In honor of the Women’s History Month, and, more so, in honor of the herstory of Black women and the truths of that story that continue to be overlooked, undermined, belittled and denied by men, I have compiled a list of twelve books that have educated me toward a greater understanding, respect and admiration of Black women and a deeper appreciation and awareness of the issues that confront them and all of us in the Black community in the United States and the world around us.
As men, we are often socialized to not view women as our intellectual equals. Rather, we are socialized to view women as overly emotional, irrational beings that have been placed here on this earth for our personal benefit and pleasure. This kind of patriarchal socialization often leads to a condition where we dismiss the consideration of what women have to say. This dismissal is often a form of patriarchal protection. If we can deny their voice, then we do not have to be held accountable to the truths that are revealed from their experiences. This position produces an environment that is often hostile to the voices of Black women. In limiting our exposure to the literature of Black women, we are indeed limiting ourselves as Black men and contributing to a condition that is not healthy for us or our sisters, or our community as a whole. There is a wealth of insight in books by Black women that can only make us better Black men, better fathers, sons, brothers, friends, lovers, better human beings, better able to make a positive and constructive contribution to our community’s development.
This list is written for our education and edification as Black men. By reading books by Black women that encourage us to think more deeply and feel more fully even as we are challenged to move past our socialized misconceptions of women, we are provided an opportunity to evolve our consciousness and grow and develop into the men that our community needs us to be.
1. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America by Paula Giddings
Whenever we talk about “Black History,” great men always come to mind. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Malcolm X. Frederick Douglass. Sometimes Black women such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth are given their due. But in most cases the record ends there. In Giddings classic study, we are shown that Tubman and Truth were only the beginning of the story of our continuing sojourn here in this country. She goes through the lineage of Black women who organized and struggled against all manner of institutional racism and communal sexism. She details how there would be no Civil Rights or Black Power movements to speak of were it not for the courageous example of women like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ella Baker and many others. If we are serious about our history and honoring our ancestors, then we owe it to ourselves to know these women and to remember them, too.
2. Beloved by Toni Morrison
In much of our discussion about slavery as Black men, we give little voice to the pain and trauma experienced by Black women. The only time we seem to acknowledge the experience of Black women during slavery is when the discussion turns to rape. But as Morrison’s novel explores, rape was not the only burden Black women had to bear. Although a novel, the book relies on and is inspired by the historic record of Margaret Garner, a Black woman, who, in 1856, escaped slavery with her family. When bounty hunters arrived to take her and her children back into slavery, Garner kills her two year-old daughter. Morrison’sBeloved enables us to grapple with this chapter in our people’s history even as it encourages us to grapple within ourselves and how we remember our history.
3. Killing Rage: Ending Racism by bell hooks
So often the charge levied against Black feminists by some Black men is that they hate Black men and are in league with white feminists. Killing Rage silences such talk and exposes it as hollow chest-beating. She clarifies that Black feminists have always maintained an anti-racist critique, and further shows how Black feminism actually strengthens Black empowerment. No other writer has made as penetrating an impact on my consciousness as a gendered person as bell hooks has. I highly encourage reading anything and everything she has written.
4. Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape by Charlotte Pierce-Baker
The title speaks for itself. Our community, like most communities, denies women their voice and, thus, their truth when it comes to rape and sexual assault. In the Black community when the accused rapist is Black, our default position – all too often – is that “she must’ve done something to cause this to happen to her.” This book provides us the opportunity to be sensitized to the traumatic experiences of those who have survived rape. The struggle to end rape begins with our willingness to take serious the truths of women.
5. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
If I asked you to name a person born in rural America around the time of the Great Depression, who would live much of his/her youth away from his/her parents and experienced racism up close and personal, would eventually move to the city and be befriended by conmen and hustlers, and go on to be a world-travelling activist, invariably most everyone would respond with Malcolm X. Yet, in this instance, I would be referring to Maya Angelou. Maya Angelou is the only woman to have been approached by both Malcolm X and Dr. King and asked to come and organize with them. To read The Autobiography of Malcolm X without also reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (and the rest of Maya’s autobiographies) is to read only half the story.
6. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
I don’t think there is a book written by a Black woman in the last fifty years that was as vilified by Black men as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The word was that it cast Black men in an unfavorable light. There was less discussion about whether there was any truth in that light. For this reason alone, it is worthy of our consideration. When you read the book without the blinders of male domination, you realize that it is a triumphant tale of the power of self-love in the face of debilitating abuse. The only men who need to fear this book are men who wish to have the freedom to exert brutal authority over women.
7. Assata by Assata Shakur
So much of the history of Black liberation struggle has been told from a male dominant perspective where Black women’s roles are confined to the background. This biography shatters such falsification of history and teaches us that women not only got down for the cause, but were willing, ready and able to handle the consequences. Yet, her story is not a story of suffering but of victory. It is a story that continues as forces in the state of New Jersey continue to seek her extradition. Our integrity as Black men is only as real as our collective will to keep that sister free in united action with Black women and all people who understand the importance of her contribution to our struggle. After reading this book, no man can ever claim to be a revolutionary that does not recognize the full equality of women.
8. The Angela Davis Reader by Angela Davis (edited by Joy James)
To read The Angela Y. Davis Reader is to be enlightened by the experience and critical consciousness of a Black woman who is a former political prisoner, revolutionary, activist, professor and prison abolitionist. It is to read the words of someone who has been there in every sense of the word and remains a living witness as to why the fight for justice and self-determination should never be defined by gender.
9. Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall
For me, this book is the Bible of Black women’s thought and activism in the United States. Containing both “Old” and “New” Testaments (the “Old” being the work and wisdom of Black women during slavery and the “New” being the analysis and activist wisdom since), this collection of first-hand accounts of Black women in their own words chronicle the history and prophetic voice of a community of women whose words burn at the heart of the very contradictions of American democracy. It is this Bible that saved me from the hypocrisy of my embrace of sexism and homophobia cloaked as it was in the garb of cultural nationalism. Reason enough for every brother to read who ever fashioned himself guardian or keeper of the people. From the Genesis of Maria Stewart’s first public lecture to the Revelations of Alice Walker’s “Closet of My Soul,” Black women have never failed to hold forth and cast forward a liberating vision for all humanity.
10. Mad at Miles by Pearl Cleage
This tiny book is not short on exposing sexism for the danger it is to the Black community. Read it and be provoked to change by its probing and powerful analysis. Cleage unapologetically makes clear that Black women can never view us, Black men, as true allies until we are willing to recognize that sexism is as problematic as racism.
11. All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us are Brave edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith
One of the most revolutionary books written, this compilation of essays makes the case for Black Women’s Studies at a time when the idea of Black Studies was still a topic of debate. Sadly, there are many Africana Studies programs that continue to deny the particular voice and experience of Black women on the strength of its own merit and meaning. This book is a response to the academy’s historic denial of the perspective of Black women. In the academy, to talk about gender is to talk about white women. To talk about race in the academy is to talk about Black men. Black women are routinely marginalized by white female scholars and summarily overlooked by Black male scholars. This book centers the scholarship of Black women and gives Black women a foundation from which to build an analysis that centers their particular reality.
12. Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks
In plain language, bell hooks shows that feminism is not a man-hating phenomenon but one that embraces men who are invested in resisting sexism and willing to extend that resistance into activism against male domination in the home, in the church, in the schools, on the street, in the locker room, in the barbershop, on the job. Read it with a mind on how we can envision a manhood that is liberated and liberating from all forms of oppression.
These 12 books read over the course of 12 months have the potential to revolutionize our minds as men and will catapult our consciousness to a level that will lead toward the development of a new manhood that is based on a respect and appreciation for the equality of women and the fullness of their self-determination. These twelve are just the beginning. The hope is that it will open your mind to the world of knowledge and wisdom that lies within the life-changing literature of Black women.
Ewuare X. Osayande is a poet, political activist and author of several books including Misogyny & the Emcee: Sex, Race & Hip Hop. First published in 2006, Misogyny and the Emcee remains the first and only book written by a Black man that confronts the exploitation of Black women in the rap industry.