Black History Month 2020

Throughout October Library Services in collaboration with Bristol SU BME Network will be presenting a series of micro reviews of books written by Black authors to mark Black History Month. The reviews, written by staff and students, will appear on this page. 
You can discover the SU's programme of events for Black History Month and visit the BME Network's facebook page.

Thick and Other Essays (2019) by Tressie McMillan Cottom

"In Thick, Cottom offers a masterclass in balancing ‘thick’ social theorizing with personal experience – in her words, relaying “parts of myself, my history, and my identity to make social theory concrete” (p. 28). In this book of essays, she takes on a host of topics, with each essay a dense, thoughtful engagement with the topic, be it the “elasticity” of whiteness (p. 103), capitalism’s coercive take on beauty, or the American medical system as cut through with racism. In particular, I appreciated her frank discussion of the experience of doctoral students, so often viewed as “units of labor” (p. 8) and assigned worth based on their academic connections – and how even her doctorate and purported elite social standing assigned through academia still could not convince medical professionals during a difficult pregnancy that she was ‘competent’ enough to report on her own physical condition. Read this book – in one full go, or one essay at a time – for her sharp, timely analysis of modern society, academia, race, and womanhood."

Reviewed by Leanne Cameron - Senior Associate Teacher, School of Education

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (2017) by Reni Eddo Lodge

"An absolute must read! Growing up, I never learnt about Black British history in school and never questioned why I didn’t. This accessible read delves into the rich and painful history of Black relations in the UK, grounding your knowledge, before opening a discussion regarding more current affairs. Whether you’re a total newbie to racial conservations, or you’ve been hot on the topic for a while, this book offers insightful and eye-opening ideas and criticisms of racism in Britain. And for those who think racism isn’t a problem in Britain… this book is built for you! It’s guaranteed to change your mind. It offers a more general overview of racism which makes it a great starting point in your antiracism education. Plus, with a sprinkling of personal anecdotes, this book becomes a real page turner. I finished it in just two days.  

A little tip for those thinking of reading it: take notes as you go along. Trust me, you’ll want to come back to them later."

Reviewed by Bronwen Hall - BSc Geography student

Memoirs of a Black Englishman (2011) by Paul Stephenson OBE and Lilleith Morrison

"This book is personal to me, as I lived a few houses down from its co-author, Lilleith, for five years, and it was only when she had a few copies modestly displayed in her living room one Front Room Arts Trail that I found out about her career. It's a really detailed, humanely autobiographical account of Paul Stephenson's life - a black Englishman who became the lead campaigner in the Bristol Bus Boycott in the early 1960s. It's a really important insight into how an ordinary person can confront racism and inequality and - along with others - challenge its very foundations. And of course, Paul is someone with exceptional qualities too, who went on to become a major civil rights campaigner in Bristol and in the UK. As we are seeing Bristol once again emerge into the forefront of anti-racism movements, I picked this book up again to remind myself of the Bristol Bus boycott and how it paved the way for the first Race Relations Act in the 1960s - a few small actions adding up monumental change."

 Reviewed by Rebecca Mear - Special Projects Manager, Faculty of Engineering

How to Be an Antiracist (2019) by Ibram X. Kendi

"This read was one of the most helpful for my antiracism education. Whilst the discussion, history, and anecdotes are situated in the U.S., it does not prevent this book being incredibly relevant to audiences across the world. Kendi strikes a beautiful balance between explaining his frustrations around racism as well as his desire to practice antiracism more consistently in his own life. Most notably, he discusses how a person can be both racist and antiracist depending on their actions; an idea which seems less widely discussed.  

Personally, I appreciated the definitions provided at the beginning of each chapter. It makes them easy to go back to in times of doubt or forgetfulness. This book is powerful, engaging, and informative. And for those who find reading challenging or may be visually impaired, the audio book version is narrated by the author which may offer a more personal experience."

Reviewed by Bronwen Hall - BSc Geography student

Me and White Supremacy (2020) by Layla Saad

"Eye-opening and hard hitting. If you’re not ready to challenge your own racist beliefs and actions, then this book is not for you. Rather than being a straight-forward read, this book takes the form of a workbook and encourages you to identify and address your white privilege through journaling prompts. This makes you engage more closely with the content and forces you to recognise the ways you have benefitted from being white and from a social-political system that is inherently racist.  

I will be returning to this book whenever I feel I have lost my way in my antiracism education. It provides a solid foundation to understand your own white privilege. I would recommend it to anyone with white privilege, especially those who believe they are not part of the problem."

