Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight**-***

frederickdouglassprophetThanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Douglass is a key figure in American history, and Blight has made his career largely through his expertise on Douglass’s life. I expected to be impressed here, and indeed, the endnotes are meticulous and I would be amazed if there was a single error anywhere in this work. But aspects of the biography rub me the wrong way, and ultimately, I realized that the best way around this is to go back and read Douglass’s own autobiographies again.

Whether we read what Douglass tells us, or what Blight (or any credible biographer) has to say, there are two impediments that stop me short, and because I have never been required to start at the beginning and end at the end to complete a scholastic or professional assignment, I tend to read the beginning; recoil; abandon; and then return in an undisciplined, skipping-around manner that is uncharacteristic of my usual methods.

First we have the Christian aspect. Douglass was tremendously devout, and during his time it was much more common to discuss religion publicly and even in daily conversations, sometimes at length. It repels me. So that’s my first problem. It’s not Blight’s problem, but it’s one I have to deal with.

The second problem—again, not Blight’s, and it’s inherent in reading about Douglass—is that slavery was horrible. Douglass actually had a slightly better life than most of his peers, gaining an education and living in the master’s house, but it was nevertheless traumatic. It is unavoidable to see what he endured and not reflect on exactly how hellish life was for the four million that endured life in this dehumanizing, degrading system. After I read a certain amount of it, I feel as if I need to take a long shower to wash away the stain.

As for Blight’s book, there are some good moments here, and I learned some things. Who helped Douglass on his road to freedom? Free Black people did. Who knew that there were vastly more free Black folks in Maryland than there were slaves? The textbooks and other materials used to teach adolescents about slavery and the American Civil War overemphasize, to a degree amounting to deception, the participation of kindly white people, largely Quakers, and provide only a fleeting glimpse of the occasional African-American.

But I find that the eloquent passages that I highlight as I read this are not Blight’s words, but quotations from Douglass himself.

Meanwhile, the obstacles to appreciating this book are consistent and irritating. Blight makes much of inconsistencies in Douglass’s three autobiographies, and when he refers to the differences there is a superior, smirking quality to his prose that doesn’t sit well. I wouldn’t like it coming from any writer, but when the writer is a Caucasian, it adds an extra layer of insult. No matter how long Blight publishes, no matter his standing in the Ivy League, he will never be fit to polish Douglass’s boots. If he once knew it, I suspect he has forgotten it. So that’s a problem, and it’s hard to read around it.

The other issue, a more common one, is the tendency to guess at what is not known. This makes me crazy. The narrative will flow along in a readable, linear fashion, and then I start seeing the speculation, which is barely visible. Might have. Must have. Likely. It makes me want to scream. If you don’t know, Professor Blight, either don’t put it in, or address the unknown in a separate paragraph explicitly addressing the possibilities. Weed out the unimportant guesses and deal with the more critical ones head on. When these inferences are salted randomly into the text, we come away with tangled notions. Apart from the key events in his life, which of the finer details were fact, and which were surmise?

Excuse me. I need to find a nice brick wall so I can slam my forehead against it.

So there it is. For all I know, Blight may gain half a dozen prestigious awards from this work; it wouldn’t be the first time a book I’ve complained about went on to garner fame and glory. But I call them like I see them, and what I see is that it’s a better plan to read what Douglass says about himself, even though Blight appears to consider himself a more reliable resource than his subject.

If you want this thing, you can have it October 2, 2018.

Catfish Dream, by Julian Rankin****

CatfishDreamEd Scott Junior was one of the first Black catfish growers in the USA, a “Delta titan,” and he was the very first to own a catfish processing plant.  My thanks go to Net Galley and the University of Georgia Press for the review copy. It’s inspirational, well written, and well sourced. The book will be available to the public tomorrow, July 10, 2018.

To say that this story is out of my usual wheelhouse is an understatement. I’m a city woman, Caucasian, living in the Pacific Northwest. The two slender ties that drew me to this biography are my interest in civil rights, and my love of a good plate of catfish; yet I enjoyed it a lot, and I think you will too.

Scott was the son of a successful Black farmer, a former sharecropper that bought land incrementally until he owned hundreds of acres in the Mississippi Delta. The first third of the book explains how he did that, and the experiences that Scott Senior and Junior had with the Civil Rights Movement and the local power elite. It’s a little slow at the outset, but the narrative wakes up in a big way around the 35% mark.

