Review: How the Word is Passed, Clint Smith

Review: How the Word is Passed, Clint SmithHow the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith
ISBN: 0316492930
on June 1, 2021
Genres: History
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

Poet and contributor to The Atlantic Clint Smith’s revealing, contemporary portrait of America as a slave-owning nation.

Beginning in his own hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader through an unforgettable tour of monuments and landmarks—those that are honest about the past and those that are not—that offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in shaping our nation's collective history, and ourselves.

It is the story of the Monticello Plantation in Virginia, the estate where Thomas Jefferson wrote letters espousing the urgent need for liberty while enslaving over 400 people on the premises. It is the story of the Whitney Plantation, one of the only former plantations devoted to preserving the experience of the enslaved people whose lives and work sustained it. It is the story of Angola Prison in Louisiana, a former plantation named for the country from which most of its enslaved people arrived and which has since become one of the most gruesome maximum-security prisons in the world. And it is the story of Blandford Cemetery, the final resting place of tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers.

In a deeply researched and transporting exploration of the legacy of slavery and its imprint on centuries of American history, How the Word Is Passed illustrates how some of our country's most essential stories are hidden in plain view-whether in places we might drive by on our way to work, holidays such as Juneteenth, or entire neighborhoods—like downtown Manhattan—on which the brutal history of the trade in enslaved men, women and children has been deeply imprinted.

Informed by scholarship and brought alive by the story of people living today, Clint Smith’s debut work of nonfiction is a landmark work of reflection and insight that offers a new understanding of the hopeful role that memory and history can play in understanding our country.

This is a fascinating book and a must-read for, well, everyone. In the pages of this book, Clint Smith embarks on a journey to several sites associated with slavery and racism and shares the stories of those sites and how their past is either reckoned with or isn’t. For a taste, you might consider reading Smith’s recent article in The Atlantic: “Why Confederate Lies Live On.” For another, more poetic taste, check out this poem:

In the book’s Epilogue, Smith writes that we are not as removed from the history of slavery and racism as some of us would like to pretend. Recalling a story his grandmother told him about White children throwing food at her from their bus as she walked, he writes, “The children who threw food at my grandmother and called her a n***** are likely bouncing their own great-grandchildren on their laps” (288). I know for a fact that they are because I was raised by them, as hard as it is for me to say. I love some of my family and they have been and in some cases still are deeply racist. Part of the reason that racism persists is ignorance. So much of the truth of what really happened was not taught in schools. I know I didn’t learn it. I do think more efforts are made now to try to right that wrong, but many states are also engaged in a fierce battle—at this very moment—to prevent teachers from teaching students the truth about slavery and racism.

Learning the truth about this country could be cleansing and freeing, but there is so much fear. As Smith argues, students “knowing their history helps them more effectively identify the lies” they are told about their history and their present (262). Ultimately, Smith’s thesis is that if we know the truth, we can heal and move forward, but if we continue to remain ignorant, then our societal problems due to racism will persist.

Smith’s writing is lyrical and beautiful at times. Smith’s background as a poet is on full display in some of the language he uses. He begins the book by calling on readers to listen. In his Prologue, he uses language such as “congregation,” “crowd,” and “gathered” to call his audience together to hear what he has learned in his travels to Monticello, the Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston, New York City, and Gorée Island (Senegal), finally ending with his grandparents’ stories. Smith makes the clear argument that history is us; we caused it to happen, and we can change its course.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

five-stars

Review: Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, eds.

Review: Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019, Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, eds.Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019 by Ibram X. Kendi, Keisha N. Blain
Published by One World ISBN: 0593134044
on February 2, 2021
Genres: History
Pages: 528
Length: 14 hours and 2 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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five-stars

An epoch-defining history of African America, the first to appear in a generation, Four Hundred Souls is a chronological account of four hundred years of Black America as told by ninety of America's leading Black writers.

Curated by Ibram X. Kendi, author of the number one bestseller How To Be an Antiracist, and fellow historian Keisha N. Blain, Four Hundred Souls begins with the arrival of twenty enslaved Ndongo people on the shores of the British colony in mainland America in 1619, the year before the arrival of the Mayflower.

In eighty chronological chapters, the book charts the tragic and triumphant four-hundred-year history of Black American experience in a choral work of exceptional power and beauty.

