Black History Month: Book recommendations that shaped New York’s Black community leaders

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A community organizer. Health and fitness advocates. Artists. A student. A public servant.

Each of these people grew up Black in New York and relied on legacies their ancestors left to shape their understanding of their identities. Some of those essential lessons appeared in songs, poems and books.

In honor of Black History Month this February, we asked Black leaders to share literary works that helped shape their understanding of Black history.

From a compilation of prayers for Black transgender people to a modern best seller and classics from Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison, these works highlight various aspects of their Black experience.

Elle Hearns

Artist and community organizer Elle Hearns founded and serves as executive director for the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to defending the rights of Black transgender people through advocacy, policy and action. She is also a co-founder as well as former interim organizing director and strategic partner of the Black Lives Matter Global Network. In that role, Hearns led campaigns including the #SayHerName Day of Action.

Hearns organized the inaugural National Day of Action for Black Trans Women in 2015 in response to several consecutive murders of Black trans women, according to her bio on her website. Previously, Hearns transformed GetEQUAL, an LGBTQ organization where she previously worked, to focus its efforts on the liberation of LGBTQ people. 

The organizer has received several awards for the advocacy work, including Black Feminist Human Rights Defender award from Black Women’s Blueprint and Young Women’s Achievement Award for Advocacy and Organizing by the Women’s Information Network.

‘The Black Trans Prayer Book,’ co-edited by J Mase III and Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi

“The Black Trans Prayer Book is a necessary theological work by two of the greatest artists alive. This book’s contributions to the Black Trans Renaissance, encourages all to believe that healing is available to the Black community that’s been denied so much.”

‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X,’ by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

“Malcolm X was fighting to not have to compromise. He was fighting so that Black people wouldn’t have to struggle, having a glimpse into his thoughts, some of the most important historical texts about a man who predicted not only his demise but the demise of the United States.”

‘Sula,’ by Toni Morrison

“One of the greatest Black feminist statements ever written. We could still go to heaven despite living through hell. She was writing about our history, for a fictional perspective. I love her work.”

C. Virginia Fields

C. Virginia Fields leads the National Black Leadership Commission on Health — formerly called the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS — the oldest nonprofit that advances policy and action to address health disparities impacting Black Americans. Field’s work drawing attention to health disparities caught national leader’s attention — she was appointed to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Region II Health Equity Council. She also sat on a task force and advisory council to address AIDS in New York state.
C. Virginia Fields photo

Her legacy includes time as a social worker and activist, both of which earned her several awards. At one time Fields ended up in jail after she marched, along with The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Birmingham, Alabama. Fields represented two districts on the New York City Council in the 1990s, and became the second African American woman to be named Manhattan Borough president. In 2006, she ran for New York City mayor, the first African American woman to do so. 

‘Unbought and Unbossed,’ by Shirley Chisholm 

“The Honorable Shirley Chisholm’s story is one of convictions, courage and determination in making a difference against what many considered insurmountable odds. From becoming the first Black woman elected to Congress; and first Black woman to seek the Democratic nomination for President of the U.S., she was my inspiration to running for public office including the Mayor of New York City. Moreover, in speaking out on ‘her life and on the American political system,’ her story provides valuable lessons in understanding  what we have witnessed — ‘government that does not respond to needs of voters’ — and on changing systems. Through organizing and broad-based coalitions, we can change the system as evidenced in the recent presidential election; and the election of two new U.S. Senators in the State of Georgia. Building on the work and legacy of Honorable Shirley Chisholm made possible the election of Vice President Kamala Harris, first Black/Asian and woman!”

‘Why We Can’t Wait,’ by The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Growing up in the segregated south of Birmingham, Alabama, I was greatly inspired by the teachings and works of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In his book, he writes about the social and psychological conditions, having existed far too long, that silent waiting would not change. Conditions and events that brought ‘the philosophy and method of nonviolent direct action into the forefront of the struggle,’ and why we could not wait for systems and ‘good will’ of oppressors to bring about needed changes. As one of the teenage ‘foot soldiers,’ I marched with Dr. King, spent six days in jail taking my stand against racial injustices and for civil rights and equality. This would mark the beginning of my life’s work as a social worker, professor, elected public servant and executive. Today, knowledge and understanding of moving from protest to bringing about sustainable and real changes are very valuable lessons in our continuing fight.”

