We are not fighting for integration, nor are we fighting for separation. We are fighting for recognition as human beings. We are fighting for . . . human rights.
TOMORROW: My Book World | Hermann Hesse's Rosshalde
My Book World
Kendi, Ibram X. and Keisha N. Blain, eds. Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019. New York: One World, 2021.
This auspicious tome opens with one distinguished author/editor and closes with another writing about the collection of essays they have amassed. Kendi begins: “Racist power constructed the Black race—and all the Black groups. Them. Racist power kept constructing Black America over four hundred years . . . [w]econstructed, again and again. Them into we, defending the Black American community to defend all the individuals in the community. Them became we to allow I to become me” (xvii). One hundred scholars each represent or write about four-year increments of Black history beginning, of course, in 1619, when twenty black-skinned people arrive on the shores of Jamestown, Virginia, aboard the (how bitterly ironic)White Lion. There the pernicious practice of slavery begins in the United States of America. Each of the book’s ten sections ends not with an essay but with a powerful poem, lending the quality of a Greek chorus to the collection, voices telling truths that prose perhaps cannot.
This collection possesses many positives: scholarship and research; eloquence the one hundred varied voices (some angry, some solemn, some patient and considered) lend to the gigantic mosaic or puzzle of lost American history. The most poignant moments of clarity may arrive when some overlooked gem of our stinking history is thrust up in our noses . . . and we must not turn away for it is a stench African-Americans have lived with for centuries—if not in their direct memory then within the cells of their punished bodies.
facts omitted from history:
Some of these elusive facts: 1) In the early 1700s there existed the term maroon, a runaway slave; the accompanying form, marronage meaning extricating oneself from slavery— which caused American slave owners no small amount of worry. 2) “Georgia was the only colonial region that issued a ban on slavery from its inception in 1733” (150). 3) “While many historians describe Reconstruction as a period of ‘racial unrest’ marked by lynchings and ‘race riots,’ it was undoubtedly a war. The network of terror cells that sprang up during Reconstruction was no different from the organized militias of the American Revolution or the ragtag Confederate squads” (235). The Civil War, in other words, has never really ended. The U.S. did not have the guts or will to return troops in the South to enforce Reconstruction policy, thus giving the South a back-door victory. 4) 1.2 million Black men and women served in WWII but came home to no hero’s welcome (307). 5) “Ella Baker, someone who should be much better known, was critical in the organizing that emerged from the sit-ins. Her activism brought together generations of Black struggle. The 1960 surge in youth activism drew her immediate attention . . . Baker was the SCLC’s temporary executive director and one of the South’s most respected political organizers. As the NAACP director of branches in the 1940s, she had organized chapters throughout the region” (326). 6) “The real story was that the real estate industry and mortgage bankers were fleecing African Americans with an assist from an utterly passive federal government” (337). 7) “In Clarence Thomas, a forty-three-year-old African American Republican from Pinpoint, Georgia, with only two years of experience as a federal judge, Bush found the ideal candidate to help him appeal to both these constituencies [white conservatives and right-leaning Blacks]” (361). 8) “In 2019 alone, more than 250 people in the United States were killed in mass shootings. The overwhelming majority of the shooters were white nationalists” (385).
Co-editor Blain states in her conclusion to Four Hundred Souls: “From police violence and mass incarceration to voter suppression and unequal access to housing, the social and economic disparities that shape contemporary Black life are all legacies of slavery and colonialism” (391). If only we could motivate our congress to realize this fact and begin to allow the country to teach history in its full ugly truthfulness (as well as the beauty of democracy when it works), only then may we continue and then finish Reconstruction, a reconstruction of Black lives that must include every last descendant of a slave in this country.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Robert Jones, Junior's novel The Prophets
My Book World
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness with a new preface by the author. New York: New Press, 2020 (2010).
This book should appear at some point on the syllabus of a required course in every college or university in America. Portions of it could be taught in our high schools. Adult reading groups of all stripes should read it. The book is that important. It is that good. “In 1972, fewer than 350,000 people were being held in prisons and jails nationwide, compared with more than 2 million people today” (10), states Alexander.
