The Great Divide: Race Relations From Slavery to Present Day

shelved under History and Fiction

My list is comprised of books that explore race relations in America from days of slavery to the modern era. Most deal with the complex relationship between African Americans and White Americans, with the exception of one title that focuses on Japanese Americans struggling to be seen as simply Americans.

Our nation's history of dealing with racial/religious/cultural differences is a subject of much interest to me, as evidenced not only by this reading list but also in my own writing, most notably my novel Patches of Grey. I initially thought that the list was going to end up dominated by black male authors, so was surprised and pleased to find that I managed to strike a balance not only between black and white writers, but also male and female.

From the days of enforced servitude where the nature of a one sided power struggle was characterized by evil and blatant cruelty, to contemporary times where much has changed for the better yet problematic attitudes persist on all sides, the issues addressed by such literature are not simplistic. My goal with this list is to present a broad range of perspectives rather than one dominated by a particular outlook.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Original Edition)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Original Edition)

by Mark Twain

I don't suppose there are too many readers who are not already familiar with this title. I happened to write about this classic on my blog, due to the decision to put out a new edition with all instances of "the N-word" omitted. The reason why this decision was made and the reason I oppose, despite its good intent, says all that needs to be said about why this is the first title on my list. The brilliance of Twain's novel is that it shows how basically good people can be conditioned to have reprehensible attitudes and not even realize their wrong doing. We forgive a character such as Huck Finn in spite of himself, which makes us wonder what sins we ourselves may be unknowingly committing on a regular basis. How many of us would be willing to do what our conscience says is the right thing when society says such behavior will result in banishment to Hell?

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Lucy

Lucy

by Jamaica Kincaid

Many of the best explorations of race relations are not to be found in books that are primarily about this topic, but rather, have it as but one component of the overall plot. In this book, Lucy is a teenage au pair from the West Indies who comes to an unnamed U.S. city (that appears to be New York) to work for a white family. She is self-absorbed, as are most nineteen-year-olds, presenting readers with a deeply personal, still maturing perspective on family, race, class, culture, preoccupation with sex, and the hazards of coming of age in a strange new world.

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Caucasia

Caucasia

by Danzy Senna

Most novels about race showcase how blacks feel about whites and vice versa. But for a biracial person a whole new layer of complexity is added to the equation, especially when the decision is made to pass as exclusively white. Caucasia is a fantastic book, one that readers who love action-filled plots can appreciate as will those looking for quieter introspection on social issues that were prominent in the 1970s setting of this novel and continue without full resolution to this day. It isn't easy to understand who you are from a cultural viewpoint when you happen to belong to both sides. Do the two halves negate each other, leaving a blank to be filled by the choices you make? Do they add up for a richer, fuller comprehension of the world than that possessed by those who see themselves strictly as either one or the other? Or do the halves merge to create a unique, borderline walking perspective?

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Kindred

Kindred

by Octavia E. Butler

This fascinating novel features the science fiction concept of time travel, allowing the setting to jump back and forth between the present and days of slavery. A black woman is repeatedly summoned to save the life of a white, slave-owning ancestor. His panic at moments of grave peril is what pulls her to his time, and when she fears for her own life she returns to her own lifetime. She brings along her (white) husband for the rocky ride on one of the journeys. Needless to say, the color of his skin makes for a less harrowing experience than what his wife endures, and while both sets of eyes are opened by the ordeal, it is not in the same manner. Being a white male means having the greatest degree of privilege in our society whereas being a black woman means possessing the least. No matter how greatly things may change over multiple generations, some of them somehow remain the same.

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Your Blues Ain't Like Mine

Your Blues Ain't Like Mine

by Bebe Moore Campbell

The setting of this book progresses from the eve of integration in rural Mississippi to the present-day housing projects of Chicago. It begins with the shameful murder of an African-American teenage boy who unknowingly commits a taboo act by speaking in French to a white girl, and follows the boy's family, the family of the murderers, and other citizens of the small town for the next four decades. This novel takes on a lot — perhaps a bit more than it can effectively chew — but ultimately does a fine job of showing its title to be profoundly true. Everybody has the blues sometimes, but if society is set up to your advantage at my expense, then your blues ain't like mine.

