Just recently, a couple of things have got me thinking about books by black writers – and how few of them I’ve read or even know about. The first thing to get me thinking was Norfolk’s Black History Month. I was really chuffed to be invited to take part in an event about inspiring books. But why me though? I’m not black. Well that’s very true - but here’s the thing: You don’t have to be black to read a book by a black author. Books are for everyone. So I talked about one of my favourite teen fiction writers, an American called Walter Dean Myers – I’ll say more about him a little later on.
The second thing which got me thinking was something one of my A Level students said to me just the other day. I’m teaching the The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It contains some dodgy old language and attitudes. To help my students understand why, I gave them a quick history lesson on America and slavery and the Civil War and the racial segregation which followed. This sparked quite a few discussions in my all-white Norfolk classroom. We got talking about the ‘n’ word and why I don’t think a white person should EVER use it. We got talking about Stephen Lawrence too. And then, at the end of my lesson, Sophie said to me, ‘I want to read more books by black writers. But apart from Malorie Blackman, I can’t think of any. Are there other black writers?’
‘Of course there are,’ I said – in that overjoyed way I get when anyone tells me they want to read more books. And I reeled a few names off. But then I stopped. And it suddenly dawned on me that – in the scheme of things – there aren’t actually very many black writers at all. Not that I know of anyway. So – for Sophie – and anyone else who is interested, I’ve put together a MAGNIFICENT SEVEN of my favourite books I’ve ever read by black writers. I apologise now – because they’re all massive bestsellers – there aren’t any undiscovered gems here. Because I don’t know any. So please feel free to add to my list if you want to by leaving a comment.
So here they are. In no particular order.
Coming to England – Floella Benjamin
This is the autobiography of Trinidadian TV presenter Floella Benjamin. The book begins by beautiful, colourful descriptions of her life in Trinidad and then moves on to the gloomier environment of London in the 1950s. When I was teaching in secondary schools, I read this book with every Year 7 class I taught. They loved it. They were also appalled by the racism that Floella and her family found themselves on the sharp end of. Really this book is written for kids but I gave it to my mum who likes autobiographies and she liked it too. A good story is for everyone. Apart from Floella, my favourite person in the book is Floella’s mum. Marmie. That’s an inspirational woman for you. Right there.
Refugee Boy – Benjamin Zephaniah
Benjamin Zephaniah is best known for his poetry but he’s written hard-hitting teen novels too. Alem is a teenage boy from Ethiopia who comes to London for a holiday and then finds himself abandoned there. What can I say? This book made me cry.
Monster – Walter Dean Myers
I mentioned WDM earlier. He’s MASSIVE in the states but hardly anyone has heard of him over here. His teen fiction is mostly all set in Harlem, NYC. This is interesting to me because I like travelling and learning about the world – even if it’s from my armchair. Monster is an ASTONISHING novel. ASTONISHING. It’s about a teenage boy called Steve who is being held in a New York detention centre. For murder. Steve imagines his life as a film and writes his story in the form of a film script. Walter Dean Myers is original, talented and inventive and I love him.
26a - Diane Evans
This is adult general fiction. It won the Orange prize for New Writers. I can see why. It’s beautifully written and very very moving. It’s about twin girls who grow up in Neasden, North London. A little part of why I loved it so much was because I lived for a while in Willesden which was just down the road – but mostly, I loved it because it’s beautifully written. It’s also extremely sad. I cried at this one as well.
White Teeth – Zadie Smith
The world and his wife are always going on about Zadie Smith. But that’s because she’s young and clever and writes like a total dream. (She’s also very beautiful and very cool – but that shouldn’t matter.) Zadie Smith writes dialogue brilliantly. When her characters speak, it’s like you’re actually there, listening to them. She’s written a few novels now but my favourite is her first, White Teeth. It’s set in Willesden Green, North London. I lived there once. This is not the only reason I like this book though. The other reason is that it’s brilliant.
Noughts and Crosses – Malorie Blackman
Even though Malorie Blackman is the only black writer that Sophie has ever heard of and even though everyone in the entire world has read Noughts and Crosses, I can’t leave Malorie or this title off my list. Malorie Blackman was writing teen dystopian fiction waaaaaayyyy before The Hunger Games. And the Noughts and Crosses series really is extraordinary. I was lucky enough to meet Malorie this summer. I told her I loved N & C and said, ‘It was the bit about the plasters which really got me.’
And Malorie laughed and said, ‘Everyone says that.’
If you’re read the book, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, you’re lucky because you can go and do it now J
To Sir, With Love – ER Braithwaite
I love this book. LOVE IT. It’s a novel based on the real experiences of Ricky Braithwaite, who came to London in the 1950s from British Guyana to be a teacher in an East End School. It’s simply and powerfully written and ER Braithwaite is a total hero. There’s also a wonderful old film which has handsome Sidney Poitier as the young teacher who weathers loads of racist sh*t and STILL has the generosity of spirit to turn around the lives of those East End ragamuffins. Lulu is in the film too. And she sings the soundtrack. It’s a brilliant soundtrack. It’s a brilliant film. It’s a brilliant book. Ricky, you were a brilliant teacher.
On that note, I’ll leave you with this: