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My Soul Looks Back

3.61  ·  Rating details ·  781 ratings  ·  163 reviews
In this captivating new memoir, award-winning writer Jessica B. Harris recalls a lost era—the vibrant New York City of her youth, where her social circle included Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and other members of the Black intelligentsia.

In the Technicolor glow of the early seventies, Jessica B. Harris debated, celebrated, and danced her way from the jazz clubs of the Manh
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published May 9th 2017 by Scribner
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Average rating 3.61  · 
Rating details
 ·  781 ratings  ·  163 reviews

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Jun 12, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: black-literature
I fell for it. I took the black millenial bait. "Oh, check her out in that fashionable still relevant outfit on the cover of this book". A black author talking about the great and sexy setting of New York with some heavy weights? Gotta support black women authors you know? YEA, sign me up. I committed the book sin of, "Judging a book by it's cover". I've worked in libraries for 12 years, I should know better.

This book was bad. It really was. By the 5th page, I could tell this was going to be a n
May 31, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: dnf, read-in-2017
Ms. Harris (who I had never heard of prior to this book) wrote a memoir about having a seat at the cool kids' table. During 1970's New York City where icons-in-the-making like James Baldwin and Maya Angelou were members of an elite group of African American artists during a time when intelligence, creativity and activism were at its peak. While being surrounded by such creativity is worth recalling any chance you get, her story could have been better told as an essay in the New Yorker. After abo ...more
Shirleen R
Nov 21, 2017 rated it liked it
(Review revised, final: 12/4/2017)
Frankly, the ethics of My Soul Looks Back preocuppy me, even more than its content. Jessica Harris's way of storytelling pushed my "Hmm, something's hinky" button. I asked myself many times: am I reading A Memoir of Jessica B. Harris , or The Unauthorized Biography of Ex-Boyfriend Samuel Clemons Floyd, Jr. with the appendix: The Final Performance Days of Maya Angleou ?

Had Ms. Harris divulged as many intimate, revealing details about her adult post-20s life,
Nostalgia. This is the word I think of when I think of this memoir. Remembrance of a time, place and space forgotten; the feeling that someone must take notes, this responsibility to remember the timeframe, remember the great things that happened. This is elegiac, about loss and love, a memorial to a lost lover, a forgotten literary figure.

Samuel Clemens Floyd was a professor and a charismatic member of the literary circle when he dated Harris and introduced her to friends like James Baldwin, M
Jun 11, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: memoir
Hmmmmm.....how to rate this one? 3.5 stars?
I mostly liked it as an historical document that captures a particular group and generation of people - many of whom were en route to becoming literary, artistic, and cultural luminaries - during a particular moment in time. If you are looking for an intimate, straightforward juicy tell-all, this isn't it! I was often frustrated with Jessica B. Harris's roundabout restraint in this sometimes linear, often time-jumping visit down memory lane ---largely t
Jai Danielle
Jul 16, 2017 rated it liked it
"It was a time of life lived fully, deeply. Random encounters would smoothly morph into dinners or gatherings that would then be transformed into events that could go well into the wee hours of the morning, but always underneath it all, there was the heartbeat of work and writing and speaking and teaching and all the daily madness of life." — My Soul Looks Back, Jessica B. Harris

"My Soul Looks Back" by culinary historian Jessica B. Harris didn't quite feel like a memoir; as one reviewer noted,
This will probably be my last memoir for a while (well, until Michelle Obama's!) because I struggle with being critical of someone's lived experiences. This book truly made me sad - how does one be on the margin of her own memoir? I truly adore James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, but I was so exhausted with reading about them in a memoir that was supposed to center Jessica. She began her narrative by even claiming herself to be a sideline character and marking herself as being adjacent to these huge ...more
My Soul Looks Back, a memoir by Jessica B. Harris, appeared on my news feed on Good Reads several times before I finally clicked on its link to read its description and decide if I was interested or not. After reading its brief general description, I was mesmerized. I quickly requested the book and waited anxiously for its arrival. When it came, it did not disappoint. Ms. Harris sounds exactly like someone I would love to read about, a cosmopolitan, well-traveled, intellectual, culinary expert w ...more
Jun 24, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: own, abandoned
Edit: In the intervening time since reviewing this book I've become even more disappointed with it -- having heard interviews with Jessica Harris, clearly a remarkable person in her own right and not just some hanger-on of Harlem greats, it seems that a memoir of hers should have had more -- well, of her. I suppose it makes sense that as Baldwin's renown has spiked in recent years that she would take time to reflect on the parts of her life that intersected with him, and perhaps if that reflecti ...more
J Beckett
Mar 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
Like several books previously reviewed, My Soul Looks Back, was an accidental find. I hadn't read any prior reviews, knew little of the author (except she did something in the culinary world), and, based on the cover of the book, couldn't begin to imagine what I was embarking upon. But, as the book began, I was both awestruck and inspired, instantly.

