Sometimes, I feel like the most revolutionary thing Black people can do is be happy.
We are 8 weeks deep into some sort of Great Global Awakening, or perhaps just a very long Nap Interruption. (#hashtagwoke) Black Lives Matter protests continue worldwide, as do stunning acts of bravery, kindness, and well… fascism, infuriatingly. The world is changing, and once again the flint that sparked the tinder is Black Americans and our constant struggle to rip apart and rebuild the racist, unequal foundations our country was built upon so that we can all thrive in the future.
For those of us who are readers, that means there are anti-racist booklists everywhere. Oh, God, the booklists! The Internet of Books is currently under a six-inch deep layer of booklists. Whether we like it or not, many of them are focused on Black people and anti-racism.
I’ve already ranted and raved about why I’m not making an official anti-racist booklist, so I won’t do it again now. But I will say that it surprises me how absent Black joy, Black happiness, and Black families are from most of these lists. Instead, there’s a lot of talk and overtalk about Black pain, anger, and suffering, as though that is the sum total of our existence and therefore the only reason it is important to pay attention to us now.
I think a lot of us don’t realize that many people who are not Black and aren’t close to Black people have been conditioned to see us and our culture as a source of entertainment. Here we are, with all our pain and anger on display, not realizing that negative emotions can be very entertaining when they aren’t yours – and entertainment does not necessarily lead to empathy or understanding.
In other words, I’m not sure that a constant display of Black pain in art and media is an effective way to encourage anti-racism or to build ourselves up. We are a people whose culture is often appropriated and commodified while we are simultaneously disrespected and invalidated. Our trauma is not exempt from that. We may be feeling all of this in a deep place, but that doesn’t mean the people consuming it are empathizing in a deep way, and that just presses the pain into a deeper place. L.L. McKinney, the author of A Blade So Black (a funky #Blackgirlmagic take on Alice in Wonderland) broke it down very eloquently for Tor recently, saying:
“No one stops to consider the effects of repeatedly subjecting Black children to racism, police brutality, and anti-Blackness on the page without something to break it up. Then there’s the exploitative aspect of non-Black readers taking in this story and somehow feeling they’ve accomplished something. They’ve managed activism by bearing witness to the events of the book, but then don’t follow up with seeking change in the real world. Reading then becomes performative.”
L.L. McKinney, “The Role Publishing Plays In The Commodification of Black Pain“
You should read that whole article because it’s excellent. It’s what got me thinking and searching and realizing that it’s still shockingly hard to find literature that highlights Black success, Black joy, Black power, and Black life outside of the crushing existence of systematic racism. I’m sure it’s being written, but it’s hard to find it published.
This is frustrating because, obviously, Black people exist outside of constant fear and otherness. We aren’t perpetual victims, despite the existence of a system that seeks to perpetually victimize us. Racism is an ever-present threat and worry in my life. But I have a life, don’t I? Sometimes, it’s quite a happy one. With the rise of recommended anti-racist reading focusing so tightly on pain, trauma, and injustice, it seems as though that part–the part about happiness; And the fact that Black people deserve it, and experience it, and fight for it just like any other group of people; is being minimized.
So, I’ve decided that my contribution to The Great Anti-Racist Booklist Surplus of 2020 will be a collection of books featuring Black joy. Black happiness, Black love and Black peace. Sure, racism and othering exists in these books because like I said before, it’s always there. But Black people are not defined by trauma, only shaped by it. We are more than our collective trauma, we are more than oppression, and all of our stories deserve to be told and heard – not only the ones that speak justice to our mistreatment by those in power.
We are all more than our trauma and deserve to live in a world where we are not subjected to trauma in the first place. That’s why Black joy is revolutionary. To stand in the face of a system that tries to deny you humanity and do the most human thing of all – find happiness together – is enough to make the foundations of any oppression crumble.
Without further ado, here’s a bunch of books about Black people, by Black authors, that focus on joy, humor, family, love, and comfort.
All About Love, bell hooks
Let’s start with the OG of Black healing and community, bell hooks herself. This non-fiction work focuses on love for everyone, in all communities, but has a culturally Black foundation that resonates particularly strongly in these times. I found it inspirational because it reminded me that while it’s easy to forget the power of love, it’s also easy to be transformed by it and to transform others. Find it here.
