American protagonists.

Jubilee (1966) by Margaret Walker: If the reader didn’t know that Jubilee was based on the story of Margaret Walker’s great-grandmother, she might think that the plot was too calculatedly stereotypical about the African American experience in the South during slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. But its basis in fact increases Jubilee’s potency. Vyry, the central character, is the biracial daughter of a Georgia plantation owner who never acknowledges her and an enslaved woman who dies in childbirth after having given birth to 15 children by age 29. As she grows up on the plantation, Vyry sees her mother substitute sold; her half-sister branded after trying to run away; and an elderly slave beaten to death by the overseer. After Emancipation, the adult Vyry and her husband are duped into sharecropping and are burned out of their house by the KKK. But Vyry is resilient, kind, and forgiving, and her character wins hearts and allows the story to end on a note of reconciliation and hope.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) by Ernest Gaines: Gaines presents this novel in the guise of oral history. He is a supposed editor who spent several months in 1962 interviewing a black woman whose life spanned more than a century. Speaking in her colorful vernacular about events in her own life, Miss Jane Pittman relates a parallel history of African Americans in the South from the Civil War to civil rights. Living through some of the country's most turbulent events, Jane spends her life on plantations, working in the fields and the houses of white landowners still called "master." Although she doesn't stand up to protest “her place” until the very end, she is a support figure to two black men who attempt to lift up the community and lose their lives in the struggle.

Sula (1973) by Toni Morrison: The title character meets Nel, who will become her best friend, when they are 12-year-olds in Medallion, Ohio, in the 1920s. Their African American community is called "the Bottom" even though it's up the hill from the valley where the whites live. With a strong, one-legged grandmother and free-spirited mother, Sula grows up to be independent and rebellious, leaving town, going to college, and sleeping around without love or shame. Nel, in contrast, does the expected, becoming a wife and mother and staying in Medallion. Sula returns after a decade and becomes the most feared and hated person in the Bottom, both because of others' small-mindedness and her own inability to accommodate anyone else's feelings. Sula's character is engimatic and not really likable, but she defies simplistic interpretation. Her determination to choose her own life, her daring and courage, especially for a woman of her era, have to be admired.

Praisesong for the Widow (1983) by Paule Marshall: This novel is Paule Marshall’s most direct statement of her belief that black Americans need to reconnect with their African heritage. The African American widow who is the protagonist of Praisesong (an African poetic form) is well-off Avey Johnson, whose childhood in Harlem and struggling young married years in Brooklyn are way behind her. In her 60s, Avey begins to suffer psychic distress and is persuaded to join an ancestor-honoring excursion where she comes to feel linked to a history she had eschewed.

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