5 Must-Reads for Understanding the Black Diaspora
Generally speaking, the term black or African diaspora is used to describe “the descendants of the West and Central Africans who were enslaved and shipped to the Americas via the Atlantic slave trade.” The term is an extremely useful one because it’s broad enough to encompass the relationship black individuals across the world have not only with each other, but with their historical dispersal via slave trade. Because it is so complex, this relationship is not always the easiest to articulate—which is where some of my favorite works of literature come in!
The list below contains “black diasporic” literature in the sense that they all take strides to emphasize and explore the global connection black people have with each other and with their ancestral roots. My interest in this sort of literature has been piqued since taking a black studies course in the subject at Amherst College; all of these books were really formative for me in getting in-touch with my own half-Caribbean and half-African-American identity and can be useful for others who are trying to do the same.
“Clear Word and Third Sight” by Catherine A. John
On the more academic side of literature, scholar Catherine A. John’s 2003 book “Clear Word and Third Sight: Folk Groundings and Diasporic Consciousness in African Caribbean Writing” is a deep foray into the “consciousness” that connects black diasporic peoples. She explores how this consciousness comes out through diasporic creative works, and particularly in Caribbean literature. At once philosophical and well-researched, this book does an excellent job of showing the relationship people in the black diaspora have with each other and their past. Just generally, for those who are having a difficult time wrapping their head around the fundamental concept of the “black diasporic” experience, this is a really helpful one.
“A Map to the Door of No Return” by Dionne Brand
Dionne Brand’s “A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging” is filled with wonderfully poetic prose, anecdotes, and pieces that all connect to relay the unspoken influence on black diasporic peoples of the “door” in the Atlantic from which they were forcefully dispersed. I loved, loved, loved this book so much because of Brand’s incredible ability to articulate the inarticulable through her prose and snapshots alone. What John conveys through academic analysis, Brand conveys through poetic connection: the impact of a haunting, unspoken “consciousness” that connects black people to this day.
“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi
Yaa Gyasi’s renowned 2017 novel “Homegoing” maps the trajectory of the bloodlines of two Ghanaian half-sisters for eight generations. As we follow their descendants from the slave trade to Britain, regions of Africa, and the United States, the book brings readers along a harrowing, globe-spanning narrative that more directly implies the ancestral relationship and slave past connecting black people around the world. Often realistically bleak, this novel is a necessary one in understanding how the unspoken connection between black diasporic people has developed over time.
“Beloved” by Toni Morrison
Forever an American literary classic, Morrison’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel oversees the life of former slave Sethe as she is haunted by the ghost of her child Beloved. As a central figure in the novel, Beloved has been said to represent many things, among them being the legacy of slavery; it is for this reason that the novel does an incredible job at essentially condensing the catalyst for the connection between diasporic black peoples into one character. Like Brand’s “A Map to the Door of No Return,” Morrison succeeds at portraying the “consciousness” that connects the diaspora as a haunting phenomenon with roots in the trauma of slavery.
“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
On levels both metaphorical and literal, Walker’s 1982 National Book Award-winning novel deeply embodies the connective relationship within the black diaspora. On a more literal level, the 30-year geographic separation between the novel’s main characters Celie and Nettie is bridged with letters that demonstrate the strength in the connections between diasporic peoples across time and space; on a more metaphorical level, the novel’s recurring motif of abuse across the diaspora conveys how trauma and oppression are uniting factors in the diasporic experience regardless of a black person’s present circumstances. Ultimately, “The Color Purple” presents a clear window into the unique connections between black diasporic women specifically, and provides insight into how these connections are informed by the legacy of slavery.
Because the diaspora is as diverse, wide-reaching and broadly dispersed as it is, it can be a challenge to find art that speaks to the experiences of most diasporic individuals. Through well-thought-out prose, themes, and even philosophical examinations, the above works manage to do just that and more: they lend credence to the previously inarticulable, shared experiences that in part define the black diaspora. Understanding these experiences and how they have forged the bond we see between black people across the world today is also key to understanding the global oppression of our people; with the empathy these works encourage towards the universal black experience comes the slow dismantling of our oppression.
Alternatively, works that explore the relationship between the black diaspora function as great tools for diasporic peoples to better understand their identities. Reading these works, I have personally found new ways to express how historical, systemic oppression haunts my everyday experiences and hope these books can do the same for others.