Celebrate Black Literature: Dr. Mark Cunningham’s recommended reads

Join us in celebrating black literature! The Texas Book Festival is recognizing Black History Month by highlighting black Texas authors, readers, and contributors to the literary community and asking them to share some of their favorite black-authored works. This sharing of past and current book loves aims to enrich not only our TBR piles, but also our often-too-narrow  canon of black literature.

This list of black-authored must-reads comes from Dr. Mark Cunningham, an adjunct professor in radio, television, and film at Austin Community College, who lives in Austin, Texas and received his PhD in the same discipline from the University of Texas at Austin. His dissertation focused on race, gender and narrative in the South Central Los Angeles focused films of writer/director John Singleton. He has contributed essays to several anthologies and peer-reviewed journals focusing on such topics in film and television/media studies as Spike Lee’s semi-autobiographical film Crooklyn, actor/rapper/activist Ice T’s role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, alternative spaces of blackness in Barry Jenkins’ debut film Medicine for Melancholy, and the importance of black popular culture. He has also presented papers at nationally recognized cinema and media studies conferences, facilitated talk back sessions at community events, and participated in both media and education related panel discussions. Dr. Cunningham has also spent 18 years in the public education system, having taught at the elementary, junior high, and high school level.


Beloved by Toni Morrison
Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s brilliance is so understood and evident that saying she is your favorite author is almost cliché. Still, at the risk of banality, that is exactly what she is to me. I count reading her novel Song of Solomon, my first experience with her melodious prose, one of the four things that significantly shifted my life at age 21. However, it is this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, of a slave woman who cut one of her children’s throat rather than see it returned to the horrors of slavery only to have that child later return to her as a ghost in the flesh, that has risen above an entire oeuvre of work that I adore immensely. The language is music, the imagery is stark and blistering, the characters are unforgettable. I have returned to this book very often over the years, sometimes reading it in its entirety or just going through and falling in love with my favorite passages all over again. As Alice Walker said of Zora Neale Hurston’s seminal Their Eyes Are Watching God, there is, truly, no book more important to me than this one.

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
I don’t remember what made me pick up poet Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir, but I am so very glad that I did. Alexander tells the story of the sudden death of her husband, Ficre, and its effect on her and their two sons. Reminiscent of Joan Didion’s own courageous memoir of her husband’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking, Alexander, however, does not just speak of his death, but most importantly, she celebrates her husband’s life. She celebrates his creativity and his work as an artist. She celebrates their beautiful love affair, and what a fantastic journey it is! I really love this book. In fact, so much so, at the time I read it, if I were having a son, I am almost certain I would have named him Ficre.

Drop by Mat Johnson
As the colloquialism goes, I have been ridin’ with Mat Johnson since he debuted with this bold novel in 2000. I immediately took to this story of a young man from Philadelphia so dissatisfied with his current existence that he imagines himself on the path to something better when he takes a job at an advertising agency in London with less than ideal results that land him right back where he started. Just reaching the age of 30 at the time of the novel’s release, I related to the main character in so many ways, his uncertainty about the future and his feelings of being unfulfilled resonating with me more strongly than I might have liked. I bought more than a few copies of the hardcover version, with its cover art that features the likeness of a vibrant orange peel, anxious to share this coming of age story with friends and to announce an incredible new voice in literature. Alas, his genius unable to be contained, I have to share Mat Johnson with the masses now!

Erasure by Percival Everett
I was housesitting and in the throes of writing my master’s thesis when I came across a review of Erasure. Welcoming the distraction, I immediately went to the bookstore and picked up a copy. What was intended to be a slight diversion turned into a straight dereliction of duty, as I became absorbed in Everett’s story of a writer so frustrated by the appeal of black exploitative fiction at the expense of the literary and critically acclaimed works about black life he creates that he decides, as a joke, to pseudonymously write a book in the same style and idiomatic expression only to have his intentions backfire. Featuring a novel within a novel, Everett’s biting satire about what it means to be black and creative in this climate showcases his caustic wit, nimble storytelling, and compelling characterization. Erasure represents my maiden voyage into Percival Everett’s world, and as I would later discover with his other novel and short stories, it is one filled with intellectual adventure, humor, and consciousness.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley
One of the four things that changed my life at the age of 21, The Autobiography of Malcolm X was the catalyst to my obsession with the great Malcolm X. While reading the book and after, I immersed myself in all things Malcolm, reading and memorizing his speeches, adopting his philosophies as my own, and for the first time, truly realizing both the glory and trouble associated with being black in this life. Much of my school based knowledge about black leadership came in the guise of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but now, here was a man, a striking figure whose early years were marked by pain and unfairness and the hustle that so very often accompanies the path to survival, whose words and example loomed before me like nothing I had ever heard before. His story was as electrifying as it was vital and necessary. I finally understood what both my intellectual and emotional selves were missing. It is the book I regularly give to people who also need that void filled.