Contributors include some of the best-known scholars, writers, historians, journalists, lawyers, poets and activists of contemporary America who together bring to vivid life countless new facets to the drama of slavery and resistance, segregation and survival, migration and self-discovery, cultural oppression and world-changing artistic, literary and musical creativity. In these pages are dozens of extraordinary lives and personalities, rescued from the archives and restored to their rightful place in America's narrative, as well as the ghosts of millions more.

Four Hundred Souls is an essential work of story-telling and reclamation that redefines America and changes our notion of how history is written.

In spite of what the information above indicates, I actually listened to the audiobook, and let me tell you, it’s an incredible audiobook. This is a book you need in multiple formats. I am going to purchase the hardcover. I almost don’t know where to start except to say that I think people should read this book. You’ll learn a lot. Some of it might surprise you. I consider myself fairly well versed in history, and there was much I didn’t know. The structure of the book is interesting. Each chapter covers a five-year period in Black American history. Some chapters are written as straight nonfiction while others are poems. I liked seeing the various genres. I recognized and have read many of the authors whose work is found here.

I wondered a bit about the recording of the audiobook and came to the conclusion that the various narrators may have recorded their chapters using home equipment. I noticed some variable audio quality. None of that is to say there was any poor quality audio, but some sounded more professionally produced than others. It would make sense if narrators couldn’t travel to record due to the pandemic. If you have a chance to listen to the audio, I highly recommend it, but you’ll want the paper book, too.

In the novel Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi’s character Yaw tells his students,

“This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others. Those who were there in the olden days, they told stories to the children so that the children would know, so that the children could tell stories to their children. And so on, and so on… We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

The novel Homegoing was a way to capture the stories that are missing. This book is, too. It belongs on every shelf.

five-stars

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex HaleyThe Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X
Narrator: Laurence Fishburne
Published by Audible Studios on September 10, 2020
Genres: Biography, Memoir
Length: 16 hours and 52 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

One of Time’s 10 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.
Experience a bold take on this classic autobiography as it’s performed by Oscar-nominated Laurence Fishburne.

In this searing classic autobiography, originally published in 1965, Malcolm X, the Muslim leader, firebrand, and Black empowerment activist, tells the extraordinary story of his life and the growth of the Human Rights movement. His fascinating perspective on the lies and limitations of the American dream and the inherent racism in a society that denies its non-White citizens the opportunity to dream, gives extraordinary insight into the most urgent issues of our own time.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X stands as the definitive statement of a movement and a man whose work was never completed but whose message is timeless. It is essential for anyone who wants to understand the African American experience and America as a whole.

©1965 Alex Haley and Malcolm X, © 1965 by Alex Haley and Betty Shabazz (P)2020 Audible, Inc.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a book I had been meaning for years—perhaps as long as a decade. I admit I was a bit daunted by the length, and I had only seen the mass-market paperback version with tiny print. I can’t really read mass-market paperbacks anymore. I’m sure there were other, more accessible versions available, but for whatever reason, I never crossed paths with one. I was thrilled to discover this new audio recording narrated by actor Laurence Fishburne.

Malcolm X led a fascinating life. I was really intrigued by his stint in prison and the education he was able to obtain while incarcerated (check out this list of books he mentions he read while in prison). He clearly repudiated his life before prison in the book, in spite of the fact that one might argue that Malcolm X had been dealt a particularly difficult hand: not only was he essentially an orphan as a teenager when his father was killed and his mother was hospitalized, but he was also brought up in a racist society that devalued his intellect and talents. He describes telling a middle school teacher that he wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up only to be discouraged from pursuing that career by this racist teacher who insisted, “you’ve got to be realistic about being a n—–. A lawyer—that’s no realistic goal for a n—–.” This from a teacher Malcolm X admired, too. Honestly, after reading this book, the first thing I thought is that Malcolm X would have made an excellent lawyer. He knew how to craft an argument, and he had a fairly stunning intellect.

One area where I would push back against Malcolm X is his misogynoir. That might not be the right term. I don’t think he hated women. I don’t think he respected them very much, either, however, and he definitely viewed them as inferior. One might point to his religion, but I’m not sure it’s entirely related to Islam because he seemed to feel that way before he converted as well (and Islam is not the only patriarchal religion—I hear many of the same anti-woman ideas from many corners). It does not follow that just because one knows and understands what it is like to be part of an oppressed group that one naturally empathizes with other oppressed groups, and I would argue this is true of Malcolm X. The most troubling argument he makes is that societies crumble when their women have what he’d describe as loose morals. He describes a case study of “Westernized” women in Lebanon versus women in Saudi Arabia (whom he deemed more properly in their place), and he makes a pretty poor case if you ask me.

