Black, Not Sad: Ben Philippe on Books that Celebrate the Black Experience

Black, Not Sad: Ben Philippe on Books that Celebrate the Black Experience

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Ben Philippe

Ben Philippe’s debut novel, The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, follows a black French Canadian teen named Norris as he moves to Austin, Texas. Years of watching sitcoms gave Norris the ability to quickly sort his new classmates into typical high school tropes: the jocks, the cheerleaders, the loners. But as he starts to make friends, Norris realizes that his initial judgments may have been wrong. Here, Philippe shares his passion for stories that celebrate the black experience through five glowing recommendations.

Having been raised outside of America—just a few miles north, but still—the narrative of being Black within the United States was often presented as one of pure struggle, particularly on bookshelves. Slavery, protests, hoses and dogs, segregated water fountains, slurs, protests, and statistics: The strife is an indelible part of Blackness in America. Therefore, it makes sense that the books and films considered canon on the matter are those that take an unflinching look at the sufferings of Black people. Now, these are defining elements of the Black experience, but they also do not represent the whole of it.

From Beyoncé to Black Panther, jazz to the birth of hip-hop in the 1970s, the Black experience is also a joyful and aspirational one, rooted in the communal and the artistic. Ranging from YA to comedic essays to fantasy, the following books are some of my favorites that capture the joy and struggle of Blackness in equal measure, celebrating the strength and happiness therein.

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

While set against the stark backdrop of New York City gentrification, Pride is a send-off of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that celebrates its namesake with as much fervor as its inspiration’s comedy of manners. Protagonist Zuri Benitez’s pride isn’t just a character trait to be superseded by romantic feelings, it’s the pride of a loud Brooklynite raised on family gatherings, neighbors, and a joyful core of Afro-Latino roots that can never be shaken off. The joy in experiencing this loud, strong, and enduring community against the family backdrop of an Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy love story allows us to revel in the specificity and joy of this setting that Zuri has every reason to be so proud and protective of.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

You probably already know of Marlon James’ work: The Book of Night Women, A Brief History of Seven Killings (winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize). His books are poignant and important, heavy and loaded and in hindsight is a perfect fit for a Dark Tower-esque cross-genre epic high fantasy. The first of a planned trilogy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is sure to fuel fanfiction for years to come. Drawing from African history and mythology, the book makes the most of James’ gift for magical realism in a way that only sharpens the nods to actual African history and mythology while never being less than engrossing. If there are questions left, and a richer world—as fertile as the theater district of Wakanda, we’ve barely scratched the surface of, there is nothing sad about protagonist Tracker’s journey against a backdrop with as much promise as, yes, I’ll say it, Westeros and Essos.

Dear Haiti, Love Alaine by Maika Moulite and Maritza Moulite

Sisters Maika and Maritza Moulite’s debut novel captures the worst-case scenario of many second-generation youngsters: returning to their homeland, after years of imagining it from the diaspora of America, specifically, Miami. If you solely go by the news, the name “Haiti” evokes many grim images of poverty, splintered earth, and human suffering. But upon visiting her parents’ homeland, the eponymous Alaine Beauparlant ultimately learns to define Haiti on its own terms, a challenging half-island with a rich and tumultuous history (and the best food on the planet—don’t @ me). The plot finds Alaine tumbling into family secrets that lead her (and the reader) to question preconceived assumptions while thoughtfully and beautifully closing the gap between Alaine and her mother, Miami, and Port-au-Prince. The book is nothing short of an extraordinarily loving look at the homeland that for too long I had personally convinced myself there was no fondness in looking back on fondly. Highly recommended to everyone, particularly the Haitians in the room.

Dear White People by Justin Simien, illustrations by Ian O’Phelan

No title in recent memory has ruffled as many feathers as Justin Simien’s short film turned Netflix series (and between the two was this fun, satirical companion book). Some have called it “condescending” or “reversely racist” (insert all the eye rolls here), but much like the film and streaming series, Simien and O’Phelan’s fun and colorful little book reads as if delivered with a loving sigh. This book contains humor and rebuke from a Black writer that knows nothing but patience (okay, and maybe 5% rage). While tackling serious, uncomfortable issues like microaggressions, colorism, and blackface, the book is never sad, never self-defeating, and pokes more fun at the awkwardness of these conversations rather than the white people it addresses.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby

No semblance of objectivity here: Samantha Irby is a goddamn godsend. This book, however, comes with a sadness disclaimer. You will feel “feels,” as they say. Irby doesn’t shy away from family drama and the grueling exhaustion of being a non-Beyoncé Black person but finds the humor in them. In her flawless argument on why she and only she should be the next Bachelorette, the awkward sexual escapades that surely could not possibly get more awkward until you turn the page, and the dread of adult finances, Irby highlights the nugget of joyful and truthful in every disappointment that comes at her. Her other books, Meaty and New Year, Same Trash: Resolutions I Absolutely Did Not Keep, are equally strong reads that may leave you shaken with empathy but will never sad.

Ben Philippe is a New York–based writer and screenwriter. He has a bachelor of arts from Columbia University and an MFA in fiction and screenwriting from the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas. He teaches screenwriting at Barnard. The Field Guide to the North American Teenager is his debut novel.

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