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July 17, 2004

Books for the College Bound Black Man

Amy Ridenour has recieved a letter. I respond at length.


I mentor a young black man who is going to go to college next year. I was wondering if you had a list of literature or suggestions for some reading material. He is interested in economics and business. I was hoping for some ethics, philosophy, and history titles as well. I would prefer if the authors were black. He attends a majority white private Catholic school where he is one of the brightest students; I want him to have some black intellectual experience too.

Thank you for your time.

[Name Deleted]

P.S. I heard about your site from Trueblackman, (I don't know his real name) on Free Republic

It helps to be a voracious reader, no matter what your field of study. It's only with that kind of appetite that you get to the good stuff. There is a deceptively large amount of good stuff out there. I say large because any good 20 books is quite enough reading for a setting one straight permanently. This is deceptive because if the books don't click or you wind up with the wrong picks, you can go for years until you get the book that carries you forward.

Onto the lists and some personal context. I too attended a white private Catholic highschool, and I'm sure mine was better than his. Oops that slipped, but we Cubbies trip like that sometimes. I read Roots when I was a junior, but it did nothing for me like 'The Man Who Lived Underground'. There is something very important about getting to the right black literature that can change your mind forever - because it's very easy to fall into the trap of ghettoizing black literature based on 3 or 4 popular but weak books. It wasn't until I read (or tried to read) LeRoi Jones' "Blues People" that I even accepted the idea that blacks wrote scholarly books. I had always grown up around so many people who quoted Maya Angelou or Ntozake Shange as if they possessed all the black knowledge there was.

So I think the most important thing is to handle the Existentials first. You have got to be able to click with somebody who lets you know that you are not as alone as you think you are, being somewhat exceptional and in altogether a different potential direction than Method & Red. What I'm saying is that in the empirical fields, your coursework will be enough to know. Mastery is mastery - either you've got it or you don't. There isn't going to be much new 'what' from a black perspective (outside of Sowell and Williams), but there's a good deal of 'how as a black me' that is answered in black literature, without which you cannot empower yourself to be quite as well adjusted as a human being as such demanding courses require. Sheer brainpower will not triumph. You've got to be smart too.

The Existentials

Marcus Mabry - White Bucks & Black Eyed Peas
I have found a recent photo of Mabry as well as his bio at Newsweek. I am stunned. There seemed in this young man, when read his book a dozen years ago, nothing but a kind of sentimental soft clumsy geekiness - greatly out of context for the man he appears to be. I actually felt sorry for the guy, and then was very harsh, as black poets are likely to be, when I read of his trials and tribulations at Stanford. I have since come to believe that he's Republican and considered re-reading his book. Mabry needs rethinking from me, but I think he provides an excellent example of how that nebulous and aimless feel as an undergraduate inevitably gives way to the kind of conviction and purpose we all eventually acquire.

Brent Staples - Parallel Time
I found much to admire in Staples' tale. Here was a man with a goodly amount of cheek and backbone who took on the University of Chicago with gusto. He faced the multiple worlds presented to him admirably and sensitively. I see him as a playful master in his environments, reflective and confident. He embodied a kind of black man's spirit that one might tend to believe does not exist in truly intellectual types. And if I have been harsh with John McWhorter, part of it owes to the context of Brent Staples. If you only know those blacks that are presented as intellectuals through popular media, you miss , and quite frankly if there were only 10,000 of us in this nation, chances are that you won't see or recognize us in public.

Paul Beatty - The White Boy Shuffle
People who read this book had to call me on the telephone and tell me that they swore I wrote it under a pseudonym. When I read it, I couldn't believe it myself. Beatty is completely off the chain and led around by his brain bouncing off walls in joy and pain.

High Cotton - Darryl Pinckney
Although people who knew me as a youth mostly identified me with Beatty, Pinckney understands who I am inside. This is one book that I think comes closest to my soul. I can't know what it might mean to other folks, but it means a great deal to me.

Colored People - Skip Gates
Good book. Nice read. Very Old School.

The Philosophicals

Cornel West - The American Evasion of Philsophy
No matter what is said about Cornel West, he wrote this book. A lot of people mouth off about 'Judeo-Christian Values' but really understand little about what's going on in the core thinking that has made America great. This is an indispensible introduction and survey of the great public thinkers who have led the American school as distinct from the European. If you read nothing else, read this. It ain't easy, but it's worth it.

Charles Johnson
There's a lot of Charles Johnson to read among which are 'Middle Passage', probably his best work, and 'The Oxherding Tale'. Very logical, very playful and working on many different levels. Lovely bunch of good stuff.

Ishmael Reed - Japanese By Spring
Everything you need to know about the fallacies and foibles of multiculturalism wrapped in a wit that will send you whimpering to a corner trying to catch your breath from laughing your ass off. Don't go to college without it.

Candide - Voltaire
I read this one too late for it to make a difference. It's quick, it's easy, it's a must.

Malcolm X Speaks
Really everything you need to know about Malcolm X is distilled and captured in his speeches. I read this one cover to cover in a short period of time and it completely changed my estimation of the man, his times and his accomplishments. If you ask me, there all there. Michael Eric Dyson makes the treanchant point that for all of his threat and bluster, Malcolm never took his Fruit of Islam down to the South to butt heads with the Klan. Was Malcolm a coward? Who knows. What you can know is how electrifying and thoughtful he was in his response to the challenges of his day. You should also know that many Indians I have met compare him to Subhas Bose. Don't forget that.

Cane - Jean Toomer
How does a civilized man live alone in a wilderness of anonymity? How do you keep the engines of intellect running in your head when you are surrounded by people who have no idea of the skills you possess? Toomer's Kabnis spoke to me.

(more later)

Posted by mbowen at July 17, 2004 11:27 AM

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As if they possessed all the black knowledge there was. from Negrophile
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