It was disheartening to read of Malcolm X’s betrayal by the Nation of Islam, an organization he had done so much to promote. It was also chilling to read Malcolm X’s insistence that he expected to die by violence. One thing that struck me especially hard was that Malcolm X and my grandfather were born in the same month and year. You couldn’t have identified two more different people if you had tried. Their lives and experiences in society couldn’t have been further apart. Perhaps my favorite passage of the Autobiography was Malcolm X’s description of improving his reading comprehension by copying out the dictionary.

I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study, to learn some words. I was lucky enough to reason also that I should try to improve my penmanship. It was sad. I couldn’t even write in a straight line. It was both ideas together that moved me to request a dictionary along with some tablets and pencils from the Norfolk Prison Colony school.

I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying.

In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks.

I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I’d written on the tablet. Over and over, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting.

I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words—immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. I reviewed the words whose meanings I didn’t remember. Funny thing, from the dictionary first page right now, that “aardvark” springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a long-tailed, long-eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its tongue as an anteater does for ants.

I was so fascinated that I went on—I copied the dictionary’s next page. And the same experience came when I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally the dictionary’s A section had filled a whole tablet—and I went on into the B’s. That was the way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me to pick up handwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.

Malcolm X’s ideas have been so widely influential. Modern anti-racist, anti-bias movements owe much to Malcolm X’s thought. I have heard so much about Malcolm X, much of it controversial, fear-mongering lies, unfortunately, and I felt it was important to read his story for myself. For example, many people believe Malcolm X to be biased against White people, and while this was true (and not without good cause, I might add), he later changed these views after experiencing the Hajj and meeting fellow Muslim pilgrims who were White. He viewed Islam as a unifying force. Malcolm X wrestled honestly with his life in this memoir. This is an important book that I think many people should read in order to better understand our American society.

five-stars

Review: 1919: Poems, Eve L. Ewing

Review: 1919: Poems, Eve L. Ewing1919 by Eve L. Ewing
Published by Haymarket Books ISBN: 1608465985
on June 4, 2019
Genres: Poetry
Pages: 76
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

Poetic reflections on race, class, violence, segregation, and the hidden histories that shape our divided urban landscapes.

The Chicago Race Riot of 1919, the most intense of the riots that comprised the “Red Summer” of violence across the nation’s cities, is an event that has shaped the last century but is widely unknown. In 1919, award-winning poet Eve L. Ewing explores the story of this event—which lasted eight days and resulted in thirty-eight deaths and almost 500 injuries—through poems recounting the stories of everyday people trying to survive and thrive in the city. Ewing uses speculative and Afrofuturist lenses to recast history, and illuminates the thin line between the past and the present.

I had been wanting to read 1919 for a while and finally picked it up at the Harvard Book Store recently when Steve and I went to Cambridge to hear Katherine Howe discuss her new book. Ewing weaves together passages from a report called The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot (1922) with poetry inspired by the passages and photographs from the era. If you hadn’t heard about the 1919 race riot in Chicago, you are not alone. I hadn’t heard of it either, and you have to wonder how much this tragic event influenced race relations in Chicago in the decades that followed up to the present day. Did it influence redlining, for example? Redlining isn’t unique to Chicago, but it’s the city people think of when they think of redlining. What about the school system? The way in which that city can still be quite segregated, though again, it’s not alone among northern cities in that regard. The book weaves together reimagined passages from Exodus with a wide variety of poems (including haiku, haibun, two-voice poetry, and erasure poetry).

The collection includes several poems that stood out for me. “I saw Emmitt Till this week at the grocery store” imagines an Emmitt Till who survived to old age. Till would turn 78 later this month, had he lived, lest anyone think that the kind of racial violence that resulted in his murder happened a long time ago. “April 5, 1968,” an allusion to the aftermath of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, includes some gorgeous language, some of which alludes to King’s speeches. “Countless Schemes” riffs on a chilling passage from The Negro in Chicago that suggests the only solution to eliminating racial strife in the country is the elimination of African Americans, either through deportation, the establishment of a segregated state, or the hope [their word] that African Americans would die out. “Jump/Rope” evokes a jump rope chant, similar to “Miss Mary Mack” in structure and recounts the death of Eugene Williams, which sparked the 1919 riots.

