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

Review: Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Review: Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, Erica Armstrong DunbarNever Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Narrator: Robin Miles
Published by Simon Schuster Audio ISBN: 1442394501
on February 7, 2017
Genres: Nonfiction
Length: 6 hours 45 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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three-half-stars

A startling and eye-opening look into America s First Family, Never Caught is the powerful narrative of Ona Judge, George and Martha Washington s runaway slave who risked it all to escape the nation's capital and reach freedom.

When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation's capital. In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary, and eight slaves, including Ona Judge, about which little has been written. As he grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn't get his arms around: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire. Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, the few pleasantries she was afforded were nothing compared to freedom, a glimpse of which she encountered first-hand in Philadelphia. So, when the opportunity presented itself one cold spring day in Philadelphia, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs.

At just twenty-two-years-old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property. Impeccably researched, historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar weaves a powerful tale and offers fascinating new scholarship on how one young woman risked it all to gain freedom from the famous founding father.

The subject matter of this book is utterly fascinating; however, because so little is known about Ona Judge, the author, unfortunately, has to engage in a lot of speculation. To be sure, it is well-researched speculation and certainly rings true. I am grateful for Dunbar’s attention to detail and meticulous research. I was able to round out my understanding of quite a few historical issues on the topic of slavery I had not understood before. For example, Dunbar explains why Washington was unable to free people enslaved by Martha Washington’s first husband and why he chose not to free people he enslaved. I already felt the entire practice was reprehensible, but reading this book only underscored the inhumanity of slavery. It boggles the mind that people engaged in this practice and felt like it was acceptable, never mind the fact that many of them thought they were doing enslaved people a favor.

In addition to Ona Judge, I learned about Hercules Posey, Washington’s chef who also escaped to freedom. If I had one suggestion to round out this book, it might have been to write about several people enslaved by the Washingtons. It might have helped the author avoid the speculation she had to use. I think Ona Judge is a fascinating person, but we just don’t know enough about her to fill a book. I was interested to see a children’s version of this book has been printed. It’s entirely possible that a children’s version would have been just perfect—I think there is enough known about Ona Judge to fill a children’s or even YA book.

So why only 3.5 stars? Well, I think Dunbar missed an opportunity. I think Ona Judge’s story would have made excellent historical fiction. If Dunbar had opted for historical fiction, she wouldn’t have had to use the speculative voice that overwhelms the story. She also might have been able to include more details. As it is, I think Dunbar was constrained by the sparse details available about Judge’s life.

I would love to see more books like this one, but this story serves as a stark reminder of the many lives that are not recorded for posterity. Their lives mattered then, and they matter now.

three-half-stars

Midyear Catchup Reviews

Riss Design

Grad school has certainly cut into my reading, but I knew going into my degree program that something would need to give. I am still doing a ton of reading, but it’s mostly scholarly articles and research. I did manage to read a few things I haven’t had a chance to review on my blog, though.

My husband and I listened to Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, read by Dion Graham, who was an excellent narrator. The novel is the story of Washington Black, who is enslaved on a sugar plantation in Barbados when he meets Christopher “Titch” Wilde, a scientist and inventor who changes Washington’s life. The two men embark on an adventure in a balloon that takes them all the way to the North Pole.

I really liked this one. It’s part historical fiction and part fantasy and part road trip. Some reviewers I’ve read mention the book drags a bit in the second half, and I would agree with that assessment, but nothing put me off wanting to finish it. If you haven’t read it, definitely pick it up, and I can’t recommend Dion Graham’s narration highly enough. Rating: ★★★★★

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans is a children’s book that came across my radar at an English teacher conference I usually attend each year. This book is an incredibly illustrated series of vignettes in African-American history as told by a grandmotherly narrator. Kadir Nelson both writes an illustrates the story. I plan to use it as a mentor text in my Social Justice class next school year. This is one of those books I wish I had as a kid. I loved reading about science and history, and I believe this one would have fascinated me. What I loved most about it is that anyone of any age can enjoy it. It’s perfect to share with children, but it’s one of those books I think the adults would enjoy as much as the kids, and it would be perfect for storytime. An instant classic! Rating: ★★★★★

Kwame Alexander collaborated with Kadir Nelson on The UndefeatedThis is another book I bought as a mentor text for my students. The Undefeated is a poem by Kwame Alexandar that celebrates the strength and resilience of African Americans. Once again, this is a children’s book that will appeal to all ages. Adults will enjoy the references to historical figures, and children will enjoy the wordplay and images—actually, adults will enjoy those, too. Kadir Nelson’s artwork is brilliant, yet again, and reading these two books made me want to search out everything he writes and/or illustrates. You can check out a video trailer for the book below. Rating: ★★★★★

 

 

Review: Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

Review: Homegoing, Yaa GyasiHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Published by Vintage ISBN: 1101971061
on April 7, 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 305
Format: Paperback
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Ghana, eighteenth century: two half-sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other. One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle. The other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.

Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem. Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary novel illuminates slavery’s troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed—and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.

Homegoing took my breath away. At times, I had to put it down for a little bit just to think about what I had read, and other times, I couldn’t put it down. I finished it in about three giant gulps over a couple of days. While Gyasi’s prose isn’t flashy, the story she tells pierced me right through the heart. I think it’s changed my life. Ernest Hemingway said once, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.” That’s how I feel after reading this book. That it’s truer than if the stories it told really happened and that those stories now belong to me in some way. I can’t find it now, but I swear I’ve read a quote by some famous smart person that said something along the lines of this: every once in a while, you encounter a book, and it becomes such an important book to you and leaves such an impression, that you can mark your life before you read it and after.

