Inhabiting Another World

Homegoing and Transcendent Kingdom, both by Yaa Gyasi, a celebrated young author.

The Days of Afrekete, by Asali Solomon, a professor of English at Haverford College.

I wasn’t intentionally reading these books because it was Black History Month. But when I realized that I’d read three books by Black women in the first three weeks of February, I decided to investigate the origins of this month-long celebration of the achievements and contributions of Black Americans to our nation’s culture and history.

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Black History Month dates to 1915, when historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland formed the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. In 1926, they sponsored a national “Negro History Week” in the second week of February, to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln, and encouraged schools and community groups to share stories, host lectures, and promote the culture of Blacks in America. However, it wasn’t until 1976 that President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month.

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The thing I love most about fiction is that it invites the reader to inhabit a world the author creates and offers the reader insights and perspective about living in this world. A good book is not a mirror but a window through which we can gaze and become fully absorbed in the experience of another life. Reading these books by Women of Color transported me to another place and time, ignited my compassion and gratitude for the diversity of human experience. 

I don’t usually reread books, but I considered reading Solomon’s first novel, Disgruntled, for a third time as soon as I finished The Days of Afrekete. I found it on my bookshelf; it still contained the sticky notes marking passages I’d relished when reading it for the second time in fall 2017, as I prepared to facilitate a discussion with several students who’d chosen it as their Summer Reading book.

I remember vividly the book’s protagonist: a young girl with a distinctive voice, who tells a compelling story of her journey to adulthood in West Philadelphia in the late eighties and early nineties. I felt drawn to connect with her again.

Instead, I returned Disgruntled to the shelf and got started on our Book Club’s selection for March, a classic that I’d never read, Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov. With two weeks to complete the book, I set a goal to read Part One on Shabbat afternoon. 

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Nabokov’s writing is brilliant, and I’m forced to concentrate deeply to appreciate each carefully chosen phrase and artfully constructed paragraph. Still, I can’t say that I’m enjoying reading Lolita.

When I logged into my email on Sunday, I wasn’t entirely surprised to find a wide range of objections to the book from my Book Club Ladies, including several who had started reading Lolita and then abandoned it because the story was too disturbing. I don’t disagree.

I encourage them to read literary criticism about Lolita, along with an opinion piece about whether Nabokov deserves a place in the canon. I’ll finish it this week, so I can curl up with Jung Yun’s Shelter and inhabit another world for a little while.