1919 is an excellent poetry collection. I plan to use it as a mentor text in my Social Justice class. It gave me the idea that my students might be able to create a poetry project based on a social justice issue they research.

I’m so glad my poetry friends clued me in on Eve Ewing. Check this book out if you are interested in poetry, race relations, and racism, society, history, Chicago, or all of the above.

five-stars

Review: White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo

Review: White Fragility, Robin DiAngeloWhite Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo, Michael Eric Dyson
Published by Beacon Press ISBN: 0807047414
on June 26, 2018
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 169
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

Groundbreaking book exploring the counterproductive reactions white people have when discussing racism that serve to protect their positions and maintain racial inequality

Referring to the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially, white fragility is characterized by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and by behaviors including argumentation and silence. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue. In this in-depth exploration, anti-racist educator Robin DiAngelo examines how white fragility develops, how it protects racial inequality, and what can be done to engage more constructively.

I have been meaning to read Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism for a while. It’s one of those books that so many people have been talking about, and it really does explain why white people, in general, react to discussions of race, and in particular, why I have reacted in the ways that I have. DiAngelo makes it clear that our culture, our society, is racist. It’s impossible to escape racism. Since that is the case, what do we do when racism perpetrates harm? How can we respond, acknowledge the wrong done and apologize, and work to repair the relationships we have harmed? Furthermore, she clarifies that understanding our socialization and how it frames our responses is a lifelong pursuit. Her open acknowledgment of the ways in which she still trips up after doing this work is refreshing.

I can’t say I really disagreed with much of what DiAngelo argues. I have seen it many times. Unfortunately, I’ve also perpetrated some white fragility in my time as well. I didn’t have the tools to name it or even realize what I was doing, but my lack of education doesn’t mean the damage wasn’t done. I think I understand why many people of color have given up on talking about race, but I recently came upon a quote from bell hooks that I love:

[T]o successfully do the work of unlearning domination, a democratic educator has to cultivate a spirit of hopefulness about the capacity of individuals to change.

bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, p. 73

I really hope that I can engender the kind of trust that hooks describes here. I would hope to be the kind of person that has the capacity to change. Actually, hooks’s words inspired me to look at others more hopefully and positively. I can be accused of being too optimistic, but what’s the alternative?

This book is a challenging read in that if you are white, you will find yourself described in hard terms, and some reflection and self-reconciliation are necessary. I imagine it would be hard for people of color to read as well because it’s probably the kind of thing they encounter regularly… daily, even. But if racism is something you really want to understand and work on, it’s a great book with practical applications. I’m glad I read it.

I’m also glad I kept it a couple of days past my library’s due date so I could finish it. Finding time to read lately has been extremely hard. But I do need to turn it in already.

five-stars

Review: Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

Review: Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. GreenwaldBlindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji, Anthony G. Greenwald
Published by Bantam ISBN: 0345528433
on August 16, 2016
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 272
Format: Paperback
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three-half-stars

I know my own mind. I am able to assess others in a fair and accurate way.

These self-perceptions are challenged by leading psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald as they explore the hidden biases we all carry from a lifetime of exposure to cultural attitudes about age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status, and nationality.

"Blindspot" is the authors’ metaphor for the portion of the mind that houses hidden biases. Writing with simplicity and verve, Banaji and Greenwald question the extent to which our perceptions of social groups—without our awareness or conscious control—shape our likes and dislikes and our judgments about people’s character, abilities, and potential.

In Blindspot, the authors reveal hidden biases based on their experience with the Implicit Association Test, a method that has revolutionized the way scientists learn about the human mind and that gives us a glimpse into what lies within the metaphoric blindspot.

The title’s “good people” are those of us who strive to align our behavior with our intentions. The aim of Blindspot is to explain the science in plain enough language to help well-intentioned people achieve that alignment. By gaining awareness, we can adapt beliefs and behavior and “outsmart the machine” in our heads so we can be fairer to those around us. Venturing into this book is an invitation to understand our own minds.

Brilliant, authoritative, and utterly accessible, Blindspot is a book that will challenge and change readers for years to come.