As Scott’s farm grows, he encounters one obstacle after another, and the racism is naked and blatant. Local white agribusiness runs him out of the rice growing business—and he has the nerve to drive a better truck than some of the white farmers in the area, which is an affront they can’t let pass. Left with hundreds of acres and no seeds to plant, Scott decides to dig ponds. Rankin is clear: by ponds, he means bodies of water the size of 15 football fields. Big damn ponds.

Caucasian farmers are able to get subsidies and FMHA bank loans, but Scott is declined, not on the basis of his credit score, but because he is African-American. Bank officers and local government officials are so certain of their positions of power that they put their refusals on the basis of race in writing, and up the road, that is what Scott will use to bring them down.

Prior to the 1980s, catfish was not sold in supermarkets. It was considered a lowly bottom-dwelling fish by many, and so its consumption was limited to the families of sport fishermen and poor Southerners . When it made its debut and was purchased by “Midwestern homemakers”, this reviewer was among them, puttering in the back of a Kroger in Toledo, Ohio. “Huh,” I said, “Catfish. Now we’ve never tried that.”  I missed the cheap, readily available salmon I’d grown up with in the Pacific Northwest, and was jonesing hard for fish. I had no clue that an immense power struggle lay behind the little foam tray of fish in my shopping cart, but once I’d dipped it in a cornmeal mixture and fried it up, there was no turning back. Yummers.

I read multiple books at a time now that I’m retired, and some of the thrillers I favor make poor companions at bedtime.  This biography was perfect then. It’s linear for the most part, focused, and although I was angered by the way Scott was treated, I could tell he was going to emerge victorious, so it didn’t keep me awake after the light was out.

Rankin wants to be clear that there’s a whole lot that needs to change before we will be able to say that every race is treated equally in the Delta, or elsewhere the US. One might hope this would be obvious. But everyone needs to read victory stories to boost their morale and remind them of what is possible. If you need a story where the good guys win, then you should get this book and read it.

The Unquiet Grave, by Sharyn McCrumb*****

theunquietgraveVoice, voice, voice; nobody writes like Sharyn McCrumb. Here her dry, dark humor combines with her expertise in Appalachian culture and above all, her deep respect for the working poor, and the result is a masterpiece of an historical mystery. Thanks to Net galley for the DRC, and to Atria for sending a hard copy galley and a finished copy of this excellent novel. However, had I paid full freight, I’d have come away happy. This book will be available to the public September 12, 2017.

Based upon the legend of the Greenbrier Ghost, our story is set in West Virginia in 1897. Zola Heaster is swept away by the handsome young blacksmith that comes to her tiny Appalachian farming community. Her story is told to us primarily in a first person narrative by her mother, Mary Jane. Magnetic physical attraction overwhelms any common sense Zona may possess—which isn’t much—so when the handsome stranger comes along, Zona tumbles:

“Zona was well nigh smirking at him—cat-in-the-cream-jug smug, she was. Well, Mr. Shue—the name fits the trade, I see—I am Miss Zona Heaster, a visitor to my cousin’s house, here. How do…Well before Edward ‘Call me Trout’ Shue came ambling along, with his possum grin and his storybook profile, we’d had trouble with Zona.”

Before we can draw breath, Zona is pregnant. It isn’t the first time, either, though the first was kept quiet, settled out of the area. As her mother wonders whether Trout will want to marry her, Zona brags,

“’He’d be lucky to have me.’ 
“’Well, Zona, it seems that he already has.’”

Mary Jane doesn’t like her daughter’s suitor, and a number of small but troubling things make her reluctant to see this wedding take place, even given the shotgun-wedding circumstances. We are disquieted, not by huge monstrous overt acts by Shue, but by the small hints that provide a deeper suspicion, a sense of foreboding. Part of McCrumb’s genius is in knowing when less is more.

Ultimately, Zona marries and moves away, and is little heard from. Too little. And here is the mother’s dilemma that most of us will recognize: how much should a mother pry? Will it make things better to follow our nose to the source of trouble; can we help? Or will our efforts only antagonize one or both of the newlyweds? And I love Zona’s father, the laconic Jacob who tells his wife that Zona has made the choice to marry, and she’s made the choice to stay there, so “Let her go, Mary Jane.”

But it’s a terrible mistake.

