Recommended Books on Black Women in Art and History

Here are six titles that pair well with Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus.

black history books
Alta

Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus—a poetry collection that explores the intersections among motherhood, beauty, gender violence, and art history in the elusive and obscured figures of Black women in Western art—is extraordinary in its scope and ambition and is perhaps unlike any poetry collection hitherto published. Below are six titles that would pair well with and amplify many of the core themes, questions, and narrative concerns of the collection. Be sure to sign up for Alta Journal’s California Book Club, which will discuss Voyage of the Sable Venus with Lewis at its June 17 gathering. To join the California Book Club, click here.•

1 WAYWARD LIVES, BEAUTIFUL EXPERIMENTS: INTIMATE HISTORIES OF RIOTOUS BLACK GIRLS, TROUBLESOME WOMEN, AND QUEER RADICALS, BY SAIDIYA HARTMAN
wayward lives, beautiful experiments, saidiya hartman
W.W. Norton & Company

Hartman offers an intimate speculative history of the lives of Black women in Philadelphia and New York during the early 20th century. Using history and fiction, Hartman explores the meaning of kinship, visibility, and intimacy within the quotidian rhythms of people who have been marginalized, forsaken, or degraded, centering their contributions to Black cultural and political movements.

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2 BRUTAL IMAGINATION, BY CORNELIUS EADY
brutal imagination, cornelius eady
G.P. Putnam's Sons

Eady takes the infamous 1994 Susan Smith criminal case as the subject of the first cycle of poems in his poetry collection, which became a finalist for a National Book Award for Poetry. In particular, Eady conjures the imaginary Black man whom Smith accused of stealing her car and kidnapping her sons to startling and harrowing effect, outlining the construction of Blackness in a white psychic landscape.

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3 “VENUS IN TWO ACTS,” BY SAIDIYA HARTMAN
venus in two acts, saidiya hartman
Duke University Press

In her groundbreaking essay, Hartman considers the ubiquity of the Venus figure in historical archives of Atlantic slavery, as well as the stunning contradiction that she is everywhere and nowhere. Like Lewis, Hartman investigates the cruelty of the archive, along with how encountering it shifts our relationship with history and knowledge production.

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4 NO ARCHIVE WILL RESTORE YOU, BY JULIETTA SINGH
no archive will restore you, julietta singh
Punctum Books

Singh offers a multiform book that is memoir, critical theory, and poetry all at once to explore the nature of the human body and what it means to remember and memorialize it.

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5 HOW TO SEE A WORK OF ART IN TOTAL DARKNESS, BY DARBY ENGLISH
how to see a work of art in total darkness, darby english
IT Press

English makes the argument that if we look at Black art with a capacious perspective, one that is not limited by the Blackness of the artist, we will be able to apprehend and assess the tensions between one’s creative vision and artistic obligation, with all its attendant historical and aesthetic particularities.

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6 EXHIBITING BLACKNESS: AFRICAN AMERICANS AND THE AMERICAN ART MUSEUM, BY BRIDGET R. COOKS
exhibiting blackness african americans and the american art museum, bridget cooks
University of Massachusetts Press

Professor and historian Cooks takes a deep dive into the practices of curation in American museums, with a focus on the primary methodologies of exhibiting the work of Black artists, exposing the larger problems and complexities of art history’s relationship with Blackness and difference.

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