Despite my chosen title, these books aren’t solely about oppression. They are inspiring and educational, albeit heavy reads. Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 is history, biography, poetry, and introspection. Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution focuses more narrowly as a group of essays from one woman. But it’s no less difficult and harrowing, especially because its oppressors are often family members.
As I continue recovering from major surgery, I’m struggling to organize my myriad thoughts about these books. Please forgive my brevity—it’s not a reflection of the value of these books.
Four Hundred Souls
Essays from 80 different Black writers and 10 Black poets, this extensive book is divided into five-year segments. All together it covers four hundred years. Its editors are award-winning authors and historians in their own right, Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. They’ve gathered an impressive group for this project.
We all know some of the seminal periods in the history of African Americans and their white oppressors. For example, pre-Civil War slavery, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, or the Civil Rights Movement all come to mind easily. But this book extends beyond what’s typical, into the history of other equally important times and people.
Many of the essays tell stories I’ve never heard about people who deserve more spotlight for their courage, fortitude, or tragic demise. I listened to this as audio and may return to certain essays in print to recall details. There’s a tremendous depth of information here.
Every writer’s style is unique, based on their own areas of expertise. Many of them are academic scholars and historians, which makes them intimately familiar with their subject. I absolutely recommend this book to everyone interested in oppression in US history.
Headscarves and Hymens
Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian feminist writer now based in New York. Her 2015 book covers topics essential to understanding life for women in the Middle East and Northern Africa. None of them are easy, and I often stopped the audiobook because it was just too harrowing. But if I were a woman in Yemen, for example, I wouldn’t have that privilege. Whether I wanted to or not, I’d have to endure the trauma—physically and emotionally.
And I think that’s part of Eltahawy’s point here. Being a woman in the Middle East is being oppressed. Your father, brother, and son all have more power than you do. They control every aspect of your life, from whether you go to school, drive a car, leave the house, marry a man you choose or have a clitoris. We live in the 21st century, but many households in the Middle East aren’t even remotely feminist.
I like Eltahawy’s straightforward style. Her writing is often as brutal as the things it describes. She doesn’t sugarcoat the horrors of oppression, nor should she. This is a must-read for every feminist, whether you march, donate, or just tweet about it. We are luckier than we know.