I am preaching to myself when I say black is beautiful—that black is brilliant and bold, and that books written by black men and black women matter.
In May, after reading Playing in the Dark by Toni Morrison, I realized how much of what she writes about—the white gaze—is exactly what formed and reinforced my own literary collection. As I surveyed my shelves full of poetry and plays; nonfiction and fiction; Christian and non-Christian, I realized the bindings on all my books, save one, were bare of titles by black men and women. To look at my stacks would be to conclude the superiority of Shakespeare, Didion as the dream, and Voskamp as a voice esteemed with highest value.
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes reading Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye and experiencing a transformation in which she went from writing stories about “white girls with blue eyes to writing about girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails.” I, too, found myself thick in the midst of transformation, ordering Listening for God by Renita J. Weems and In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens by Alice Walker, and saving to my to-be-bought wish list The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates , Well-Read Black Girl by Glory Edim, and Native by Kaitlin B. Curtice, just to name a few.
When books like How To Be An Antiracist and So You Want To Talk About Race recently rose to the top of The New York Times Best Seller List as a consequence of riots and protests in many cities, part of me celebrated the amplification and elevation of important and informed black voices. Yet, black men and women offer immeasurably more than stories of suffering and struggle, more than mere resources on racism to relevantly revisit our nation’s painful past.
Rebecca McLaughlin writes that books are passports into “the wayside world” of those who are least like ourselves, a holy holding of sacred stories. “A book is a labor of love,” says Kate Murphy, pastor of The Grove, a multiethnic community church in East Charlotte, North Carolina. “Words have power,” she says, “to create and power to embody. And so I think the gift of being able to read bell hooks, or Toni Morrison, or Alice Walker, or Nikki Giovanni is that they’re so generously saying, ‘Here is the most sacred and real and true thing about my life, and I’m sharing it with you.’”
There’s a technical term for this kind of sacred story sharing called “windows and mirrors.” Jevon Bolden, an editor, literary agent, and CEO of Embolden Media Group, explains, “You get to see a mirror of yourself when you read someone’s story. You get to enter someone else's experience and actually see yourself, which means that you're being reflected. You’re seeing them as human, and you’re seeing you as human.”
Lucretia Berry, anti-race/ism curriculum specialist, founder of Brownicity, and author of What LIES Between Us, argues for the importance of reading as a means of seeing ourselves represented in books. She then adds, “We also need to see windows … so that we see the experiences of others. That helps us expand; that helps grow and cultivate our compassion when we know the stories of people that live a life that's different than ours.”
This kind of immersion is ultimately what dismantles what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story,” the idea that if you show or see a people as “only one thing” over and over again, the one thing you see is who they become to you.
If ever there were a group of people that could and should understand this concept, it would be believers in Jesus. As Christians, we hinge our hope on the words and witness of ancient storytellers and scribes who looked and lived lives so diametrically different than our own. The paradox is obvious: We’ll listen to racial and culturally diverse voices from the Bible, but not from the rest of life.
Black voices resound beyond tales of woe and tears. #BlackJoy. There is art and beauty, intellect and originality, adventure, romance, and imagination to rival C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Beverly Lewis, and Stephen King. “When you talk about history, when you talk about literature, we have been shaped to believe that the most important literature comes from white America,” says Kelvin Walker, superintendent of the Christian and Missionary Alliance’s Metropolitan district. “Even theologically, we have been shaped to think that the deepest thinkers, theologically; that the right thinkers, theologically, are Western, white theologians. And we don't hear from a lot of our classrooms that we should be reading Soong-Chan Rah, or Esau McCaulley, Brenda Salter, or W. E. B. Du Bois.”
Believers’ bookshelves should portray the kingdom of heaven we so passionately preach. If we long for the seats in our churches to be filled with black bodies and brown bodies and white bodies together, we can start with our shelves and surround ourselves with stories reflecting a love for others without boundaries experienced through reading others’ books.
Our compassion, our communities, and our very communion with Christ relies on the sacred stories and testimonies that surround us—stories, like Christ’s, which superiority and supremacy once sought to silence and snuff out.
So buy the books, believer. And not just the ones about antiracism, but the romantic ones too. Black men and women really do offer more than just a peering glass into the past. We are prized people of God, stamped with imago Dei and standing with pen in hand to pour out plot and poetry and prayers with unbridled power, perspective, and personality. Slavery and suffering did not forge and force this out of us. It was there all the time—given and gifted by God with all his unconditional compassion and creativity.
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe (Penguin): A novel about society and life in Nigeria at the time of the arrival of Europeans in the late 19th century.
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Anchor): A novel about a young Nigerian woman who encounters struggle after immigrating to the United States to study.
Gifted Hands, Ben Carson (Zondervan): An autobiography of one man’s journey from poverty and prejudice to finding his own intellect and imagination in his becoming of a neurosurgeon.
The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates (One World): A lyrical, fictional exploration of slavery narrative and fantasy.
Well-Read Black Girl, Glory Edim (Ballantine): A collection of creative contributions from members of the book club and online community Well-Read Black Girl.
Jazz, Toni Morrison (Vintage): A rhythmic and lyrical storytelling of characters in love and in conflict.
All Along You Were Blooming, Morgan Harper Nichols (Zondervan): A collection of illustrated poetry and prose on themes of becoming, grace, purpose, and joy.
In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Alice Walker (Mariner): A collection of nonfiction pieces on womanhood, motherhood, feminism, and creativity.
The Color Purple, Alice Walker (Penguin): A novel about African-American women living in a suppressed social culture in the South in the 1930s.
Listening for God, Renita J. Weems (Touchstone): On longing for communication and communion with God through seasons of silence.
Rachel Kang is a writer of prose, poems, and other pieces, and the creator of Indelible Ink Writers, an online community of creatives. You can connect with her at rachelmariekang.com and follow her on Twitter & Instagram @rachelmariekang.