Author, journalist and client Mychal Denzel Smith has a thoughtful, provocative and elegant piece in today’s LitHub. The title is “The Black Boy Literary Survival Kit” and in it he writes about the books that influenced his own coming of age, as well as the books that he would now share with young African American men. Since the subtitle is “You Need Black Women More Than You Know,” it’s not a spoiler to note that in addition to the canonical writers like James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and Malcolm X, Smith looks to black women writers, who are often far less read and celebrated.
He asks “ How different would our conversations about Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Chris Brown, and now Nate Parker be if every black man came to it having already read Pearl Cleage’s “Mad at Miles”? If our survival kit included black women’s voices, our survival tactics would include them, too.”
His piece is worth reading for any number of reasons, but it underlines an idea that most readers share—that books shape us, our convictions, our ambitions, our imaginations, our lives. What we read matters.
I had a similar sort of conversation with Mona Eltahawy a few weeks back. Eltahawy is an Egyptian- American author and activist, and she speaks about violence against women to audiences all over the world. With magenta hair and a tattoo of the lioness-headed Sekhmet (goddess of war and healing) on her arm, she not only cuts a striking figure, she is as frank and fearless as anyone I have ever known. She says that the young women who approach her often wonder if she was “born this way;” brave, furious, willing to take on taboo subjects, and speak, as the expression goes, truth to power. She told me, laughing, that this was far from the case. She talked about the books and authors that were her lodestars, the works that shaped her perspective, that comprised her own survival guide. I wouldn’t presume to write that piece for her (though I’m keen to see her do it), but I do think that each of us has his (or her or their) own survival kit, filled with the books that showed us how to be in the world.
What books would you include?