A secondary thread alternates with this one. The year is 1930; attorney James P.D. Gardner is consigned to a segregated insane asylum following a suicide attempt. His doctor is the young James Boozer, who has decided to try the new technique that involves talking to one’s patients. This device works wonderfully here because it provides Gardner the opportunity to discuss a particularly interesting case he tried many years prior, one that involved defending a white man accused of murdering his wife. The conversation flows organically, rather than as a monologue shoehorned into the prose. I am surprised at first to see McCrumb write dialogue for African-American men; I don’t think she has done this before, although I can’t swear to this.( I have been reading her work since the 90s and may have forgotten a few things along the way.) The dialogue between Gardner and Boozer is dignified and natural, and this is a relief; those that have read my reviews know that there have been others that failed in this regard. And just as the discussion starts to drone—intentional, since one of the two men yawns just at the moment I do—everything wakes up, and we learn about the trial of Trout Shue from a different vantage point.

Every aspect of this novel is done with the authority and mastery of Appalachian fiction for which McCrumb is legendary. The dialect is so resonant that I find myself using it in writing, speech, and even thought—just tiny snippets here and there—and then laughing at myself. And I cannot help wondering how much of it stewed its way into McCrumb’s own conversations while she was writing. You may find it in yours.

The result here is spellbinding, and the use of Appalachian legend, herbal medicine, and folklore makes it all the more mesmerizing. Again, skill and experience tell here. How many novels have I read in which an author’s research is shoehorned in to such a degree that it hijacks the plot? Not so here. The cultural tidbits are an integral part of Mary Jane’s personality, and there’s no teasing them apart. Instead of distracting as it might in less capable hands, the folklore develops character and setting, and ultimately contributes to the plot, when Zona’s ghost returns to let Mary Jane know that she has been murdered.

This is no-can-miss fiction, strongly recommended to those with a solid command of the English language and a love of great literature.

Jane Crow, by Rosalind Rosenberg****

JaneCrowPauli Murray is the person that coined the term “Jane Crow”, and was the first to legally address the twin oppressions of color and gender. I had seen her name mentioned in many places, but this is the first time I’ve read her story. Thank you to Net Galley and Oxford University Press for the opportunity to read it free in exchange for this honest review. This biography is for sale now.

Murray was born in North Carolina and was a labor activist during the turbulent 1930s. She was academically gifted and hardworking, but tormented by the issue of gender. 100 years ago, in the time and place into which fate dropped her, there was no recognition of trans people, and so her sense of herself (the pronoun she used) was that surely there was some unseen physical aspect to her body that must be male. She searched high and low for a surgeon that would perform exploratory surgery to discover whether she had an undescended testicle or some other material explanation to explain why she was convinced that she was actually male. It hurts to think about it. Those born after the early-to-mid-20th century cannot comprehend how the suggestion that gender could be binary was seen, and Murray was a devout Christian as well, and became an ordained Episcopal priest. By the time trans people gained respect from a significant percentage of Americans, Murray was no longer here.

Despite the misery and confusion that was inherent in such a life, Murray was prolific. She was declined a place at the University of North Carolina because of her race, and later denied a place at Harvard Law because of her gender. She graduated at the top of her class at Howard Law, the only woman in her class. Later she would be largely responsible for inclusion of the word “gender” in the title VII in 1964. Those of us that have benefited from that law—and there are a lot of us—tip our hats to her memory in gratitude.

Rosenberg has done a fine job in telling us about Murray. Her documentation is flawless and her narrative clear. At times—particularly in the beginning, before Murray’s career really catches fire—it’s a trifle dry, but I would prefer a clear, scholarly, linear narrative such as this one, over an exciting but sensationalized, less well documented telling any day of the week.

Those interested in the American Civil Rights movement and the history of the women’s rights movement in the USA should get this book and read it. Even if used primarily as a reference tool, it’s an indispensable resource, particularly to those with an interest in legal matters relating to discrimination and equity.

The Song and the Silence, by Yvette Johnson*****

TheSongandtheSilenceI was browsing the pages of Net Galley and ran across this gem of a memoir. Often when someone that isn’t famous gets an autobiography published by a major publisher, it’s a hint to the reader that the story will be riveting. Such is the case here; my many thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. You can order it now’ it comes out Tuesday, May 9.

