Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates*****

WeWereEightYears Ta-Nehisi Coates is pissed. He has a thing or two to say about the historical continuity of racism in the USA, and in this series of eight outstanding essays, he says it well. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House, and I apologize for reviewing it so late; the length wasn’t a problem, but the heat was hard to take. That said, this is the best nonfiction civil rights book I have seen published in at least 20 years.

Coates started his writing career as a journalist, and became the civil rights columnist for The Atlantic. For those Caucasians that advise Black folk to just get over this nation’s ugly history because slavery has been gone for 150 years, he has a response. Pull up your socks and be ready. To Bill Cosby and Patrick Moynihan and anybody else that wants to blame the high poverty level on the demise of the Black family, look out. And for anyone that seriously believes that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency is proof that America’s institutional racism is dead and gone, step back a minute.

When Coates sets out to make a point, he comes armed for conflict. Not only is he searing eloquent, his research is hard to dispute. Regarding white folk that hold themselves blameless for what their ancestors have done, he wonders why we feel so free to claim our veterans every May and November and yet pretend that our white bedsheeted predecessors have nothing to do with us.

He has a point.

For those of us that are persuaded that the election of Donald Trump to the White House is more about economics and the unemployment of poor white people or the abrasive nature of Ms. Clinton than about white supremacy, Coates has some cogent arguments that run in the other direction. It’s enough to make you stop and think, and that’s why I am tardy with my review. I read in small bites, and then I had to reconsider some of my own conclusions. And although it stings, great writing does this. If we are paying attention, we have to realign some of our own thinking in order to meet the reality this book presents.

Coates is bemused by Caucasian readers that love his work. I understand his bewilderment; nobody likes to hear bad news about the characters of their ancestors, let alone about themselves. But if a thing needs doing, it needs to be done right, and in that respect, Coates is undeniable.

Highly recommended to everyone genuinely interested in civil rights in the USA.

Hum If You Don’t Know the Words, by Bianca Marais***

HumifyoudontknowI received an advance copy in return for this honest review, thanks to Net Galley and G.P. Putnam. I expected to absolutely love it; I came of age when the South African revolution against the Apartheid state was in full flower and before anything about it showed on mainstream media, which was all we really had then apart from underground films shown in the basements of coffee houses near campus. I loved Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, and had attended dozens of talks given by members of the African National Congress that were forced into exile. So when I saw that this novel was set in revolutionary South Africa, I was pumped. Popular fiction about one of the greatest political events to occur in my lifetime?  Oh yes indeed. Count me in!

As it turns out, not so much.

The novel has its strengths, to be sure, and those that have read nothing about the South African revolution may find this story more approachable than plunging into Mandela’s work, which requires hefty amounts of time and stamina as well as strong literary skills. Marais’s book showcases the inequalities that existed, a Jim Crow that was every bit as brazen as that in the southern USA during the early and mid-twentieth century.  It highlights the institutionalized racism that forbade people of color from even entering white enclaves where the best of everything existed, unless the bearer was carrying a pass issued by a Caucasian employer. There are a lot of people out there, especially young ones, for whom this will be a worthy introduction. And it starts out strong, with convicts on the Parchman work farm in a setting so stark and immediate that it made me thirsty.

That said, it also has its limitations.

Our two protagonists are Robin Conrad and Beauty Mbali, in that order. Robin is a Caucasian child whose parents are killed in the struggle against Apartheid. Beauty is a Xhosa woman that is hired to care for Robin. Beauty’s own daughter took part in the Soweto Uprising and is missing.

My disappointment with this book springs from the fact that Robin is given greater development, and in terms of physical space, nearly double the number of pages as Beauty (known to Robin as “Mabel”).  A puzzling component is Robin’s invisible friend, whom she refers to as her sister. The invisible friend gets as much attention here as Beauty does, and for the life of me I cannot understand why. I don’t see the imaginary sister adding anything to the story. Given the setting, it’s also hard to understand why we need so much information about Afrikaaner culture.

It feels a lot as if the author is saying that “All Lives Matter”.

I know this book has a lot of happy readers, but I can only promote it in a limited sense. With the above caveats, this book—which is for sale now—is recommended for younger readers that have at least eighth grade literacy skills.

