Long before African American History Month was widely celebrated, my third-grade teacher brought African American history to life and into the classroom. I still remember him standing us in a circle and teaching us “Lift Every Voice and Sing," the Black National Anthem. (Thank you, Mr. Ruff!)
I still celebrate African American History Month—these days by promoting favorite authors like James Baldwin* with displays and programs. But as I reflect on African American writers of the past, I also wonder about the James Baldwins of the future. Which contemporary writers will one day be as revered as Baldwin? Here are two of my favorites who have already published classics.
Percival Everett is the author of 21 works of fiction, but if you read just one, make it his brilliant game-changer of a novel, Erasure. Its hero is an African American professor, intellectual and the author of respected but little-read experimental fiction. Appalled by the success of a bestseller called We’s Lives in da Ghetto, he writes a satire called My Pafology under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh. To his horror, the book is misunderstood and praised as an authentic depiction of “black life” by clueless critics, and soon after Hollywood, the literary establishment and talk-show hosts come calling.
ZZ Packer has published just one book, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, but oh what a book! It’s a masterful, often humorous short story collection in which engaging but often isolated characters struggle to find a place in the world. In my favorite story, “Brownies,” an African American Brownie troop vows revenge on a white Brownie troop when one of its members uses the N-word. Their anger is thwarted, however, when they make a startling discovery about the white troop. Other stories feature an alienated student at Yale and a repressed, cross-eyed nurse who tries to bring the word of God to her patients.
Which contemporary African American authors do you think will be the Toni Morrisons and James Baldwins of the future?
*If you’re unfamiliar with James Baldwin, one of the great writers of the 20th century, join us for a documentary screening of James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket on February 28 at the Bezazian Branch.