I am making an effort to read more Black authors and stories during Black History Month. So far this year I’m reading more BIPOC authors in general, so here’s what I’ve been enjoying lately:
Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina (Michaela DePrince)
I’ve been following the Boston Ballet soloist since she was in First Position, a popular ballet documentary. This book documents her young life in Sierra Leone as a civil war rages, ultimately seeing her placed in an orphanage. It chronicles her American adoption and discovery of ballet, as well as the road to the Youth America Grand Prix and a professional ballet career. While part of me wishes she’d written the book older so it held more life experience, she had such a big story of her younger life that it doesn’t feel as incomplete as it might if it was anyone else.
Life In Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina (Misty Copeland)
Yes, I’m a ballet nut lol. Misty Copeland is a ballet phenom, who started very late in the game (13!!). The book chronicles her life, including a tumultuous childhood, a custody battle that was tabloid fodder, and how she has dealt with racism and media attention as a Black ballerina. Currently a principal with the American Ballet Theatre, I hope she can write another memoir later on in life, because with the Black Lives Matter movement and racism in ballet coming to the forefront even more than it was when this book was published, I’d love to hear more about how she has faced life as a principal (this book was written when she was a soloist).
Courage to Soar (Simone Biles)
This one I really wish had been held until Simone was a bit older, although the childhood sections have an immediacy I really loved that I think would have been lost if she’d been much older writing it. But this book was written post Rio 2016 and pre Tokyo 2020/1 and the Nasser/USAG scandal, and the parts with the Karolyi ranch feel very glossed over (for good reason at the time; none of the crimes had been reported yet). I hope one day she can write a memoir that covers that portion of her life, as well as the Tokyo Olympics. I’d love to know how she had the courage to take time for herself and how she dealt with some of the backlash from choosing not to compete. I feel like she’s lived so much since this book, which makes the book feel premature.
The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (Issa Rae)
I was not familiar with Issa Rae before reading her book (I loved the title and wanted to read just based on that). I hadn’t seen her YouTube series or Insecure. Right out of the gate, the first chapter about her misadventures on AOL had me laughing because it took me right back to that time. This is part memoir and part wry observations throughout her life. I really enjoyed hearing about her life in Senegal and juggling that with her American life, which is a POV I don’t usually get to read about.
Unprotected (Billy Porter)
This memoir from the Emmy, Tony and Grammy award winner was amazing. His voice is so clear and honest, and he covers everything from his most raw and vulnerable moments to his great successes. From his family life to building a family of friends during the AIDS crisis. There is also a lot here that will resonate with artists – how to persevere and know your worth. I was so happy I picked this up – I wasn’t super familiar with a lot of his work (I am someone who has never understood musicals, at all, so I have zero Broadway knowledge), aside from seeing his amazing fashions and having Pose on my to-watch list (I’m a notorious slow streamer). Billy Porter needs to be protected at all costs! We need him.
We’re Going To Need More Wine (Gabrielle Union)
I love how honest Gabrielle Union is in this memoir, about her own self, her feelings of worth, her experiences and what it was like growing up as a Black girl in a predominantly white city. I also loved her observations about being Black in Hollywood, especially as she was coming up as an actress. I was really surprised to learn how much Prince was responsible for bringing people together and introducing folks to each other and being a bridge, in essence. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised with how easy it was for kids to throw around the n word at her when she was a kid – and I was surprised how she opened up about her use of slurs and how it affected an important relationship she had. Overall, I really enjoyed this, she got me thinking about issues Black girls and Black actresses face that I had never considered.
Lettin’ It All Hang Out (RuPaul Charles)
This was an autobiography written way before Drag Race – 1995 – and I found it so interesting because it really encapsulates the time period. I love hearing about Ru’s family, and how so many of Ru’s beliefs and sayings made its way into the show. At that time, Ru was really the only visible drag queen in entertainment for the masses. It is also SO FUCKING INFURIATING that in the opening chapter, Ru talks about how so many (insecure assholes) think drag is about sex and that somehow drag queens equals predator. AND WE ARE STILL ON THIS IN THIS YEAR OF 2023 C.E. SHUT THE FUCK UP. It is awful that this is still an issue. I think that’s why it’s important to read an older bio like this. In some ways you see the growth, in others you see the utter fuckitude.
The Last Black Unicorn (Tiffany Haddish)
I’ve seen some of her comedy and her hosting on Kids Say the Darndest Things, and her appearances on talk shows, so I knew she was going to be funny. I really like how conversational the book is – you can hear her voice coming through SO strongly in the writing, it’s as if there was no ghostwriter involved. She addresses a lot of serious, awful issues with her trademark humour, but also with a candor that is refreshing. She says it like it is.
The Lou Norton series (Rachel Howzell Hall)
This series stands at 4 books at the moment (and I’m hoping for more in the future despite hearing that’s not on the horizon at this time …) and follows a Black LAPD detective – Elouise “Lou” Norton – as she investigates crimes in the neighbourhood she grew up in. Especially close to home is the case of her missing older sister. Lou is one of my favourite characters I’ve read in the past five or ten years – she is smart, sarcastic, complex and tough. Howzell Hall really lets you feel the setting of Los Angeles in a new way, and all of her secondary characters are engaging – even the criminals are fascinating. The books in the series are Land of Shadows, Skies of Ash, Trail of Echoes and City of Saviours. Howzell Hall is currently writing standalone novels, so check those out too.
Broken Places (Tracy Clark)
Cass Raines is a Black cop-turned-PI in Chicago, and when her family friend comes to her for advice on some harassment he and his church are facing, she agrees to take the case – only for him to turn up dead the next day. Navigating the official investigation, led by a total prick cop that you know would have had his knee on someone’s neck in the real world, Cass is determined to find the killer. Some great Chicago colour and it’s nice to read about PI for a change, because she is bound by different rules, some of which help and some which hinder. I’ve linked to the series of four books even though I’ve only read the first so far.
Malawi’s Sisters (Melanie S. Hatter)
A fiction book about Malawi Walker, who is gunned down by a white man when her car breaks down one night. The book focuses on the fall out and its effects on her family, a judge father, a disconnected mother, and two sisters with very different relationships with Malawi. The book was fantastic in illustrating the effects of grief on a family, especially when the death is the result of racism. From the public attention to the private mourning, this book takes you through it.
And one final book that was not written by a Black author, but focuses on the life of a mixed race (Black, First Nations and Mexican) adoptee.
Missing Sarah: A Vancouver Woman Remembers Her Vanished Sister (Maggie de Vries)
Sarah de Vries disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 1998 and was murdered by serial killer Willie Pickton. Sarah’s life is chronicled by her sister Maggie, with some fantastic journal entries, art and poetry written by Sarah. She had such a talent for writing, and this book is heartbreaking knowing she is no longer here to share her gifts. Also check out de Vries YA novel Rabbit Ears which follows a mixed race teen as she deals with ending up on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.