The New Jim Crow, however, is not only about numbers. It is about an entire philosophy in which White people can no longer discriminate outwardly (at the end of the old Jim Crow era) so in an era of colorblindness (“I don’t mind if she’s Black.”), they resort to setting up a new form of discrimination through mass incarceration. How does it work? It begins with the War on Drugs, in 1980, with the Reagan administration. It gains momentum with Bush Senior and gains real traction with Bill Clinton and Bush Junior. Alexander claims that even some of Obama’s policies contribute harm (though he does speak out against mass incarceration). With this new policy young Black and Brown men are given long sentences for minor drug infractions. Then when they finally return to their homes (uneducated and no longer young), they are marked as felons, so for the rest of their lives they cannot vote, cannot get jobs, and wind up in a constant loop of being prisoner or permanent criminal—all for a minor drug offense. And how do White men who commit the same offenses fare? Much better, because, one learns, all these cases are adjudicated by the police, who ignore White drug crime but not Black or Brown.
An excellent writer, Michelle Alexander makes her case in not only a lawyerly manner (perfect syllogisms) with logic and facts but also with heavy but artful doses of thinking from the greatest African-American scholars: Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, and Martin Luther King, Junior. She is rough on every one of us but in the best Tough Love tradition. There is enough blame for us all but also enough room to turn this around. It won’t be easy, she declares, but by looking at the concept of Race squarely in the eye, we can do it. And I believe her.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You
My Book World
Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.
In 1959, a Baptist minister, his wife, and his four daughters, leave their Bethlehem, Georgia home for a year of service to the Congo in Africa. The mother, Orleanna, opens the novel with a long lens; we learn right away she will lose one of her daughters, and so we read on patiently to see how such an event will unfold. Of course, we sort of forget, and we’re shocked when the youngest, Ruth May, is killed by a poisonous snake much later in the story after we have come, like her mother, to love her.
This expansive novel is divided into seven books, always a sign of what will be a sprawling narrative. Each book opens with a chapter narrated by Orleanna, the frazzled mother who dares not rile the ire of her preacher husband. The remaining chapters of each book are narrated alternatively by each one of the daughters: Rachel, a light-haired blonde, probably born about 1945, who has visions of high fashion and easy living in her life—having not much use for her father’s strict evangelical life; the twins, Leah and Adah, one a healthy adherent of her father’s ways (for a while), the latter injured before birth and who limps yet has a brain equal to her twin sister’s. The former will eventually marry a Congo native; Adah will return to Atlanta and become a doctor. Before her demise, Ruth May, the youngest, is a sprite, a child with her own language, her own worldview, a darting derring-do that will eventually serve to take her life.
Each chapter then widens our view of their village in the Congo as it survives an historical upheaval: one popular but revolutionary leader being killed within three months of his election, and the return to office of a corrupt man who will conspire with the West (mostly America) to spend thirty-five years amassing great wealth while his countrymen and women survive (or don’t) lives of poverty. One additional character, Mother Nature, or her evil sister, makes life at the least difficult, at the most, a disaster of magnificent proportions. In what feels like the climax, a giant wave of ants marauds their Congolese village, and its inhabitants must survive by, among other things, climbing trees until the rampage has passed. When this family returns to their house and accompanying buildings, they find only bones left where their chickens once roosted. The house is spotless, as if cleaned by a squad of maids. At this point, Oleanna gathers her three remaining children and abandons her husband. Now this is not as easy as it sounds. She has always served Nathan and his god with blind faithfulness, but now she sees that he is not well (think heart of darkness) and must save her remaining three daughters. Only she is not even able to do that. Rachel marries a South African man of questionable character (and three more men in serial monogamy). Leah marries her native. Adah returns to Georgia with her mother. It is a family broken in so many ways it takes an entire book to portray how. Oh, and the title? The poisonwood tree is an apt name because of the substance it oozes; its bible an apt metaphor for the despoliation of one family. A stunning, timeless read.
