2021 CULTURE of LOVE booklist

Marcus K. Dowling

Valentine’s Day 2021 is one that will — as many of our days in the past 11 months have been — spent in quarantine.

Even if enthralled with a loved one, the possibility still exists that love’s most fabulous day will be one spent in quiet, reflective solitude. If Black and looking for exemplary Black literature to fill ponderous hours with love of words, motivation, and salvation, several particularly poignant works deserve greater awareness.

Here is a brief list with reasons as to why each selection is worth considering.

Nikki Giovanni’s Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet (1971)

Fifty years ago, iconic multimedia artist Nikki Giovanni set a yet-to-be eclipsed standard for creative excellence. In 1971, she was one year removed from becoming Ebony Magazine’s Woman of the Year. By the end of the year, she achieved similar success via Mademoiselle. Plus, Giovanni released, alongside her autobiography mentioned here, a children’s book entitled Spin a Soft Black Song and a critically-acclaimed album, Truth Is On Its Way. She also spoke with James Baldwin for two hours on the iconic PBS program Soul!. If looking for the spark to highlight your unique artistic motivations, look no further than this encapsulation of a legend starting the trek towards her epic peak.

Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale (1992)

Sometimes the book is better than the film. That’s a tall order for a movie starring Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett, with a soundtrack produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. However, Terry McMillan’s 1992 book about four women who — as noted by the Los Angeles Times — “rise up, glorious, from the ashes of their present lives” is quite possibly better than the film that followed three years later. The time is poignant for Valentine’s Day reading because it is a love story about women learning how to love themselves and their friends before seeking a partner’s acceptance and love. A gripping page-turner that teaches as it tells, it’s a deservedly timeless classic.

Langston Hughes’ Lullaby (For a Black Mother) (illustrated by Sean Qualls) (2013)

Black parents attempting to carve out space for romance during a pandemic will likely be hard-pressed to craft the perfect intimate moment. However, if looking for a kind, sweet, and poignant way to honor love and family, Langston Hughes’ classic poem “Lullaby (For a Black Mother)” artfully reimagined as a children’s book should hit the spot. As a Goodreads reviewer notes, “While this book may seem very simple, its effect is profound. The love between a Black mother and child is not often shown, much less in children’s books. This book fills that gap nicely.” Celebrating a partner as a parent and woman who’s capable of delivering beauty into the world allows for the often tricky task of evolving Valentine’s Day into a romantic — and familial — dynamic.

Christine Otten’s The Last Poets (2018)

Love stories regarding hip-hop culture are arguably best rendered as films like Brown Sugar. However, if one wants not only to dig into the love of hip-hop, but a genuine appreciation of its roots, author Christine Otten’s 2018 novel chronicling poetic Harlem hip-hop progenitors The Last Poets is ideal. If in search of a gripping read that has notes of the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King, John and Bobby Kennedy, as well as Malcolm X involved, they’re all here. Songs like “N***ers Are Scared of Revolution” cut as strongly into the modern-era culture as they did years prior. Directly sourced interviews with the Last Poets themselves, plus their families, friends, and musicians, highlight this must-peruse work.

Joan Morgan’s She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (2018)

Lauryn Hill’s 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is the best place to accurately understand the roots of modern soul music and how Black women impact, inspire and create pop culture movements via rhythm and blues. If curious to know how Black women have articulated, and continue to articulate, feelings of love, passion, and respect while in love, the album perfectly highlights these notions. Often referred to as needing to be regarded in this light, feminist author and journalist Morgan finally delivers scholarship that welcomes both longtime hip-hop fans — and a new generation of listeners — to Hill’s magnum opus.

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