Fiction and poems that have taught me about Black culture

1. Africa in Prose

‘Our survey is not comprehensive; it is merely a pointer towards possibilities’

Complied in 1969, this anthology of micro-stories unites Black authors from across the globe. O.R. Dathorne, the editor of the collection, writes that its aim is to demonstrate Black voices from their beginnings in oral storytelling to the, then, present-day understandings of how Black authors use their voice. So, the collection begins with ‘A Journey to Russia and Siberia in 1896’ and ends with ‘The City of the Future’. The sections which I think are worth reading right now though are Amos Tutola’s ‘Remember the Day After Tomorrow’, Edward Babatunde Horatio-Jones’s ‘Mourner’s Progress’, and Caesy Motsitsi’s ‘Riot’.

2. Little You

‘I remember when I discovered the blacktag/it’s what I call it in my head when a white person kills a black/person with impunity and social media goes crazy and it starts trending like #SaraBland #EricGarner #MarkDuggan #BlackLivesMatter/yeah but why the hell do we still need reminding?’

Rachel Nwokoro’s poetry collection is incredible and probably one of my best purchases I’ve made at a spoken word night until date. I’ve cried reading it and I cry every time I read the poem this quote is taken from, ‘I Remember’. Its visual-poetry hybrid could top Rupi Kaur any day, as the blurb says, it’s ‘part poetry collection, part slapdash scrapbook’. From the deeply personal screenshots of texts messages to incredible graphic illustrations and posters, this collection is rich and overflowing with honesty of love and life, dedicated to Rachel’s younger self.

3. Spoken Word London’s Anti Hate Anthology

‘As people of colour, we can tell ourselves that we are fortunate that the racism we experience today in London is not as bad as elsewhere or how it was in the past. I felt that in this poem and thought it important to put this out there, not to agree or disagree with it but to put it to you, the reader, to consider’ – Dean Atta on Jamal Hassan’s ‘Eyes and Teeth’

Specifically, from this Anthology, I recommend Jamal Hassan’s ‘Eyes and Teeth’. I feel there’s nothing more I can say about this poem beyond what Dean has said. It’s powerful because it doesn’t take itself seriously whilst examining a serious topic, but in my opinion that’s what Jamal does best.

4. Devil on the Cross

‘On his head there were seven horns, seven trumpets for sounding infernal hymns of praise and glory. The Devil had two mouths, one on his forehead and the other at the back of his head. His belly sagged, as if it were about to give birth to all the evils of the world’

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s book is indescribably overwhelming in the best way possible. What makes it more incredible is that it was written on toilet paper and secretly sent outside of prison to be published whilst Ngũgĩ was in detained in the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison from 1977 – 78. It beautifully and strangely explores, then, contemporary Nairobi, blurring death and life, spirits and magic into the city’s backdrop of Kenya’s growing capitalist ideologies.

5. Ways of Dying

‘‘As long as there are funerals, I’ll survive.’ Shadrack laughs. ‘How do people survive on funerals?’’

Zakes Mda explores the South African tradition of professional mourning through the eyes of Toloki. It switches between flashbacks to his life in his village with his childhood love Noria to his present life where he attempts to make money from his career and challenges the authorities of contemporary South Africa. This book is so well written and paints an equally magical and disturbing view of the realities of its setting. It also has one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen – I absolutely love this book.

6. Accent

‘Every time I articulate for white, American ears, I lose a portion of my ancestral will’

‘My accent is the realist thing about me’

ButtonPoetry JUST uploaded this amazing poem by Yaw Kyeremateng. No words are needed from me here.

7. The Famished Road

‘I seemed to scatter in all directions. I became leaves lashed by the winds of recurrence. I felt myself falling through an unbearable immensity of dark spaces and a sharp diamond agony tugged deep inside my lightness and I tried to re-enter myself but seemed diverted into a tide of total night’

This is a FAT book by Ben Okri a British-Nigerian writer, but an incredible quarantine read. Take your time with it. Go slowly. Explore its crevices. It’s thick and heavy with images of (what I’ve interpreted) as the Yoruba oral tradition and neo-imperialism, as it explores the world through the eyes of an abiku or a spirit-child. This novel is part Odyssey, part examination of neo-colonial Nigerian poverty, part poem. It’s absolutely mind-blowing in the way it’s written, I cannot recommend it enough. It will take you forwards then backwards then sideways and end where the novel began. A disorientating read in the best possible way. And if you manage to finish it, it’s a trilogy so you’ve got two other books to read!

8. Hermonie Should’ve Been Black

You turn time in your hands, turn minutes out of milli-seconds. Ain’t that like a black girl, to find hours in the day where no one else would know to look.’

This slam poem by Aris Kian and Kendryk Youngblood is probably one of the best ways to understand the meaning behind the phrase ‘Black Girl Magic’, quite literally through Harry Potter! It certainly made me look at representation of Black women differently. You can check it out here:

9. The Poet X

‘Xiomara isn’t even Dominican./I know because I Googled it./It means: One who is ready for war./And truth be told, that description is about right/because I even tried to come into the world/in a fighting stance: feet first.’ – Name

Elizabeth Acevdeo cleverly proclaims her book as ‘a novel’ on the front cover, but when I opened it, I was surprised to be met with poetry. Acevedo’s novel’s story is told entirely through poetry, ingeniously and genuinely following the life of Xiomara. It expands the Young Adult genre from the singularities of Black cultures, to its intersectionality, as the protagonist Xiomara is Dominican like the author who is herself Afro-Dominican. More importantly though, its incredibly poignant in its articulation of the experience of normal teenage struggles as a young POC in today’s racialised America, which I personally resonated with so much.  

10. To Kill a Mockingbird

‘‘He wasn’t guilty in the first place and they said he was.’ ‘If you had been on that jury, son, and eleven other boys like you, Tom would be a free man,’ said Atticus.

This novel is a hailed classic for a reason and is one I’ll never forget. Like Okri, Harper Lee tells the story from a child’s point of view, Scout (or Jean-Louise) Finch and her brother Jeremy (or Jem) Finch. Scout is a tomboy to her core and looks up to her father Atticus as we follow her and her brother for three-years during the era of the Great Depression. It doesn’t engage with the experience of being black directly, but rather is a great model for how to be a white ally in times when other white people are not. Moral of the story, everyone should be Atticus.

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