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Top Ten Titles of 1999 : Black Studies

Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experienceedited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr. ~ Legendary scholar-activist W.E.B. Du Bois labored to complete an "Encyclopedia Africana" before his death in 1963. Just over 35 years later, two Harvard educators, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Ghanaian-born Kwame Anthony Appiah, have brought Du Bois's intellectual dream to life in "Africana," the most complete and comprehensive record of the Pan-African diaspora compiled into one volume. Assembling over 2 million words and 3,500 entries from more than 220 contributors, Appiah and Gates sought, as they put it, to "give a sense of the wide diversity of peoples, cultures, and traditions that we know about Africa in historical times, a feel for the environment in which that history was lived, and a broad outline of the contributions of people of African descent, especially in the Americas, but, more generally, around the world." A splendidly packaged reference work that will adorn libraries and homes for years to come, "Africana" defines the black experience in the same sweeping way that the "Encyclopedia Britannica" defined Euro-American civilization. More important for young readers, the magnificent collection shows that Africans and the continent's descendants are a truly global people who have made tremendous contributions to human civilization.
Those Bones Are Not My Childby Toni Cade Bambara ~ On a Friday night in July 1979, the first victim in what would come to be called the Atlanta Child Murders disappeared. Over the course of two years, more than 40 African American children would die--abused, mutilated, strangled--before an arrest in 1981 apparently settled the issue. Wayne Williams, a black man, was accused, tried, and convicted of the murders, and the good citizens of Atlanta breathed easy again, assured that the crimes had not been racially motivated after all, and that the criminal was behind bars. Or was he? In Toni Cade Bambara's posthumously published novel, "Those Bones Are Not My Child," Marzala Rawls Spencer is an African American mother of three, managing--just--to raise her family, hold down three jobs, and attend night school. When her 12-year-old son, Sundiata, doesn't return from a camping trip, Zala finds herself plunged into the nightmarish possibility that he has become the latest victim in the series of murders rocking the "City Too Busy to Hate." As she and her estranged husband, Spence, frantically attempt to discover what has happened to their child, the book takes them through the complicated morass of politics, race relations, and class that bedevil Atlanta--and perhaps obstruct the search for the true killer.
Cheaters by Eric Jerome Dickey ~ After a brief detour to New York City for "Milk in My Coffee," Eric Jerome Dickey returns to Southern California for his fourth multitrack African American love story. The main story is a "he said, she said" affair between Stephan Mitchell, a well-to-do young software designer who's determined not to let any one woman get in the way of his good time, and Chante Marie Ellis, who's decided to start turning the tables on men who try to play her for a fool. From now on, she declares, "A dog gets what a dog gets ... dogged." As always, Dickey shows that he's on top of the current scene, peppering his characters' lives with the latest in black fashion and culture (if you ever find yourself driving in the Los Angeles area, you'll know exactly what your radio presets should be). Although the ending might be a little too neatly wrapped up, you'll never know before you get there whether the next chapter's going to contain romance, comedy, heartache--or maybe a little of each. Dickey's at the top of his form in "Cheaters," establishing yet another credential for his status as a master of the contemporary urban romance. More Eric Jerome Dickey
Juneteenth --HARDCOVER (June 1999)Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison
Juneteenth -- PAPERBACK (June 2000)

Juneteenth -- PAPERBACK (June 2000) by Ralph Ellison ~~ "Invisible Man," which Ralph Ellison published in 1952, was one of the great debuts in contemporary literature, but his follow-up seemed truly bedeviled--not only by its monumental predecessor, but by fate itself. First, a large section of the novel went up in flames when the author's house burned in 1967. Then he spent decades reconstructing, revising, and expanding his initial vision. When Ellison died in 1994, he left behind some 2,000 pages of manuscript. Yet this mythical mountain of prose was clearly unfinished, far too sketchy and disjointed to publish. Apparently Ellison's second novel would never appear. Or would it? Ellison's literary executor, John Callahan, has now quarried a smaller, more coherent work from all that raw material. Gone are the epic proportions that Ellison so clearly envisioned.  Instead, "Juneteenth" revolves around just two characters: Adam Sunraider, a white, race-baiting New England senator, and Alonzo "Daddy" Hickman, a black Baptist minister who turns out to have a paradoxical (and paternal) relationship to his opposite number. As the book opens, Sunraider is delivering a typically bigoted peroration on the Senate floor when he's peppered by an assassin's bullets. Mortally wounded, he summons the elderly Hickman to his bedside.  There the two commence a journey into their shared past, which (unlike the rest of 1950s America) represents a true model of racial integration. ~ Other Works by Ralph Ellison

