A Juneteenth Celebration: Must-Read Books by Ten Black Ohio Authors

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Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. It was first observed in June, 1865, just two months after the end of the Civil War.

Today, 155 years later, too many Black Americans still suffer from violence, inequality, and injustice resulting from systemic racism. We stand united with them in their quest to bring about lasting and meaningful change.

For this Juneteenth, Ohioana would like to share a chronological list of books from among our state’s most noted Black voices, past and present.

Lyrics of Lowly Life – 1896, Paul Laurence Dunbar (Dayton)

One of Dunbar’s earliest works, this collection includes his immortal poem “We Wear the Mask,” about the miserable plight of African Americans after the Civil War, forced to hide their painful realities and frustrations under the mask of happiness and contentment. Dunbar became the first African American poet to win national recognition, because of this poem. Although he lived to be only 33, Dunbar’s work remains a legacy of the past and a beacon for the future.

The Weary Blues – 1926, Langston Hughes (Cleveland)

The first book by the man who became known as “The Poet of the Harlem Renaissance.” The collection includes not only the title work, but also his classic poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “I, Too, Sing America,” which was the theme of the 100th anniversary celebration in Columbus of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes wrote in other literary genres as well. His graceful verse and prose showcased the spiritual and creative dignity of the lives of African Americans.

Zeely – 1967, Virginia Hamilton (Yellow Springs)

The first Black Newbery Medalist and a National Book Award winner, no writer of books for African American children has been more loved than Virginia Hamilton. And influential, too: about Hamilton’s first novel, Zeely, the story of a young Black girl who loves to create fantasies, Jacqueline Woodson said, “It was one of the first books I read by an African American about African American people.” The American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award honors an African American author or illustrator whose body of work has contributed significantly to literature for children and young adults.

Beloved – 1987, Toni Morrison (Lorain)

Winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, Toni Morrison was arguably the most important American writer of the last half of the 20th century. But she was more – she was also a tireless and outspoken champion for social justice, right up until she died in August 2020 at the age of 88. Morrison’s best-known work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved, is the story of Sethe, a former slave who escaped to Ohio in the 1870s—but despite her freedom, finds herself haunted by the trauma of her past.

On the Bus with Rosa Parks – 1999, Rita Dove (Akron)

A Pulitzer Prize winner and the first African American to serve as Poet Laureate of the United States, Rita Dove also holds the record for the Ohioana Poetry Book Award, having won four, including for 1999’s On the Bus with Rosa Parks. The collection explores the intersection of individual fate and history, as exemplified by the courageous Black woman whose simple act of refusing to give her seat up on the bus to a white man helped spark the civil rights movement.

Copper Sun – 2006, Sharon Draper (Cincinnati)

Sharon Draper taught high school English in Cincinnati and was named National Teacher of the Year before devoting herself full-time to writing novels for young adults. A New York Times best-selling author, she is the winner of five Coretta Scott King Literary Awards, including for Copper Sun, the epic story of a young girl torn from her African village, sold into slavery, and stripped of everything she has ever known – except hope.

The Butler: A Witness to History – 2013, Wil Haygood (Columbus)

Award-winning journalist and historian Wil Haygood traces the Civil Rights Movement and explores crucial moments of 20th century American history through the eyes of Eugene Allen – a White House butler who served eight presidents, from Truman to Reagan, over the course of thirty-four years. Haygood’s 2008 article about Allen in the Washington Post, “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” inspired the award-winning film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

This Is the Rope – 2013, Jacqueline Woodson (Columbus)

Jacqueline Woodson’s many honors include the Newbery Medal and National Book Award; she has served as the Children’s Poet Laureate and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. She also writes for adults and is a 2020 Ohioana Book Award finalist for her novel, Red at the Bone. In her 2013 book for young readers, This Is the Rope, Woodson tells the story of one family’s journey north during the Great Migration and the simple jump rope found by a little girl that she has no idea will become a part of the family’s history for three generations.

Urban Contemporary Poetry Month – 2016, Scott Woods (Columbus)

Scott Woods is a former President of Poetry Slam, Inc., and is the founder of the Writers Block Poetry series and the Streetlight Guild, a performing arts nonprofit. His writing has appeared in a variety of publications and been heard on National Public Radio. Urban Contemporary History Month, his second poetry collection, navigates multiple sides of the issues it raises – police abuse, idol worship, the definition of Black culture, and the importance of the blues chief among them – chipping away at our understanding and acceptance of American life as we know it. 

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us – 2017, Hanif Abdurraqib (Columbus)

A poet, essayist, and cultural critic, Hanif Abdurraqib is one of contemporary literature’s most popular and influential young writers. His third book, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Questwas a National Book Award longlisted finalist and is a 2020 Ohioana Book Awards finalist. His collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us,chosen by a number of publications as one of the best books of 2017, uses music and culture as a lens through which to view our world, so that we might better understand ourselves. 

Ten books, ten Black Ohio writers. This list here is merely the tip of the iceberg. There are so many, many more. And we hope that perhaps this brief summary will encourage you to explore other gifted Black writers, not just from Ohio, but everywhere. We’ve never needed to hear their voices more than now.