I read this book along with other administrators and department chairs at my school. While I think it covers an interesting topic well, it’s nothing new to folks who have read The New Jim Crow or who have been engaged in learning and reading about issues of social justice. The book’s real value is in the Implicit Attitude Tests (IAT). These tests are very interesting and typically reveal that we have preferences for people who exhibit the dominant or so-called “default” attribute—white people/black people; thin people/overweight people; young people/old people; non-Muslim/Muslim; male/female. In most instances, even people who share characteristics of the non-dominant group will show implicit bias toward the dominant. For example, many would associate men more with work and women more with the home. Still. There are several tests you can take, and the results are really interesting.

Weirdly, the test revealed I have a preference for black people over white people. I have no idea how to explain this because my results should have demonstrated a preference for white people, especially since I am among that group. Even African Americans who take the test often demonstrate a preference for white people. I was sure I had done the test wrong or “gamed” it somehow. I took it three times. Each time, the result was the same, no matter whether I used paper/pencil, an iPad, or a computer. I just took it again for the fourth time. Same result. Always a moderate or slight preference for African Americans over European Americans. I don’t know what’s up with the result. I’m not disappointed or upset about it, but I am surprised because I expected the IAT to reveal a different result. I have a lot of questions about how malleable the brain is. We are hardwired to categorize and to stereotype because it helped keep us safe when we were developing as a species. Strange “others” were often dangerous. I have done a great deal of work on trying to root out racism. I am not perfect, but I have put in a lot of effort to be better. Has the work I have done in this area changed my brain? I was not raised to be non-racist. It’s a sad fact, but it’s true. I had to work very hard to root out explicit bias, so I really expected more of an implicit bias to remain. And in some of the tests, my results revealed an automatic preference for a dominant group. I could stand to lose a few pounds for sure, and my test revealed I have a preference for thin people over overweight people. I demonstrated an automatic preference for non-Muslims over Muslims. The key, as the authors note in the book, is not to beat yourself up because you have automatic preferences you didn’t realize you had—instead, realize you have them and actively work against them. Even the authors admit they have automatic preferences for the “dominant” group when they take the test.

I take issue with the authors’ assertion in Appendix 2:

Explicit bias is infrequent; implicit bias is pervasive. Appendix 1 presented the evidence that early twenty-first century Americans display low levels of explicit (overt) race prejudice in survey studies. This is a well-documented and striking reduction from the overt expressions of prejudice that were commonplace in studies done fifty to seventy-five years previously. (208)

Okay, I know the authors are at Harvard, in the so-called “People’s Republic of Cambridge,” but really? They think explicit bias is infrequent? They must not be on Facebook or Twitter. True, the tiki torches came out in Charlottesville after this book was published, but Donald Trump was campaigning on his hateful rhetoric when the paperback came out. I don’t know where the authors are looking, but I see overt racial prejudice everywhere. I agree implicit bias is pervasive.

Our discussion of the book this morning was rich and interesting. I suppose the main reason this book didn’t earn more stars from me was the fact that much of the information revealed wasn’t new to me, and perhaps that is why the book felt repetitive. This book might be best for people who are just beginning to explore issues of social justice, or for people who haven’t explored it at all.

three-half-stars

Review: The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander

Review: The New Jim Crow, Michelle AlexanderThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, Cornel West
Published by The New Press ISBN: 1595586431
on January 5, 2010
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 312
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

"Jarvious Cotton's great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Klu Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation; his father was barred by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole."

As the United States celebrates the nation's "triumph over race" with the election of Barack Obama, the majority of young black men in major American cities are locked behind bars or have been labeled felons for life. Although Jim Crow laws have been wiped off the books, an astounding percentage of the African American community remains trapped in a subordinate status—much like their grandparents before them.

In this incisive critique, former litigator-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Alexander shows that, by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness. The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community—and all of us--to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.

Every once in a while, you read a book, and you think to yourself, this book is one that everyone, no I mean it, everyone should read. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow helped me understand race relations in a way no other book I’ve ever read has ever been able to do. In clear, lucid, and at times even poetic prose, Alexander lays out her argument that our War on Drugs has led to a system of mass incarceration that disproportionately punishes black and brown men—in essence, our prison system functions like Jim Crow segregation.

As I read this book, which was published in the middle of Barack Obama’s first term, I kept wondering how Alexander would respond to the unrest that has followed the election of Donald Trump. Does she see a nation picking off the scab and dealing with its racial inequality in response to a morally bankrupt government? Or is is it even worse than Alexander thought? It’s hard to tell when you’re living in the middle of it. In some respects, I see more white people who are willing to take on the role of activist. But white people also voted for Trump in large numbers.

