Imagine Better: an Optimistic Black Lives Matter Summer Reading List

Up to now, I have chosen to share information about the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice on my other social media accounts.  I try to take some time to read, listen, and reflect before I make more personal statements here at Postcards, because I want to say something that’s meaningful and helpful, rather than just saying something for the sake of saying something.  I certainly don’t want to engage in what Holiday Phillips calls “Performance Allyship” — that is, making shallow statements just for the sake of looking good, and without having put much actual thought into it.

I will admit right now that I am one of those people who’s been alternating between messages about racial justice and unrelated, trivial photos of my summer shenanigans, and this can definitely look like shallow activism.

In my mind, the more trivial posts were not meant to distract from the fight, but to:

  1.  Give readers and viewers a chance to rest and recharge for a few seconds, so we don’t get burned out too quickly or fall into despair.
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  2. And to show how integral the fight for justice should be to a person’s life.  Justice work should be as natural, personal, and everyday as sharing photos of a pedicure or a mermaid smoothie.

As Phillips says, true allyship needs to be an ongoing phenomenon, not just a temporary trend whenever something terrible happens.

Another way we, as readers and book bloggers, can contribute to long-term justice is to support stories that show what a just society actually looks like — a society in which Black protagonists can have adventures that either have nothing to do with their race, or that acknowledge race but focus primarily on other themes, or that begin from a historical standpoint but move far beyond it to an optimistic future.  See, for example, Nnedi Okorafor’s definition of Africanfuturism.  Because, as @athenakugblenu says, one great way to “decenter whiteness” is to “read happy Black books, too” — books about subjects other than just racism and slavery.

I’m currently reading the following two books:

Cover of How Long 'Til Black Future Month? by N. K. Jemisin.  The background is solid black, with a hint of light behind the profile of a person in the foreground.  Covering most of the foreground is the profile of a Black individual with a large, curly Mohawk decorated, near the scalp, with four white and pale brown balls of twine, plus what looks like one white flower.  The person is wearing a necklace of giant white beads, coiled twice around their neck, and a black outfit -- you can just see the shoulder above the bottom of the cover.

N. K. Jemisin’s short story collection, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?  As the title says, the whole point of studying the injustices of the past is to create a better present and future…so let’s imagine a future in which Black protagonists can participate in all the variations of fantasy and sci-fi!  Because, when you portray people as worthy of being heroes in fantastic literature, you teach people to treat them as heroes in real life.
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On a side note, if I hadn’t already filled the “Beautiful Cover” square on my bingo card, I might’ve chosen this one, too.  That gorgeous portrait was taken by CreativeSoul Photography, as part of their AfroArt Series that highlights the diversity of Black hair.
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On a second side note, this collection is great from both a Black Lives Matter standpoint and from a Pride perspective, since several of the stories feature queer protagonists.

Cover of A Song Below Water, by Bethany C. Morrow.  Two teenage girls stand back to back, close enough to lean against each other.  Their long hair, in twists and coils, floats upward -- the background is light blue, with a few bubbles floating up with the girls' hair.  The girl on the left has light blue eyeshadow and a light blue earring that looks like a chandelier.  The girl on the right also has blue eyeshadow, with a small gold hoop earring and a streak of blue scales and glitter on her cheek.  Both girls have light gray-green seaweed woven into their hair.

Bethany C. Morrow’s urban fantasy novel, A Song Below Water.  It’s about two Black mermaids fighting for their right to exist — both as mermaids and as Black women — in an alternate universe where merfolk have been openly part of American history for decades, at least.  So far, it’s a fintastic story that raises questions about (1) how myths develop and how closely they align with reality; and (2) how the victims of crime are portrayed and honored (or not), depending on their identities.

I’m planning to count this as a “Book I saw someone else reading” (in this case, I saw a screenshot of someone’s audiobook on Instagram, under the #amreading tag…because what better way to people-watch readers during a quarantine?).

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Speaking of #merfolkforblacklives (a movement started by Mermaid Chè Monique), I highly recommend checking out this conversation with Mermaid Chè and other Black Merfolk on Facebook video (the fun starts at 2:30).  They discuss their experiences, both good and bad, as mer-formers and as two-legged humans.  The talk will also be broadcast in a condensed form on The Mermaid Podcast.  Besides Mermaid Chè, these are the other participants (plus two more marvelous mers whom I follow on Instagram):

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Finally, if you’re looking for more feel-good fantasy/sci-fi/Juv-YA/LGBT stories with Black protagonists, I recommend the following.  Oh, and if you’re a fan of adult rom-coms, see this lover-ly list!

Each title links to the Goodreads page.

