Celebrating Black History Month: A Reading List from Professors Nadia Ellis and Hilton Als

Banner reading "Celebrating Black History Month: A Reading List from Professors Nadia Ellis and Hilton Als," with UC Berkeley English Logo
February 12, 2024

As we continue to celebrate Black History Month on the UC Berkeley campus, we're excited to bring you this reading list from two UC Berkeley English faculty members, Professors Nadia Ellis and Hilton Als. We thank Professors Ellis and Als for their contributions to this list and the UC Berkeley English Department.

Of her recommendations, Professor Ellis writes:"Black histories swirl together in currents–running, mingling, receding. Marine metaphors abound: "the history is submarine," poet Kamau Brathwaite said. The feeling can be similarly oceanic: vast; now subtly shifting, now cresting magnificently. Here are some recent books that explore these mobile tides, these submarine diasporic affinities, these moments of embrace, confrontation, self-seeing, and forgetting." 

Red Island House-Recommended by Professor Nadia Ellis

Red Island House, Book Cover

Like silvery tethers joining a woman's new life in Italy to her other new life in Madagascar, these interconnected tales span a marriage and probe dark affinities in the Indian Ocean. Unsentimental to a fault; self-indicting; belletristic composition wed to brutal neo-colonial realities. Repetitions pile up, like life. Not so much a recommendation as a confrontation.

-Nadia Ellis

Brown Girl, Brownstones-Recommended by Professor Hilton Als

Brown Girl, Brownstones, Book Cover

This book meant so much to me growing up, and means so much to me still. Marshall was a first generation Barbadian-American, and her story of post World War II West Indian strivers living together in the Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights sections of Brooklyn is so real and felt that you may forget you're reading a novel. But Marshall is a brilliant inventor; she took from her raw experience to craft a book that takes in a whole range of characters, from an ambitious mother to a disillusioned father to a woman who lives for pleasure, all living in one of the brownstones that was a point of pride for this wave of homeowners. Every word resonates with its own particular truth.

-Hilton Als

In the Wake: On Blackness and Being Recommended by Professor Nadia Ellis

In the Wake, Book Cover

Explore the heralded academic text for yourself and immerse in a thoughtful reckoning with experiences of Blackness as ecological: as in the churning drag of the sea after a ship's passage; as in the palpable humidity of dense air. Its thinking and prose are wide, outheld arms.

-Nadia Ellis

Sula-Recommended by Professor Hilton Als

Sula, Book Cover

 "Sula" was Morrison's second novel, and it's more technically advanced than "The Bluest Eye," her first. The story of two young women who grow into different ideas of womanhood--one conventional, the other not--it's also a book about storytelling, and the various ways in which individuals within and outside of families, tell their stories. In "Sula," Morrison engages her love for magic realist fiction--she was a big Marquez fan--by entertaining us with images that are extraordinary, fantastical, but grounded in realist behavior. The dialogue is spot on--often hilarious, always true.

-Hilton Als

Imperial Intimacies-Recommended by Professor Nadia Ellis

Imperial Intimacies, Book Cover

Meticulously detailed and spooky with resonance, this is Carby at her most open-hearted even as her blade remains sharp. We think we know how history tallies connections across the Atlantic, from drawing rooms in grand English houses to fields and fields overseas. We don’t, really.

-Nadia Ellis

Angela Davis: An Autobiography-Recommended by Professor Hilton Als

Angela Davis: An Autobiography, Book Cover

Davis was in her early twenties when she wrote her now classic book. Indeed, she felt she was too young to write an autobiography, but Toni Morrison, who was then a Senior Editor at Random House, convinced the scholar and activist otherwise. Working together closely, the "Autobiography" has the momentum of great fiction, and shows how personal the political can be. From Davis' early years in Birmingham (called Bombingham by some because of the bombings in that town when Civil Rights started to take effect), Davis was a committed activist, the child of activist parents who supported Davis' academic brilliance, and commitment to Black feminism and the inclusive politics of being.

-Hilton Als

The Yellow House-Recommended by Professor Nadia Ellis

The Yellow House, Book Cover

 A New Orleans story, framed, section-by-section, with poetry from there and elsewhere. As grand, intimate, and secret as that great city. Come for the reverent attendance of Broom's writing; she carries what has been un-held in that place. Stay for her spatial exploration of her and her family’s faceted sensibilities.

-Nadia Ellis

A Small Place-Recommended by Professor Hilton Als

A Small Place, Book Cover

"A brilliant look at colonialism and its effects in Antigua--by the author of Annie John

'If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see. If you come by aeroplane, you will land at the V. C. Bird International Airport. Vere Cornwall (V. C.) Bird is the Prime Minister of Antigua. You may be the sort of tourist who would wonder why a Prime Minister would want an airport named after him--why not a school, why not a hospital, why not some great public monument. You are a tourist and you have not yet seen . . .'

So begins Jamaica Kincaid's expansive essay, which shows us what we have not yet seen of the ten-by-twelve-mile island in the British West Indies where she grew up.

Lyrical, sardonic, and forthright by turns, in a Swiftian mode, A Small Place cannot help but amplify our vision of one small place and all that it signifies."

-Macmillan Publishers 

The Window Seat-Recommended by Professor Nadia Ellis

The Window Seat, Book Cover

These essays are a bird’s-eye view, though intimate all the same. Forna’s voice carries query and heft, both. Unsettled with motion, and with the questing and new seeing that come with it.

-Nadia Ellis