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The Folger Spotlight

Words, Words, Words: 'Black Cake' by Charmaine Wilkerson

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson
Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

The Folger’s virtual book club, Words, Words, Words continues on Thursday, December 1 with a discussion of Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson. To get ready for the conversation, we’ve compiled some introductory information on this multi-generational family story.

What is Black Cake about?

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

We can’t choose what we inherit. But can we choose who we become?

In present-day California, Eleanor Bennett’s death leaves behind a puzzling inheritance for her two children, Byron and Benny: a black cake, made from a family recipe with a long history, and a voice recording. In her message, Eleanor shares a tumultuous story about a headstrong young swimmer who escapes her island home under suspicion of murder. The heartbreaking tale Eleanor unfolds, the secrets she still holds back, and the mystery of a long-lost child challenge everything the siblings thought they knew about their lineage and themselves.

Can Byron and Benny reclaim their once-close relationship, piece together Eleanor’s true history, and fulfill her final request to “share the black cake when the time is right”? Will their mother’s revelations bring them back together or leave them feeling more lost than ever?

Charmaine Wilkerson’s debut novel is a story of how the inheritance of betrayals, secrets, memories, and even names can shape relationships and history. Deeply evocative and beautifully written, Black Cake is an extraordinary journey through the life of a family changed forever by the choices of its matriarch.

Critical Reception

“‘Black Cake’ is a delectable read. Wilkerson’s scenes unfold as quick-paced vignettes, immersing readers into the minds and environments of the characters. It takes us on a journey that forces us to look at how both chance encounters and historical events, such as the transatlantic slave trade and Windrush migration, alter a family. The effects ripple out for generations, and the novel allows for a full reflection on how one’s self-identity can change in an instant. Wilkerson’s intent is clear: We are left to think about the things we inherit from our ancestors — physical traits, mental and emotional strife, even cultural attachments, like a beloved recipe that has the power to bring us home, if only in our minds.” —The Washington Post

“There is plenty to savor in this ambitious and accomplished debut.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Readers will adore this highly accomplished effort from a talented new writer.”—Publisher’s Weekly

Why did we choose this book?

The Folger Shakespeare Library’s collection explores not only Shakespeare’s life and works, but also the plays’ historical context, source material, critical and performance histories, the ways in which they inspire and are adapted by contemporary novelists. The Folger is equally committed to historical inquiry and nurturing the continuation of the literary and poetic expression.

The Emily Dickinson Birthday Tribute is an annual collaboration between the O. B. Hardison Poetry Series and The Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, MA. Each December we explore a different aspect of Dickinson’s work and influence, pairing this tribute with a black cake recipe based on one of Dickinson’s own. This year we are taking that tradition as a spark of inspiration to look more closely at food pathways, cultural traditions, and the richness of discovery that exists when taking a multi-faceted approach to a topic.

Presented in collaboration with The O.B. Hardison Emily Dickinson Birthday Tribute and the Folger Institute.

Learn more about and explore the Folger’s collection of handwritten recipe books through our project, ‘Before Farm to Table:’ Early Modern Foodways and Culture.

About the author: Charmaine Wilkerson

From her website

Charmaine Wilkerson is from New York, has lived in Jamaica, and does much of her writing in Italy. Her debut novel Black Cake is a New York Times bestseller and a #ReadWithJenna book club pick. A screen series based on the novel is currently under development for Hulu. Charmaine is a former US news and communication professional whose award-winning short fiction has appeared in various anthologies and magazines. Charmaine is represented by Madeleine Milburn at the Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency.

December’s Bookstore Partner

This month we are excited to partner again with Duende District, a bookstore for and by people of color, where all are welcome.

Duende District is a boutique pop-up bookstore that specializes in the best new adult and children’s books by Black and brown authors in English and Spanish, with locations in Washington, D.C., and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

You can find them online at Let’s build community.

We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program

Capitol Hill Community Foundation
Junior League of Washington

Join us for an upcoming event

Cultural Literacy Through Puppets

Cultural Literacy Through Puppets

Spend your morning with the team from Callaloo Kids for a free introduction for young audiences to diverse cultural narratives through the use of puppetry.
Sat, Jul 20, 2024
Folger Library
Cuban Salsa Night

Cuban Salsa Night

Celebrate the unique dance styles of Cuba with a live band, with free dance lessons and performances.
Fri, Jul 26, 2024
Folger Lawn
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Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

Folger Book Club: Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

An "eco-thriller" that asks questions about morality and ambition, drawing on themes and relationships from Macbeth.
Thu, Aug 1, 2024, 6:30pm
Folger Virtual