It probably says a great deal, all by itself, that I had never heard of Booker Wright before this. I have a history degree and chose, at every possible opportunity, to take classes, both undergraduate and graduate level, that examined the Civil Rights Movement, right up until my retirement a few years ago. As a history teacher, I made a point of teaching about it even when it wasn’t part of my assigned curriculum, and I prided myself on reaching beyond what has become the standard list that most school children learned. I looked in nooks and crannies and did my best to pull down myths that cover up the heat and light of that critical time in American history, and I told my students that racism is an ongoing struggle, not something we can tidy away as a fait accompli.

But I had never heard of Booker.

Booker Wright, for those that (also) didn’t know, was the courageous Black Mississippian that stepped forward in 1965 and told his story on camera for documentary makers. He did it knowing that it was dangerous to do so, and knowing that it would probably cost him a very good job he’d had for 25 years. It was shown in a documentary that Johnson discusses, but if you want to see the clip of his remarks, here’s what he said. You may need to see it a couple of times, because he speaks rapidly and with an accent. Here is Booker, beginning with his well-known routine waiting tables at a swank local restaurant, and then saying more:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GM-zG…

So it was Booker and his new-to-me story that made me want to read the DRC. Johnson opens with information from that time, but as she begins sharing her own story, discussing not only Booker but her family’s story and in particular, her own alienation from her mother, who is Booker’s daughter, I waited for the oh-no feeling. Perhaps you’ve felt it too, when reading a biography; it’s the sensation we sometimes feel when it appears that a writer is using a famous subject in order to talk about themselves, instead. I’ve had that feeling several times since I’ve been reading and reviewing, and I have news: it never happened here. Johnson’s own story is an eloquent one, and it makes Booker’s story more relevant today as we see how this violent time and place has bled through to color the lives of its descendants.

The family’s history is one of silences, and each of those estrangements and sometimes even physical disappearance is rooted in America’s racist heritage. Johnson chronicles her own privileged upbringing, the daughter of a professional football player. She went to well-funded schools where she was usually the only African-American student in class. She responded to her mother’s angry mistrust of Caucasians by pretending to herself that race was not even worth noticing.

But as children, she and her sister had played a game in which they were both white girls. They practiced tossing their tresses over their shoulders. Imagine it.

Johnson is a strong writer, and her story is mesmerizing. I had initially expected an academic treatment, something fairly dry, when I saw the title. I chose this to be the book I was going to read at bedtime because it would not excite me, expecting it to be linear and to primarily deal with aspects of the Civil Rights movement and the Jim Crow South that, while terrible, would be things that I had heard many times before. I was soon disabused of this notion. But there came a point when this story was not only moving and fascinating, but also one I didn’t want to put down. I suspect it will do the same for you.

YouTube has a number of clips regarding this topic and the documentary Johnson helped create, but here is an NPR spot on cop violence, and it contains an interview of Johnson herself from when the project was released. It’s about 20 minutes long, and I found it useful once I had read the book; reading it before you do so would likely work just as well:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xxeh…

Johnson tells Booker’s story and her own in a way that looks like effortless synthesis, and the pace never slackens. For anyone with a post-high-school literacy level, an interest in civil rights in the USA, and a beating heart, this is a must-read. Do it.

Darktown, by Thomas Mullen*****

darktown I was originally turned down for a DRC of this novel when I requested it last spring, and I took the unusual step of following up with Atria, more or less begging for it. I’ve been reviewing titles for Net Galley for two years and have received nearly 300 DRCs, so it is a sign of my interest level that I went to this extreme to read this one in advance in exchange for an honest review, and it’s a sign of decency and responsiveness that a representative from Atria Books invited me to review it after all. Although I am grateful , this five star review is not about gratitude, but a measure of the importance I attach to the issues it addresses and the skill with which the story is told.

The story centers on the first African-American cops hired in Atlanta; the year is 1948. This is considered an experiment, and to say the least, it’s awkward. The basic plan is that a small number of Negro—which is the polite term at this time in history—officers will report to a Caucasian supervisor, and they are responsible for patrolling the Black section of Atlanta. There are just eight men in this force.  They have no authority to make an arrest, so if someone has to go to jail, they must call for Caucasian police who are considered real police by higher-ups within the city administration.

To say the very least, it’s hard to take.

Mullen’s protagonists here are African-American officers Boggs and Smith, and the problem arises when they witness a crime, the assault of a woman by a Caucasian man in a car. The woman disappears, and no Caucasian cops are interested in hearing what these officers saw that night. The white cops that come in response to the report of a crime demean the Black officers, calling them “boy” and a variety of other horrible slurs.  As the white cops leave the scene, “Boggs was still standing in the street. If his rage had been a physical thing, it would have split the car in two.”