What I’m Reading

I’ve been experimenting with ways to share what is coming up next. Usually I put this on a different page, but then it also tends not to get seen, likely due to the absence of share buttons. Let me know what you think. Is it better to post it separately, or do you like it here?

 

Here are books I’ve finished reading, and as soon as a sane moment presents itself in my uncharacteristically busy domicile, you will see them reviewed here:

 This is what I am reading now; all are good, but some are outstanding. [Imaginary drum roll goes here.]

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.

Sting Like a Bee, by Leigh Montville**

stinglikeabee“’It takes a lot of nerve for somebody, mainly a white, to ask me do I hate. I haven’t lynched nobody and hid in the bushes.’”

I received an advance copy free from Net Galley and Doubleday in exchange for this honest review. The book is now available for purchase.

Muhammad Ali died of Parkinson’s disease one year ago. By the time of his passing, he had earned the respect and recognition he craved. In this popular biography, Montville gives an overview of his rise to fame, but focuses primarily on Ali’s legal challenge to the US government, which strove to draft him to fight in Vietnam despite his professed status as a conscientious objector.

During the 1960s and 1970s, almost all of Caucasian America and a goodly number of African-Americans regarded Ali’s public statements either with derision or fear. Born Cassius Clay, he joined the Nation of Islam as a young adult and changed his name in the same way Malcolm X had before him. He did it in order to shuck the slave name given him at birth and adopt a new religion that taught him that Black men were not only equal to white folks, but better. Malcolm X had advocated Black pride and scared a lot of people, but he had done it from the point of view of a political activist. Ali was the first Black athlete to stand up tall and tell all of America that he was the greatest. The descendants of slave owners that willingly or not bore the guilt of the oppressors were absolutely terrified. This was the fear they seldom made themselves face, the notion that the descendants of those so grievously wronged might rise up belatedly and give back some of what their ancestors had been dealt. I was there; I remember.

Ali personified the white man’s fear of the jungle. Dude, here he comes; he’s strong, he’s angry, and he’s free!

Montville recognizes up front that when Ali died, he was an icon, both as an athlete and as a civil rights advocate. But the tone of his prose shifts from a more or less neutral journalistic tone, to a wry one—because Ali did say some outrageous things by anyone’s standard—and then, again and again, to a derisive one. The first time I saw it, I told myself I was tired and grumpy, and that I was probably being overly sensitive. My own family is racially mixed; I have raised a Black son. Sometimes I get touchy when I read things written by white authors about Black people. I should put the book down and examine it tomorrow with fresh eyes.

When I picked it up the next time I was immediately taken with the writer’s skill. His pacing is impeccable. Some of the quotes he chose are really delicious ones, although with Ali, it’s also kind of hard to go wrong. And at this point I considered that since we were on a roll, I should take the next step and examine the end notes and documentation.

Huh. Apart from a list of sources, most of which are biographies written by other people, there’s nothing. There are the in-text references a popular biographer uses, telling us, for example, that a direct quote comes from the magazine Sports Illustrated, without telling us what issue or who wrote it. And to be fair, that’s how a popular biography is written. It’s there for the masses that love boxing and aren’t going to check your footnotes. Everything within my academic heart recoils at this kind of biography, but it sells. I may not like it much, but people will buy it and they’ll read it.

But to write about a legal challenge of this magnitude and not provide specific documentation?
I could mention this within a review—as I have—and say that given this particular caveat, the biography is a four star read, and I thought that I might do that. But when I continued reading, there it was again. The author makes fun of the guy. And so just before the halfway mark, I started making careful notes of my own, because I wanted to see for myself how it is possible for a writer to appear to be neutral much of the time and yet also mock his subject. What I came away with is that the more straight-forward, respectful material is buried in the middle of each section, but the briefer sneering, snide material is usually right at the end of the section in one sentence, set apart from everything that came before it.

Writers do this for emphasis.

Fans of Ali will have to swallow hard to make it through this biography. Fans of boxing will find that it’s mostly about the legal challenge, and although Ali’s boxing matches are included, you’ll find a lot more about those in any one of the numerous other Ali biographies published earlier. And those interested in his legal fight may want to hold out for a more scholarly treatment.

