Lesser Known Titles Celebrating African Americans

Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.–Albert Camus

That, in my opinion, is the power of the best kind of historical fiction. Take a piece of history, flesh out those who lived it, and you have a hybrid powerhouse that can teach without threatening and plant ideas without being preachy. In that vein, I want to share three books that hold amazing stories, and some thought provoking ideas.

Each features a heroine I would love to call friend, and stories of triumph and heartache based in United States history. So without further ado, here they are.

015205393X_hresTitle:  Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons: The Story of Phillis Wheatley
Author:  Ann Rinaldi
Publication Date:  1996
Publisher:  Harcourt Brace & Company

A young girl, later known as Phillis Wheatly, is taken from her home in Senegal and sold as a slave in 1761. She winds up in Boston and as the property of the Wheatlys.

Narrated in first person, Rinaldi allows this girl to speak to the reader as if they were friends, laying bare her heart and sharing her struggle to be seen as a person. In the book it is Nathanial, the son of the Wheatleys, who teaches her to read and to write and it is Nathanial who treats her somewhat like a spoiled younger sister, not as a slave.

When her poetry is discovered, the city of Boston and the world at large are suddenly set on their sides. If a slave can write poetry and have her poems published in a book, then everything thought and taught about African people being inferior to Europeans, is wrong.

With her words Phillis shakes the whole world, and takes her place alongside other American Poets of her time, but is it enough to change anything?

Rinaldi stays true to her story, letting this poet reach through the centuries and tell us a fresh there is more we hold in common than what separates us.

Wolf by the EarsTitle:  Wolf by the Ears
Author:  Ann Rinaldi
Publication Date:  1991
Publisher:  Scholastic INC
Awards:  An ALA Best Book for Young Adults

The story starts in the year 1819. Harriet Hemmings, daughter of Sally Hemmings, lives at Monticello and while no one has ever abused her or made her feel less than, she is a slave of Thomas Jefferson. Or, is she his daughter?

Could she be both?

The Hemming’s lineage being linked with Jefferson’s is debated, but I firmly believe as Rinaldi does, that Harriet Hemmings was Thomas Jefferson’s illegitimate daughter. Rinaldi handles this delicate notion with finesse, and tact.

The ideas of family, of belonging, and of being seen for who and what you are run deep through this story. Rinaldi again uses the first person, making Harriet confide in the reader as if they were her dear friend. In some of the passages, I could almost hear Harriet being pulled in two as she faced her dual heritage head on, and made some of the hardest choices a person of any ethnic group would have to make.

Does she stay a slave, protected and shielded from the harshness of that life by a man who “uses innocence like a weapon and silence as a shield”, or does she hide that part of herself and present only half of who she truly is to the world?

One choice means keeping her people and her siblings, and the other means losing everyone she has ever loved, but gaining her freedom.

The choice is as difficult as letting go of a “wolf taken by the ears”, something that Jefferson compared the issue of slavery to, in his flowery way. Rinaldi weaves in his words throughout the book and in so doing has also given a juxtaposition of what this man said, and then what he did.

This tale ends on a triumphant and bittersweet note that will linger with readers long after the book is closed.

FlygirlTitle:  Flygirl
Author:  Sherri L. Smith
Publication Date:  2010
Publisher:  Penguin Young Readers Group

It’s December, the year 1940 and eighteen-year-old Ida Mae Jones wants to fly. She is more at home in the sky in her father’s old Jenny than anywhere else on earth.

Smith uses the first person to breathe life into Ida Mae Jones, and throughout the entirety of the book I felt like I was listening to Ida Mae, not reading a book. The vocabulary and the structure of the sentences flowed so gracefully, it was very difficult to remember to turn the pages.

On earth, Ida Mae and her best friend Jolene clean other people’s houses and work hard to “keep the home fires burning” as the United States enters World War Two. But in the sky? Oh, in the sky Ida Mae Jones is freer than free. She’s not just a “colored girl”, there she can shake away the dust of everyone else’s assumptions, and be wholly herself.

But war is not a time for self-indulgence. As her brother Thomas gives up his dreams of becoming a doctor to go off to war, and her younger brother Abel begins to grow up before her eyes, Ida Mae works to gather rubber, collect stockings, and to do all she can to support the war effort.

For Ida Mae though, it’s not enough. When Abel gives her a scrap of paper talking about the WASP program and points out that one of the girls there isn’t white, she’s Chinese, the idea of joining the WASP program begins to gnaw at her.

If she “passes” as white, she has a better chance of making the program. But if she “passes” as white, she will be just like her grandmother who refuses to have anything to do with her dark skinned kin, won’t she?

Flygirl tackles the issues of discrimination on multiple levels, and highlights one of the little-known aspects of World War Two, the contribution female pilots made to the war. If it did just that, it would be a fine read. But Smith goes one better, creating complex situations and faceted characters that feel so real it hurts to realize they aren’t.

While each of these books is designated “Young Adult”, they are also riveting, imaginative, thought provoking “works of fiction” that tell the truth and deserve a spot on your reading list.


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