There is no disconnecting the narrative of Black freedom from the written words of books present and past. From enslaved people risking their lives just to learn to read to Freedom Schools of the 1960s that educated a generation of Black children in the South. As a people, we have always known that reading matters and it’s in the fabric of our ancestry and history. So as we watch generation after generation fall out of love with what gave our ancestors hope, it should be our duty to read the stories, write the stories, share the stories that are for us and by us. As Black students at a predominately white institution, it’s good, rather, necessary, for us to create any type of escape. The magical, yet heartwrenching pages of novels and memoirs can give us that taste of freedom from a structure, just like our forefathers and foremothers. Here are three books every Black college student should read for knowledge, for escape, for freedom.
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
As you read you’ll fall in love with these real people who will undoubtedly remind you of a grandmother or great grandfather that you hold in your heart. The story has a special way of connecting us to our roots, but also reminding us that we are a people who fly.
The pages of “The Warmth of Other Suns” chronicles The Great Migration, the movement of Black people from the rural south to the urban north from the early 20th century until 1970. Wilkerson brilliantly pens this epic story with the weaving in of history, sociology and her journalistic edge. The story follows three individuals, in their joy, pain and frustration, that define this journey as they create new homes in the North and West. George Sterling, one of the three whose stories are featured in the book says, “I was hoping I would be able to live as a man and express myself in a manly way without the fear of getting lynched at night.” And you’ll have to pick up the book to learn how their stories fare.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
In heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story, Stevenson reminds us that everyone is worthy of redemption and the reasons why we fight for justice. “Just Mercy” is the story of Stevenson as a then young attorney who moves to Alabama and advocates and litigates for those on death row, which are disproportionately Black men. The entire book details the brokenness of the American criminal justice system, especially when one is poor and Black. In 2019, it was adapted into a film, which was a breathtaking movie starring Michael B. Jordan, but still I urge you to read the book to feel the weight of these stories just a little longer. Stevenson writes, “Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion.” This book softens and turns our heart toward the marginalized, a quality we could all embody just a little bit more.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
“Homegoing” takes you on an awestruck journey of generations of the same family, one part sold into slavery in America and the other stayed in Africa. Gyasi has a poignant approach to fiction writing in inviting the reader into a world we would never know, but yet know so well. Each chapter gives you a new generation, a new story, a new character to cry and rejoice with. She illuminates the Black American story, while inviting us into the lives of our African brothers and sisters. This book offers to us a chance to see the sameness in all of us that share this skin. As we see our collective power, there is also a nudge toward seeing individual beauty in each story so masterfully written. Gyasi writes, “Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.” This is a book to inspire and cultivate in us that same powerful, yet gentle spirit that lived in those who came before us.
When we allow it, reading the right story can be our refuge, our safe haven, our reason to have hope. In books we get to hold on tightly the treasured words and stories of our people, so keep reading. All of these books are available at UW Libraries and Madison-area libraries. If you are so inclined to purchase these breathtaking books, make sure to support your local bookstore.