Tommie Experts taps into the knowledge of St. Thomas faculty and staff to help us better understand topical events, trends and the world in general.

Todd Lawrence, associate professor of English and American culture and difference, studies African American literature and culture, often focusing on the intersection between culture identity and narrative.

This Black History Month, the Newsroom spoke with Lawrence to get his book recommendations for the St. Thomas community, some with connections to upcoming opportunities to engage on campus, all with opportunities to fill in historical blanks.

“This should be a moment of initiating your own educational practice, educating yourself about these historical events, the ones that got left out, the people who you didn’t learn about, the places,” Lawrence said. “It’s our responsibility to push back against that and learn things ourselves.”

Sister Outsider book cover1. Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
Collection of essays and speeches

Audre Lorde is one of the most important, influential Black feminist writers. Her poetry is amazing. She’s one of my favorite poets, but even more so, her writing about the civil rights movement, about Black women is so important.

She has an essay called “Poetry Is Not a Luxury.” which is about how important poetry is in everyday life and an essay about the uses of anger. In her essays, she writes clearly, powerfully about culture issues that were important at the time (the 1980s), that have remained important to this moment. Gender issues, issues regarding sexual identity and Blackness, issues regarding protesting, political resistance – all these things she writes about in this collection of essays.

St. Thomas Connection:  There’s a new edition that just came out last year (2020) and the forward is by Mahogany Brown, who is performing at St. Thomas’ Slam Poetry Virtual Event at 6 p.m. on Feb. 25.

1919 Poems Eve L Ewing book cover2. 1919 poems by Eve L. Ewing
Poetry collection with historical photography of the 1919 Chicago Race Riot

The poems in this collection are about the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 where a young Black man was swimming in Lake Michigan at a segregated beach. He drifted into the area designated for white people only. Some white people started to throw rocks at him, and he drowned. Police refused to arrest the people who had thrown rocks at the young man. There was a huge race riot that happened afterward.

Award-winning poet Eve Ewing, who is currently a sociology professor at the University of Chicago. constructs her poems using actual text from reports about the unrest.

The 1919 riot is an event that hasn’t been taught in schools nor that (mainstream culture) wants to remember because it’s a stain on our country’s history. But it’s important that we remember the riot because it’s a part of our history. Whether we’re talking about Tulsa – “Black Wall Street” or East St. Louis, right around this time (1919-20) there were quite a lot of race massacres. Almost every one is a case where white people, in mass, went to where Black people were or lived and killed them.

Just Us by Claudia Rankine book cover3. Just Us by Claudia Rankine
Collection of poetry, short essays, imagery

This collection is about racial justice and equity right now, but Rankine really is focused on ways we can talk about these things together. The title of Just Us said out loud, could be “justice,” but it also means there’s “just us,” only the people who are here, who are capable of making justice a reality.

Not just Rankine, but a lot of scholars and writers emphasize that when the future is more equitable for BIPOC, it’s more equitable for white people, too. A better country, a better future for marginalized people, is actually a better future for everyone. A lot of people don’t recognize that or understand that; that’s what Rankine’s work is about.

The book begins with this essay that first appeared in The New York Times, in which she says something like: “I wanted to know what white men thought about privilege, so I decided to ask them.” It’s kind of an amazing meditation on how we can all have conversations like that. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but ultimately, those are the conversations we need to have with each other.

St. Thomas Connection: Mark your calendar for March 24, when the St. Thomas English Department and the Diversity Activities Board will host Rankine for a virtual discussion about the pain, violence and endurance of white supremacy in ordinary, everyday life and how individuals can cease being silent about it.

Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin book cover4. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
Autobiographical novel and family saga

James Baldwin is one of the most important writers of the 20th century. He’s my favorite writer. I teach courses on him all the time, and I’m actually teaching this book right now with my students. It’s a beautiful, wonderful novel that I think is perfect for our community because it’s about belief and finding your own relationship with God.

When he grew up, Baldwin was a child preacher in the Black evangelical church until he was 17, but then he left the church because he was queer. He left, but he never left the church entirely. The influence of that church stayed with him and is really evident in this book, which is so suffused with the music of the church, the language of the church, the beliefs and the values of that church, but also his pushing back against them.

Heavy by Kiese Laymon book cover5. Heavy by Kiese Laymon
Memoir about addiction and growing up Black in Mississippi

Heavy is about the trauma of racial oppression and how it has impact on our bodies. It’s one of the most powerful memoirs that I think I’ve ever read.

It’s so raw. Laymon exposes himself so much around his own body image issues, his own compulsive eating, exercising that you can trace back to the traumas in his childhood.

It’s the story of Laymon’s growing up as a Black kid in Mississippi and going off to become a professor at an East Coast, elite institution and coming back to teach in Mississippi.

Black Thunder Gabriel's Revolt Virginia, 1800 by Arna Bontemps book cover6. Black Thunder: Gabriel’s Revolt: Virginia, 1800 by Arna Bontemps
1930s historical novel about a planned slave revolt by Gabriel Prosser

Black Thunder focuses on Prosser’s attempt to revolt, however, he was found out and informed on by another slave. It’s a beautiful novel about a historical event.

People don’t know about the massacres that happened to Black communities and Black people in history. The same is true of revolts. They’re not something we talk about or celebrate, and of course, at the time for the white people in power, slave revolts were very frightening. This was information that had to be repressed because people were so afraid of the potential of slaves to resist their own enslavement.

It’s important to go back and try to get the whole story. The story that we learned is often an abridged story of American history that excludes people who are inconvenient, people who don’t fit the narrative that people want to convey.

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