Eventually one of the white cops, a man named Dunlow, goes too far in the eyes of his rookie partner, Rakestraw, and the latter finds himself in a tenuous, secret alliance with Boggs.

Light banter breaks up tension in places, but no mistake, this is a brutal story. If it wasn’t harsh, it wouldn’t be the truth. This is one of the rare instances when the frequent use of the N word and other racist, vulgar language is actually historically necessary; you’ve been forewarned. Though Darktown is a useful history lesson, its greater value comes from causing readers to think more deeply about the role police play in western society.

A question I found myself considering, and not for the first time, is how much good Black cops can do even today to combat racism and other ugly biases by the department that employs them. Clearly cop violence toward people of color remains ever present.  If this book had been published ten years ago, I would have been concerned that in focusing on past racism, the story might have left us with the impression that racism was a problem only in the past, as if all that mess is over now.

But in 2016, we all know otherwise.

I hope you’ll read this painful but well crafted novel, and reflect some about how the dynamics of power have developed and why. Will a more diverse police presence be the key to equity for those that are so frequently crushed beneath the boot heel of what passes for a justice system in the United States, or is meaningful police reform impossible as long as cops are employed primarily to protect the property of the rich?  Would ordinary people be better off if we can, in the words of the old folk song, “…raze the prisons to the ground”?

This book becomes available to the public September 6, 2016. Highly recommended.

The Butler’s Child: An Autobiography, by Lewis M. Steel****

thebutlerschildLewis M. Steel has a long, noteworthy career as a civil rights attorney.  He was an observer during the Attica Prison riots; worked for the NAACP during the Civil Rights movement, and later defended boxer Hurricane Carter against a frame-up charge of murder. And I was permitted to read this story free and in advance, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press in exchange for this honest review. I rate it 3.5 stars and round upwards; it is now available to the public.

When I first approached this title I expected to see what the life of a butler’s son was like. In fact, Steel’s social class is at the other end of the spectrum. An heir to the Warner Brothers fortune, he spent much of his time in the company of the family butler, and he was deeply affected by the emotional distance that this family servant, whom he had innocently regarded as a father figure, began to demonstrate as Steel grew older. Later, as an adult, he realized that this faithful retainer, an African-American man, surely had a family and life of his own that he went to visit on his two half-days off work, and he began to wonder what he might do to tear down the wall between the worlds of Caucasian families and Black folk. Ultimately he decided to become a civil rights attorney, and he credits the man that helped raise him as a key reason.

The NAACP of the Civil Rights era—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People– was deeply immersed in litigation as a means to end segregation. Again and again, racist judges sat in court, north and south alike, and they told the NAACP to go to hell even when their evidence and research was baldly, plainly in the plaintiff’s favor. The NAACP continued to push litigation over mass action because of a strong conviction that if they could get a case heard by the Supreme Court, relatively liberal in many regards and headed by Chief Justice Warren, then surely justice would be done.

It didn’t shake out that way. Outraged over the way the nation’s highest court failed to provide equal protection to its Black citizens, Steel wrote an article for Time Magazine titled “Nine Men in Black Who Think White”, and was summarily fired from the NAACP, who still wanted to curry favor with that court. Many of his colleagues walked out of the NAACP offices in protest.

A common question among Caucasians that want to fight for the rights of people of color in the USA is what can we do?  How can one use this white privilege that exists whether it should or not, to change US laws and society for the better? And this question is raised exponentially when one is an heir, a ruling class scion that can do a tremendous amount for the cause in which he believes.

This reviewer has a friend that found himself in this situation. The distant but only heir of a corset magnate’s fortune, he decided that the best way to seek justice was to walk his talk. Reserving a small percentage of the fortune for himself—which is still a tasty enough chunk to own a middle class home in Seattle, take a vacation abroad annually, and eat in restaurants instead of his own kitchen—he donated the vast majority of his personal wealth to the organization he thought best. He doesn’t live in an all white neighborhood; doesn’t have a household staff; and he does blue collar work on the railroad so that he can talk politics with other working people. Because to help people the most, one needs to be among them and facing similar circumstances to those they face. So he gets up at crazy o’clock in the morning, goes out and gets greasy and banged up with everybody else, and then he goes home and cleans his own house and mows his own grass. He gets that more people listen when you put your life where your mouth is, and he believes the future of the world lies with the working class.

