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.

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.

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.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond*****

EvictedI was cruising for something new to read, something that wasn’t yet another mystery or thriller. I ran across this title and requested it from Net Galley, then asked myself what I had been thinking! Who wants to read an entire book about eviction? What a grim prospect. I was even more surprised, then, when I opened it and couldn’t put it down. Desmond approaches his subject in a way that makes it not only readable but compelling. Thanks go to the people at Crown Publishing and Penguin Random House for approving my request for a DRC. This book is available to the public March 1.

Desmond undertook his study as part of his study of sociology while attending the University of Wisconsin, and continued it into his graduate studies at Harvard. The whole book is based on rentals among high-poverty families living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Desmond explains why this location is a good case study as regards the rest of Midwestern urban America.

Most of the text is told as narrative nonfiction, with the author shadowing eight families, some African-American, some Caucasian, through trailer parks and ghetto apartments in Milwaukee. There is a great deal of dialogue, all of which was captured with permission via digital recorder, so the text flows like good fiction. One Black landlord and one Caucasian landlord are also shadowed, and although I came away feeling that both landlords—one of whom, to my horror, was a former fourth grade teacher—were lower than pond scum, Desmond is careful to also demonstrate the ambiguities, the times when one or the other let things slide when an eviction could have been forced; brought over some groceries for a new tenant and did not ask for repayment; gave tenants opportunities to work off back rent to avoid eviction.

At the same time, we see how ultimately, almost all of what appear to be landlords’ small kindnesses are actually adding to their profit margins.

The text is nicely organized. The beginning and ending are expository in style, as a newspaper or magazine article would be, with the statistics that demonstrate how much more of a renter’s income is eaten by housing than was true in previous years; how a bad credit history can lead a low-income family into an apartment that is substandard and costs as much or more than a nice apartment of the same size in a calmer neighborhood that might be rented by someone with a good credit history; and the terrible dance that must be done to keep both heat and rent paid sufficiently to avoid being cut off with winter on the way, or evicted. It also points out that there are people living in low income apartments that should not even be living independently due to mental health issues or extremely low IQ; Desmond recognizes the times—though they are a tiny minority—in which someone takes that welfare check and does something tremendously stupid with it, not using it for housing, utilities, food, or even clothing for the kids.

He clues us in to the fact that while huge numbers of Black men are getting locked up, huge numbers of Black women, particularly mothers, are getting locked out.

Desmond discusses the various ways landlords manage to avoid fixing even the most desperate plumbing and structural issues in rental housing. He discusses the inevitability of eviction for a renter that calls police—or for whom someone else calls police—due to domestic violence. The problem is considered a “nuisance” by the city; three visits by cops in a month mean huge fines for the landlord unless an eviction is ordered, in which case fines are waived.

It’s enough to make you sick.

Particularly appalling is the situation in which Lamar (all names are changed ) is diligently scrambling to paint apartments and clean out a basement to avoid eviction. The man has no legs, but he can’t collection SSI, because theoretically, he could do a desk job. He crawls around on his stumps to paint the areas his elementary-aged neighbor kids have missed, climbs through filth and muck in a half basement, and is cursed at by his landlord, who says he is trying to disrespect her by doing such a terrible job.

He is evicted anyway, and the landlord becomes unavailable to do repairs for other tenants soon, because she and her co-owner spouse are off to Jamaica.

There are some people that would fit so cleanly into Dante’s seventh circle.

It is the individual stories of the eight families, the various fascinating rationalizations of the two terrible landlords, which keep this from simply becoming a dark place the reader would never want to go. Some of the cultural nuances were really interesting to me, and I have lived in some hard neighborhoods back in the day, and taught many high poverty students. I’ve been to some of their homes. Yet Desmond taught me a great deal.

For those interested in America’s housing crisis; for anyone that has ever been evicted; for those interested in sociology and culture, this book is a must-read.

The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film, by Bruce Chadwick****

thereelcivilwarI found this gem at my favorite used bookstore in Seattle, Magus Books, which is just a block from the University of Washington. Its strength, as the title suggests, is in tracing the story of the American Civil War as told by the cinema. Those interested in the way in which movie impacts both culture and education in the USA would do well to find this book and read it.

Chadwick spends a considerable amount of time and space carefully documenting the myth produced by Gone with the Wind, a completely unrealistic, idealized portrait of the ruling planter class of the deep South. Many of us would, in years gone by, have been inclined to dismiss this concern by saying that after all, the book and movie were primarily intended as a love story, but Chadwick demonstrates that this is not so. He ferrets out actual interviews with Margaret Mitchell herself in which she insists that this is exactly the way it was. Her sources? Former plantation owners, of course.

To this day, if an avid reader goes to Goodreads.com and under the caption “explore”, goes to “listopia” and from there selects a list of readers’ favorite Civil War titles, GWTW will place within the top ten, and sometimes be the foremost title, selected over nonfiction as well as more accurate fiction. I find this horrifying.

