This Black History Month, Billy Penn added an additional 21 locations to our Philly Black Music Map and picked 13 historical books on the city’s black communities that were key for understanding Philadelphia. What seemed to be missing were selections from the other parts of the humanities — namely, poetry and prose that speaks to black history in Philly.
Billy Penn reached out to author and Penn English Professor Lorene Cary, educator and Philadelphia Black History Collaborative member Christopher Rogers, poet Lyrispect, Penn Africana Studies Professor Grace Sanders Johnson and Temple African American Studies Professor Molefi Kete Asante. After touching base with the Free Library, we also received recommendations from librarian Darren T. Cottman. The Free Library let us borrow a roll of the “African American” spine label stickers affixed to works in black literature sections across the city. For many readers, these stickers are familiar. The library system buys them from supply companies and has used different varieties over time.
As with previous lists, this is not intended as a comprehensive list of great black Philadelphia writers. It’s a curated selection of fiction, memoirs, poetry or plays with a Philly connection.
William Still, known as the “father of the Underground Railroad,” kept notes on everyone he helped free. He kept these journals, essentially evidence of the highly illegal activity of aiding runaway slaves or being one, secret. After the Civil War, in 1972, Still published his diaries as The Underground Railroad. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center calls it “one of the most important historical records we have.”
Lorene Cary’s historical novel takes readers to the 1850s, after protagonist Virginia Pryor escapes from slavery. As Pryor works to forge a new destiny as a freedwoman here in Philly, the book explores what the city’s black community was like at the time. The title is drawn from a choice Pryor made, and how it never leaves her— when she ran away she was only able to take two of her three children with her, leaving her youngest behind.
Noted playwright Charles Fuller, who won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for this work, is a Philadelphia native. A murder on a Louisiana military base in the ’40s reveals powerful statements on race, inside and outside of the community.
In Tumbling, Herbie, Noon and their two daughters Fannie and Liz are not a typical South Philadelphia family. Both girls were left on their doorstep and raised together. Herbie and Noon share love but their marriage remains unconsummated due to trauma in Noon’s youth. The book follows the family as the girls grow up, but the star of the novel of Noon, who evolves from a shy, religious woman to a fierce neighborhood advocate who stands up when a road project threatens to cut up the community. Diane McKinney-Whetstone has written five more novels since Tumbling was released in 1996.
Of course, we have to include Philadelphia’s first-ever poet laureate on this list. This seminal 1985 collection won the American Book Award. Sanchez has written more than a dozen books, but this is a good place to start to understand why she’s been so influential and oft-imitated.
Award-winning poet Major Jackson treats basketball courts, sunshine on rowhomes and predilections towards Juicy Fruit as fodder for poetry. And these tender snapshots are inescapably Philly. Hoops, his second book, was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award for poetry.
This novel is based on author Asali Solomon’s own experiences. A West Philly girl comes of age, between her native community and the ’burbs, between public and private schools, with Afrocentric parents who teach her black nationalism. Solomon’s novel has been praised for its wit and clarity. Aside from her celebrated writing, Solomon is an English professor at Haverford.
MK Asante, an author, filmmaker and Morgan State professor, delves into his upbringing in North Philly in this memoir. With a father who was often away (Asante’s dad is a noted Temple scholar Molefi Kete Asante), and a mother battling depression, Buck details Asante’s journey to raise and find himself.
This selection is something to read with the kids in your life. Author Kathleen Wainwright is a schoolteacher and children’s book writer. She penned this work reminiscing on summertime vibes from when she was little. There are skates and jump rope and fireflies, reminding readers that being a kid in the summer in Philly is awesome.
The first in a seven-part series, The PreCursor, author Lyrispect notes, is small, “almost pocket-sized.” Nina “Lyrispect” Ball, a Billy Penn Who’s Next honoree, is a seasoned vet of the city’s spoken word scene and this book holds poems she’s performed over the course of her career.
The 1967 Nebula Award winner for best novel was Delany’s second of four Nebula awards in his career. In The Einstein Intersection is set in future times were homo sapiens have been wiped out and an alien race lives among our ruins, studying our old ways. But not all of the aliens are the same; mutations develop. The mutants, the protagonist being one, have to contend with what it is to be different. Delany, a science fiction giant and ex-Temple professor, plays with myth and cultural references, but also explores diversity and identity politics.