Harris is a writer (and chef, thespian, critic, academic, etc...) who, aiming for this outcome or not, struck my core with vivid memories of Europe
Never Without a Book
Dec 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
My Soul Looks Back is an extremely sensitive and compelling story of NY in the 60s and the life and times of some of Americas greatest literary figures. This memoir had deeply emotional and touching insight into the plaque that swept America in the 70 and 80. I was excited to hear about Jessica's trips to Haiti and how much she loved it there and the mention of James Baldwin, Samuel Clemons Floyd, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou & Nina Simone being part of the author's circle of creative, sage, inte ...more
Jun 08, 2017 rated it it was ok
Jessica B. Harris has had a fascinating life --- and I love her descriptions of food, particularly the meals she would have at West Village Spanish restaurant El Faro (RIP). But, it felt a little surface-y to me. She writes that she had deep conversations with luminaries like Maya Angelou, but never reveals what exactly they said. Things like that.
Feb 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Loved this read. Literature, travel, and food, hells yes. I wish more of the author’s professional experiences were included, she’s incredibly humble about her expertise. The stories of spending time and intimately so with James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, and more are fascinating. I love when my vocabulary is challenged and I learned a lot of great words as well as various French, African dishes that i looked up as i read. I also love the recipes included along the way and adore the pla ...more
Jul 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
This lovely memoir painted pictures and palettes of a time that is past and present, future too. The icons of American and Black Excellence of the Black Atlantic culture from the 20th century whose impact is still felt today - Baldwin, Simone, Morrison, Angelou and more. All present. Imagining the moments of author Jessica B. Harris first meeting of each - she puts you her humble and young shoes.

I cried reading it not for any real sadness - other than life's ups and downs - loves and loses - li
Nov 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was an amazing memoir of the life and times of black luminaries in the 60s-70s and beyond. It travels from New York, to Europe, to Africa, to North Carolina. You may not recognize the author (I didn't!) but you'll definitely recognize the people in her circle. And, by the time you're finished, you'll have an appreciation for the author that you probably should have had before you started. :) Fantastic book. I recommend it for everyone who wants to discover life outside of their own experien ...more
Mar 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
Read for work. I had never heard of her before, and now I'm on a Jessica B. Harris binge. James Baldwin and the entire black literary/cultural scene of Manhattan in the 70s (with visits to Hait, West Africa and the South of France), food, Greenwich Village when a beginner journalist could afford to live there... this is one of those memoirs that I imagine the author's friends have been telling her to write for years. ...more
Jun 04, 2017 rated it liked it
"My Soul Looks Back" chronicles Jessica B. Harris' tangential relationships to James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Nina Simone, and other Black luminaries through her relationship with Samuel Floyd. It's beautifully written, and really captures a time when Black intellectuals loomed larger than life. However, "My Soul Looks Back" seems to drag a bit, especially near the beginning. It's only in later chapters that the story really pulls together.

Read In Colour
May 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
An amazing memoir of the author's time in James Baldwin's inner circle of friends that included Maya Angelou, Rosa Guy, Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison and other literary wonders. ...more
Jul 15, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
“It began as a time of famous clubs like Studio 54 and other venues less savory like the Continental Baths...I never made it to either of them, but I knew many folks who were regulars at each.” This sentence, closing out one of the opening salvos of Jessica Harris’ “memoir” neatly sums up the deep-rooted problems of this book. What i assume is meant to be a memoir, instead acts as a laundry list of names célèbre - some full paragraphs can actually, i believe, be skipped as they act as nothing ot ...more
The sheer immensity of the view into the spirits of some of the most influential black intelligentsias that Dr. Jessica Harris wrote about was marvelous to behold.

