Your Own Kind by Brandon Taper

Lucille Clifton, 1973.

Probably as a result of being born in South Florida, where the playgrounds were empty and the median age over forty, I learned to read early in life.  Looking back, it was probably do this or play shuffleboard with the not-so-newly retired.  I daresay I made the right decision. 

I was drawn to stories about black children by black authors.  One day, a family acquaintance grabbed one such book from my hands to examine it. She ran her fingers over the cover’s splashes of orange and purple before saying, in a calm and casual tone, “What about your own kind?” 

If she said anything else, I can’t recall; nor would it matter if she did. 

This stayed with me, but not for the reason you may think.  At such a young age, I had no understanding of what one’s “own kind” meant.  And so what does a child do when presented with loaded mystery?  He solves it with an answer of his own.  

The only “kind” I knew was the kind my parents told me to be in public or to new friends.  And so, surely without this woman’s intending it, I made the association that reading books was a way of finding and deepening your own, for lack of a better word, kind of kindness. 

Although it was a discovery by mistake, I still believe this to be true. 

Reading opens you up (some might say like a book) to the experience of others.  Just think about what reading asks you to do: you’re letting the thoughts of someone else slide into your own head.  Whether those thoughts settle comfortably or crash about without care is up to you.

Here are some books, some well-known and some not, that helped me find my own kind:

Ralph Ellison, 1952.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
The nameless narrator of this book burns just as bright as the hundreds of bulbs he’s installed in his underground room.  Watch him as he runs from the South to the North looking for answers and for life. 

Oreo by Fran Ross
The only novel by this brilliant mind is a mixture of classical odyssey and modern Harlem.  A biracial woman, a quest for a birthright, and a madcap series of battling strangers and stereotypes.  If you knew more, the journey just wouldn’t be the same.  Have a bite.  

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson
Written in the form of a confession, Johnson’s 1912 novel gives a compassionate and candid account of black life at the turn of the century.  Heartfelt, honest, and yet unsparing, the book deserves more recognition in its contribution to what would become known as the Harlem Renaissance.  Just as in his famous poem, Autobiography lifts its voice and sings until “earth and heaven ring.”

God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man by Cornelia Walker Bailey
This conversational memoir is written by a Geechee woman from Sapelo Island, part of the Sea Islands located off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.  In the book, Bailey recounts the history of Sapelo after being settled by former slaves and its rich melange of African and Caribbean cultures.  I’ve never been more hungry for rice and shrimp or okra soup in my life.

Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed
I discovered Ishmael Reed and his candy-colored writing as a teenager and haven’t been the same since.  Once you read his titles, you know you’re half-buckled in for a crazy ride: Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, The Free-lance Pallbearers, and Reckless Eyeballing.  In this book, a mysterious plague sweeps the country that makes people want to dance, causing unforeseen social strife and race-related changes.  Not surprisingly, things don’t go the way you’d think, but that’s the fun of Mumbo Jumbo.

I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett
This comic novel from 2009 tells the story of a genial young man named Not Sidney Poitier.  Need you know more?  

The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton
Clifton’s poems are short, spare, and marked with solemn beauty.  Accessible to everyone, you’re always surprised when the gentle caress of her words becomes a shake.

Here is a poem by Clifton to close:

why some people be mad at me sometimes
they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories
and i keep on remembering
– Lucille Clifton