NEXT TIME: My Book World | Jim Harrison's The Summer He Didn't Die
My Book World
Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men with a preface by Franz Boas, a foreword by Arnold Rampersad, illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias, and afterword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
Part I consists of African-American folk tales that Hurston collects in the late 1920s and early 1930s in Florida. She begins in her hometown of Eatonville, primarily African-American. Amazing it is the number of times the word “mule” does appear in these tales, as if the beast is a metaphor for the “beasts” that white people take black men and women to be: though compliant, also stubborn, and intelligent. On the face of it, the tales might reflect a certain ignorance, but I think they simply reflect that slaves had to develop their own language because the whites refused to educate them in their own (if they themselves were versed well enough in English to do so).
Part II is about hoodoo (or voodoo), and Hurston heads for what she calls its capital, New Orleans, Louisiana. These passages are fascinating, as well. All throughout Hurston includes herself as a character. In order to retrieve the information she wants, she must become one of hoodoo’s adherents and spends much time and effort seeking to know its ways. She recreates for readers exact formulae for getting rid of one’s husband, for getting him back if she changes her mind, for many ways of dealing with one’s neighbors. Hurston never judges but fully participates, absorbing its, at times, headiness, as when she dizzies herself from dancing for forty straight minutes as part of a ceremony.
In his afterword Henry Louis Gates (PBS’s Finding Your Roots) identifies Hurston’s proper historical place in American literature. After having achieved a higher education and published seven important books, she is virtually ignored or denounced by leading black male literary figures during the time she should be receiving accolades (among them Richard Wright). This happens, in part, because she identifies herself in a more "conservative," Clarence Thomas-like stance, in which she refuses to be defined by white people. It takes Alice Walker’s landmark 1975 article in Ms. to resurrect Hurston and bring her to the fore of American literary studies. As happens to many whose ideas are published ahead of their time, Hurston’s work languishes for decades amid a poverty of thought. If only she had not been shunned, she might not have died amid a more corporeal sort of poverty at age sixty-nine.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | The Letters of Cole Porter
My Book World
Eberhardt, Jennifer L. Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do. New York: Viking, 2019.
An excellent book for every American to read. Why? Dr. Eberhardt addresses the concept of implicit bias, and she begins with some great examples that lead to a clear definition:
“Whether bad or good, whether justified or unjustified, our beliefs and attitudes can become so strongly associated with the category that they are automatically triggered, affecting our behavior and decision making. So, for example, simply seeing a black person can automatically bring to mind a host of associations that we have picked up from our society: this person is a good athlete, this person doesn’t do well in school, this person is poor, this person dances well, this person lives in a black neighborhood, this person should be feared. The process of making these connections is called bias. It can happen unintentionally. It can happen unconsciously. It can happen effortlessly. And it can happen in a matter of milliseconds. These associations can take hold of us no matter our values, no matter our conscious beliefs, no matter what kind of person we wish to be in the world” (31-2)
Eberhardt doesn’t come to the topic without a personal story of her own. As an African-American she is raised in a middle-class home in Cleveland, Ohio, and attends noted Shaker Heights High School, which leads to a first-class education. On the night before she is to receive her PhD and head the procession as flag bearer, she and a friend are stopped by a white Massachusetts policeman because her Ohio license plate is over six weeks past expiration. I can imagine him saying (to a white person), Did you realize your tag has expired? Oh, you’re about to graduate? Congratulations. Since you’re leaving town, you might want to put that renewal high on your list when you get back to Ohio. I normally issue a warning, but I’m going to let it slide today. This is NOT what happens to Jennifer Eberhardt. She is so shaken by the policeman’s demand that she get out of her car that she refuses. He not only drags her out of the car but slams her slight body on top of it so hard it creates a dent (and not a few aches and pains for her), now in full sight of bystanders and a policeman of a higher rank who claims to see nothing. Fortunately, Eberhardt is allowed to call her dean at Harvard and the woman bails the two students out. But the experience mars the graduation experience for Doctor Eberhardt and renews her resolve to continue studying implicit bias.