So when Steel commences his hand wringing over how wealthy, how privileged he is and how bad he feels about it, I want to say, Cry me a river. Steel freely admits that he enjoys his lovely home that looks down on Central Park and allows him a lovely view of the Macy’s Parade every Thanksgiving. He enjoys the servants, and his neighborhood is all white. He sent his children to all white private schools even as he fought to integrate the public schools that he wouldn’t let his own children attend in any case.

At one point, Steel mentions that his therapist told him to stop whining, and I wanted that doctor here in the room so I could offer him a high five.

Now that I have addressed the elephant in the room, I have to say that Steel’s memoir, despite the wealthy liberal whining, is worth a read for those interested in Civil Rights history and in particular the part of it that has played out in the courtrooms. You don’t have to like the author to benefit from the treasure trove of information in the pages of this memoir. Steel has been involved in some landmark cases, and he is at his best when he talks about the cases he has taken and how they shook out.

Black lives DO matter, and those of  us that think so need all the information available to fight that fight, and there are many worthwhile lessons that still apply right here, this book is worth your time and money regardless of whose memoir it is.

This book was released earlier this month, and is available for sale now.

Florence “Flo” Kennedy: the Life of a Black Feminist Radical, by Sherie M. Randolph***

Florynce Flo KennedyFlo Kennedy was a force to be reckoned with, dismissed by a portion of mainstream Caucasian America as a kook, yet far too clever, too cagey, and too damn smart to be wished away by those that wanted to defend the racist, sexist status quo. When I saw that a memoir of her life was up for grabs at Net Galley I requested a copy immediately, and then took a long time to finish reading it. Part of my tardiness is a stubborn dislike for the PDF format, and so I apologize to University of North Carolina Press and my readers for being so slow; yet a small part of it was the surprisingly dry quality of the memoir. Given the subject, I had expected this biography to set my hair on fire.

Though she was new to Randolph, according to the introduction, Kennedy was no stranger to those of us in the Boomer generation. Her audacity, her wit, and her raw courage that at times bordered on recklessness made for great theater and fascinating press coverage. Raised by parents that taught her not “to take any shit” long before the Black Power movement or even the end of Jim Crow, Kennedy pushed the margins. She studied, worked, and fought her way into Columbia Law; she defended famous individuals like Billie Holliday and Stokely Carmichael, and she did it with style.

By far the most significant part of her legacy was the leadership she demonstrated in bringing together the women’s movement of the late 1960’s and 1970’s with the Black Power movement. As a young woman sending out my own tendrils into the larger world apart from high school and my parents’ home, some of the most influential feminist speeches given were by Kennedy and Gloria Steinem, and sometimes they appeared together. I never got to see them in person, but it didn’t matter that much, because I knew what they had written and what they had said, and soon I was attending meetings of NOW, the National Organization for Women, which was the leading women’s rights organization in the US before their split over women in the military later in the 20th century. Because of women like Kennedy and Steinem, I fundraised my fare to national marches on the Capitol for women’s right to choose whether to reproduce, and to fight for the Equal Rights Amendment.

So I owe Kennedy a great deal.

Kennedy’s confidence and controlled rage positively crackled; she made headlines and was often seen on the evening news. Once when I told a classmate that I wanted to support a female candidate for president of the US, he told me that if I was going to vote for a protest candidate, I should shoot for the moon and vote for Flo Kennedy.

He had a point.

I don’t agree with everything Kennedy said or did, particularly her suggestion that rather than expending great effort to end the US war against the Vietnamese people, Americans should focus their energy toward supporting Black owned businesses. Say what? But nearly everything else she did was so vastly ahead of her time that it made me gasp in awe.

I understand that a memoir produced by a university press is generally going to be scholarly in nature, and that’s one reason I request works like this that are associated with such reputable sources. But a scholarly treatment doesn’t have to drone. By arranging a few of Kennedy’s livelier quotes up front and at chapter beginnings and endings, she might receive the treatment she deserves, instead of being consigned to the dustbin of history a mere decade, give or take a year, after she wore a tee shirt reading “I had an abortion” during her most senior years.

So although I know Randolph is new to Kennedy and probably also has some academic parameters within which she has to work, I still feel that Flo’s memoir should reflect her verve and character to a greater degree.

