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Celebrating Black History Month with Rita Woods

In celebration of Black History Month, Rita Woods shared some of her favorite authors with us. Her debut novel, Remembrance, is available now wherever books are sold!


By Rita Woods

Favorite poems are like favorite children. We definitely have them but we never tell, as the others would have their feelings hurt.

~ Nikki Giovanni.

Who is your favorite writer? What books have influenced you the most?

I am absolutely certain every single writer has been asked some variation of these questions at some point in their career. I’ve been asked this. . . more than once. And inevitably this seemingly simple inquiry, always manages to render me mute. I sit, blinking, my face frozen in an expression of vague terror, unable to answer the one question I knew was coming. Because the truth is, in that moment, each and every time, I am overwhelmed with images of the hundreds and hundreds of books I’ve disappeared into over the years, scenes from stories that have filled countless nights when I should have been asleep, lines uttered by favorite characters all those Saturdays I sat huddled in a cold car waiting for the boys to finish basketball practice or dance lessons.

Good books, the best books, gift a permanent piece of themselves to the reader. Sometimes it’s a simple line that reverberates again and again. Sometimes it’s a longing for a place that exists only in the imagination of the writer. And sometimes, that gift is a complete shift in how one sees the world.

So many writers.

So many books.

But right now, in the pre-dawn quiet, as the winter wind rattles the windows, a few come into sharp focus, stories I still feel on my skin, despite having read some of them years ago.

One summer I decided to read everything I could by Alice Walker. One right after the other. Possessing the Secret of Joy, The Temple of My Familiar, Meridian.

The Color Purple is one of her most familiar novels. In it, there is a scene that gutted me, and to this day takes my breath away. It involves Sofia, a secondary character in the book; Harpo’s wife, the main character, Celie’s daughter-in-law. Sofia is open, honest, a character who is nearly child-like in her expression of emotion; joyful, with no pretense. But she is also fully aware of her own worth. There is no clearer demonstration of the kind of woman she is than when Harpo, in a misguided attempt to demonstrate his masculinity, tries to beat her and ends up getting the worst of it. I love you, she tells him, but I won’t be beaten. When later in the book she is confronted by the mayor’s wife and the white woman slaps her, you know immediately how this is going to play out.

As I read this scene, a part of me rooted for the strong, take no crap woman that Sofia was, while at the same time part cringed at the catastrophic chain of events I knew was coming. All these years later, it is that scene that I remember when I think of The Color Purple.

Sofia.

I wanted, still want, to be as brave, as uncompromising as Sofia.

While the books of Alice Walker often left me feeling conflicted, pained; angry (Just thinking of The Third Life of Grange Copeland brings tears to my eyes. I wanted so much for father and son to reconcile, to find some small bit of happiness), the books of J. California Cooper filled me with hope. Racism and brutality are ever present in her stories, informing the actions of her characters, yet in the foreground there is always family.

In Wake of the Wind, two young friends Suwaibu and Kola are snatched from their West African village and sold into slavery in America, never to see each other again. Through the years they make a life for themselves, swearing with their last breath to reunite, if not in life, then in death. Two hundred years later, their stories converge once again, when their descendents, Lifee and Mordecai are forced by their masters to marry but manage to build a life together for themselves and their children after the Civil War.

Some of the stories in Wake of the Wind read as fable, deceptively simple, yet suffused throughout with hope.

In J. California Cooper’s Some Soul to Keep, there is a quote: This is the kind of world, if you don’t die, you keep growing and living through everything that comes.

This seems as good an explanation of life as any.

Here, in the quiet, in the dark, I can answer the question: who are your favorite writers. It is a long list and I love each one for different reasons. Toni Morrison, Tanarive Due, Nikki Giovanni, Gloria Naylor, Ernest Gaines, Walter Mosely, Alex Haley, Edwidge Danticat. These and so many others. All my favorites.

But, ssshh! Don’t tell the others.

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1 thought on “Celebrating Black History Month with Rita Woods

  1. Thank you so much for introducing me to J. California Cooper and Ernest Gaines! I remember Cicely Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittmann, but didn’t know enough at the time to look up that there was a book. (I also wanted to note that “Tananarive” is missing a “na.” An “na”? 😀 )

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