• By Jacquelyn White
  • Posted Saturday, February 1, 2020

Books We Like

It’s always a good time to learn more about past events that have shaped a whole race of people. From fiction to nonfiction, some really great books exploring the past have been published in the past few years. Here are a few of my favorites:

"She Who Would Be King" by Wayétu Moore

“She Who Would Be King” is the story of Liberia's beginning. Liberia is a country in West Africa originally started by a group called the American Colonization Society, who believed that black people would be better off returning to Africa to experience freedom and success. The book follows the lives of three main characters. Gbessa, a young girl who is exiled from her West African village, starved, bitten by a viper, left for dead and yet somehow she still survives. June Dey, a slave with unusual strength was raised on a plantation in Virginia. Norman Aragon, child of a British colonizer and a Maroon slave from Jamaica has the ability to fade from sight whenever the earth calls to him. Through pain and loss, these three find themselves in the midst of the turmoil that is brewing in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, between the African American settlers and indigenous tribes, while also facing the threat of European slavers.

As a black woman, it’s always hard to read about the treatment of my ancestors during this period of history. But what I love about this story is that even though there are some seriously heavy heartbreaking scenes, the whole book has a feeling of hope, perseverance, and inspiration.

Moore’s writing is almost lyrical in how the story flows, as smoothly as a gentle breeze. I fully expected to find it hard to get into the story because of the heavy themes but not only did I find myself wholly focused on the plight of the characters I finished the book in two days.

"To Turn the Whole World Over: Black Women and Internationalism" by Keisha N. Blain and Tiffany M. Gill

Black women undertook an energetic and unprecedented engagement with internationalism from the late 19th century to the 1970s. In many cases, their work reflected a complex effort to merge internationalism with issues of women's rights and with feminist concerns. “To Turn the Whole World Over” examines these and other issues with a collection of cutting-edge essays on black women's internationalism in this pivotal era and beyond. The essays explore the travels and migrations of black women; the internationalist writings of women from Paris to Chicago to Spain; black women advocating for internationalism through art and performance; and the involvement of black women in politics, activism, and global freedom struggles.

Internationalism is a political principle which transcends nationalism and advocates a greater political or economic cooperation among nations and people. Yes, I had to look it up before I started this book. This book opened me up to a whole host of black women who have earned my respect and admiration. The life of a black woman, be it here in America or abroad is always made complicated because of race and gender biases. These women made it their mission to bring attention to these issues. It’s rather sad that this book and its issues are just as relevant, maybe even more so, today than it was a century ago.

"African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan" by Thomas Lockley

When Yasuke arrived in Japan in the late 1500s, he had already traveled much of the known world. Kidnapped as a child, he had ended up a servant and bodyguard to the head of the Jesuits in Asia, with whom he traversed India and China learning multiple languages as he went. His arrival in Kyoto, however, literally caused a riot. Most Japanese people had never seen an African man before, and many of them saw him as the embodiment of the black-skinned (in local tradition) Buddha. Among those who were drawn to his presence was Lord Nobunaga, head of the most powerful clan in Japan, who made Yasuke a samurai in his court. Soon, he was learning the traditions of Japan’s martial arts and ascending the upper echelons of Japanese society.

When I came across this book I said to myself, “African Samarai? Say what?!” Then I read the book and I was like “Yasuke forever!” The only problem with this book is that while the book is supposed to be about Yasuke, the truth of the matter is he was an African man in 1500 who was sold into slavery as a child, trained to be a paid mercenary and came to Japan as a bodyguard. Basically back then, he just wasn’t important enough to be written about. There’s not a lot left to commemorate his life. Which leaves me wanting to know more. But it still makes for a great read.

"Banking on Freedom: Black Women in U.S. Finance Before the New Deal" by Shennet Garrett-Scott

Between 1888 and 1930, African Americans opened more than a hundred banks and thousands of other financial institutions. In “Banking on Freedom,” Shennette Garrett-Scott explores this rich period of black financial innovation and its transformative impact on U.S. capitalism through the story of the St. Luke Bank in Richmond, Va.--the first and only bank run by black women. “Banking on Freedom” offers an unparalleled account of how black women carved out economic, social and political power in contexts shaped by sexism, white supremacy, and capitalist exploitation. The first book to center black women’s engagement with the elite sectors of banking, finance, and insurance, “Banking on Freedom” reveals the ways gender, race, and class shaped the meanings of wealth and risk in U.S. capitalism and society.

I learned so much from this book that it’s still taking me time to process it all. Let’s start with the notion of all the secret societies black women started and participated in during and after slavery. That realization is simply mind-blowing to me. Then these oppressed women augmented these societies into financial institutions that were meant to help their communities. The perseverance black people had during the Jim Crow Era, just on the heels of slavery still empowers me to this day.

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