Langston Hughes. James Baldwin. Ralph Ellison.
These are some of the writers who expanded American perspectives on race relations with their groundbreaking works. Fortunately, great literature about race didn’t die out in the middle of the 20th century. In the 1990s and this millennium, gifted writers have penned notable novels and memoirs about race. Want to understand race better by reading modern books on the topic? Check out the half-dozen works of multicultural literature below.
Rain of Gold (1991)
Carlsbad, Calif., native Victor Villaseñor tapped into three generations of family history to craft epic work Rain of Gold. Sometimes referred to as a Chicano “Roots,” Villaseñor chronicles his forebears as they migrate fromRevolution Era Mexico to California in the 1900s. Of most importance are the author’s parents, Juan Salvador and Lupe. Villaseñor tells parallel stories of each infused with humor, love, fantasy and folksiness.
How did this family history get the name “Rain of Gold”? After fleeing war torn Mexico as a boy, Juan Salvador landed in an Arizona prison for taking $6 of ore from his workplace—a gold mine. Meanwhile, Lupe was born in an American operated gold mine in Mexico that nearly cost her brother his life. Such tales demonstrate how Anglos, Mexicans and Indians collided during that time and in that region.
Sometimes criticized for its length and sentimentality, 550-page Rain of Gold has nonetheless left its mark. Not only did it become a bestseller, it is also frequently taught in American schools. All the more gripping is Villaseñor’s personal story. Despite having severe dyslexia and contending with language barriers in childhood, he’s managed to craft five books available in a variety of languages.
In 2001, he published Thirteen Senses: A Memoir. It’s a follow up to Rain of Gold.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993)
This bittersweet collection of short stories contains humor, drama and magical realism, not to mention a dose of social commentary. Set on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington, the book challenges mainstream perceptions of what it’s like to be Native American. In the tome, author Sherman Alexie—a Spokane and Coeur d’Alene Indian—replaces the medicine men and stoic warriors of yesteryear with basketball playing Indians who have messy personal lives and grapple with what it means to be Native American in contemporary society.
In a story named “A Drug Called Tradition,” Washington Water Power issues a character named Thomas a large check to install ten power poles on his land. Of such situations, the narrator thinks, “When Indians make lots of money from corporations that way, we can all hear our ancestors laughing in the trees. But we can never tell whether they’re laughing at the Indians or the whites. I think they’re laughing at pretty much everybody.”
Throughout the Lone Ranger, Alexie seems to be a laughing at both as well, for his characters are flawed yet funny. The story collection made such an impact upon its debut, Miramax made it into a film called “Smoke Signals,” released in 1998.
Dreams From My Father (1995)
Dreams From My Father debuted to little fanfare upon its release, a fact author Barack Obama recounts in the preface to the 2004 edition.
“I was filled with hope and despair upon the book’s publication—hope that the book might succeed beyond my youthful dreams, despair that I had failed to say anything worth saying,” he remarks. “The reality fell somewhere in between. The reviews were mildly favorable. …The sales were underwhelming. And, after a few months, I went on with the business of my life, certain that my career as an author would be short-lived, but glad to have survived with my dignity more or less intact.”
After Obama’s meteoric rise in the Democratic Party, however, sales of the memoir soared. Now, the bulk of his income reportedly comes from book sales. Many of the readers surely want to know what President Obama was like before he became a superstar politician. In Dreams From My Father, they’ll find the answer. Within its pages, Obama reveals himself as an insecure young man struggling with his racial identity.
A biracial man growing up in such decidedly non-black locales as Hawaii and Indonesia with his Kenyan father nowhere in sight, Obama must decide for himself who he is. All the while, his estranged father haunts him. That is, until Obama returns to Kenya and learns all about the man who gave him life.
At the Los Angeles Times Book Festival in 2009, writer Danzy Senna joked that her mother refers to Boston as the “Deep North.” A city with residents who violently objected to the busing of black students into white schools in the 1970s, Boston’s not exactly known as being on the cutting edge of racial progress. Now imagine growing up there during that time in a mixed-race family. Imagine still that, in spite of being mixed-race, everyone assumes you’re white. That was Senna’s experience, which she channels expertly into her debut novel, Caucasia.
In the book, a family with a white mother, black father and two daughters—one who looks white and the other, black—splits along racial lines. But protagonist Birdie Lee wants to know why. Are the Feds really after her politically radical parents, or is there a less rational explanation for why her mother took off with her and her father with her beloved sister, Cole?
Inspired, in part, by Ellison’s Invisible Man, Caucasia raises questions about what it means to be black, white or both. Moreover, it asks if there’s any place one can run to for racial refuge.
No one called Dalton Conley a “honky” during his childhood in a mostly black and Latino housing project on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. As one of few whites in his community, however, Conley grew up wanting to fit in, unaware of what being white meant and the privileges it gave him. Teachers whacked his mischievous classmates on the knuckles with yardsticks but not him. Authorities cut him slack when he engaged in the kind of juvenile hijinks that would have landed a black youth behind bars.
“Learning race is like learning a language,” Conley writes. “First we try mouthing all sounds. Then we learn which are not words and which have meaning to the people around us. Likewise, for my sister and me, the first step in our socialization was being taught that we weren’t black. Like a couple of boot camp trainees, we had first to be stripped of any illusions we harbored of being like the other kids, then be built back in whiteness.”
Set in the 1970s but written two decades later, the memoir skillfully captures what it’s like to be from the majority culture while raised in a minority community. The experience apparently left an indelible mark on Conley, who’s now an award-winning sociologist at New York University.
When the Emperor Was Divine (2003)
Painter Julie Otsuka made a marvelous fiction debut with this spare but gripping novel about a family forced to abandon their California home and move into a Japanese-American internment camp in 1942. The four family members—two parents and a son and daughter—are never named, but Otsuka captures their emotions about the injustice in precise detail.
Describing the mother of the family, Otsuka writes: “There were things they could take with them: bedding and linen, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, cups, clothes. …Pets were not allowed. …It was the fourth week of the fifth month of the war and the woman, who did not always follow the rules, followed the rules. She gave the cat to the Greers next door. She caught the chicken that had been running wild in the yard since the fall and snapped its neck…”
In simple prose, Ostuka deftly captures the horrors Japanese-American internees faced. When the nameless family emerges from the barracks after their confinement, we know they will never be the same. In this powerful novel, Otsuka makes a grand achievement: She chronicles how this ugly chapter in American history affected its victims on a personal level. And she does so without resorting to preaching.