By Mark Anthony Neal | With thanks to NewBlackMan
Thursday, September 11, 2014.
Thanks to my mother, I’ve been a reader since I was a toddler; I’m sure if
you asked me at the time, I would have
said that The Berenstain Bears’ The Bike Lesson was atop the list of books that changed my
life. Truth is that as a child,
periodicals like Weekly Reader (which we read aloud at the
R.T. Hudson Seventh Day Adventist School) Highlights for Children, Baseball
Digest and The New York Daily News
tended to be my favorite reads.
Books became the matter when I started to want to live in a world of ideas
as opposed to a world of facts. Reading books like John Gardner’s Grendel (1971) and Albert Camus’s The Stranger in high school—a big shout-out to the English
department at Brooklyn Technical High School, one of the nation’s premiere high
schools for engineering—were indeed
life changing experiences.
The list below reflects an admittedly truncated list of books that have
helped shape my adult worldview—and in many ways they all continue to change my
Enemies the Clash of
Races (1978)– Haki Madhubuti
Fitting to start with Madhubuti’s Enemies,
in that the book contains his own list of must reads, a list that I dutifully
engaged. The book was a gift from then Donald Smith—now Nation of Islam
Minister Abdul Halim Muhammad (Buffalo, NY)—during my first year in college,
and it unlocked a ferocious curiosity that continues to this day.
The Black Poets (1971)—ed. Dudley
Pretty sure that this is a book I purchased during my first trip to the old
Liberation Bookstore in Harlem.
Probably stayed in my knapsack continuously for five years, especially in those years when I
fancied myself as a poet (this in the years before Spoken Word). A reminder today that my undergraduate
concentration was in creative writing.
After beating the first one to shit—something to be said about every
book on this list—I purchased a replacement from Amazon a few years ago. What I wouldn’t give to spend an hour or two
in Liberation, now.
The Death of Rhythm and
Blues (1988) – Nelson George
I read Nelson’s columns in Billboard
Magazine and The Village Voice
religiously in the early 1980s; The Death
of Rhythm and Blues was confirmation that writing criticism of Black music
was something I could do, and make a living (though not the way I thought at
the time). The Death of Rhythm and Blues led me to Baraka’s Blues People, and for that I’ll always
Yearning: Race, Gender,
and Culture (1991)—bell hooks
Procured during a trip to Toronto during the summer of 1992—a time in my
life, where I remember, that I didn’t go anywhere without trying to find a good
bookstore and a good record store. Felt like contraband when I bought it; bell
made the life of the mind as sexy as hell (and with no footnotes).
Flyboy in the Buttermilk (1992) – Greg
Like Nelson, had been reading Tate religiously in the Voice. More than twenty-years after its publication,
still a little Stannish in Tate’s presence. But this book tho; Like Jelani Cobb always makes me want to head
to the shed, with Greg, it’s like there ain’t no shed that even exist for no
shit like Tate’s. Bought Flyboy at the same time I bought bell’s Yearning; my teachers will tell you that
they both were all up in my early scholarly writing. Think about Flyboy a lot these days, as I plot the
next scene, and look forward to getting back to my own shit.
Forty Three Septembers (1993) –
Been reading Alexis De Veaux’s Yabo this summer in small sips—it takes me places I
ain’t quite ready to inhabit right now; I only mention that because it was
while sitting in my first graduate seminar with De Veaux – on Black and Red
Feminism – during the fall of 1993 that I first read Gomez’s work. It was a decade later when I was working on New Black Man when I realized how much Forty Three Septembers had influenced
me. Teaching Gomez’s The Gilda Stories remains one of my
favorite teaching experiences.
Reflecting Black: African
American Cultural Criticism (1993) – Michael
It was the paragraph where he critically broke down Michael Jordan’s
connection to a Black aesthetic. More than
African American cultural criticism, it was like micro-criticism; Dyson’s
genius has always been in the small details, something folk are likely to miss
if they don’t actually read his
writing. Always thankful that this was the first Dyson that I read—still have
the review that I wrote for The Leader—because
it provided faith for the path that I was going to take.
Writin’ is Fightin’:
Thirty Three Years of Boxing on Paper (1988)– Ishmael
First read Ishmael during a transitional period before grad school;
teaching high school during the day, and working the front desk at an NYU dorm
from 4pm-midnight; me and BX Golden sharing a tiny, tiny spot up in the Bronx.
Passed some of the time reading Reed’s non-fiction, including, Writin’ is Fightin. Bought it at the old
St. Marks bookstore in the East Village; same spot I bought the Henry Dumas’s collection Knee of a Natural Man, during my 8pm
“lunch” break. Ishmael and I disagree on a fair amount of things—and we’ve had
online conversations to that affect—but lawd that dude can write. My favorite non-fiction style-guide.
Race Rebels (1994)—Robin
Tate and Tricia Rose in the Acura Integra talking about the new
shit—Cassandra Wilson’s first joint working with Craig Street and this cat
Robin Kelley coming to NYU from Michigan.
Tracked down some seriously obscure piece R. Kelley had written about
Black folk in Birmingham; was standing at Talking Leaves Books when they opened
the box with Race Rebels; joint is
all up in the diss/first book. Every youngun that wants to write about Black
Popular Culture, I send them to Race
In Search of the Black
Fantastic (2008) – Richard Iton
Richard was a good friend/colleague—and I had digital front seat to so much
of his thought process while he was working on this book. The book has fundamentally impacted how I
think about many things popular—something I reflect on throughout Looking for Leroy—but it’s the book
itself that reminds me that we must do the work that we want to do now or we
might not be around to do so. Thankful
that Richard stayed with us long enough to leave this gift.