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Essential Reading: Black History Month

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In honor of Black History Month, we are celebrating the words of Black female writers. Our staff recommendations delve into Black womanhood, slavery, and identity—all framed by poetry.  

Sarah Plummer, Poetry Editorial Assistant, shares this classic: "Lucille Clifton's Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969—1980 is a poetry collection that touches and confounds readers with an unadorned articulation of complex, often heavy themes such as race, gender, faith, family, love, and loss. I first read Good Woman when I was in college, owing to a wise professor who was trying to teach me the less is more lesson of language. Lucille Clifton is an exemplar of economical writing. While her poetry generally lacks punctuation, metrical structure and moreover, excess of any kind, Clifton's plain-spoken narrative riffs give way to an immediacy of feeling. She gets right to the grit with what frequently remains unsaid, as in this example from the light that came to lucille clifton: 'you might as well answer the door, my child, / the truth is furiously knocking.' Many poems in this collection speak of black womanhood—as a sister, a daughter, an expectant mother, a woman bereaved and simply, a female body. In a time that is increasingly defined by violence and separatism, the legacy of Lucille Clifton as a voice for the marginalized is something worth honoring."

Editor-in-chief, Amanda Jaros was moved by this volume of poetry: "At one of my MFA program summer residencies, I had the great fortune to read Suck on the Marrow and learn from its author Camille T. Dungy in several craft lectures and readings. Dungy is a passionate writer, and Suck on the Marrow is an intense collection of poetry exploring our painful American history of slavery. Though I am not a poet, these poems moved me deeply as I sifted through the stories of the six main characters' experiences of enslavement, whose lives intertwine in some way over the course of the book. In one series of poems, Dungy crafts heartfelt and often desperate letters that Joseph—a free black man who was kidnapped—might have written to the wife and child he left behind. His story mirrors truth: once the US no longer participated in the international slave trade, white bounty hunters would head to northern states and kidnap free black people to sell back to southern plantations. Joseph's letters shift with his emotions, from sorrow at another slave's escape attempt and subsequent death to longing at how much he misses his wife's stew. In another gripping poem, a woman attempts to escape her enslavement by stashing herself in a box to be shipped north. Dungy writes, 'Dinah spent twenty hours with her face by the breathing hole, her body curled like a nursing child's, wondering what order of thanks she would offer the man who opened her crate.' Dungy's poems are powerful, and this is a critical collection that will help all of us begin to understand the reality that black people faced in America's 19th century."

Kelsey Madges, Profiles Editor, recommends this diverse, feminist tale: "The Poet X is a beautiful, powerful, young adult novel written in verse by Afro-Dominican writer and performer Elizabeth Acevedo. I am not alone in my adoration of this novel. In the past year Acevedo has won The National Book Award for Young People's Literature, The Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Fiction, and the Pura Belpré Award for a work that best affirms the Latinx cultural experience. The main character, Xiomara, struggles in ways that will be familiar to both current teenagers and those of us who remember being young adults. Xiomara has to balance her evolving needs and desires with the expectations of her sibling, parents, teachers, friends, and culture. In her strict Catholic home, she struggles to connect her identity to the values of her parents, especially her mother. When a teacher introduces Xiomara and her classmates to slam poetry, something is unlocked within her. 'It was just a poem, Xiomara, I think. / But it felt more like a gift.' Throughout much of the novel Xiomara is at odds with her mother and the strict rules she imposes. She writes in her precious notebook, a gift from her twin brother, when she can't tell anyone in her life the whole truth about what she is feeling. 'Late into the night I write and / the pages of my notebook swell / from all the words I've pressed onto them. / It almost feels like / the more I bruise the page / the quicker something inside me heals.' Eventually the poetry Xiomara hides will become a tool to strengthen the connections to the important people in her life, as well as to solidify her sense of self. I recommend The Poet X to anyone who has ever struggled to figure out how they fit into the world around them."

Which books about Black history have moved you? We'd love to hear in the comments or tweet us @LiteraryMama. You can also follow us on Instagram @Literary_Mama and Goodreads for more recommendations.



Nerys Copelovitz is a British born marketing writer and mother of three who now lives in Israel. Her writing on parenting and living in a hot spot can be found in the Times of Israel, Grown and Flown, Scary Mommy and Kveller. When not sweating over a hot keyboard, or stove, she likes to read and swim, though not in tandem.

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