Welcome to Top Shelf Book Shelf!
For those of you who are wondering what that is, think about books the same way you think about your liquor (when you’re not broke.) I remember every time my sister-in-law used to order Long Island Iced Teas, she would always make sure to tell the bartender, “top shelf.”
Translation: “Don’t give me the cheap ass house liquor.”
I think of reading the same way. I want top of the line content, commentary and something to push my thinking. If I wanted my brain to be lazy, I’d watch VH1 reality television (and I do that– religiously.)
Needless to say, here I am reviewing some of the books that I’ve read recently that have made the top shelf on my bookshelf. This means that if I lend you one of these books, you may need to give me your iPhone 8 as collateral.
These three books have so much in common: they’re all written by Black women (gold star for that); all of these women have been influential and successful in their respective fields (#blackgirlmagic star for that) and all of the works that I will be looking at fall into the same theme:
The exploration of what it means to be the Other.
This discussion can’t get any more timely as we have a Twitter finger bully sitting in the pasty ass White House saying problematic shit and trying to enforce dangerous policies based on White people’s fear. Fear that causes people to use difference as a weapon, that makes neighbors into enemies and that makes human beings Other.
So here are some of the books that are helping me to make sense of and question where we are and how we can do better.
Let’s explore my top shelf, y’all.
Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others– This topic is so deep that Toni The Morrison dedicated an entire book to it. She takes 111 pages to discuss the essential question: Why you Othering?
There is a need for Others and early in the text, Morrison gives her reason:
What is the nature of Othering’s comfort, its allure, its power (social, psychological, economical)? Is it the thrill of belonging- which implies being part of something bigger than one’s self, and therefore stronger? My initial view leans toward the social/psychological need for a “stranger,” an Other in order to define the estranged self…
The keywords in this passage for me are “power,” “belonging,” “stronger” and the need for a stranger. This construction of an Other is created out of necessity. This helps me to better understand (but in no way respect) the fuck shit that happened in Charlottesville.
These were a bunch of tiki torching, polo-wearing White men who needed to maintain their power and sense of belonging by creating an enemy, using the blueprint of the KKK to try to invoke fear in those who they deemed as Other. They knew that as individuals they were weak, corny and hateful so they decided it was better to be a crew of corny, hateful dudes screaming shit like, “Jews, fags and niggers.”
For anyone who has seen Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin grapples with this same idea of Othering by discussing the creation of the nigger. He points out that White people created the nigger and they need to figure out why they needed it. Because despite Baldwin declaring himself a man, there were many Wypipo who had to convince themselves that he and every other Black man was inferior to them.
So the work of un-Othering lies with White folks.
This is your burden to bear because although Black people have always been the recipients of brutality due to White folks’ unnecessary paranoia, this is equally damaging to White people. They need to rid themselves of their own mental illness so that they can also move forward.
I’m always baffled when I hear things like, “Why does everything have to be about race?” or “Racism is over; that ended in the 60s.” or “I don’t see color.” All I can think is, I’ll get over racism when White folks stop being racist. Black people are tired of being treated as an inconvenience and therefore something to be disregarded and discarded. We are tired of being used to mask White folks’ shame and insecurities.
Shall I proceed?
Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider– So I’m gonna get it out the way and give myself a side eye and say that I’m late to the book club on this sista. I have heard of Audre Lorde and I know that she was an amazing poet, writer and Womanist who challenged White woman feminism, patriarchy and all of the things that prevented us from being more connected as human beings.
I’m just saying that I am on the path to being saved and I am becoming a follower of the Lorde. She places a critical eye on the systems and institutions that allow for Othering to continue. I loved that she called out the literary canon and the lack of teaching Black women authors in her essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.”
Educators, listen up as this is something we need to pay close attention to in our schools, as we know teachers are predominately White and there is a definite white-washing of the curriculum. Here is a common excuse people use to avoid teaching Black women authors:
…”I can’t possibly teach Black women’s writing- their experience is so different from mine.” Yet how many years have you spent teaching Plato and Shakespeare and Proust?
I like how the word difference becomes a euphemism for “now I don’t have to teach this Black shit.” And Lorde makes an excellent point because I can’t remember reading one Black woman author in high school, NOT ONE! But you best believe my ass read Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew and Julius Caesar.
I remember the first time I was exposed to Zora Neale Hurston when I read Their Eyes Were Watching God (taught by a Black woman) in my junior year of college and all I could think was, “Khalya you better get a rhythm reading this because your ass took a whole course on Shakespeare and you got through iambic pentameter. Last time I checked, no one speaks like that.”
