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.

The Black and the Blue, by Matthew Horace*****

theblackandtheblue“Even as a federal agent, I have been on surveillance or supporting an operation and have had an officer approach me and say that the neighbors called about a “suspicious” vehicle, which meant it was a black guy driving a car. I’ve been the man in that suspicious vehicle.”

Matthew Horace worked as a cop at the federal, state, and local level for 28 years, and he is plenty sick of the “toxic brotherhood.” The quote above refers to an incident that occurred in Mill Creek, a (very white) suburb outside Seattle, Washington where I live, but it’s not just here; it’s everywhere in the US. Specifically, he tells us about cities where some of the most notorious cop violence has created resistance such as New Orleans, Chicago, Baltimore, and Ferguson.

There are essays provided by police chiefs from some of these places as well as from Kathleen O’Toole, who was chief here in Seattle; O’Toole’s prose reek of electioneering, the sort of style that speaks for itself. Many of these contributors contradict Horace’s own assertion that the problem is endemic, and is absolutely not a case of a few bad apples. More than one of these essays hold the fascination I’d feel if forced to watch a rattlesnake before it strikes; the sanctimony, the grandiose claims of justice supposedly served. The most interesting of them all is from an African-American police chief in Chicago, whose personal stories of her family members having been abused—including her sons—stand diametrically opposed to what she does for a living, and yet she maintains her tightrope walk, determined to make a difference where only the smallest, if any, seems likely.

By now I should have thanked Net Galley and Hachette Books for the review copy, which I received free and early. This excellent book is available to the public Tuesday, August 7, 2018.

There has been a flurry of books published about this subject since it became national news. More than anything, the internet and cellular phones have stripped the gatekeeping capacity of the major news outlets; cops that were able to beat and even kill people and lie about it later are being outed left and right. Even I, who am an old lefty and have never really believed cops were there to protect ordinary people, am shocked by much of what’s been revealed. I wondered, as I began reading, whether Horace could add to what’s already been said and shown. What could he add to the body of information provided by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Davis, and Matt Taibbi? (Many years ago, Norm Stamper, former Seattle police chief, also wrote an expose that included a chapter on why cops beat Black men.)

As it happens, Horace has a lot of information that I hadn’t read, and it isn’t just a matter of fine detail. For example, who knew that in New Orleans, cops were not merely accepting graft, but actively robbing Black-owned businesses, guns drawn, and making off with their cash and other valuables? It’s the sort of thing that lives in your head for a long time after you read it; but then again, it should be.

The sourcing is impeccable.

Those with an interest in Black Lives Matter, in civil rights in general, or with an interest in race issues within the so-called criminal justice system in America should get this book, for full price if necessary, and read it. Read the whole thing. So much of our future depends on how we respond.

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.

Going to the Mountain, by Ndaba Mandela*****

GoingtotheMountainNelson Mandela’s hundredth birthday approaches. His grandson Ndaba, whom Mandela raised following his release from prison, talks about growing up with the titan that led the movement against Apartheid in South Africa. He reflects on Xhosa culture and the role that it played in the struggle and in his own development, and it is within this framework that he talks about his grandfather, and about the future of his people.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Hachette Books for the review copy, which I received free and early.

Ndaba spent his early years moving between his parents’ households. His mother struggled with alcoholism and other disorders; his father was ill, and would later die from AIDS. He tells of the surreal juxtaposition of the slum that had been his entire experience with his grandfather’s house, where he had his own room, food that was healthy and prepared for him, clothing, and even a video game system; it was just about everything a child could ask for, but it came at the price of separation from his mother, and he rebelled and acted out in response. As a man with a wider view of the past, he recognizes that this was by far the best outcome, but for many years he resisted, yet was safe because of his grandfather’s stable influence and wisdom.

He speaks of having come to Disney World as a youngster, where he was engaged in conversation with a friendly American, who asked him, as they stood in line for a ride, how big the lions are in Africa. Ndaba, of course, grew up in an urban environment and had no more seen a lion wandering around than the questioner had. He came to realize that these are the stereotypes that the Western world has for Africa: lions in rural areas, and crime in the cities. Dangerous animals; dangerous people.  He suggests that the U.S.A.  improve its own police forces before presuming to talk to South Africans about theirs.

He has a point.

The entire memoir is told using Xhosa folk tales as allegory, and the result is glorious and deeply moving. Although I seldom become teary while reading, a good hard lump formed in my throat when he spoke of taking his grandfather on his final journey to Capetown.

Highly recommended to everyone, whether you know the history of the South African Revolution or are new to it.

The Woman in the Woods, by John Connolly****

thewomaninthewoodsConnolly is one of a handful of writers whose names I search when I go to Net Galley. He’s consistently brilliant, and so I am grateful to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

This is number sixteen in the popular Charlie Parker series, which began as detective fiction with mystic overtones reminiscent of James Lee Burke, and in the last volume moved into the horror genre outright. Either way it’s a compelling series. One of my favorite aspects of this series is the author’s incorporation of social justice themes. Here we find a sadistic butcher hot on the trail of the shelter volunteers that assisted Karis Lamb in escaping the father of her child, and a magical book she took with her.  Karis died in childbirth and is buried in the woods, and there are nightmarish individuals—human and not—trying to find her child so they can get the book. His adoptive mother and grandfather are determined to protect Daniel at all costs.