When all is said and done, Ali was the greatest, but this biography is not.

Coming Up

Celebrations here in the family domicile have momentarily distracted me, but that all ends tomorrow. Before I commence partying with family tonight, I thought I’d show you the books you can expect to see reviewed here over the weekend. Some are memorable and others not-so-much, but I am surprised by which are which. Wait for it:

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.

Michelle Obama: A Life, by Peter Slavin****

michelleobama I received this book as a birthday gift from a gracious house guest. I think he chose it for me because he knew of my strong interest in civil rights issues. Although this is actually out of my wheelhouse, I decided to read it, and I was surprised how much of it I enjoyed. Of particular interest was the beginning of the book, where a surprising amount of the narrative was devoted to African-American history, especially in Chicago. I hadn’t expected it and found it both interesting and useful.

I don’t generally follow the lives and careers of mainstream American politicians or their spouses, so  I didn’t know much of anything about Michelle Obama, other than that she had made it plain, upon taking up that famous residence, that her family would be her main focus and if the public didn’t like it they could lump it. After all, nobody was paying her a salary, so she had some choices.

Reading of how her parents struggled in order to get Michelle and her brother excellent educations, and of the tenacity with which Michelle approached school, social justice issues, and her career, I found myself feeling strangely sorry for her. Before her husband decided to pursue politics, her career outshone his. She was in demand and had a lot of choices. When she headed to the Ivy League, her classmates and professors were almost all white people, and the pressure was on her not only to succeed, but to be the one African-American that would be the example, the cultural education for a whole lot of privileged white people. That kind of hot spotlight would undo some people, make them decide to go on home and enroll at a school closer to home, but Obama—then Robinson—did it and did it well, and then she went back to her hometown, Chicago, to find ways to use her education to serve her community.

As the first Black first lady (FLOTUS), she’s had to make some difficult choices, and there would be a certain level of criticism no matter what she chose to undertake. Her career had been ascending like a rocket, and she took what will likely be a permanent leave of absence in order to keep her family well tended. She hadn’t wanted her spouse to go into politics, because she was convinced, as I am, that being a politician doesn’t end up making a difference. She urged Barack to become an inspirational instructor, or a school administrator, or go to work for a strong nonprofit, but that wasn’t what he wanted to do. He wrote a book; it didn’t sell. (Occupying the Oval Office would change that.) But when two parents put their careers on a fast track simultaneously, often the ones that pay the price are the kids, and she wouldn’t have that for their girls. If it came down to her career versus their development, she was determined to be there for them. And who am I to say that wasn’t the right thing to do?

Slavin is not an official biographer; in fact, after leaving the White House, Michelle plans to publish memoirs of her own. However, this writer was given interviews with people very close to the First Family with Michelle’s blessing, and maybe that is why some noteworthy items are glossed over.

Because whereas this memoir is about her more than him, a fair amount of the president works its way into the text. Their lives are joined, after all. And it does seem a little myopic not to have addressed the elephant in the room: the first Black president can’t prevent cops all over the country from shooting Black men—and sometimes women—all the damn time and for no good reason. After all the protests that took place all over the nation, with chants and signs of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” and “I Can’t Breathe!”, you’d think it would merit at least a paragraph.

It’s like it never happened.

So if you are an admirer of the Obamas, this is not a bad book certainly. And it’s tempting to jump into their court, so to speak, based solely on the amazingly stupid things about birth certificates and loyalty that the ultra-right has come out with, questions that a white presidential family would never have to confront.

But when push comes to shove, this book won’t make a big difference, and sad to say, neither will the Obamas’ eight years in the White House. It’s good to know that American society has moved forward enough to elect a Black president, but like all the presidents before him, his authority is limited and to some degree, illusory.

I recommend this memoir to those with an interest in Michelle Obama. Those eternally present polls that reflect the public’s perception of those in the White House show that a much greater number of Americans admire her than approve of the president. But of course, one doesn’t have to be American to want to read this; one only needs to be interested in the life of this historically first, First Lady.

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.