My Soul Looks Back, evoked all kinds of emotions from me.

There were many pieces of this book I could revel in; however, her relationship with Sammy was the one that I found most intriguing. The fact that some of his close friends became hers as well, and that one piece of classified information that would become so significant to the
Jun 15, 2017 rated it it was ok
I expected a soul-searching memoir, but the book seemed more like a description of the famous people Harris knew and their activities. You can tell Harris has a deep interest in cuisine, and I was amazed that she could remember so many of her meals in detail. She described herself as on the periphery of Maya Angelou's and James Baldwin's circles of friends, and I could never tell if she wanted to be more included or not. The author was very reserved in relating her own feelings, and I would have ...more
Sian Lile-Pastore
Jan 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
I liked this a lot - it's a lovely little snapshot of 1970s New York amongst the black stars and intellectuals - James Baldwin , Maya Angelou, Nina Simone (who said about The author - 'who's that bitch in the red dress?') Toni Morrison and more.

It is the memoir of someone slightly on the periphery (she was a lot younger than the others) who maybe didn't realise how much she did actually fit in until later. It lovingly describes food, restaurants, and long boozy evenings and includes recipes! I
Erin Ashley
Jun 09, 2017 rated it it was ok
Didn't really like this book. I tried to ignore the reviews on here to let myself be free to inform my own opinion but I found this book to be pretty boring and seemed almost as if these were memories solely for her journal to keep and cherish. The interesting parts of these book however did increase my rating. I enjoyed the playlist function at the end and will create a playlist with these songs, I also enjoyed the recipes that went along with the chapters - a very unique touch. ...more
Dec 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: netgalley
I read this in awe of Dr. Harris and the access she had to some of the greatest contributors to the arts of our time. Her raw and uncensored descriptions of people we had only heard snippets about added depth not only to the novel, but to those individuals as well. It was a beautiful testament to how artist collectives are not just advantageous, but necessary.
Lauryn Honore
Jun 21, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I am Jessica B. Harris. Jessica B. Harris is me.

This book…gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. Her style of writing is phenomenal. Casual enough to easily read but sophisticated enough to know you’re reading from an esteemed author. Her recollections of James Baldwin, Nina Simone, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou truly and utterly made me feel as if I knew them. Absolutely incredible work.

Her life as a twenty year old > who all can say they’ve infiltrated this elite circle of friends consisting of le
3 stars because I'm a sucker for decades-past NYC and France plus food, but otherwise, this was kind of a bummer. Harris has racked up serious career cred--how I would have loved to hear her really dig into her culinary research!--but this memoir focused so little on herself that it barely fits that category. Her brushes with the super-famous seemed rather superficial to warrant so much space, even her relationship with Sam Floyd (which perhaps...). Ah well.... ...more
Dorothy  McGinnis
Jun 02, 2022 rated it it was ok
i think a lot of others have said the reasons why this book gets 2 stars better than I could, but truly. When she started in about Maya Angelou’s super bowl party I had to laugh, it was like self parody at that point. I think it really is a shame that Jessica b Harris spends this book recalling mundane details of the lives of her more famous friends when I would really have preferred to hear the details of her life, since it was supposed to be her soul looking back. I am jealous she ate so much ...more
I enjoyed the arc of Dr. Harris' life-story very much, and she certainly gives NYC a rich sense of place/time. But I was frustrated/disappointed with the writing itself - not the style per se, but the execution of the style and an annoying repetitiveness. I believe the book would have been better served by a more forceful editor. ...more
Oct 19, 2019 rated it liked it
Harris has led a fascinating life and it's hard not to be in awe of the personal anecdotes about Maya Angelou's New Year's parties and James Baldwin's writing "dungeon." However, the book had no structure, meandered quite a bit and there was so much more I was left wondering about HER, not all the famous people around her. I finished it, but I wouldn't recommend it. ...more
Amy Maddess
Feb 18, 2022 rated it it was ok
DNF at 40 ish percent.
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According to Heritage Radio Network, there's perhaps no greater expert on the food and foodways of the African Diaspora than Doctor Jessica B. Harris. She is the author of twelve critically acclaimed cookbooks documenting the foods and foodways of the African Diaspora including Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa's Gifts to New World Cooking, Sky Juice and Flying Fish Traditional Caribbean Cooking ...more

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