Nevertheless reader, if you care about women’s rights and the rights of African-Americans, if women’s history and African-American history hold meaning and importance for you, I think you should read this memoir anyway, because as of this writing, it’s really the only memoir of Kennedy that’s available. You can find some of her speeches in feminist collections, but no one else has tackled this woman’s life, and so until and unless something better comes along, you should get this and read it. Because a dry, somewhat conservative treatment of Kennedy is better than nothing.

Second Daughter: the Story of a Slave Girl, by Mildred Pitts Walter**

seconddaughterstoryofaslavegirlSecond Daughter is historical fiction based on the true story of an enslaved woman that went to court and won her freedom in New England around the time of the American Revolution. I received this DRC free from Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media in exchange for an honest review. And it’s just as well, because if I had paid any money at all for this brief but troubled book, I would be deeply unhappy.

First, let’s examine the positive aspects that allowed the second star to happen. Walter has nailed setting, and when Aissa, the girl that serves as our narrator, describes the kitchen of her master’s house, we are there and can see it all. Here she does an excellent job. Other settings are also well told.

Second, the length, just 119 pages, is accessible for young adult readers, many of whom find it difficult, in these technologically advanced times, to focus all the way through a full length novel.

Unfortunately, the problems outweigh the virtues. I have two issues that plant this story on my literary wall of shame. The first is technical, the second philosophical.

Technically I see this as a decent if unmemorable read, and were I to judge this strictly on the writer’s skill, I would call this a three star novel. Overlong passages of narrative, often unbroken by action or dialogue and in lengthy paragraphs, are likely to hit the average adolescent’s snooze button early on. The choice to tell everything in past tense as opposed to the more widely used literary present deadens the pace further. When we finally do get a passage of dialogue, it is so stiff and stilted that not even the most engaging teacher, when reading this out loud to her class, could possibly breathe life into it. One character is depicted as speaking with a Sambo-like dialect, all “dis” and “dat”. If one is going to use a dialect, make it respectful and readable.  This verges on mimicry, and any Black students in the room that haven’t tuned out or gone to sleep yet are going to be pissed, and rightly so.

I can see that Walters meant well in writing from the point of view of a Black slave girl and in depicting a victory gained by Black people on their own behalf, as opposed to the usual torture, death, and despair that represented those kidnapped and forced into slavery. But this is also where I have to step back and ask what the ultimate effect of this book will be on students that read it.

For the average or below average middle school student, reading all the way through even a fairly brief novel such as this one will likely be the only book they make it through during the term in which slavery is covered in the social studies, humanities, or language arts/social studies block. Part of the power of good literature—which this isn’t, and in some ways that may be for the better—is that it drives home a central message. I can envision students that pay attention to this book, perhaps because the teacher is particularly engaging and has driven home its importance, and then walking away from the term’s work convinced that all any slave in any part of the USA ever had to do to get out of his or her predicament was to find a good attorney, take the matter to court, and bang, that’s it, we’re free. Let’s party.

This novel addresses a relatively brief period in the northern states, where slavery had been legal but had not been as widespread as in the Southern states. King Cotton had not become the dominant economic mover it would become by 1850, when its grip on all of US governmental institutions would be absolute. By then, northerners made their money indirectly from the cotton industry in everything from shipping, boat building, rope making, and banking to growing crops for consumption by Southerners and in some cases, for their slaves.

If one is going to teach about slavery, far better to do so as part of an American Civil War unit. It’s a tender, sensitive, painful thing for children of color, but it’s not okay to deceive them, however unintentionally, with the misimpression that all slaves had options that they didn’t.  Better to use portions of Alex Haley’s Roots; teach about the vast but much-ignored free Black middle class in the north that was the primary moving force behind the Underground Railroad; or to show the movie “Glory” in class to emphasize the positive, powerful things that African-American people did during this revolutionary time, than to emphasize something as obscure, limited, and potentially misleading as what Walter provides here.

I am trying to think of instances in which this book might be part of a broader, more extensive curriculum such as the home-schooling of a voracious young reader, yet even then I find myself back at the technical aspect, which results in a book that is dull, dull, dull. Literature should engage a student and cause him or her to reach for more, rather than make students wonder if it will ever end.

