The Root’s Summer Reading List

The Root’s book selections for the Summer of 2014, featuring “Book of Hours” by Kevin Young, “Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson” by Barbara Ransby, “Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II” by Farah Jasmine Griffin:

Book of Hours: Poems by Kevin Young

A decade after the sudden and tragic loss of his father, we witness the unfolding of grief. “In the night I brush / my teeth with a razor,” he tells us, in one of the collection’s piercing two-line poems. Capturing the strange silence of bereavement (“Not the storm / but the calm / that slays me”), Kevin Young acknowledges, even celebrates, life’s passages, his loss transformed and tempered in a sequence about the birth of his son: in “Crowning,” he delivers what is surely one of the most powerful birth poems written by a man, describing “her face / full of fire, then groaning your face / out like a flower, blood-bloom,/ crocused into air.” Ending this book of both birth and grief, the gorgeous title sequence brings acceptance, asking “What good/are wishes if they aren’t / used up?” while understanding “How to listen / to what’s gone.” Young’s frank music speaks directly to the reader in these elemental poems, reminding us that the right words can both comfort us and enlarge our understanding of life’s mysteries.

Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson by Barbara Ransby

Eslanda “Essie” Cardozo Goode Robeson lived a colorful and amazing life. Her career and commitments took her many places: colonial Africa in 1936, the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, the founding meeting of the United Nations, Nazi-occupied Berlin, Stalin’s Russia, and China two months after Mao’s revolution. She was a woman of unusual accomplishment — an anthropologist, a prolific journalist, a tireless advocate of women’s rights, an outspoken anti-colonial and antiracist activist, and an internationally sought-after speaker. Yet historians for the most part have confined Essie to the role of Mrs. Paul Robeson, a wife hidden in the large shadow cast by her famous husband. In this masterful book, biographer Barbara Ransby refocuses attention on Essie, one of the most important and fascinating black women of the twentieth century.

Chronicling Essie’s eventful life, the book explores her influence on her husband’s early career and how she later achieved her own unique political voice. Essie’s friendships with a host of literary icons and world leaders, her renown as a fierce defender of justice, her defiant testimony before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s infamous anti-communist committee, and her unconventional open marriage that endured for over 40 years—all are brought to light in the pages of this inspiring biography. Essie’s indomitable personality shines through, as do her contributions to United States and twentieth-century world history.

Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II
by Farah Jasmine Griffin

As World War II raged overseas, Harlem witnessed a battle of its own. Brimming with creative and political energy, the neighborhood’s diverse array of artists and activists took advantage of a brief period of progressivism during the war years to launch a bold cultural offensive aimed at winning democracy for all Americans, regardless of race or gender. Ardent believers in America’s promise, these men and women helped to lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement before Cold War politics and anti-Communist fervor temporarily froze their dreams at the dawn of the postwar era.

In Harlem Nocturne, esteemed scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin tells the stories of three black female artists whose creative and political efforts fueled this historic movement for change: choreographer and dancer Pearl Primus, composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams, and novelist Ann Petry. Like many African Americans in the city at the time, these women weren’t native New Yorkers, but the metropolis and its vibrant cultural scene gave them the space to flourish and the freedom to express their political concerns. Pearl Primus performed nightly at the legendary Cafe Society, the first racially integrated club in New York, where she debuted dances of social protest that drew on long-buried African traditions and the dances of former slaves in the South. Williams, meanwhile, was a major figure in the emergence of bebop, collaborating with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell and premiering her groundbreaking Zodiac Suite at the legendary performance space Town Hall. And Ann Petry conveyed the struggles of working-class black women to a national audience with her acclaimed novel The Street, which sold over a million copies — a first for a female African American author.

A rich biography of three artists and the city that inspired them, Harlem Nocturne captures a period of unprecedented vitality and progress for African Americans and women, revealing a cultural movement and a historical moment whose influence endures today.


The Cutting Season: A Novel by Attica Locke

Attica Locke‘s breathtaking debut novel, Black Water Rising, won resounding acclaim from major publications coast-to-coast and from respected crime fiction masters like James Ellroy and George Pelecanos, earning this exciting new author comparisons to Dennis Lehane, Scott Turow, and Walter Mosley. Locke returns with The Cutting Season, a second novel easily as gripping and powerful as her first — a heart-pounding thriller that interweaves two murder mysteries, one on Belle Vie, a historic landmark in the middle of Lousiana’s Sugar Cane country, and one involving a slave gone missing more than one hundred years earlier. Black Water Rising was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, an Edgar Award, and an NAACP Image Award, and was short-listed for the Orange Prize in the U.K. The Cutting Season has been selected by bestselling author Dennis Lehane as the first pick for his new line of books at HarperCollins.

Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward

“We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.” — Harriet Tubman

In five years, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men in her life — to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Dealing with these losses, one after another, made Jesmyn ask the question: Why? And as she began to write about the experience of living through all the dying, she realized the truth — and it took her breath away. Her brother and her friends all died because of who they were and where they were from, because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships. Jesmyn says the answer was so obvious she felt stupid for not seeing it. But it nagged at her until she knew she had to write about her community, to write their stories and her own.

Jesmyn grew up in poverty in rural Mississippi. She writes powerfully about the pressures this brings, on the men who can do no right and the women who stand in for family in a society where the men are often absent. She bravely tells her story, revisiting the agonizing losses of her only brother and her friends. As the sole member of her family to leave home and pursue higher education, she writes about this parallel American universe with the objectivity distance provides and the intimacy of utter familiarity. A brutal world rendered beautifully, Jesmyn Ward’s memoir will sit comfortably alongside Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

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