Celebrate Black Literature: Jennifer Wilks’s Required Reading

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 classic and current recommended reading comes from Dr. Jennifer M. Wilks, an associate professor of English, African & African Diaspora Studies, and Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author ofRace, Gender, and Comparative Black Modernism (2008), which explores the gender dynamics of the Harlem Renaissance and Negritude movements, and her essays on African American and Caribbean literature have appeared in scholarly journals and edited collections. Wilks translated and wrote a critical introduction to the nineteenth-century French-language diaries of African American activist Mary Church Terrell and is currently at work on two book projects: a cultural history of the Carmen story with a focus on adaptations set in African diasporic contexts and a study of representations of race and apocalypse in contemporary African American and Black European culture. Also an award-winning teacher, Wilks is a member of the inaugural Texas 10, the Texas Exes’ annual recognition of top UT Austin professors, and a recipient of the Harry Ransom Award for Teaching Excellence, the Thomas Cable Upper-Division Teaching Award, and the Raymond Dickson Substantial Writing Component Teaching Award.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Had it been possible to say all of Morrison’s books, I would have. However, if I must choose, I’ll choose Song of Solomon, her third novel and the first Morrison work I taught. A family saga that’s also a love story that’s also a revenge tale, Song of Solomon is intimate and epic, heartbreaking and funny. It’s a book that’s made me revisit the family stories I’ve been told and wonder about those that have passed with my elders. I’ve been reading and re-reading Song of Solomon for more than 20 years, and Morrison’s writing never ceases to amaze me.

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat 
This book draws its title from the main character’s name—Claire Limyè Lanmè in Haitian Kreyòl—but the text itself is luminous. It’s one where I tend to re-read passages just to luxuriate in their sounds and meanings. Claire is a 7-year-old girl whose mother died in childbirth and whose father, Nozias, is beginning to question his ability to raise his precocious daughter on his own. Danticat paints a nuanced, tender portrait of black girlhood as well as of the community that rallies around Claire and Nozias. If you’re as moved by the novel as I am, you’ll find yourself wanting to reach into its pages to give Claire a hug.

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
I had the pleasure and terror of moderating Adjei-Brenyah’s session at the 2018 Texas Book Festival. Pleasure because this short-story collection tackles everything from the madness of consumerism to the tragedy of racial violence with style and skill. Terror because I wasn’t sure what I was going to ask because so many of my annotations were some form of “OMG.” All of that to say that Adjei-Brenyah surprised even this experienced reader with his original plots and characters and kept me on the edge of my seat from the first page of each story to the last. I can’t wait to see what Adjei-Brenyah writes next.

Small Country by Gaël Faye
Right now I’m in the middle of reading Franco-Rwandan author and rapper Faye’s debut novel Small Country (Petit pays in French), which recounts the events leading up to the 1993 genocide in Burundi from the perspective of 10-year-old Gabriel. The way that Faye captures Gabriel’s innocence is impressive. As the character wrestles with childhood concerns like his parents’ separation and his stolen bicycle, he also senses but doesn’t quite understand the political storm gathering around him. That the reader knows what this storm entails but still hopes that Gabriel’s innocence will remain intact is a testament to Faye’s talent.

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman
Next up on my reading list is Saidiya Hartman’s cultural history of black women’s intimate lives at the beginning of the 20th century. Hartman combines scholarly research and compelling storytelling with a dexterity that I admire as a reader and a writer. Here as in her other work, Hartman highlights the voices of people previously considered unworthy of representation in the historical record. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments features black women who veered from the straight and narrow in order to protest injustice, find love, and be their authentic selves. I expect to be inspired as much as I am informed.