Reviewed by Bronwen Hall - BSc Geography student

Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie

"This novel is a powerful, immersive, richly detailed depiction of human lives caught up in the Nigerian Civil War of the 1960s. Biafra's struggle to create an independent Nigeria, and the brutal violence that followed, is told through the perspectives of three disparate characters. Each protagonist is finely-drawn, nuanced and believable, and Adichie takes us deep inside their lives, which are then exploded by the conflict. There are visceral moments of horror where the atrocities of war are described in unflinching detail, but also shining moments of humour, warmth, and hope. Half of a Yellow Sun is a stunning example of how storytelling humanises the sometimes abstract tolls of war and helps us remember a conflict that, as Adichie herself once said, 'we seem determined to forget.'"

Reviewed by Rebecca Pert - Student Engagement Coordinator, Library Services

The Lonely Londonders (1956) by Sam Selvon

"A microreview cannot do this book justice, but let it be known right away I highly recommend it. This book is classed as a modern classic and should be read whenever you have the chance. Written in (creole) dialect, but accessible to English speakers, it follows the journey of new, Windrush Generation, arrivals from the Caribbean in London in the 1950s. In particular, we are privy to a part of the journey of “Sir Galahad.”

The story captivates, not just because of its plot, but because of its insight into the mind of its character’s internal struggles, unstoppable optimism, encounters with racism, and journeys to survive in a new and strange place they must call home. Though a fiction piece, you live the life of London through the eyes, hearts, and experiences of its characters with moments that will make you both laugh and cry. It is an insight into a type of reality lived and faced by those who came to London 70 years ago, yet its message remains important to this day.'"

Reviewed by Ceara Webster, student

Maria W. Stewart, America's First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches (1987), ed. Marilyn Richardson

"Born in 1803 in Hartford, CT, Maria W. Stewart was the first African American woman political writer. She was also the first U.S. woman, of any race, to give speeches to mixed-gender audiences. Recently, scholar Eric Gardner has discovered that Stewart was also among the first African American short story writers, publishing in 1861 a tale called “The First Stage,” about a young orphaned girl called Letitia.

Stewart’s writing anticipates not only Karl Marx, but also the Combahee River Collective. From first-hand experiences as a free Black woman living, working and worshipping in the early nineteenth-century U.S., Stewart recognized that racism and sexism perpetuated large scale large-scale structural inequalities. While these injustices certainly included enslavement, Stewart saw clearly that they were not limited to it.

In her powerful speeches, Stewart centered Black women’s work in her radical struggle for justice. Finding herself filled with a “holy indignation,” she theorized a universal humanity standing not in opposition to, but rather entwined with embodied and emotional labor, including childbirth and care work. Reading Stewart today helps us better understand early African American women writers’ positions on class struggle and social reproduction avant la lettre."

Reviewed by Dr Erin Forbes, Lecturer in African American Literature

Sensuous Knowledge (2020) by Minna Salami

"In Sensuous Knowledge, Minna Salami writes with an open heart and a fiercely critical mind to inform, provoke and exalt her reader. The sub title of the book is “A Black Feminist Approach For Everyone”, and Minna succeeds absolutely in demonstrating how female ways of knowing, rooted in African cultures, and just the sheer beauty of being black and female, can raise us all up and create a more emotionally rewarding, fair and better functioning world. Though Minna is so clearly an excellent academic and theorist, her writing is a alive and expansive in a way theoretical texts rarely are (this itself a testament to the vitality of the sensuous knowledge she argues for) and she draws just as fluently from the writings of Audre Lorde as she does the sage wisdom of Lauryn Hill. Reading this book was a joyous experience for me that connected me more deeply to my own femininity. I feel everybody has something to gain from reading Sensuous Knowledge but it is particularly vital reading for white males as it is the perfect antidote to the emotional prison that is patriarchal, Eurocentric thought."

Reviewed by Nick Marshall, Student Administrator, School of Humanities

Clap When You Land (2020) by Elizabeth Acevedo

"Clap When You Land is the latest novel by Carnegie Medal-winning author, Elizabeth Acevedo. Although targeted at young adults, it is a poignant, thought-provoking novel for readers of any age. Written entirely in verse, it tells the story of Camino (who was born and brought up in the Dominican Republic) and the sister she didn’t know she had, Yahaira (who was born and brought up in New York). They learn of each other’s existence when they lose their father in a plane crash as he was making his annual trip to the DR, and the story tells of their coming together. The novel incorporates other significant themes (Camino is stalked by a sexual predator; Yahaira, fearful of homophobia, is nervous about introducing her girlfriend to her new-found sister), but the novel is ultimately an uplifting story of two families coming to terms with a secret and learning to be united."

