The themes of uplift and overcoming rightly associated with Black History Month can turn into pablum when they lose sight of the cruelty and inhumanity that set the African Diaspora in motion.
Here are a few works by black geniuses who don’t hew to the cleaned-up optimism that threatens to prevail in February.
Ishmael Reed – Mumbo Jumbo
– It’s hard to call this fable of infectious blackness overlooked or forgotten, but Reed’s difficulty puts him out of reach for many. If you’ve got a tooth for abstraction and stream-of-consciousness, though, Jumbo deserves to be ranked, if not alongside Invisible Man, then at least alongside Naked Lunch
, The Sot-Weed Factor
and other classics of obscene, wordy, fabulist angst.
Amiri Baraka – The Dutchman
– Though often remembered as an associate of the Beat Generation, Baraka for much of his life stood for Black Nationalism and other, more artistic kinds of extremism. Many find The Dutchman lacking as literature in comparison to Baraka’s poetry, but its uncompromising take on race relations in the 1960s definitely puts things in perspective.
Chester Himes – Cotton Comes to Harlem
– Himes sadly tends to get lumped in with the ‘blaxploitation’ films this and other of his books inspired. But the plots of the Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones mysteries are often just functional skeletons for dizzying, rage-fueled pantomimes that skewer the racist powers-that-be and corruption within midcentury African-American society with equal comic fervor.
Miles Davis and Quincy Troupe – Miles: The Autobiography
– Think Keith Richards’ life as written by someone fighting destructive forces he didn’t invite or invent. More than worth it just for the scene of Charlie Parker fending off demons by getting head, eating chicken and shooting up heroin at the same time.
Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein
– No, it’s not a book, but this 2001 album is undeniably literature. Mashing a little street slang with a lot of oblique thinking, the album turns ‘90s New York into a Joycean dystopia. “My sound, mechanical found ghost. But my ghetto, animal, found toast.” You can unpack the references and metaphors, or you can just let El-P’s warm, paranoid, distorted beats wash over you.
Toni Morrison – Beloved
– The other angry men on this list are, well, men. But none of them can match the crimson hatred at the heart of Morrison’s classic. There’s reason to ponder whether this bleakest, most desolate reflection on slavery made it into national high school curricula because no one on the committee imagined a woman could write something so seething.