‘The Mis-Education of the Negro,’ by Carter G. Woodson

“Dr. Woodson writes that ‘real education means to inspire people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better.’ Today, as I witness our education system, it does not reflect these noble ideas nor is it the reality of far too many Black students. More emphasis is placed on preparations for taking standardized tests and acceptance into specialized schools. Less attention to knowing one’s history as an important pathway to understanding the meaning of education and true empowerment. The lack of knowledge of one’s history and culture limits vision, hopes, aspirations, and the thinking of possibilities. The absence of teachers who have the knowledge, understanding and passion, further exasperate problems of today’s mis-education of Black students.”

Tayo Giwa and Cynthia Gordy Giwa

Tayo Giwa and Cynthia Gordy Giwa founded Black-Owned Brooklyn in 2018. The website highlights local businesses in the Brooklyn borough and the Black owners behind them. They also post photos and stories of Black Brooklyn life in general on their site and social media. The couple comes from media backgrounds. Cynthia is a marketing executive and former journalist who covered race, culture and policy. Tayo works as a media and technology lawyer and a photographer.This year, the husband-and-wife team produced a film about Soul Summit, a legendary dance party that takes place in Fort Greene Park. The event did not happen for the first time since it started in 2002 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the Giwas worked with a team to create “Soul Summit: Doin’ It in the Park” using archival footage to bring to life the event that’s become a “safe haven” for Black people in the Brooklyn. They wrote their recommendations together and sent them by email.

‘Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy,’ by Robert Farris Thompson

“‘Flash of the Spirit’ draws a direct line from the artistic, religious and cultural traditions of five West African ethnic groups to the traditions of Black people in the United States, Mexico, the Caribbean and South America. It’s something that Black folks the world over have innately known — that we have a shared heritage, and Africa lives in us — and this book supports that intuition with deep research.” 

‘The Black Book,’ compiled by Middleton A. Harris and Toni Morrison

“Part scrapbook, part encyclopedia, ‘The Black Book’ chronicles African-American history from 1619 through the 1940s. Thick and vivid with artifacts that are, in turn, hard to look at and inspiring — slave auction notices, sheet music, images of lynchings, old family photos, racist advertisements, patents for inventions and Hollywood posters — it documents the endless fortitude of our ancestors. Cynthia grew up with this book and obsessed over it as a child; now it’s part of our family’s collection.”

‘The Warmth of Other Suns,’ by Isabel Wilkerson

“‘The Warmth of Other Suns’ tells the history of the Great Migration of millions of African American refugees from state terror in the South to Northern cities from 1915 to 1970 — a history that had never before been given the heroic narrative and deep context it deserves,” the Giwas said. “Uprooting your life from one locale to another takes courage and ambition, and this book finally gave voice to how extraordinary African American migrants were in what they faced and had to overcome in their pursuit of a better life.”

Hawa Drame

Hawa Drame co-founded Black Leaders Advocate for Change, a student-led caucus at Clarkson University, in June 2020. The group advocates for an increase in diversity within the student body and works to get marginalized students involved in policy discussions, among other goals. As a student leader, she organized a career expo focused on career development for underrepresented students. She invited about 50 predominantly African American professionals to the virtual, first-of-its-kind event.Drame is a student representative on the Anti-Racism Task Force at Clarkson, former president of the school’s National Society of Black Engineers chapter and she’s involved with the organization Future Leader of America. She’s a senior studying Global Supply Chain Management and Project Management.

‘The Invisible Man,’ by Ralph Ellison

“This book demonstrates the issues faced by African Americans on a daily basis ranging from social, intellectual and individuality issues.”

‘The Bluest Eye,’ by Toni Morrison

“This book resonates with me well because it is about a young Black girl who is darkskin and is often referred to as ugly. I have had people call me midnight, ugly or ‘compliment’ me by saying ‘you are pretty for a darkskin girl.’ It took me until high school to become comfortable in the skin that I am in.”