Not Without Laughter, Langston Hughes
Speaking of classic Black American novels, Langston Hughes wrote some great ones, although he’s mostly known for his poetry. This 1930 novel is a coming of age story about a young boy in a close and loving family who pin their hopes on his future. Again, racism and oppression are present–how could they not be?–but the novel focuses on the story of the family and their rich internal lives. It’s not a story with a happy ending or a utopian setting but there is something lovely about the gentle humor and closeness portrayed in this book. It’s available here.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
It’s so common for the world to see Black women as mules, fetish objects or opponents that we seem to tell more stories of recovery from objectification than of finding and enjoying ourselves as women. I think that’s why I love this classic 1937 novel so much. It’s not that there isn’t pain and trauma involved–there is, in heaps–but ultimately it’s about Janie Crawford finding and taking joy in being a woman, in having love and in finding friendship. While it takes place in a racist society, it’s not about race–it’s about a Black woman coming of age, moving through the world and finding her place at a time when few people(of any race) were openly expressing that sort of freedom in their inner life. Find it here.
A Day Late and a Dollar Short, Terry McMillan
Family epics are one of my favorite types of books. While this isn’t precisely an epic–it takes place over about a year in the life of a multi-generational family of Black entrepreneurs in Las Vegas–it is a good family story. While they have their share of ups and downs, the focus of this book is not on the trauma of living in a racist society, but on the critical work of maintaining family love and togetherness despite that. I love every single character in this book, warts and all, and it’s one of the few reads that makes me homesick. (Fun fact: I originally buddy-read this with my grandma.) It’s available here.
What Looks Like Crazy On An Ordinary Day, Pearl Cleage
This may seem like an odd choice for a booklist about Black happiness. Ava Johnson contracts HIV and returns to her tiny all-Black hometown to mentally process her diagnosis, but finds herself walking into unexpected small-town drama instead. But again, this is a book that is not about Black pain or white racism. It’s about the joy that comes from building Black communities and the safety and stability of a good family. It also has a genuinely sweet and redemptive love story at its center. I first read this in my teens and it made me dream of growing up to be free, loving, and complete no matter where life took me. Buy it here.
Let’s Talk About Love, Claire Kann
There’s something bright and sunny about this unusual romance novel. Alice, the main character, is a biromantic asexual figuring out to relate to the rest of the world. She comes from a protective middle-class Black family and has friends from lots of different places and cultures. She’s a cheerful, carefree, queer Black girl who makes great decisions and has good relationships. This may be the happiest book on the list, and I love that we live in a world where it can be published. Find out more about it here.
Opposite of Always, Justin A. Reynolds
I’m a sucker for a sweet love story. This is a tale of two Blerds overcoming literally impossible odds to be together. It features time travel, indie music, corny jokes and SO many bowls of cereal. While racism is there, it’s never the focus, and our hero is a refreshingly non-toxic, boy-next-door kind of guy–something you rarely see Black men written as. Also, the author is surprisingly a man himself. If he’s any indication, Black men should write more romance novels. Find out more about it here.
The Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes
“There is no list of rules. There is one rule. The rule is: there are no rules. Happiness comes from living as you need to, as you want to. As your inner voice tells you to. Happiness comes from being who you actually are instead of who you think you are supposed to be. Being traditional is not traditional anymore. It’s funny that we still think of it that way. Normalize your lives, people.“ ~ Shonda Rhimes. This book is part memoir, part humor essay collection, and part inspirational manifesto. Rhimes, the creator of half the TV shows you love, decided to agree to everything for a year and the results were delightful and empowering. Check it out here.
There are so many more books that could be on this list, but these are just a few of my favorites. You can see the full list HERE – it includes some memoirs, a couple more love stories, and a book of poetry. Check them out, read a few, and remember that Black people expressing our happiness–and recognizing Black people are not defined by trauma and pain, only oppressed by it–is an anti-racist act.
Cross-posted from Mel Watkins’ blog. Thank you, Mel! All purchases of books using the affiliate links in this article will go to support Mel Watkins, a talented Black writer in Korea. – Editorial Team
Editor: Angel Xavier