There are throngs of writers not represented here — from Richard Wright to Ralph Ellison and Frederick Douglass to August Wilson to Ida B. Wells, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, and so many others who contributed to a rich vein of cultural and artistic treasure. My list is an appetizer, the main course lies elsewhere. Not only have these books informed and moved me, they have also forced me to contemplate the hard truth about who we are, the conundrum at the core of America with which we continue to wrestle.
The Souls of Black Folks, by W.E.B. Du Bois (1903): Du Bois was a thinker and writer of towering intellect, working at a time when most whites clung to the racist idea that Negroes were intellectually backward and fated for inferiority. Du Bois exposes this notion for the lie it was then and remains today. “Would America have been America without her Negro people?” he asks, and then goes on to describe the many contributions of a people who had known centuries of subjugation, from the labor that spurred America’s growth and expansion to the slave songs and spirituality that pervaded the larger white culture.
The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin (1963): Baldwin wrote novels, essays, plays and film reviews, but his star rarely burned hotter than it did when he wrote this polemic masterpiece, as relevant today as it was in 1963. The book consists of two essays, “My Dungeon Shook” and “Down at the Cross.” In “My Dungeon Shook,” Baldwin, ostensibly writing to his nephew, offers the young man this observation on white people: “They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” The passage of more than a half century hasn’t diminished the power of Baldwin’s words.
The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times, by Langston Hughes (1967): In this slender collection, Hughes’s last book of verse, the reader encounters the spare, crystalline, powerful words of a prolific writer who captured the rawness and deep sorrow in the African-American experience. There are some unforgettable lines in this collection, such as “Uptown on Lenox Avenue / Where a nickel costs a dime” and “That tears and blood / Still mix like rain in Mississippi.”
A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1986): This is an indispensable collection that showcases the range and depth of King’s spiritual and intellectual thinking. It’s all here, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “Where Do We Go from Here,” and “A Time to Break Silence,” King’s unforgettable April 1967 address at the Riverside Church in New York City. “Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak.”