In general I have resolved to read fewer YA titles than when I was teaching and treat myself to more advanced work during my retirement. I made an exception for this title because the focus appeared to be right in my wheelhouse, addressing US slavery and the civil rights of Black folk in America. I regret doing so now, but it doesn’t have to happen to you too.

Save yourself while there’s time. Read something else. And for heaven’s sake, don’t foist this book on kids.

The Man Who Cried I Am, by John A. Williams*****

TheManWhoCriedIAmThe Man Who Cried I Am was originally published during the turmoil of the late 1960’s, in the throes of the Civil Rights and antiwar movements, and following the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother Bobby, Martin Luther King Junior, and Malcolm X. Now we find ourselves in the midst of a long-overdue second civil rights movement, and this title is published again. We can read it digitally thanks to Open Road Integrated Media. I was invited to read it by them and the fine people at Net Galley. I read it free in exchange for an honest review. It is available for purchase now.

The story is a fictionalized account of the life of writer Richard Wright, one of the giants within African-American literature. I am ashamed to say that although I did pick up a copy of both Native Son and Black Boy, his two most famous books, they were still perched on my to-read pile when this invitation rolled in. I found myself perusing this meaty material without knowing anything about Wright himself, apart from his legendary stature and his occupation. I wanted to be able to give my readers a strong critical analysis of this novel, but I have really struggled with it. I found myself having to do a Wiki search in order to figure out whether Max Reddick or Harry Ames was supposed to be Wright. It’s embarrassing. I will read it over again and try to publish something more useful than this review in the future, but I promised to publish my thoughts on the book no later than today—a week following its release—and so I’m going to tell you what I can.

As literary fiction, it’s strong. Ames, who is Wright, as it turns out, and Reddick, who is James Baldwin fictionalized, go on an Odyssey all their own, leaving the USA and its myriad racial issues behind for Europe. A number of other historical luminaries are recognizable in its pages by different names, in addition to those called by their real names, such as Dewy and Truman, and philosopher Camus. The time period spans from post-World War II to the Civil Rights movement.

So many social issues are embraced here that I found myself making far more notes and highlighting more quotes than I can use. The debate unfolds as to how the Communist Party USA treats artists, as opposed to workers, and even touches briefly on the assassination of Trotsky at the hands of a Stalinist agent. Discrimination against African-American (then referred to as Negro) soldiers in the Buffaloes is part of Reddick’s inner narrative. Black Pride had not yet had its day, and Black men often coveted relationships with Caucasian women, partly, as Malcolm X later pointed out, from self-hatred, partly as a social status symbol, and occasionally for the practical material benefits of marrying into, or becoming aligned with, a woman that had access to money. But this was also a double-edged sword, because the women’s movement hadn’t occurred yet either, and women were supposed to stay home and have babies while their men went off to work.

The whole thing is very complicated.

In this time prior to the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that made abortion legal for American women, an unwanted pregnancy is dispatched by a doctor who is supposed to be quite good and risk free, but of course, the procedure is not legal, and there are no emergency facilities available. One of the characters loses the woman he loves when she bleeds to death after a back-alley abortion. This is not intended to be the primary focus of the book, but it’s huge to me, and so it stayed with me.

Be aware that there are scores of ugly racist terms, used for the purpose of highlighting racism, as well as sexist terms and references to gay men as the f-word. All references are either there because of the time period in which the story is set or for the purpose of defining the struggle of the Black man in America, but readers have a right to know and to brace themselves. There are descriptions of the atrocities visited upon European Jews during the war, as well as references to their struggle in the USA, primarily New York City; again, there are some ugly terms used.

Should you read this title? Not at the beach. This excellent novel is for the serious student of African-American history and for the history student focused on social justice. It’s more than worth your while, and I will re-read it myself after I have read Wright’s work. Just understand that there are many, many historical references that will make you reach for Google. The story was written during a time when the average reader had most of these things—from clothing styles such as zoot suits and pegged pants, to offhand references to the cigarette jingles that once punctuated our radio and television broadcasts as frequently as Coke and Pepsi do now, to slang terms whose use is either gone or worse, changed to mean something else. For example, if someone is high, they haven’t been using street drugs; they are drunk. None of these things is explained to the reader. We must have them stored in our memories; search for the meanings of unfamiliar references; or attempt to understand the text without knowing them.

I consider this literature to be accessible only to those that read at college level.

Highly recommended for those that take African-American literature and history seriously, and whose reading ability is well above average.