Oxford American writers have long chronicled police brutality, racial injustice, and inequality. They have also centered Black excellence and joy. This week, we share a few masterworks that feel resonant in this moment, along with suggestions for further reading from these exceptional writers. And we encourage our readership to support organizations that advance racial justice (such as journalists or bail funds) and for protesters to know their rights and take care of themselves.
Black Lives Matter. Black Art Matters. Black Literature Matters.
HOW “THE BATTLE OF AND FOR THE BLACK FACE BOY” CAME TO BE
by Nikky Finney
An incredibly long list of names of young Black men, shot and killed by police and security guards across the country, was kicking me in my heart. The facts of their deaths and lives shook me. Their names and their formerly alive smiling faces, their cornrows, baseball caps, chocolate hoodies, their perfect moon-shaped afros escorted me through my day. The voices of their mothers, speaking of their sweet and funny Black sons, became a somber score that filled my head.
NINA IS EVERYWHERE I GO
by Tiana Clark
What is the price of maintaining fury? What is the difference between fearlessness and recklessness in art and in life—and is there enough of a difference? How do I protect my mental health in conjunction with my activism? What is the price of protest as an artist? Have I made another myth of Nina Simone? I have too many questions I want to ask of the dead.
BATTLE CRY OF THE ANDROID
by Brit Bennett
In Wondaland, time travel is never an escape from the plights of contemporary black life. Instead, by floating through time, by playing with the tropes of the past, by inventing new mythologies and new futures, Monáe and her artists expand the possibilities of black art and showcase the complexity of black lives, its struggles and its triumphs. Wondaland artists are in our time but not of it, and there’s something beautifully resistant about this. Black people liberated from time itself, imagining ourselves anywhere.
THE GREAT AMERICAN PRESS RELEASE
by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Over the years, I had adapted my look—adapted my whole life really—to reduce the number and variety of my police encounters. I stopped tinting my windows. I removed my killer sound system. Red cars were out, as were aftermarket sweeteners like spoilers or flashy rims. I kept my hair high and tight or shaved. No dreads, no braids, no cornrows. Nothing to draw an officer like a kitten to catnip. I got a college degree. First in my family. Became a lawyer. First in my family. I wished to be invisible to the hungry gazes of police officers—first in my family there, too. But my parents always said I was prone to fancy.
by Jesmyn Ward
It’s easy to forget how young Jojo is until I see him standing next to the police officer. It’s easy to look at him, his weedy height, the thick spread of his belly, and think he’s grown. But he’s just a baby. And when he starts reaching in his pocket and the officer draws his gun on him, points it at his face, Jojo ain’t nothing but a fat-kneed, bowlegged toddler. I should scream, but I can’t.
AIN’T HALF BAD
by Leesa Cross-Smith
I will not other myself, no. As often as I enjoy reading stories centered on race, I also want to read books about women who are black doing ordinary things like making dinner or having crushes or going to baseball games. Being kissed, getting drunk, praying, ruining their lives, finally finding peace. I struggled to find books like that as I was growing up. Now, I write them.
DA ART OF STORYTELLIN’ (A PREQUEL)
by Kiese Laymon
I remember sitting in my dorm room under my huge Black Lightning poster, next to my tiny picture of Grandmama. I was supposed to be doing a paper on “The Cask of Amontillado,” but I was thinking about OutKast’s “Wailin’.” The song made me know that there was something to be gained, felt, and used in imitating sounds from whence we came, particularly in the minimal hook: the repeated moan of one about to wail. I’d heard that moan in the presence of older Southern black folk my entire life, but I’d never heard it connecting two rhymed verses. Art couldn’t get any fresher than that.
QUEEN OF SNOW HILL
by L. Lamar Wilson
Rapsody now dons the mantle for a long tradition of black women, particularly those from the South, forcing Americans to look in the mirror of our professed ideals and to face the ills that haunt us. She carries the torch the outspoken, Tryon-born Nina Simone held high in the heat of the last century’s civil rights movement, before she fled to Europe for respite and asylum. She embodies the quiet fire and sensuality of the diminutive Roberta Flack, born in the Asheville-area town of Black Mountain, whose blend of torch ballads, folk, soul, gospel, and disco transformed what could be decidedly black and land in the genre of “pop music” as the civil rights fight gave way in the latter part of the century to the cultural appropriation that integration wrought.
PLAY ME DOWN HOME
by Rashod Ollison
Ma Rene’s place was the good-time joint “’Cross Creek,” where the funky black folks lived and worked. She welcomed all walks of life, from whores and Holy Rollers to vagrants and knucklehead kids. Growing up forty-five minutes away in Hot Springs, I loved visiting Ma Rene’s raucous home in the summertime, where the air sat thick with the scents of stale beer, cigarette smoke, Pine-Sol, and pungent cooking seasonings.
SING ACROSS THE OCEAN
by Zandria F. Robinson
South Carolina is a beginning, a port, and also a future and an exit, into and out of modernity, back and forth across the U.S. South and the Atlantic, into and out of the past, into something more than reconciliation and healing if we are serious about something beyond trite equity and inclusion. Charleston in particular, how it sounds and how we remember and represent what happened there, offers up the gumption to end this here world and the lies through which we know it, a world that only sputters on because we plant trees and sing and dance and sometimes have good in our hearts, and to begin the work of building an altogether new one.