Cover of Zahrah the Windseeker, by Nnedi Okorafor.  A girl with long black hair faces the audience.  Her hair flows up and to the left, and is covered in swirling light green vines.  In front of her are two dark green ferns.  Behind her and at the right edge of the cover is a thin tree with sparse leaves, and a sky at dawn or twilight, with shades of pink, orange, and yellow.
Zahrah the Windseeker, by Nnedi Okorafor
Fantasy, Solarpunk, Africanjujuism

Cover of Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor.  The background is manila-colored.  In the foreground is a black-and-white sketch of a girl whose body is facing the left edge of the cover, while her head is turned to look behind her.  Her right arm is slightly stretched forward, while her left arm is stretched behind her, holding a dagger blade-side down.  Several colors -- blue, red, and yellow -- stream out from the point of the dagger.
Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor
Fantasy, Africanjujuism

Cover of the Binti audiobook. A dark background, in front of which you see a woman's face, with two hands spread open at either side of her face. She has dark skin, with streaks of red clay on both her face and her hands.
Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor
Sci-Fi, Africanfuturism

Cover of The Deep, by Rivers Solomon.  The silhouette of a Black mermaid rises toward the surface of a blue-grey sea.  Her hair is just past shoulder-length and flows back in twists or dreadlocks.  In the background, just ahead of the mermaid, swims a whale.  The mermaid is very tall and thin, with small points of light running down her arms and the side of her tail.

The Deepby Rivers Solomon, et al.
Fantasy, Solarpunk

Cover of The Egypt Game, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder.  Two profiles stare at each other from either edge of the cover -- they are two girls, one white with blond hair and one Black with dark hair.  Behind them is an ancient Egyptian figure -- maybe a pharaoh or queen.  You can just see the figures face from the nose up.  There is a glow lighting the girls' faces and the Egyptian figure's eyebrows.

The Egypt Gameby Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Realistic Fiction

Cover of The Jumbies, by Tracey Baptiste.  You see a dark, nighttime forest, where the trees are all silhouettes.  There is a light blue glow all around, and a small pair of yellow eyes near the top of the cover, under the title.  A girl walks, half-hunched over, across the bottom-center of the cover.  She turns her head slightly, as though starting to look behind herself, but her eyes are turned upward, looking at the disembodied yellow eyes.  At the right edge of the cover, two boys peek out from behind a tree, watching the girl.  She is carrying a mysterious bundle.

The Jumbiesby Tracey Baptiste
Fantasy, Folklore

Cover of SHake dem Halloween Bones, by W. Nikola-Lisa.  The title takes up most of the cover, with a dark blue and black night sky behind the letters, which are sprayed with yellow, blue, and orange.  The H is made of pale bones and the O is a Jack-o-Lantern with its mouth shaped like a wide O, showing a candle inside.  Beneath the title is the silhouette of several skyscrapers with their windows lit yellow.  One of the buildings has a giant cyclops eye and another has a Cheshire Cat grin.
Shake dem Halloween Bonesby W. Nikola-Lisa
Fairy tales

Cover of Hurricane Child, by Kheryn Callender.  A girl stands in a small blue rowboat, on a still ocean, facing the audience.  She has dark skin and short black hair pulled back with a headband.  The top and sides of the cover are bordered by tropical leaves, ferns and flowers -- red, pink, purple, green, and orange.

Hurricane Childby Kheryn Callender
LGBT romance

Cover of Our Own Private Universe, by Robin Talley.  Two girls take up the entire cover, facing each other so closely that their noses touch.  They are both grinning, sharing a private moment.  The girl on the left is Black; she turns her face more toward the audience.  The other girl is white; she is totally facing the first girl, and her right hand is cupping the first girl's chin.

Our Own Private Universeby Robin Talley
LGBT romance

Cover of Babysitters Club number 16: Jessi's Secret Language.  A sunny yellow border surrounds a square portrait of a pre-teen girl and a younger boy.  The girl is Black, and has her dark hair pulled back in a bun.  She is making a sign with her right hand against her chest -- she's making a fist, with only her pinky sticking up, towards her left shoulder.  The boy is white, with dark hair.  He is kneeling and making another sign with his hands -- the fingers of his right hand are "walking" across the palm of his left hand.  They are sitting in a park with large deciduous trees, in the daytime.

All of the Jessi books in the Babysitters Club series
Realistic Fiction

Ghostwriter logo: bright blue background with green text, surrounded by headshots of Lenni, Tina, Gaby, Alex, Jamal, and Rob

Ok, this last one’s a TV show, but it teaches literacy by way of supernatural hijinks with a diverse cast of pre-teens who are portrayed as 3D humans rather than tokens or types.  Plus, the 90stalgia is hilarious.  See (almost) all the episodes on IBeGhostwriter’s YouTube channel (the correctly-numbered Slime Monster ones are here).

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Sound off, Bookwyrms!  What are some of your favorite stories that model a more optimistic future?  Know any more mer-formers I should follow?

2 comments

  1. They don’t show a future that makes a reader immediately optimistic, but I love Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents because of the hope she sees in dreaming big (you have to read the second one to get the full import of how big the protagonist dreams and what comes of it).

    • Those are definitely on my TBR list! I tried reading Parable of the Sower in high school, and although I immediately related to the highly sensitive protagonist, I was a little too quick to put the book down because of the very dystopic beginning. I think knowing there’s optimism in the distance will help me pick it back up.

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