With all the writing we do here at The Root, it’s a wonder we find time to read. But for many members of our staff, books remain our first love, so while we reflect on the highlights of 2019, we’re also reminded of some of the great reads we encountered this year.
From memoirs to poetry to picture-perfect tomes, 2019 was full of literary wins that both celebrated the black experience and brought black voices further to the forefront—and we were here for every page. So, if you’re looking for some good reads this winter, here are The Root’s recommendations:
I’m a Minneapolis native baptized in the waters of Lake Minnetonka, so it’s safe to say Prince is in my DNA. Therefore, I was thrilled that The Purple One’s posthumous memoir, The Beautiful Ones, didn’t disappoint. Pairing handwritten notes and never-before-seen photos from Prince himself with a reverential recounting of his final months by his chosen biographer-turned-editor Dan Piepenbring, The Beautiful Ones was an intimate homage to one of the best musicians in history.
Two other memoirs also captured my fashion-obsessed imagination this year: Dapper Dan’s captivating tale of his evolution from hustler to hip-hop couturier in Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem and fashion historian and 2019 Root 100 honoree Tanisha C. Ford’s Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion (notably, Ford also co-authored another excellent fashion tome this year, Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful).
What I’m hoping to read next? Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America by Nefertiti Austin and the much-buzzed-about novel Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, released today, New Year’s Eve!
Saidiyah Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval and Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (also recommended by VSB’s Damon Young) perfectly elucidate, in a way I can’t, why something is compelling, or uncomfortable, or necessary. One trend among writers and academics I feel particularly inspired by is this collective commitment to revisiting and fleshing out archives as they relate to marginalized peoples. Hartman is at the top of the game here. A recent recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant, Hartman envisions the lives of black women in Philadelphia and New York at the turn of the century with vigor and compassion, giving new life to people who were previously just after-thoughts in the historical record.
But Jia Tolentino (former Deputy Editor at our sister site, Jezebel) operates on a whole other level—giving you vocabulary and framework for interpreting cultural phenomenon. Months after reading her collection of essays, I still think frequently about them. A couple of standouts: her analysis of the UVA hoax—a read that was thorough, historically grounded, and deeply compassionate—and how the internet has converged with our collective thirst for clout in strange, complicated, and often-times toxic, ways.
There are so many books I read the shit out of this year that it’s impossible to just list three. Off the top of my head alone, there’s Ibram Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist (pictured in our header, and also recommended by several other members of our staff); Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro; Josh Levin’s The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth; Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone, D. Watkins’ We Speak For Ourselves; Mitchell Jackson’s Survival Math; and probably a dozen more I read and loved and just can’t remember right now—and a dozen more after that dozen more that I haven’t read yet, but plan to. But the ones that stuck in my head and made themselves the most comfortable in there are Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy, Bassey Ikpi’s I’m Telling The Truth, But I’m Lying, and Imani Perry’s Breathe: A Letter to My Sons.
(Editor’s note: Of course, also on our collective list of best reads of the year is Damon’s own incredible memoir in essays, What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker (pictured in our header). Already phenomenal in its own right, Damon’s debut was also named an NPR Best Book of the Year, a Washington Independent Review of Books Favorite of the Year, and was longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.)
I have three sisters, and anyone who listens to me talk about them for more than five minutes knows that I am obsessed with them. So much so that when my two older sisters released their debut young adult novel Dear Haiti, Love Alaine on September 3, 2019, not only did the Twitterverse, Facebook, and Instagram feeds know, but also many a work Slack channel, as well! To this day, I just will not be quiet about their first book, and not solely because my heroes wrote it.
Everything about Dear Haiti, Love Alaine is beautiful—from its breathtaking book cover (pictured in our header) prominently featuring a dark-skinned black girl with her natural hair to its page-turning storyline featuring everything from a family curse to the relatability of first-generation American problems and a literary depiction of Haiti that I argue is unparalleled. And if you don’t believe a fanatic younger sister who cried on the subway when she finished the book, believe Dear Haiti’s well-deserved accolades from NPR, Well-Read Black Girl, the TODAY Show, and more. You won’t regret it!
What else did we read and love? A few more recommendations from our staff:
A Death in Harlem by Karla FC Holloway and The Little Book of Big Lies: A Journey Into Inner Fitness by Tina Lifford (also known as “Aunt Vi” on Queen Sugar).
Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly by Jim DeRogatis and How to Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi.
Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men, by Thomas A. Foster.
Lest We Forget: The Passage from Africa into the Twenty-First Century by Velma Maia Thomas.
On the Come Up by Angie Thomas.
Happy New Year—and happy reading from The Root!