And study she has. Eberhardt teaches at Stanford University and is a well-respected scientist in her field. In this finely written book, she combines research (hard statistics) with personal examples (her own plus observations of others). She begins the book speaking about the Oakland, California police department whose leadership is attempting to address bias. She addresses a small auditorium of polite, white officers, most of whom have their arms crossed, body language for Show me. It may be the most difficult lecture she ever gives. In wrapping up her book she speaks once again of the Oakland police, after ten years of training, and she views things from their perspective, demonstrating, I believe, her global understanding of the problem and of human nature. Again, a must-read for all of us.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Will Fellows's Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest
My Book World
Porter, Regina. The Travelers. New York: Hogarth, 2019.
This barely three-hundred-page novel contains a cast of thirty-five characters and spans nearly fifty years of American life from the 1970s until President Obama’s first term in office. At times, one must check back at the beginning to see who is whom. But for the most part, Porter does a remarkable job of refreshing the reader’s memory when the time comes. Even more remarkable, she paints a picture of our country as it really is: a world inhabited by white and black people who intermarry, have children, some of whom belong to the LGBTQ community. Is it all love and roses as our hippy friends of the seventies (including me) had hoped our future would be? Not by a long shot. The life she unearths is as messy as an all-white or an all-black one, but it is a life that is also marked with joys and trials of raising children, finding one’s own place in the world. This is a novel of high and low culture, one in which Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, becomes a major motif throughout the book, but a work in which current argot makes a place for itself without being annoying. It is a novel that requires the reader to put the nonlinear pieces together, a novel for now and always.
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States-50 Oregon
My Book World
Anderson, Carol. White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of
Our Racial Divide. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.
Unspoken indeed. Professor Anderson takes readers through the long yet decisive history of White Rage. It is a history that has lain directly beneath the noses of all Americans but one that has been covered up, ignored, or outright distorted, as well. Anderson revives for readers the five primary events in US history which incite and keep alive White Rage.
First, following the Civil War, former Confederates refuse actually to take Reconstruction seriously, and the North ignores the South’s refusal. Two, as a direct result of this action, freed African-Americans migrate north, only to find they are no more welcome there than they have been in the South. In places, rejection is even more hostile, more vitriolic. Three, White Rage is incited with the Brown vs. Topekadecision to integrate American schools, and at least two decades are spent in fighting or rolling back provisions of this decision—making most school districts as segregated as they ever were. Four, the author delineates how Ronald Reagan’s white-rage leadership reverses, insidiously, the Civil Rights gains of the 1960s and 1970s. And last, Anderson reiterates what contemporary readers have witnessed for themselves, how the election of an African-American president, Barack Obama, once again incites White Rage, a backlash that results in the questionable election of Donald Trump.
Anderson’s book reinforces the recent writings of other black authors, Ta-Nehisi Coates, for one. She doesn’t mention reparations, but my thinking is that our country will never be at rest, can never truly hold its head up among nations until it has, in more than a symbolic manner, attempted to make reparations to the descendants of slavery. It won’t be difficult to determine who qualifies. The government will be able to use the same visible trait it used to discriminate, and that is the color of one’s skin. Anyone with African-American lineage should qualify for funding for free education, help with daily living expenses until one is independent. Not only that, but the trillions of dollars that were accrued by this nation during slavery off the backs of black men and women, should be multiplied to, in some manner, make it up to our dark-skinned brethren. Their ancestors were captured on their native soil, mauled, maligned—treated more harshly than work animals—and the surviving generations of victims of White Rage deserve recompense. The one percent will have to pay their fair share to ensure that this happens, along with the rest of us, but it must be done. And it must be done with an amount of good will and love. The fires of White Rage must be quelled forever. Only then can we heal.
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States-32 North Carolina
Richard Jespers is a writer living in Lubbock, Texas, USA.
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