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Picturing a World

Black lives matters, black fiction lives

It is hard to say anything original or profound in the face of George Floyd's murder and its aftermath, but one thing a white person can do is listen. The case for racism as the nation's four-hundred-year-old sin and an unavoidable condition of life for black citizens is easy to make. The news does it every day. Brilliant books have laid out the case time after time after time. What is harder, even with the best journalism, biography, essays, legal writing, and history, is to experience each other's lives. That's where fiction comes in.

A year ago, my sister gave me Tayari Jones's Silver Sparrow—very fitting because it's a novel about sisters and about Atlanta, where we grew up. Somehow, it got lost in my to-read stack until I remembered it this week and pulled it out. Now I see why she gave it to me. It's extremely well written; and although it mentions many places we were familiar with, most of it is set in an Atlanta we didn't know. If it were just local interest, I wouldn't bring it up here. Instead it is a fine book about complicated people in a complicated situation. They help and hurt each other; they love and misunderstand each other; there are no heroes or villains in the story; and it is about black people living their own lives. White people, we don't define these characters. It's not about us. For two reviews, click here and here.
Ibi Zoboi's American Street, is set in a Detroit grittier than Jones's Atlanta. It is another novel I recommend for white readers who want to listen to an African-American voice talking about living in black America. It's written for young adults, so it's a quick read; but it hits hard.
A third recommendation is Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming. This is actually a memoir, not fiction; but its verse acts effectively to draw you into the mind of its narrator, much as fictional speakers do. It's another book published as YA, but my library book club of middle-aged to elderly white ladies read it a couple of years ago and were very taken by it. As with most of the best literature, age doesn't define the audience
Finally, Penguin Random House's list of 25 Books by Contemporary Black Authors is just one of many for those who want to explore further. What I'd love to hear is suggestions from any of you. Are there titles you'd like to hold up and say, "You must read this if you want to understand my life"?

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