I love the fact that Hurston wrote phonetically and authentically. I grew up hearing people play the dozens and it’s just as funny reading it in her work. Regardless of whether or not you can relate to the vernacular, you can relate to community, to telling jokes and to enjoying life even when you may not have much. But the point is, we decide what we are willing to struggle through (i.e. Shakespeare), what’s worth reading and anything “different” is simply “Other.”
We have to fight to get Black women’s voices in the curriculum and not just novelists but journalists, bloggers and poets. Every year that I was in the classroom, I made sure that we discussed texts written by Black women. I have taught the works of Phyllis Wheatley, Edwidge Danticat, Chimamanda Adichie, Jamaica Kincaid and others.
The exclusion of Black women is a recurring issue that Lorde highlights in her work. In her essay, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” she states that she hears the same excuses on campuses among White feminists:
How can we address the issues of racism? No women of Color attended.”…”We have no one in our department equipped to teach their work.” In other words, racism is a Black women’s problem, a problem of women of Color and only we can discuss it.
This is why I typically felt like I was on an island when I planned my units as an English teacher. I was the Black teacher and could therefore teach about Black stuff. If Black authors were taught by White teachers at my school, they wouldn’t go deep into race. There would be more basic questions addressing the plot and students’ comprehension but never the nuances of the text and the complications that race places on Black characters or the impact that race had on the author and still has on society.
So yeah, sometimes I’d prefer to be on island rather than have someone butcher some of the texts that I loved.
Here’s my challenge to you: Get at least one Black woman writer in your curriculum this year and even if you don’t teach English, recommend an author to your students. For my readers who aren’t educators, pick up a book or article written by a Black woman. Leave suggestions of texts below. We gotta get these authors in heavy rotation.
Gabrielle Union’s We’re Going to Need More Wine– Ok, so this book was just released and is already a best-seller on Amazon because it’s dope. Here are my top 3 reasons for reading this book:
- She unapologetically talks about her vagina and the ways that women treat ourselves as Other when it comes to our bodies, bodily functions and the way we use our bodies as sexual beings.
- Colorism is real and she openly discusses how that affected her growing up, in relationships and in Hollywood.
- Lastly and most importantly, she calls herself out about the ways in which she has Othered others.
The last reason, for the sake of this discussion is the one I want to highlight. In the final chapter of her book, she talks about her best friend Ray and the way she nearly ruined their friendship.
She reflects on her time as a teenager when they went to a party. After they had a few drinks and everyone was feeling nice, some of the people started calling her friend Ray a faggot. She “defends” him by breaking a bottle and threatening everyone at the party, yelling that he’s not a faggot but in retrospect, she admits,
I wish I could say that I was protecting Ray. I was protecting me. I already felt like an outsider…I could not allow people to point out another way in which someone close to me was “other.”
This is how Othering works. Black people have to be careful not to do the same things that we complain about others doing to us. I appreciated this section so much because I knew how sensitive I could be about race but I didn’t always think before I said shit (usually ignorant shit about those in the LGBTQ community.) It was never hateful so much as it was ignorant. I was not immune to saying “faggot,” or “tranny” but it takes dialogue and reflection to understand the error of or our ways and to change our language.
Ray had to sit Gabrielle (Nickie to her childhood friends) down and let her know that he was indeed gay and when she said the word faggot, it was hurtful. She should’ve known better considering how hurt she felt when people said the word nigger. She had to be checked.
I think we all have moments like this and many times we think we’re being harmless. I remember being checked by my 10th grade English teacher for saying faggot during a class discussion about Oscar Wilde. She let me know real quick that I was not gonna loosely speak that word and she told me in front of the class that it was offensive. I would be lying if I said that that was the day that I stopped saying that word. I did stop saying it in academic settings but being conscious doesn’t happen overnight.
I was having a conversation with a couple of Black men who are very dear to my heart and we had a discussion about trans-women. Of course, toxic masculinity has caused them to say ignorant shit and the word “tranny” came up. We watched Michael Che’s standup comedy special on Netflix and he mentions that a trans woman who’s a friend of his asked him to stop saying the word “tranny.” He asked why he couldn’t say that and she simply replied, ‘How would you like it if I called you Blacky?”
My male relatives had to admit that it was a good point. That doesn’t mean that they washed away their biases or feelings but it did make them admit that they can be assholes. Sounds like a step in the right direction.
It’s just a simple reversal sometimes that can help to put things in perspective.
Hopefully, you’ve read or will read some of the books on my top shelf bookshelf. I’m here for all your thoughts, comments and ways to be part of the solution. Writing is only one way to begin the discussion but let’s brainstorm more ways to break down barriers because as the Lorde says, “for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.”
Drop some of your top shelf bookshelf titles in the comments section.
In the meantime,