I am struggling to remember what the genesis of this journey was. Maybe it was discovering my Ogilvie ancestors had been slave-owners in colonial South Carolina around the time of watching Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. Maybe it's had a long incubation, but the book that got the wind in my sails may have been the excellent book, The Bridge, by David Remnick.
I feel uncomfortable writing about race (don't we all? and shouldn't we all?) being as I was brought up in hopelessly white middle-class Surrey. There's something pathetically earnest about being a liberal over-educated English girl who's conscience has been merely pricked rather than abused by generational global injustices. Brought up in the 70s when racism was endemic but confined to the fringes of my sheltered world, but there none-the-less; it was at university that I realised this, coupled with sexism, was really present and really wrong. But, like many things, I felt that middle-class embarrassment. I didn't know what to do or say. I knew what you couldn't say and do but felt paralysed. I still do but I think Obama changed something; I can't work out why right yet.
I felt so excited about Obama as I was listening to my beloved Radio 4 charting the primaries and how this guy seemed to emerge from nowhere. I read Obama's memoirs and felt a shameful knowing when he describes how he had a white privileged girlfriend and that he would struggle to be entirely in that world and would always be seen as a black man. When he became president I watched every news reel and felt some kind of religious second coming at his inauguration speech. He's disappointed me, like everyone else, but he has changed so much as well.
The beauty of Renwick's book is that he charts Obama's journey in the context of the African American struggle. You could read it simply for that struggle and also the literary tradition associated with it. It then led me to read Maya Angelou's, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - which I'd bequeath anyone who hasn't read such a work of beauty.
It's prose is captivating, horrors stupefying but helped me to really feel the life she and her peers had suffered, with humour and hope ever-present. (She also delighted me in her frequent talk of clothes.) Read it now; it will transport you if you haven't. As I was in my Welsh retreat at the time, I downloaded all her books in quick succession and heard as I was on book 5 that she'd died. It was poignant and sad but I felt with her work such optimism despite the pain. The later books lack the scintillating quality of Caged Bird but are also important to read from a history of the civil rights movement perspective (which is really the black rights movement). She worked intimately with many key players in the movement.
A more expertly crafted book than Angelou's, I found I missed the visceral emotion that Angelou's memoir gave me. The Color Purple is an important book and I'm sure for others it will be more of a favourite - I would encourage anyone to read it; she creates a powerful atmosphere and engaging characters. However, I realised something which has become important in my current phase of writing and research, that I like the real stories, the real words from those who were there; I feel it more in my gut than a created character. Somehow, fiction seems to have lost its gloss for me. Interestingly, as Renwick wrote, memoirs were a common tradition of African American writing.
Finally I saw a copy of Gone With The Wind and read that. I knew it was a good read, though questionable and it was that questionability that I wanted to feed on. I also wanted to get an, albeit slanted, view of the American Civil War. What jumped out of it was the perception the author, and presumably her cohort of white Southerners, that life was better for the African American community under the old regime. It was more secure. Maybe it was for a minority of 'house slaves' as they referred to those who worked in the homes of the priviledged. But, it was wrong, of course.
What's next? Well I've got Toni Morisson's Beloved here waiting for me to read. I tried it 20 years ago and never got into it. The time is clearly right. I loved Zadie Smith's NW, a stonking London novel with exciting literary inventiveness. But really, the story is on the streets of America these days. It's harrowing but like Maya's pain, it feels like progress is happening, I feel like the shit is coming out into the open and the status quo is being rocked. For this I now read Gary Younge, Guardian writer based in Chicago. From an art perspective I also love the work of Theaster Gates, also based in Chicago. There is an army of excellent writers of African origin, or African writers - I want to find time to read them all, probably a good balance to my current North East Scottish history obsession..
The long term.. though, would be where we don't need to have a 'black writers' category at all. We see writers for their art rather than through the lens of race or social group. But maybe we're not ready for that and we need to highlight this neglected writing community for a little longer.
P.S. I've focused mostly on African American reading but for the Caribbean, I found Carrie Gibson's book, Empire's Crossroads, an excellent analysis of that region's history with black history at its core.