The book is drawing inevitable comparisons to Roots, and for good reason. One criticism I’ve read of Gyasi’s writing in several reviews is that many of the experiences of the African-American branch of the book’s family seem sort of “shoehorned” into African-American history. In a sense, I can see it, but to me, it never felt inauthentic. I mean, it wasn’t like Forrest Gump. In a way, I saw some of these passages as connections to African-American literature, such as James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” or the American legend of John Henry. Isabel Wilkerson criticized Gyasi for perpetuating a stereotype:

And there is a jarring moment when the last of the West African line, a young girl named Marjorie, immigrates to America with her parents, settling in Huntsville, Ala. (as did Gyasi’s family). There, she learns that the people who look like her “were not the same kind of black that she was.” The only African-American student we meet is a girl named Tisha, who ridicules the studious Ghanaian. “Why you reading that book?” Tisha asks her. When Marjorie stammers that she has to read it for class, Tisha makes fun of her. “I have to read it for class,” Tisha says, mimicking her accent. “You sound like a white girl.” It is dispiriting to encounter such a worn-out cliché—that ­African-Americans are hostile to reading and education—in a work of such beauty.

I totally understand Wilkerson’s pain at encountering this stereotype. Yet, the incident as described in the book smacks of something that really happened to Gyasi. One has the feeling that as a Ghanaian immigrant, she did feel different and was treated differently. I certainly don’t mean to discount Wilkerson’s criticism. When I read the scene, I felt the same way as Wilkerson, and yet, I also sensed it was possible an uncomfortable true story was fictionalized for Gyasi’s character.

Gyasi is at her most brilliant in describing the relationships between parents and children. It’s maddening and frustrating that the reader knows the stories of the ancestors unknown especially to the African-American family, but also to the African family as well, and in their case, because of choices made by the characters. So much loss. It’s difficult to comprehend. Some studies suggest that trauma leaves an intergenerational impact. And when you have a situation in which trauma is re-inflicted, for generation after generation, recovery seems almost hopeless. But empathy—telling our stories, and especially listening to the stories of others—is one path forward.

I had a feeling about the way the story might end up, and it was gratifying and redemptive. While parts of this book are difficult and grueling—Gyasi does not flinch from the realism of the characters’ experiences, and she forces us to look, too—there is also much joy and love, and it’s hard not to feel hopeful after reading the end. This is one I think I’ll be recommending to everybody.

Review: The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad was one of the most discussed books of 2016, so if you haven’t read it, chances are you know something about it. In any case, it is the story of runaway slave Cora who is making her way north from a Georgia plantation using the Underground Railroad, which in Colson’s novel is not a metaphorical name for the network sympathizers, abolitionists, former slaves, and others who helped escaping slaves on their way to freedom but an actual technological marvel—a railroad, under the ground. The book has been compared to Gulliver’s Travels, which earns a mention in the reading of Cora’s friend and fellow escapee, Caesar. At each station or stop in Cora’s journey, she is confronted with a different sort of evil that Americans have perpetrated against their fellow Americans, from bringing them to America in chains, to lynching, to terrorism, to more subtle means of subjugation and deception, such as medical experimentation.

My book club selected this to read, and I knew our meeting was coming up, but I wasn’t sure when until one of my friends reminded me. It’s this coming week! I wasn’t sure I could finish the book in time for our meeting, but I decided I had best pick it up and read at least some of it, especially because I was one of the members who suggested we read it.

I actually couldn’t put it down, and I read it in two big gulps over yesterday and today. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Whitehead plays with documented historical fact, entwining it with speculative fiction, imagining an antebellum America where South Carolina had skyscrapers and an actual railroad leading slaves north ran underground. These fantastic aspects of the novel allow Whitehead to explore the broader history of the African-American experience through the eyes of a single character. The only other way I think he could have done it would have been a sort of immense Roots-like multigenerational epic rather than this tight narrative that allows us into the life of one character. It also allows Whitehead to show the scope of the atrocity of slavery and racism in all its depth and breadth. It’s hard to put down—I wanted to see Cora to safety in the North so badly, that I sat and read for two days! I can’t give the ending away, but I will admit I needed more satisfaction after following Cora on her odyssey all that way. And as much as anything else, the ending has to be that way because it is the truth about the African-American experience.

This novel hit me like Beloved. I credit Beloved with finally helping me get it, as a white woman. After reading Beloved, I felt like for the first time, I had a small understanding of what the lingering and devastating effects of slavery on our country. Of course I can’t ever really understand what I haven’t experienced, but through books like Beloved and The Underground Railroad, I can gain empathy I didn’t have before I read them. This book is Beloved for the next generation. It’s a critical book for our times, just as Between the World and Me is critical. In fact, I recommend they be read back-to-back if you haven’t read either book yet. It’s a wonderful book, and it might be the best one I read all year. It’s certainly in the top five.

Ron Charles (as usual) has a great review in the WaPo. Michiko Kakutani liked it, too, and she is tough. Definitely read both reviews, which capture the power of this novel better than I have been able to do here. As Kakutani so astutely notes in her review, quoting Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the case of this book, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book ostensibly about slavery that also so accurately describes our own moment in history.

Rating: ★★★★★

Set in the antebellum South as Cora travels from Georgia to Indiana and that vague fantasyland known as “North,” though with some elements of speculative fiction, this book works for the Historical Fiction Challenge.