Reviewed by Lorna Smith, Senior Lecturer in Education, PGCE English Coordinator

Black and British: a Forgotten History (2016) by David Olusoga

"David Olusoga has written extensively about black British history and colonialism. This book is an extensive overview of the lives of black Britons from the earliest records of black communities to detailed coverage of slavery and its eventual abolition via both parliamentary campaigns and slave rebellions. He moves on to consider the involvement of black people in both world wars and the experiences of the people who arrived in Britain after 1945 and their descendants.

His voice is humane before it is polemical: I liked his non-judgemental depiction of all kinds of individuals showing us all their courage, flaws and contradictions.

The subtitle of this book is ‘a forgotten history’ - but what has been forgotten, by whom and why? The psychoanalyst Lennox Thomasi has written about continuing intergenerational psychic consequences of slavery and colonialism both for the descendants of the colonised but also in different ways, for the descendants of the colonisers. Perhaps ‘forgetting’ is sometimes a looking away from what is at times, a deeply unsettling story."

Reviewed by Martin Hewitt, Medical Sciences Subject Librarian

Black Women in Sequence (2015) by Deborah Elizabeth Whaley.

"Whaley takes us on an engrossing journey through the history of Black women in comics and associated media, both Black female characters and artists themselves. It’s a fascinating study of the intersection of race and gender within popular media, and stark reminder of how much has (and sadly hasn’t) changed over the years.

Whaley begins with the pioneering work of African-American cartoonist Jackie Ormes in the 1940s and 1950s. Her Torchy Brown and Patty-Jo 'n' Ginger characters articulated the everyday concerns of Black women during the struggle for civil rights and were one of the few places where young Black girls could see people like them represented in toys and media.

Whaley also looks at the changing depictions of superhero characters such as Catwoman and Storm in comics and film, reflecting shifting attitudes to Blackness and feminism among artists, film producers, readers and viewers, in a genre known for its heavy focus on a white, male audience.

The book aptly closes with an examination of the work of artists pushing boundaries of race and gender representation in recent media such as manga and web comics, an ever-evolving frontier in the ongoing struggle for representation of marginalised identities in mainstream culture."

Reviewed by Tim Riley, Subject Librarian for Classics and Ancient History, History, History of Art, Religion and Theology, Liberal Arts

Small Island (2004) by Andrea Levy

"Andrea Levy’s multi-layered ‘Windrush generation’ tale of Jamaican migrants who arrive in post-war London explores themes of migration, racism, prejudice and ignorance, via the voice of four narrators: Hortense, a teacher from Jamaica who hopes of a new life in Britain; her Jamaican husband Gilbert, who served in the RAF but doesn’t receive a hero’s welcome; their landlady Queenie who alone shows openness and tolerance and her husband who displays the shameful overt racism so prevalent in post-war Britain. 

The reality of poor housing and job prospects shatter the expectations Hortense has of the ‘Mother country’ as she isreduced to circumstances far below her situation in Jamaicaand is treated with inferiority and disdain.  Prejudice and hostility abound, apart from Queenie’s efforts at understanding and friendship.  

Levi’s father travelled to Britain on the Empire Windrush in 1948 and Small Island is in part based on her parentsexperience as migrants.  I was fortunate enough to see Levy speak at the Bristol festival of ideas in 2010 and saw the National Theatre production of Small Island last year, available on Drama Online.  The 2009 TV adaptation is available on BoB.  Find both on the library databases page."

Reviewed by Catherine Downs - SPAIS Subject Librarian

Misty (2018) by Arinzé Kene

"In MistyArinzé Kene (who is both playwright and actor) shares with us a mix of poetry, music, and performance art that depict a story set in London. The playtext is prefaced by Kene’s description of how he came to write the play, and details a revelatory conversation with an usher around ‘the whole black-play/white-play thing’ which is both funny and thought-provoking. 

The story addresses gentrification, stereotypes, and presents Arinze’s desire to just write a play away from the pressures of what others expect it to be. He presents us with a discussion rather than an answer. 

Arinzé speaks directly to the audience and interacts with them throughout. Reading the playtext is immersive and engrossing, and I soon believe I’m there in theatre listening to Arinzé’s story being told through his lyrics and storytelling."

Reviewed by Victoria Hopton - Subject Librarian for Film & TV, Music, and Theatre.
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