NELDON: Black History Month a great time to explore literature

In “To Kill a Mockingbird” (my favorite book of all time), Atticus Finch tells a young Jean Louise Finch, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

At a young age, I grew obsessed with finding a way to understand what did not make sense to me. Literature became my method of climbing into the skin of those who experienced what I could not fathom.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” gave me a window into the terror that was the Holocaust. “The Grapes of Wrath” put me in the throes of The Great Depression.  “Gone with the Wind” gave me a view of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era.

My biggest passion for historical fiction, however, came from African American literature through the ages. I will not pretend to fully understand what African Americans have experienced (and unfortunately, continue to experience) simply because of the color of their skin. Perhaps this is why at least a third of my massive book collection is from this genre. I keep reading not only in an attempt to understand, but as a way to pay my respects to these resilient, determined, strong-willed people.

Through these books, I have learned about love in spite of difficult circumstances. I have seen the kind of strength it takes to overcome obstacles and break through barriers. I have learned the power of eloquent writing to give a voice to issues that are too often quieted.

These books should be read by every American through the entire year, but I thought Black History Month was a great excuse to share some of my favorite books about African American History:

• “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was Maya Angelou’s way of singing her song, so to speak — where she bravely told her story of sexual abuse as a child, and the demons she faced throughout her life.

• “Beloved” by Toni Morrison centers on the story of a black slave woman from Kentucky, who escapes a plantation with her husband. Toni Morrison has a knack for finding beauty in the ugly. I highly recommend all of her books.

• “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas is a newer book recently adapted to film that centers on a teenager who was riding in the car with an African American friend when he was shot by a police officer during a traffic stop. Set in present day, this book shows the injustices that occur due to lingering prejudice, while at the same time showing how daunting and scary it is to be a police officer.

• “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker is a heartbreaking story of a woman’s life overcoming abuse. Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey star in the movie, if that’s more your speed.

• Though written by a white woman (Harper Lee), “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been revered as one of the best representations of black history in all of literature. At one point, this book was a prerequisite in high school English classes, but it’s worth a reread about how a white lawyer defended an African American man accused of rape. The story is juxtaposed against another story through a child’s eyes, explaining an innocent perspective of how our differences make us stronger.

• “The Other Wes Moore” by Wes Moore, is a memoir about two men named Wes Moore living in very different cultures and socioeconomic classes.

• “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson is a memoir about an African American attorney who helps criminals sentenced to life sentences (and in most cases, the death penalty) who were wrongfully convicted.

The list goes on and on, but these are an excellent start.

As we celebrate Black History Month, I encourage you to take some time to walk around in another person’s skin for a while. We may never fully understand what it feels like to be another human being, but these books will give you a glance into a new world — and beautiful storytelling while you’re at it.

Ambrosia Neldon is the general manager at Leader Publications. She can be reached by phone at (269) 687-7700 or by email at ambrosia.neldon@leaderpub.com

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