The racial caste system that is mass incarceration will be difficult to dismantle, and I admit to a feeling of defeat as I closed the book. But we can’t give in to despair, no matter how bleak changing the landscape of race relations in America looks right now.

This book changed my mind about a couple of things by making me think about them from a new angle. One: the legalization of marijuana. A couple of years ago, Massachusetts had a ballot referendum on whether or not to legalize marijuana. It’s already decriminalized, as in, it’s legal to have a small amount of marijuana. I confess I voted against legalizing the sale of pot for one reason: I really didn’t think it was at all a good idea for people to use cannabis. I still don’t, really. I am not sure I subscribe to the notion that it’s harmless. However, I am swayed by Alexander’s argument that using cannabis is probably less harmful, especially to others, than drinking and driving. Should cannabis users take to the roads, I’m not sure what the results would be, but I’d prefer it if being sober remains a requirement for keeping your license to drive. I also think some people, not all, do start using other drugs after trying cannabis. Same with alcohol. Not everyone, of course. I have never tried cannabis myself, and I don’t have plans to do so, so I recognize in some ways, I am not really affected by the issue. However, what I now understand is that we have disproportionately thrown the book at African Americans for using the drug (or at least being caught with it) at the same rates as white people, who generally get the slap on the wrist. If decriminalizing marijuana or even making it completely legal and selling it in smoke shops, as Massachusetts is beginning to do, will prevent black and brown people from being incarcerated for minor drug offenses, I’m all for it. Now.

Another issue Alexander raised that gave me pause is the unhelpfulness of colorblindness. I would never say “I don’t see color,” but I am guilty of trying to pretend like race matters less than it does. I am learning. I wasn’t able to see it. I also wasn’t listening to people, and in part, I wasn’t putting myself in the path of the people to whom I needed to listen. I really thought we’d fixed a lot of problems with Obama’s election, and the depressing election of Donald Trump helped me understand we definitely had not. Alexander’s book explains why colorblindness is harmful.

This book has been out for a while, so you’ve probably already read it. However, if you haven’t, you really should. It’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

five-stars

Review: I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin

Review: I Am Not Your Negro, James BaldwinI Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin, Raoul Peck
Published by Vintage ISBN: 0525434690
on February 7th 2017
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 144
Format: Paperback
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Goodreads
five-stars

To compose his stunning documentary film I Am Not Your Negro, acclaimed filmmaker Raoul Peck mined James Baldwin's published and unpublished oeuvre, selecting passages from his books, essays, letters, notes, and interviews that are every bit as incisive and pertinent now as they have ever been. Weaving these texts together, Peck brilliantly imagines the book that Baldwin never wrote. In his final years, Baldwin had envisioned a book about his three assassinated friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. His deeply personal notes for the project have never been published before. Peck's film uses them to jump through time, juxtaposing Baldwin's private words with his public statements, in a blazing examination of the tragic history of race in America.

We need James Baldwin right now. It’s strange to read words he wrote in the 1960’s and 1970’s and find so much around you that you recognize. He is maddening, frustratingly incisive about America.

To look around the United States today
is enough to make prophets and angels weep.
This is not the land of the free;
it is only very unwillingly and sporadically
the home of the brave. (97)

Reading this book and watching Raoul Peck’s accompanying film brings to mind this poem by Claude McKay:

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

Baldwin’s relationship with America is equally complex. He left for France to escape. As he explains in an excerpt from Dick Cavett Show in answer to philosopher Paul Weiss, brought on the show to rebut Baldwin:

You talk about making it as a writer by yourself, you have to be able then to turn off all the antennae with which you live, because once you turn your back on this society you may die. You may die. And it’s very hard to sit at a typewriter and concentrate on that if you are afraid of the world around you. The years I lived in Paris did one thing for me: they released me from that particular social terror, which was not the paranoia of my own mind, but a real social danger in the face of every cop, every boss, everybody. (88)

But Baldwin returned to America. As Baldwin says,

But I had missed my brothers and sisters
and my mother.
They made a difference.
I wanted to be able to see them,
and to see their children.
I hoped that they wouldn’t forget me.