The research regarding the Civil War itself is nothing I haven’t seen before, but Chadwick makes excellent use of strong secondary sources to document the fact that Black folks in the pre-war South were neither happy nor well treated. He takes apart the myth Mitchell constructed in a meticulous manner, one damn brick at a time. Hell yes. About ten percent of the way into the book, Chadwick’s removed, scholarly tone changes to one of articulate outrage, and I found this tremendously satisfying.

Chadwick follows Civil War films forward, after first also examining Birth of a Nation, a painfully racist film which was famous at the time because of its length; its original claim to fame was not content, but technology. For those that have not seen the film, this will be interesting reading also, and those that have seen it may pick up some new information as well.

A couple of generations later, the more realistic and highly acclaimed Roots television miniseries told the story of Black America in a way that hadn’t been represented on film before. Chadwick is again careful in his documentation and clear in his explanation.

The book’s final film treatment is of the most positive and accurate film depiction of African-Americans is the film Glory. This reviewer used this film in the classroom. It depicts the Black Massachusetts infantry that tried to take Fort Wagner and in doing so, inspired President Lincoln to order more Black troops to be armed and trained for combat in the American Civil War.

For those interested in the connection between film and American history, and of the American Civil War in particular, this book is recommended.

MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson, by Steve Knopper****

MJthegeniusofmichaeljacksonJackson was a musical prodigy whose talent was almost limitless. His brilliant career was derailed by scandal, and his final 50 city tour was aborted by his death the night before it was to commence. Knopper does the best job of objectively recounting Jackson’s life and death that I have seen so far. His portrait is intimate without being prurient. Thanks go to Net Galley and Scribner for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.

Jackson was born in the 1950’s, a time when the race barrier kept Black performers from being seen by a general audience, with only the rarest exceptions. Black folks could play music for Black folks, and nobody else. The family was terribly poor, with eight or nine people crowded into a house better suited to three or four. They lived in Gary, a steel town in which Black poverty was more the rule than the exception. His father was a struggling musician until it became obvious that his sons had inherited his talent plus some. By the time Michael was five years old, he was the charismatic center of the Jackson Five, who soon were contracted to Motown, the center of African-American music in the USA.

Knopper explains how the family’s progression from a Motown act, where they were not allowed to actually play their own instruments on stage and could not use music they wrote themselves; to an independent family act, apart from one son who chose to remain with Motown; to the final day when Michael got himself an agent and a lawyer and set out on his own, divorcing his family so that he could have full control over a solo act. Until he was independent, iconic creations such as Thriller and Smooth Criminal would most likely never have been launched. And he recounts the family drama that ensued, with bodyguards pulling guns to discourage Michael’s angry brothers when they tried to force their way past the gates of his estate, shouting that he owed them money.

As a fan of excellent music and performance, I was sucked into the maelstrom produced by the press both during his life and afterward. It’s embarrassing to admit how completely I was played. For years I would not permit Jackson’s music to be played in my home because I thought he was a sick creep who used his fame to gain private, inappropriate contact with smooth-faced young boys. Somehow it escaped me that he had never been proved guilty in a court of law; on the one hand, it made sense to pay one family off in order to take the heat off his career, and Knopper documents the advice experienced, famous musicians gave Jackson to do whatever he had to do to shut that shit down so he could go back to focusing on music. But the press was merciless, and the payoff, which came too late to do damage control effectively, was portrayed as a tacit admission of guilt. And I bought it.

A few months after Jackson’s death, I was in a hotel room on vacation with my family, and my youngest son, who is Black, turned on the television, and there was the second round that Knopper documents, the round of memorial tributes that brought a lump to one’s throat as we saw Jackson’s miraculous career unspooled. He pioneered music videos in so many ways I had failed to appreciate, and he employed so many Black musicians that might never have had a steady job, while at the same time reaching out to Caucasian performers as well, creating a bridge between Black music and Caucasian sounds, transitioning from disco-like R and B to the “King of Pop”. I was horrified at the way I had misjudged him.

About a year ago, I read Michael Jackson’s memoir, Moonwalk, and while I took parts of it with a grain of salt, I also came to believe that the guy just didn’t know what was socially appropriate at times because he had never had a normal childhood. I was sold. Poor Michael.

Knopper has a more realistic take on all this. He certainly should; he used over 450 sources, and he wasn’t anybody’s mouthpiece. And so the truth turns out to be more complicated.

What left me somewhat stunned, in the end, was not the sex scandal, and it wasn’t the postmortem resurrection of Jackson as some sort of musical saint. Instead, I was absolutely floored at the number of people that worked for the guy, some of them for a lot of years, who he left without paychecks for weeks, then months on end. Jackson had a tremendous load of debt, was on the verge of bankruptcy and was saved only by his investment in song publishing, a piece of advice given him by friend Paul McCartney that he had followed through on. Yet he continued to buy one extreme luxury estate after another, holding residences he would likely never use again, shopping extravagantly (the example of taking a new friend shopping and telling him to do it “like this”, as he swept entire shelves of merchandise into his cart, astounded me) while leaving his employees, regular working folk with bills to pay for the most part, with no paychecks. There was money for shopping, but not for them, and some of them took him to court for it. It made me a bit sick. This man knew what it was like to be poor, and he knew what hunger was like, but as long as he didn’t have to see the people that he had betrayed, he could continue to play out the Peter Pan thread, irresponsibly trashing the lives of those he had told they could count on him, then leaving them with empty wallets and eviction notices.

