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‘Black Is’ booklist provides cultural, political history

Celina Colby | 2/23/2017, 6 a.m.
The Boston Public Library’s Black Is Book list reflects a collection of influential works by black authors that represent black ...
The Boston Public Library is highlighting black authors with its “Black Is” booklist this month. Photo: City of Boston

In celebration of Black History Month, the Boston Public Library is hosting an inspired array programming that includes film screenings, panel discussions and photo exhibits. But the most longstanding February tradition is the “Black Is” booklist, a collection of influential works by black authors that represent black history and experience of the past year.

BPL director David Leonard says, “This has been a feature of our programming since 1993 and all the books in this year’s list were published in 2016.” A committee selects the books based on their content, looking to create a contemporary picture of the African American experience. All the books are drawn from the existing collection and are available to the public year round.

On the web

For more on the “Black Is” booklist compiled by the BPL over the years, visit: www.bpl.org/research/adultbooklists/blackis.htm

This year’s list is a blend of pop culture and politics, two genres that have been especially intertwined since the 2016 election. Books like “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shatterly, which inspired the Oscar nominated movie, and “Walking With the Muses” by Pat Cleveland, provide a perspective on the black role in art and culture in the modern sphere. A new biography of Michael Jackson and a memoir written by ESPN reporter Lisa Fenn about two African American high school wrestlers also fill out the pop culture section.

Weightier is the political faction of books, many of which comment directly on social forces affecting the Trump presidency. “The Lynching” by Laurence Leamer tells the story of the trial and ultimate 1981 conviction of two Ku Klux Klan members who murdered a young black boy. “The Black Presidency” by Michael Eric Dyson explores how President Obama’s race impacted his time in office and the nation’s identity.

Local flavor

Local authors play a front and center role in the “Black Is” list, including Onaje X.O. Woodbine, author of “Black Gods of the Asphalt.” Now a resident of Andover, Massachusetts and a teacher at Phillips Academy, the book explores Woodbine’s experience on the ferocious basketball courts of Boston Public Schools. Where athletic scholarships could mean a ticket out of a difficult life, competition was fierce. Poet Kevin Young, author of “Blue Laws” on the “Black Is” list, graduated from Harvard College, and Shaka Senghor, author of “Writing My Wrongs,” is an MIT Media Lab Fellow alumnus.

The “Black Is” list isn’t just a gesture of goodwill on behalf of the Boston Public Library system. It’s mandatory reading for anyone looking to understand or participate in today’s cultural and political world. Leonard says, “The BPL has always had a mission of being free to all. Particularly in a time when some of our communities may be feeling threatened, we want to underscore that all are welcome.”