I missed Harlem Sunday mornings
and fried chicken and biscuits,
I missed the music,
I missed the style—
that style possessed by no other people in the world.
I missed the way the dark face closes,
the way dark eyes watch,
and the way, when a dark face opens, a light seems to go everywhere.
I missed, in short, my connections,
missed the life which had produced me
and nourished me and paid for me.
Now, though I was a stranger,
I was home. (13-14)

Of course, he returned to France and lived there until his death. Baldwin was clearly frustrated by America’s inability to change. I wonder what he would make out of America today. I guess I don’t need to wonder. I know. What he said to Dick Cavett in 1968 still holds true:

I can’t say it’s a Christian nation, that your brothers will never do that [kill you] to you, because the record is too long and too bloody. That’s all we have done. All your buried corpses now begin to speak… [W]hen… any white man in the world says, “give me liberty, or give me death,” the entire white world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger, so there won’t be any more like him. (81-82)

That was 50 years ago.

As Baldwin so aptly and succinctly concludes, “The story of the Negro in America / is the story of America. / It is not a pretty story” (95). So what do we do? Even Baldwin is not without hope. As he says near the end of the book, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; / but nothing can be changed until it is faced” (103). We do need to face who we are and who we have been. Baldwin makes this request:

What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a “nigger” in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need him… If I’m not the nigger here and you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question. (109)

This book should definitely be paired with Raoul Peck’s film. The book is a loose collection of notes and snippets of transcriptions. What it offers that the film doesn’t is a chance to slow down and savor Baldwin’s language. He was truly a gifted writer and thinker. However, it is when the word is paired with image and film (as well as music) that Baldwin’s words truly come alive. Samuel L. Jackson narrates Baldwin beautifully (I admit I wasn’t sure about how that was going to be until I listened). I viewed the film through my Amazon Prime subscription as it is unavailable on Netflix, but here is a trailer:

For the Author Love Challenge, I am reading the work of James Baldwin.
This month’s motif is Book to Screen.

five-stars

Review: How It Went Down, Kekla Magoon

Review: How It Went Down, Kekla MagoonHow It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
ISBN: 1250068231
on December 15, 2015
Genres: Young Adult
Pages: 336
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
three-stars

The known facts surrounding the shooting death of sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson are few. On the evening of June 17, between 5:22 and 5:35 p.m., Johnson sustained two nine millimeter gunshot wounds to the torso. Police officers arrived on the scene at 5:39 p.m. Johnson was pronounced dead at 6:22 p.m. by EMTs at the scene. Police pursued and apprehended a suspect, Jack Franklin, who allegedly shot Johnson before leaving the scene in a borrowed vehicle. Franklin was pulled over nearly four miles away from the site of the shooting, at 5:56 p.m. A nine millimeter handgun, recently fired, was found in the backseat. Additional unsubstantiated allegations relating to the case are many. Police took statements from seven eyewitnesses at the scene. The result was seven different versions of what happened. No two individual accounts of the June 17 events line up. The hard evidence itself is not clear cut. By the day, it seems, new twists and turns emerge that add further shadows to obscure the truth.This is the story of how it went down.

This book has been on my to-read list for two years, but I finally picked it up because it is being considered for a summer reading selection. One thing those of us on the summer reading selection committee at my school do is read around so we are more familiar with the selections.

I definitely went into this book wanting to like it. I liked Magoon’s The Rock and the River, and the subject matter of How It Went Down interests me a great deal. Ultimately, however, I didn’t enjoy this book a great deal. I found excuses not to pick it up and had to make myself finish. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t compelling either, and given the important subject matter, it should have been.

One problem with the book is there are too many points of view. I had difficulty keeping the narrators straight, and many of them had very little to do, if anything, with Tariq’s death. It felt unwieldy and gimmicky. A second issue I had was just the writing in general. The characters were a mixed bag of believable and convoluted. Perhaps if Magoon had used fewer narrators, it would have been less noticeable, but some characters’ voices were inconsistent. I would never argue that they don’t fit a stereotype—it’s more that Magoon decided they talked a certain way, then changed her mind and decided they talked another way. Naturally, this inconsistency made it even more difficult to discern among the characters.

The weighty subject matter of race-based violence in our country deserved a better book. This book was one of the first to tackle the issue, but as for better, read The Hate U Give or even Magoon’s other books.

