It’s Important to read Black Authors
As well as white ones and Asians… diversity really is our strength
I remember the first time I read Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston. I was riveted. The book is short enough to read in a single sitting and fascinating enough that I could not put it down.
In the book, Hurston interviews an 86-year old former slave.
His name is Oluale Kossula. He was born in West Africa but was captured when he was 19 and brought to the United States. After five and a half years of slavery, he was freed by the Civil War.
When Kossula tells his story, Hurston writes it in the vernacular. This makes it harder to grasp at first, but ultimately more poignant.
The hardest part for me to read was the section where he describes being transported on the Middle Passage. I’d read about it in history books, but reading a first hand account was chilling.
Because of Hurston’s prose, I could imagine myself as Kossula. I could put myself in his shoes.
This is the power of prose, well written. And this is one reason it’s important to read work by authors that are not like us.
I’m Indian. My parents came to the United States from Bombay, India (now Mumbai). I’ve read works by Indian authors, and I’ve enjoyed them, as well as the ubiquitous Indian comics of my childhood, complete with a blue-skinned Krishna.
But I also read a book called The Endless Steppe as a child, which gave me sympathy for a girl deported to Siberia during World War II, and The Red Velvet Room which helped me understand how hard life was for Depression-era workers. Of course there was The Diary of Anne Frank when I was older, and The Tale of Genji, as well as classics by Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Yukio Mishima, Mark Twain, Harper Lee and Victor Hugo.
Whether I was being transported to the French Revolution or a Japanese fishing boat, I was virtually experiencing something that was outside my own purview. I was growing as a person, and expanding my ability to empathize with all kinds of people.
Into this rich mix were books by Pearl S. Buck and Maya Angelou. I loved Maya Angelou. Her prose is poetry, it must be read out loud. I remember hearing her speak as a young adult. I marveled at her oratory.
As I grew older, I read works by James Baldwin and Octavia Butler. I read Roots after I watched the miniseries on TV, and The Color Purple after being enraptured by the movie.
I didn’t read Zora Neal Hurston until I was in my 30s, and then I wondered why it took me so long to discover her. She was not a particularly prolific author, but every work she produced is, in my opinion, a gem.
More recently, I’ve enjoyed Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. Friends have suggested Beloved by Toni Morrison. It’s on my summer reading list.
What happens when you read widely? When you read insights by authors whose lives are so different from your own?
You grow, you change, you become more empathetic and open-minded. This is what it means to have a liberal education. When we do this, even with works that challenge us — which I was, in different ways, when I read Camus’ The Plague and Sapphire’s Precious — that feeds us as human beings.
Would you like to grow emotionally as well as intellectually?
I would challenge you to read a genre you’ve never tried before, or an author that comes from a diametrically different place. Read about someone of a different gender, race, religion or from a different place in history. Try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
There is comfort to be had in reading about people like ourselves. But human beings were meant to grow.