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The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye

by Toni Morrison

This novel, by one of our finest writers, explores the thorny topic of what constitutes beauty, and how a woman is adversely affected when she does not fit the stereotypical profile. If society refuses to see your beauty, the logical conclusion is that you are ugly, and if so on the outside then probably on the inside as well. When you take such a false belief strongly to heart, at what point does the fault cease to belong exclusively to those who created and perpetuate the myth, and begin to fall on you for accepting it without questioning?

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This book also appears on Oprah's Book Club

 
 
Native Son

Native Son

by Richard Wright

Perhaps the most mesmerizing and powerful book ever written about race... perhaps the most mesmerizing and powerful book ever written about anything. Richard Wright created the gold standard when he gave us the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man in the 1930s who, in a momentary state of panic, kills a young white woman without meaning to do so. He goes on the run and refuses to take accountability for actions that he feels were forced upon him by an unjust world. Rather than giving us a main character cruelly and unfairly treated on account of his skin color and therefore automatically garnering the reader's sympathy, Wright gives us one who does the unforgivable and therefore invites scorn. Rather than being repentant, Bigger grows increasingly outraged that he was made to become what it was not his natural destiny to be. Do you sympathize with or loathe Bigger Thomas, see him as a cold-hearted killer or helpless victim? The answer that you give to this question is revealing. The very best novels are not commentaries but mirrors.

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The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of Bees

by Sue Monk Kidd

This infectious, sentimental book is primarily a coming-of-age story that focuses on mother-daughter relationships and dealing with the early loss of a loved one. But since it's set in the South in the 1960s when Blacks first received the right to vote, race also plays a prominent role in the plot. For readers not up to grappling with literary works as heavy as Bluest Eye or Native Son, a novel such as this one can serve as a primer. The message goes down easily with Monk's unchallenging writing, but that makes it no less important and may encourage readers to later check out novels with more substantial things to say about the ways we treat each other.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

Another classic that needs no introduction. A white lawyer defends a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman in the 1930s South. Readers see it all unfold through the eyes of his young daughter as she witnesses the worst and best that people are capable of. It's impossible not to be thoroughly absorbed by this story and admire its message that the quest for justice is always worth embarking on, regardless of the odds or possible consequences.

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Snow Falling on Cedars

Snow Falling on Cedars

by David Guterson

Another book about a man wrongfully accused of a crime, set during the 1950s (with many flashbacks to the 1940s) in the state of Washington — the racial tension dealt with here is between Japanese Americans and Whites. This book is a mystery, a courtroom drama, and a love story wrapped in one, but in essence it is a story of place. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the aftermath once they returned to their homes is not a common literary subject, helping this book stand apart from the pack. The way in which we treat people who are different from us, regardless of the reason for doing so, leaves a lasting legacy that every so often may float back to the surface like a corpse.

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Milk in My Coffee

Milk in My Coffee

by Eric Jerome Dickey

Of all the novels I've presented here, this is the most contemporary. Set in the year 2000, it joins The Secret Life of Bees among the easier, lighter reads on this list. It deals with a modern day interracial relationship, with the point of view alternating between the black man and white woman. The world — and the United States, in particular — has changed to a significant degree, allowing people to live and love without skin color being the major determining factor it once was. Fear of a lynch mob is not a consideration in this day and age, particularly in an urban city amongst white collar professionals. But this does not mean there are no longer issues to be dealt with and overcome, people who need convincing, people you must abandon attempting to convince if you wish to follow your own values and heart rather than succumb to pressure imposed by peers. The drama in this book is not life and death as with most of the others I've presented. Our society has progressed by leaps and bounds from the days of Huckleberry Finn to those of Milk in My Coffee, and has made additional major strides in the period after Eric Jerome Dickey's book came out. President Obama was not vividly imaginable outside the realm of fiction in 2000. Things continue to change, primarily for the better though some might beg to argue to the contrary, and novels such as those on this list chronicle our struggle to co-exist, to accept, and to love each other unconditionally.

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