Monday, February 02, 2009

Something Different for Black History Month (February)

Like a little mystery with your history? Try Barbara Hambly’s mystery series that begins with A Free Man of Color. Set in New Orleans in the 1830s (right after the Louisiana Territory was acquired by America), the characters are a rich mix of French, Spanish and American, Creole, African slave and “free people of color.” Benjamin January (or Janvier, depending on the language you’re speaking) is one of the latter, a Paris-trained surgeon who must earn his living in New Orleans as a piano player. Between his two professions he mingles with all levels of society, and inevitably someone turns to him for his appealing mix of compassion and good sense to help them solve a dilemma, a puzzle or a murder.

There are now eight books (A Free Man of Color, Fever Season, Graveyard Dust, Sold Down the River, Die Upon A Kiss, Wet Grave, Days of the Dead, and Dead Water), written between 1998 and 2005, so if you’re hooked by the first one, you can relish Ben January’s world for a sumptuous long time. And according to Hambly’s official website (, there are two more January books on the way.

Hambly has also written Patriot Hearts, about the Founding Mothers, and The Emancipator’s Wife, a novel of Mary Todd Lincoln, so with Presidents’ Day around the corner (Feb. 16), you’re set, with all Hambly all the time! (Can you tell she has a degree in history?)

Do you prefer science fiction as the medium to usher you through time? Octavia Butler’s Kindred, some say the first science fiction written by an African American woman, is a combination of memoir and time travel that transports 26-year-old Dana from 1976 California to antebellum Maryland, where she arrives just in time to save a white boy from drowning, then jumps back just before the shotgun staring her in the face can go off. Like Henry in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Dana’s jumps are inadvertent, but they serve a purpose in her life history. Butler manages to provide both a conversation about serious issues—slavery, human rights and racial prejudice—and an exciting and complex story about human nature, love, and loss.

Because Octavia Butler’s heroes and heroines are often young, her fiction is a great cross-over between young adult and adult reading. For a glimpse into the future instead of the past, try Parable of the Sower, set in that familiar dystopia known as Los Angeles in the year 2025, and following the fortunes of Lauren Olamina, an 18-year-old pioneer of a new philosophy known as Earthseed. Parable of the Talents is the sequel.

Since Octavia Butler died tragically young (in 2006, at age 58), there will be no more of her seminal works featuring female black heroines, but her contributions to the science fiction world won her both the Hugo and Nebula awards multiple times, and she was the first science fiction writer ever to win the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. Check her out!

And if you want a live, dramatic account of more recent events in black history, come to the Young Adult Services presentation of EP McKnight in her one-woman play, "I Question America: The Legacy of Ms. Fannie Lou Hamer." From the cotton fields to the halls of Congress, Fannie Lou Hamer fought for civil rights for all. Tuesday, February 3, at 7:00 p.m. in the Central Library auditorium. Students may receive extra credit at their teachers' discretion.

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