Maybe you think I have over-shared. I have news; this is only the tip of the iceberg. If you have followed this review all the way to its conclusion, you will like this book. It is available for purchase October 20.

The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology, by Aldon Morris*****

thescholardeniedMorris considers DuBois the father of American sociology, and Morris is right. This is, of course, not the first time a Black man was robbed of credit for an accomplishment that was instead credited to a Caucasian American. It happens all the time. But until I ran across this scholarly study, I hadn’t thought about DuBois and sociology because I had never studied the latter. As an admirer of DuBois’ historical and political role, I was drawn to this book when I found it on Net Galley. Thank you to that excellent site as well as University of California Press for the DRC, which I was given in exchange for an honest review.
It is available for purchase now.

DuBois was a venerable intellectual, an academic light years ahead of most Americans of any racial or ethnic background. He was the first Black man to graduate from Harvard University, and in addition to his graduate work there, he also studied in Berlin under such luminaries as Max Weber and others. In Europe, he was treated as an equal by those he studied with, and I found myself wondering a trifle sadly—for him, not for us in the USA—why he chose to return here. And the answer is so poignant, so sweetly naïve, that I wanted to sit down and cry when I found it. Because once he had the empirical facts with which to debunk the whole US-Negro-inferiority mis-school of mis-thought, he genuinely believed he would be able to elevate African-Americans to a state of equality in the USA by laying out the facts. The racists that created Jim Crow laws in the south and an unofficial state of cold racism that let Black folk in the Northern states know where they were welcome and where they were not, would surely roll away, he thought, if he could reasonably haul out his charts, his graphs, his statistics, and demonstrate flawlessly, once and for all, that discrimination against Black people was based on incorrect information.

See what I mean? I could just cry for him.

So although DuBois was the first American to go to Europe, study sociology, and return with more and better credentials than any American academic, he could not persuade anyone with authority to bring about change, was not even allowed to present his findings to anybody except Black people in traditional Black colleges, because another school of sociologists, the Chicago school, were busy promoting armchair theories based on little data, or bogus data, all showing that Black people simply were not smart enough to become professionals or take on anything above and beyond manual labor, and of course, he was Black, so he must not be that smart, right?

Pause to allow your primal scream. It’s galling stuff.

Caucasian professors in Chicago had done a bit of reading, and with regard to Black people, decided that their craniums were too small to hold enough brain-iums. And just as there is one reactionary in every crowd that the newspapers will flock to in order to show that there is across-the-board agreement, so did Booker T Washington stand before any crowd that would listen to him (and the white academics just loved him), in order to say that it was the truth, that it was going to be a long time before the Negro was “ready” to do the difficult tasks involving critical thinking that had been so long denied him. Tiny steps; patience; tiny steps. Meanwhile, he extolled his fellow Black Americans to enroll their sons and daughters in programs teaching “industrial education”, so that they would be ready to do manual labor and put food on their families’ tables.

All of the studies that backed this line of thinking were deductive, starting with the answer (inferior beings, manual labor) and then finding the questions to fit that answer. DuBois had done inductive research because he was searching for information rather than looking for a rational-sounding way to keep a group of people entrenched in an economic underclass.

DuBois made the connection between the socialist theory he had studied and the material evidence before him: there were people getting rich off the backs of dark-skinned people, and they had a vested interest in maintaining Black folk as an underclass. Ultimately, he turned to political struggle, and that is how I knew about him, not as a sociologist, but as a Marxist. He also became the father of the interdisciplinary field of African-American studies. He helped found the NAACP.

This scholarly work, like just about anything produced by a university press, is not light reading. Rather, the author presents his thesis and synopsis, and then carefully, brick by brick, starts back at the beginning to build his case. His documentation is flawless, and his sources are diverse and strong. There is some repetition in the text, but that is appropriate in this type of writing. He is not there to entertain the reader, but to provide an authentic piece of research that will stand the test of time, so there is a little bit of a house-that-jack-built quality to the prose.

For serious admirers of DuBois’s work, this will be an excellent addition to your library. For those interested in sociology as a field, this is for you, too. And to those with a literacy level that permits you to access college-level material and who have a strong interest in African-American history and/or civil rights, this is a must-read.

For these readers, I recommend, in addition, The Souls of Black Folk, which I had not regarded as sociology-based material until now, though I have read it twice; and a collection of speeches by DuBois, which I have been intending to review for some time, and which will soon grace this page of my blog.

Morris has done outstanding work, and I like to think that if DuBois were here, he would be proud to see it.