I Call Myself an Artistby Charles Johnson and others; edited by Rudolph P. Byrd ~ As a literary and intellectual heir to Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, Charles Johnson articulates in his work the struggles of Africa Americans' lives without denying its fundamental Americanness. This book, compiled by Emory University Professor Rudolph P. Byrd, contains 25 years' worth of Johnson's essays, poetry, cartoons, reviews, novel excerpts, interviews, and critiques. In the autobiographical essay that titles the book, Johnson cites the influences of Sartre, Malraux, and Melville in his attempt to forge a "genuinely black American fiction." In other works, Johnson investigates the worldwide image of black people, takes on Spike Lee and Dinesh D'Souza, and illuminates Martin Luther King's faded dream. Other writers--including Stanley Crouch, Vera Kutzinski, and Ashraf H.A. Rushdy--examine the richness and depth of Johnson's fictional characters and their cultural and human adversities. "As a symbol and agent of the process of communication, of communion," Byrd writes, "Johnson is a writer of our age whose message will deliver him, whole and engaging, to readers whose interests are as varied and whose questions are as urgent as his own."
Mosquito by Gayl Jones ~ Depending on your tolerance for digression, Gayl Jones's "Mosquito" will either be hugely entertaining or absolutely crazy-making. The heroine and narrator of this hefty tome is Sojourner Jane Nadine Johnson--Mosquito, to her friends--an African American truck driver with a mind as flighty as the insect she's named for. You know what you're up against from the very first paragraph, in which Mosquito expounds on Texas border towns, tanning products, cacti, a teacup shaped like a cactus, the town of Brownsville, and the Kiowa word for Brownsville (which she can't remember). What raises this novel above the merely picaresque is Jones's sophisticated political sensibility: as Mosquito makes her physical journey across the Southwest, she embarks on a cultural odyssey as well, examining the struggles of all the "second class peoples" to find a place for themselves in America.
Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Centuryby Randall Kenan ~ Randall Kenan's delicious and diverse sampler of African American life, culled from over 200 interviews, shows that the American idea of "blackness" is as vast as the United States itself and cannot be pinned down to simplistic sociological cliches. "More than a book of analysis," Kenan writes, "this is my book of soul searching. I am asking who we are." Crisscrossing North America, he visits some familiar settings--Oakland, New Orleans, and New York--and some unusual places (including Bangor, Maine, and Maidstone, Saskatchewan) to discover how everyday black folks deal with issues of race, identity, and nationality. From a black minister in Mormon Utah to a female judge in skinhead country to the state of blacks in the would-be utopia of Seattle, "Walking on Water" paints a revealing portrait of a people whose presence and perseverance may forge a better America.
Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season by David Shields ~ A word of explanation: Technically speaking, "Black Planet" is a chronicle of the Seattle SuperSonics during the 1994-1995 season. Since the team blew its shot at the playoffs, there's no chance for an uplifting grand finale. Yet David Shields had a different sort of hoop dream in mind from the very beginning. "The NBA," he writes, "is a place where, without ever acknowledging it--and because it's never acknowledged, it's that much more potent and telling--white fans and black players enact and quietly explode virtually every racial issue and tension in the culture at large. Race, the league's taboo topic, is the league's true subject." It's the author's true subject, too, and he goes at it from every angle--attending games, recording call-in radio shows, and making some abortive attempts to cozy up to the players. If Shields were simply slapping society on the wrist for its half-submerged racism, "Black Planet" would wear out its welcome in the first quarter. But he's consistently hardest on himself, so the book becomes not only a social critique but a critique of social critiques, cutting the ground from under itself in an infinite and entertaining loop-the-loop. Shields may not be the first writer to transform a fan's notes into literary gold--Frederick Exley beat him to the punch--but he's the most rigorously intelligent one in a long, long time. Swish!
Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad  by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard ~ When quiltmaker Ozella McDaniels told Jacqueline Tobin of the Underground Railroad Quilt Code, it sparked Tobin to place the tale within the history of the Underground Railroad. "Hidden in Plain View" documents Tobin and Raymond Dobard's journey of discovery, linking Ozella's stories to other forms of hidden communication from history books, codes, and songs. Each quilt, which could be laid out to air without arousing suspicion, gave slaves directions for their escape. Ozella tells Tobin how quilt patterns like the wagon wheel, log cabin, and shoofly signaled slaves how and when to prepare for their journey. Stitching and knots created maps, showing slaves the way to safety. The authors construct history around Ozella's story, finding evidence in cultural artifacts such as slave narratives, folk songs, spirituals, documented slave codes, and children's' stories. Tobin and Dobard write that "from the time of slavery until today, secrecy was one way the black community could protect itself. If the white man didn't know what was going on, he couldn't seek reprisals." "Hidden in Plain View" is a multilayered and unique piece of scholarship, oral history, and cultural exploration that reveals slaves as deliberate agents in their own quest for freedom even as it shows that history can sometimes be found where you least expect it.
Kinship: A Family's Journey in Africa and Americaby Philippe E. Wamba ~ With his bicultural heritage, journalist Philippe Wamba--born of an African American mother and Congolese father and reared in California, Boston, Tanzania, and the Congo--offers an evenhanded and encyclopedic examination of the facts and fictions that have grown on both sides of the Atlantic. "My Blackness has been the bridge that has linked my two identities," he writes, "the commonality that my split selves share." In the exceptional "Kinship," Wamba recounts the long history of the African image among black Americans, from the 18th-century Senegal-born slave poet Phyllis Wheatley to Marcus Garvey, the fiery back-to-Africa "race man" of the early 1900s. Across the water, Wamba tells how Africans waited for Afro-Americans to liberate them from colonialism, and how their leaders, such as Haile Selassie, Kwame Nkrumah, and Patrice Lumumba, interacted with their transatlantic brethren. Wamba also recalls how he was treated as a foreigner in Tanzania, the ambivalence his mother received from his paternal relatives, and the idealism that U.S. blacks have of the continent, which at times has led to uncritical support of corrupt dictators like the former Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko (who once imprisoned Wamba's activist father). As he relates how Michael Jackson sneaks Swahili words in his songs while African kids incorporate hip-hop slang into their vocabulary, Wamba lays out the past perils and, ultimately, the future promise of transcontinental black unity. "I have discovered that African Americans and Africans are culturally distinct," he says. "But through the evidence of history and my own personal experience, I have learned that Africans and Black Americans can move beyond their real and perceived differences to celebrate and build on what they share."
Other Titles Worth Considering:

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

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