Beat the BacklistThis might be the last book I read this year that I can count toward the Beat the Backlist reading challenge, which I have no hope of completing.

three-stars

Review: The Fire This Time, Ed. Jesmyn Ward

Review: The Fire This Time, Ed. Jesmyn WardThe Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race by Jesmyn Ward
Published by Scribner ISBN: 1501126350
on June 20th 2017
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 240
Buy on Amazon (paid link)
Goodreads
five-stars

A surprise New York Times bestseller, these groundbreaking essays and poems about race—collected by National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward and written by the most important voices of her generation—are “thoughtful, searing, and at times, hopeful. The Fire This Time is vivid proof that words are important, because of their power to both cleanse and to clarify” (USA TODAY).

In this bestselling, widely lauded collection, Jesmyn Ward gathers our most original thinkers and writers to speak on contemporary racism and race, including Carol Anderson, Jericho Brown, Edwidge Danticat, Kevin Young, Claudia Rankine, and Honoree Jeffers. “An absolutely indispensable anthology” (Booklist, starred review), The Fire This Time shines a light on the darkest corners of our history, wrestles with our current predicament, and imagines a better future.

Envisioned as a response to The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin’s groundbreaking 1963 essay collection, these contemporary writers reflect on the past, present, and future of race in America. We’ve made significant progress in the fifty-odd years since Baldwin’s essays were published, but America is a long and painful distance away from a “post-racial society”—a truth we must confront if we are to continue to work towards change. Baldwin’s “fire next time” is now upon us, and it needs to be talked about; The Fire This Time “seeks to place the shock of our own times into historical context and, most importantly, to move these times forward” (Vogue).

I have had this book on my to-read list for a while, but I wanted to read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time first, thinking if the books were in dialogue with one another, it would be a good idea to read the conversation starter first. I’m so glad I read both of these books and so many other books in the closing weeks of this year. I am learning so much, and my eyes are opening up to a reality that has always run parallel to my existence, but which I never understood because it wasn’t my experience. I have had to contend with my own racism, and I’d like to think I have overcome it, but I know that I am a work in progress. At least I am trying to listen, though that’s not much and certainly isn’t enough.

As an educator, this reading has been essential to me because I see all how schooling is a social justice problem, and I have been a part of that problem. I’d like to be part of the solution going forward. I have ideas about how we might resolve some of the social justices issues inherent in our educational system.

This collection of essays pivots around the Black Lives Matter movement and two refrains run through many of the essays: Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, MO, and the murders of Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. In a particularly searing paragraph, contributor Daniel José Older says,

[T]he simple, resonating demand that black lives matter laid bare the twin lies of American equality and execeptionalism. Even on the left, even in this age of exposed racial rifts, politicians still say with a straight face that this country was founded on principles of equality. Words mean things, we say again and again, but actions mean much more, and still as a nation, we worship the very slave owners who gave legal precedence to the notion of percentages of human beings. We scream equality and freedom while unabashedly modeling our actions on the fathers of genocide. (200-201)

And this is the crux, to me, of what this book examines in contributions from luminaries such as Claudia Rankine, Edwidge Danticat, Clint Smith, Isabel Wilkerson, among many others. In some ways, it finds a partner in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power. Both collections, as well as James Baldwin’s book, as America to hold a mirror up to its face and honestly examine what it sees. We just don’t want to do it. I suppose I am taking a hard look at America because I’m trying to figure out what went wrong. I think I have a deeper understanding of why we are in the political predicament in which we currently find ourselves. Making sense of it doesn’t make me feel better in any way. If anything, I feel worse. But I don’t know if I am yet hopeless. Maybe I am. Confronting these hard truths about who we are is not something the majority of Americans seem willing to do, but I hope people s in this collection, so it’s hard to pull out particular favorites. If I skim through the book, I noticed that I highlighted the contributions of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Wendy S. Walters, Carol Anderson, Kevin Young, Kiese Laymon, Garnette Cadogan, Claudia Rankine, Emily Raboteau, Daniel José Older, and Edwidge Danticat. My own city of Worcester plays a role in Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s essay “‘Dear Pledges of Our Love’: A Defense of Phillis Wheatley’s Husband.” Jeffers traveled to the American Antiquarian Society, located in Worcester, to research Wheatley. It’s shocking how little we know for certain about Wheatley, and it’s perhaps even more shocking we have probably relied on an erroneous source for what we do know.  You will definitely learn something if you pick up this book, but my hunch is you’ll learn a great deal.

five-stars