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Every month, I adhere to the same reading goal: Four books, including one classic; one buzzy, newish fiction title; something from my unread shelf; and finally, one diverse read from the perspective of an author of color. One of my favorite months of reading is February, Black History Month, when I try to read books all month written by Black authors. 

This February, I am mixing it up a little bit with three classics and a new, buzzy novel. I am rereading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston for my book club (which alternates between a classic one month, a newish novel the next, and a nonfiction title the next, and then repeats the cycle four times throughout the year); Gather Together in My Name, the sequel to Maya Angelou’s most well-known memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; and The Gold Cadillac by Mildred Taylor, the third in the Newberry-award-winning collection of middle grade novels that begin with Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Finally, I plan to read What the Fireflies Knew, by Kai Harris, a 2023 Michigan notable book about an 11-year-old Black girl who is obsessed with my literary life coach, Anne of Green Gables. 

(I confess, though, I am interspersing all of this Black History Month reading with Prince Harry’s unputdownable memoir, Spare. What can I say? Now is the moment to read it!)

My February reading suggestions for you, our Banner readers, are books that I have already read, or someone I trust has already read. Here are four titles that will enrich your reading life, open your hearts and minds to new perspectives, and teach you about Black history, culture, food, and issues:

Classic: Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

I read this American classic for the first time a few years ago, and I was struck by the powerful themes and language in this story of Janie, a woman learning how to be independent and live life on her own—and God’s—terms. Written in 1937 while author Hurston was studying folklore in Haiti, this novel is one of the first major works to be written by a Black woman. It takes place in the 1920s in Eatonville, Fla., Hurston’s hometown and the first incorporated Black town in the United States. Readers will cheer for Janie Crawford as she survives two loveless and violent marriages, falls in love a third time with the much younger Tea Cake, and ultimately learns “two things everbody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves.”

Three of many potent quotes from this novel:

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”

“They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”

“Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.”

I highly recommend listening to this on audiobook; the new narration by actress Ruby Dee sweeps the listener into the story and makes the dialect and colloquialisms much easier to understand. (Audible)

New, Buzzy Book: Black Cake, by Charmaine Wilkerson

I read this much-lauded debut novel a year ago and knew within a couple of chapters it would make my Top 10 list for 2022 (it also made Barack Obama’s list, and many others, so I was in good company). 

I do love a sprawling, multigenerational family drama, and this is what Black Cake delivered in delectable slices (too many slices for some, according to a few reviews). The plot weaves back and forth between an unnamed Caribbean island in 1965 and southern California in 2018, where two estranged siblings, Byron and his sister Benny, are forced by their late mother’s lawyer to listen to a lengthy audiofile of their mother spilling the tea on her complicated life, or lives, as is the case. The two learn that much of what they thought was true about their mother was actually a lie, and the siblings must come to terms with the fully human woman their mother was, not the curated version she presented to them. 

Having just returned from Grenada in the West Indies, I relished the Caribbean setting, although I wish the country had been named (probably Jamaica, where the author has roots?). A surprise adoption theme riveted me and propelled me through the pages. And, as befitting a novel with a cake as its title, there were ample amounts of food and culture references to spice up the story. 

(As for “spice,” the nutmeg and mace are the only spicy additions; this novel is free of strong language or sex scenes.) 

Wise, immersive, and engrossing, Black Cake will remind readers of their own family’s heirloom recipes and the multitudes each family member contains, whether we know it or not. (Penguin Random House)

From my Unread Shelf: Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson

“When I picked up Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, I had high expectations. 

My mind was prepared—I am a sociologist by training. I am also a trained anti-racist facilitator. I have had my own personal experiences with America’s caste system, and I can still recall the stories my grandparents and parents shared of their caste-system encounters; but in the telling of my and my family’s experiences of racism and classism (I should note that we all identify as African American), we never used the word “caste.” Wilkerson says, “A caste system relies on dehumanization to lock the marginalized outside the norms of humanity so that action against them is seen as reasonable.”

The brilliance of Wilkerson’s well-researched work is that it is filled with relatable stories that connect academic definitions, social concepts, and the historical past to present-day indignities. 

Caste strives to raise the awareness of its readers to the reality and consequences of a 400-year-old system of structured inequalities. Wilkerson’s book awakens readers to the nearly invisible historical and social forces that limit, harm, and kill people who are not at the top of our socially constructed hierarchies. “Once awakened, we have a choice. We can be born to the dominant caste but choose not to dominate. We can be born to a subordinate caste but resist the box others force upon us. And all of us can sharpen our powers of discernment to see past the external and to value the character of a person rather than demean those who are already marginalized or worship those born to false pedestals.” I highly recommend Caste. It is not a light read, but it is an important book for those wanting to better understand the social forces that have created and sustain our American caste system.” (Random House.) Note: Excerpted from a 2020 review by Michelle Loyd-Paige.

Inspirational Fiction: When Stars Rain Down, by Angela Jackson Brown

When Stars Rain Down, Angela Jackson Brown’s evocative novel about race relations in 1930s small-town Georgia, reminded me of The Help, which was loved by readers but criticized for playing into the white-savior narrative. When Stars Rain Down is told through the lens of Opal, a Black teenager who works as a domestic along with her grandmother, Birdie, in the home of Miss Peggy, a boss and a friend. Tensions ignite when the Ku Klux Klan descends on the community and unspoken codes of conduct are revealed in this post-Reconstruction-era town. A haunting, empathetic, and page-turning read, this book is often recommended by Chris Jager, the fiction book buyer at Baker Book House, the retail arm of Baker Publishing in Grand Rapids, Mich. “Reading this novel put me in that character’s shoes and allowed me to experience something I never, ever would have (otherwise),” she said. (Thomas Nelson)

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