“Tell me the special story,” Daniel said. “The story of the woman in the woods.” 

Karis’s body is dead, but her spirit is not at rest. She is looking for her boy, and a particularly chilling detail is the repeated use of Daniel’s toy phone to call him from beyond the grave. 

At the same time, Angel, one of Parker’s two assistants who is also his close friend, is lying in a hospital bed following cancer treatment, and his partner, Louis, whose impulse control is never tiptop and is now strained to the breaking point, becomes enraged when he sees a vehicle bearing a Confederate flag parked near the hospital, and so he blows up the truck. As events unfold, our supernatural villains and the Backers—sinister characters whose lives hold no joy, and whose fate is eternal damnation—are joined in their pursuit of the Atlas, the child, and now also Parker by some local white supremacists seeking vengeance on behalf of the van’s owner.

As always, Connolly juggles a large number of characters and a complex plot without ever permitting the pace to flag, and he keeps the chapters short and the details distinct so that the reader isn’t lost in the shuffle.

This will be a five star read for most of Connolly’s readers.  Rating horror stories is immensely subjective, because some readers may find this book too horrible to be fun, whereas others will appreciate the way Connolly continues to turn up the creepiness and the gore. As for me, I had a rough time getting through the first half. I didn’t want it in my head at bedtime, and the graphic torture scenes prevented me from reading while I was eating. The result is that I had to read much more slowly than I usually would do; there were too many times I just couldn’t face it, and there were other times when I could read a short amount, then had to put it down for awhile. I suspect I am a more sensitive horror reader than most, but there will be some besides me that began reading when this was a detective series, and that may find it too grisly now.

None of this will prevent me from jumping forward when the next in the series comes around.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent fiction, and that can withstand a lot of horror and a lot of gore.

Eloquent Rage, by Brittney Cooper****

EloquentRageCooper has had enough, and who can blame her?

I received my copy of Cooper’s essays free and early, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. Her prose is clear, articulate, and full of fire.

Had I read my post-Trayvon civil rights titles in a different sequence, I might very well have called this a five star collection. However, I read Samantha Irby, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Davis, and Matt Taibbi first, and so the bar was set somewhere in the stratosphere when I opened this galley. I wanted Cooper’s viewpoints to be accompanied by some hard facts, complete with citations. However, for those looking to have their world view clarified and their consciousness raised, Cooper’s collection is recommended.

I Can’t Breathe, by Matt Taibbi*****

“Try to imagine a world where there isn’t a vast unspoken consensus that black men are inherently scary, and most of these police assaults would play in the media like spontaneous attacks of madness. Instead, they’re sold as battle scenes from an occupation story, where a quick trigger finger while patrolling the planet of a violent alien race is easy to understand.”

ICantBreathe
I received an advance review copy of I Can’t Breathe: A Killing On Bay Street, courtesy of Random House and Net Galley. I had expected this civil rights title to be a good read but also to be anticlimactic, coming out as it did just after publications by literary lions like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Angela Davis. I am surprised and gratified to see that Taibbi, a journalist for Rolling Stone, holds his own quite capably. The title is for sale, and if you care about justice and an end to cop violence in the US, then you should get it and read it.

Many readers will recognize the title, which constitutes Eric Gardner’s last words and became a rallying cry for protests that spanned the globe. Why would any cop, especially one not acting alone, find it necessary to put an elderly man, a large person but not a violent one, in a choke hold over what was, after all, a misdemeanor at most? Taibbi takes us down the terrible urban rabbit hole, deftly segueing from Garner’s story, the events that led up to his death and the legal and political fight that took place afterward, to the cop killings of others, and the bizarre, farcical prosecution that takes place in the unlikely event that a cop is ever charged with having unlawfully killed another person.

Though my own life is free from this type of harassment and though I benefit from White privilege and have done so since birth, I found it hard to breathe myself as I read Garner’s story, and the behind-the-scenes machinations that result in the maintenance of the status quo. And I trembled, and still do, for the Black men in my family.

I think many people over the age of 40 understand that the attacks we see publicized online, one by one, Black boys and men that have done either nothing wrong or committed a minor offense that most Caucasian people would never be stopped for, have been taking place for a very long time. What we didn’t have was proof; what we didn’t have was the long view that allows us to see into cities, rural areas, and small towns in America such as Ferguson, where Michael Brown was killed. And there’s one other thing: we didn’t have to look at it before if it wasn’t happening in our own community, our own neighborhood. Even those of us with racially mixed families didn’t see the scope of it. Some would prefer not to know.

Here’s Taibbi’s take on how it unspooled:

“The civil rights movement ended in a kind of negotiated compromise. Black Americans were granted legal equality, while white America was allowed to nurture and maintain an illusion of innocence, even as it continued to live in almost complete separation. Black America always saw the continuing schism, but white America has traditionally been free to ignore and be untroubled by it and to believe it had reached the “postracial” stage of its otherwise proud history. That was until cell phones and the internet came along. When the murder of Eric Garner hit the headlines, it at first seemed to lift the veil.”

Taibbi’s smooth narrative and expert pacing doesn’t make this any easy book to read; nothing can. If it’s easy, you’re not paying attention. But if we ignore Eric Gardner, Michael and Trayvon and Freddie and Sandra and all the rest, we are complicit in their deaths. Highly recommended, even at full jacket price.

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.