‘The Skin I’m In,’ by Sharon G. Flake

“Like ‘The Bluest Eye,’ this book is about a darkskin girl who had trouble accepting her skin color and had low self-esteem. This book taught me about self love, body image and the power of confidence.

Lynn Spivey

Lynn Spivey leads the New York City Housing Authority branch of the NAACP,  a position she’s held since 2009. She said she’s proud to advocate for people with NYCHA after growing up in public housing in the Bronx. She was a successful track runner in high school, which took her to competitions across the nation, and eventually won her scholarships to college, all of which got her on the path to the role she’s in today. She’s also a chaplain with New York State Healing Hearts Chaplain Task Force, an entrepreneur and writer.

Spivey created a game to teach kids about Black history “I Got POWER” (power stands for purpose, opportunity, wisdom, encouragement and resilience). She created other educational programming while serving as NYCHA president, including math tutoring and literacy initiatives. Spivey was previously chairperson of the African American International Chamber of Commerce. 

‘Wilma,’ by Wilma Rudolph

“As a child [Rudolph] was my role model. Some of my life accomplishments were due to reading that book. What I learned most was when she was younger she had polio and was told she would never walk, but she became an Olympic track star. I learned you can overcome any obstacles in life. I had the opportunity of traveling all across the country and attending college because of the book and determination I had.”

‘Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-breaking and Pioneering Historical Events,’ by Jessie Carney Smith

“When I was growing up in school, we never learned positive things about Black people. In 2009, when Barack Obama was elected president, I was talking to some young people who didn’t know what the NAACP was or the accomplishments they made. I really believe that this book empowers you to know that the narrative that’s been placed upon [Black people] is not really what it is. We have done so many powerful things in this country. We need to teach kids about Black history.”

‘The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities,’ by Lawrence C. Ross, Jr.

“I have been a member of [the Delta Sigma Theta] sorority since 1988. I believe the impact of African American sororities and fraternities can shape this nation for people of color. Our core mission is empowering people of color in our communities … and building up on civic engagement areas. I know that I’m a servant and I like to serve the people — the mission of all our organizations are about serving the people.”

Karen Rogers

Karen Rogers owns Exercise Express, LLC in Rochester. She strives to promote healthy living among African American clients “that suffer from health disparities and high rates of treatable and preventable diseases, which often go undiagnosed and untreated,” she said. Her business turns 10 this year. Rogers studied the Effective Black Parenting curriculum with the Center for the Improvement of Child Caring. Through the program, she received certifications as a diabetes prevention lifestyle coach as well as recovery peer specialist and peer coach. She also became a certified group fitness and cycling instructor and personal trainer.

‘Mayhem: The ROC is in the Building,’ by Dionne N. Dempster

“This book takes you on a riveting ride through the streets of Rochester. Grandparents raising the next generation because the young moms and dads do not have the patience. It depicts the experiences that many in our own community experience on a daily basis. It talks about the disparities and how the breakdown of our Black and Brown communities affects the lives of our children. The book demonstrates the importance of family, friends and loyalty. This is where I was born and raised. All in all, an excellent read.”

‘Jack Wentworth: The Real Belt,’ by Karen Ward-Wilder

“‘Jack Wentworth: The Real Belt’ was written to inspire and educate teens, to let them know whatever challenges — being bullied, or experiencing racial inequality and exclusion — no matter what the obstacles, when they discover “Who They Are- Greatness,” their significance, they can overcome the obstacle and flourish. This book resonated with my identity in knowing, during challenging times, I have inner strength to go on and bring education, health and wellness exercise classes to my community. I want to continue to see my community flourish in health well rounded. [The author and I] previously put on a community event to work on helping to adapt this book into an upcoming TV series.”

‘A Piece of Cake,’ by Cupcake Brown

“Reading ‘Piece of Cake’ opened my eyes to the world of addiction. Through the experience of the author I learned how easily one can fall through the cracks of society right in front of society. She is completely honest in the telling of her story from crackhead to recovery. After reading this book you are left with the motivation that you can achieve anything no matter the obstacle.”

By: Sammy Gibbons: Rockland/Westchester Journal News

February 23, 2021

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