A Year in Reading: Nicole Dennis-Benn


I recently finished reading another one of Bernice L. McFadden’s masterpieces, The Book of Harlan. McFadden took me on a melodious literary journey through time and place — complex, real, beautifully raw, and necessary like jazz and blues arrangements accompanying a #BlackLivesMatter protest. Harlan, McFadden’s main protagonist, is a solidifying fixture in her novel, spanning almost 60 years from his pre-conception in Macon, Ga., slightly before 1917, to his migration with his parents to Harlem as a child, to Montmartre where his musical talent and the Parisian women are both free and indulge him, to Buchenwald where the Nazis enslave him, and eventually back to his once joyous roots that struggle so desperately to engage him beyond the torturing soul wounds that consume him. Harlan, while singular in nature, is that collective link that introduces us to a cast of characters, like his parents Emma and Aubrey; best friend and musical confidante whom he refers affectionately to as his brother Lizard; a Barbadian lover Gwen; a nationally-perceived martyr John Smith; and others, who, like Harlan, are forced to confront almost existentialist-like questions about agency, destiny, purpose, freedom, sanity, and survival.

And, of course, given the historical and sociological literary genius that McFadden is, she intricately and purposefully juxtaposes her characters’ lives with the motile backdrop of Blacks from America and abroad at the time, along with their intersecting paths. An example of her unapologetic and timely prose that unites the diaspora is evident in the following passage:
In the South, black Americans, sick of centuries-long maltreatment from a country built on their backs, launched boycotts, freedom rides, and sit-ins. Across the waters, inspired by their American cousins, South Africans also took to the streets to demand civil rights. As a result, blood was spilled on both continents. Rivers of it flowed through the gutters, seeped into the core of the earth, and came together in a thick, red knot. Justice was blind, and God was deaf.
The Book of Harlan is undoubtedly one of the best books I have read this year. And while I still try to wrap my mind around the current divisive political climate in the U.S., McFadden’s prose lingers, giving me courage to stay committed to telling authentic stories that, while revealing of unspeakable truths, serve to unite us all.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005