S.A. Cosby’s 5 favorite novels about Black lives
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Although S.A. Cosby, most recently the author of the widely acclaimed “Blacktop Wasteland,” writes in the crime genre, the author was raised on a wide variety of books, many of which have influenced his work deeply. His favorites, including the books below, share two overarching qualities with one another and his own work: They feature richly developed characters you won’t find anywhere else, and they reflect keenly the way Black lives are impacted by systemic racism.
‘A Lesson Before Dying’
Ernest J. Gaines
“It’s as important to me as Richard Wright’s ‘Native Son,’” Cosby says of Gaines’ 1993 magnum opus, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and an Oprah Book Club selection. Set in 1940s Louisiana, where a college-educated man returns to visit a peer on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, the novel “immerses the reader in the sensibility of being Black in America and being caught up in a system that is designed, from its inception, to keep you in place, whether in chains or in poor housing.”
‘The Hate U Give’
“Starr Carter is such a vibrant character that we just don’t see enough of in fiction about Black life,” Cosby says of the protagonist in Thomas’ 2017 bestseller — a poor girl attending a rich suburban school who witnesses an act of police violence. “She’s not a token, not a magical Negro, not a virtue signal for the way white people think Black are supposed to behave.”
William H. Armstrong
Cosby calls this YA novel by a white writer (the basis for a 1972 film starting Cicely Tyson and Kevin Hooks) “a Black ‘Les Misérables.’” Like Jean Valjean, Paul Winfield’s father is imprisoned for stealing food to feed his starving family. “The way the justice system brings the hammer down on him and breaks him is tragic. Until ‘Sounder,’ I don’t think white people realized that this was reality for millions of Black people. When I saw the film and read the book, it felt like a documentary to me.”
This 2019 novel by Cosby’s friend John Vercher is about a character passing for white who gets caught up in a hate crime committed by a white friend from high school. “In [the character of] Bobby Saraceno,” says Cosby, “John creates this powerful narrative of the outsider and the insider at the same time and shows how the criminal justice system works for whites and against Blacks.”
‘If Beale Street Could Talk’
“While I prefer Baldwin’s essays to his fiction,” says Cosby, this novel — about a young Black man falsely convicted of rape, destroying his plans to start a family — “expresses the toll of racism in a way that is lyrical and beautiful and heartbreaking.”
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