Book Review: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler


Author: Octavia E. Butler
Title: Kindred
Narrator: Kim Staunton
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc., 1998 [Originally published in 1979]
Summary/Review:

I’ve only recently become aware of the late science fiction author Octavia E. Butler, whose contributions to the genre have likely been overlooked due to her being an African American woman.  This novel, starting in the bicentennial year of 1976, tells the story of Dana, an African American writer repeatedly torn from her own time in California and sent to antebellum Maryland plantation.  There she has to save the life of a boy, and later a man, named Rufus, the heir of the plantation owner.  Early on, Dana discovers that Rufus is her own ancestor, so her existence depends on his survival.

This book does not shy away from the malignant evils of slavery – beatings, selling off family members, and rape.  But it get’s even more uncomfortable in how on Dana’s increasingly longer visits to the past, she grows to consider the plantation as home, and develop a fondness for Rufus.  Dana’s devotion to protecting Rufus is unsettling considering that Alice, a freed black woman who is reenslaved by Rufus over the course of the novel, is also her ancestor, and Dana never shows the same level of concern for protecting her. It’s something akin to the Stockholm Syndrome, or more accurate the way in which its possible for one to look past the most grievous faults of family members and friends.

Dana is married to a white man named Kevin, and one occasion she brings him back in time with him, stranding him there for several years when she bops back to the future.  Although Kevin is a progressive white man, he is still not capable of understanding the power dynamics that privilege him in the past over Dana.  Nevertheless, Dana’s knowledge of the future and seemingly magical power to appear and disappear over time gives her something of a an advantage over Rufus in their ongoing relationship.

This is a powerful and well-constructed novel that feels very contemporary despite being over forty years old.  Much like reading Ursula Leguin, I had to remind myself that Octavia E. Butler actually inspired and informed many of the conventions of later time-travel fiction.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Unforgivable Blackness (2005) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “U” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Previous “U” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Unrest.

Title: Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
Release Date: January 17, 2005
Director: Ken Burns
Production Company: WETA | Florentine Films
Summary/Review:

This is the longest documentary I watched for this year’s A to Z series.  Generally, I would find it difficult to interest myself in nearly 4 hours about boxing, but Jack Johnson’s life is a fascinating story that could fill an entire mini-series. Johnson, a heavyweight boxer in the early 20th century, broke the color barrier as the first black heavyweight boxing champion.  He became America’s first black sports star, and one of the nation’s earliest black celebrities.  His affinity towards finely tailored suits, fast cars, drinking, gambling, and enjoying the company of multiple women (especially white women) also made him a controversial figure at a time when black men were expected to be subservient.

Johnson worked his way up the ranks in heavyweight boxing, defeating black and white opponents until it was clear he was one of the best boxers in the world by the early 1900s.  The heavyweight boxing champions had traditionally set a color line refusing to fight black challengers, and the current champion James Jeffries continued that practice.  Instead, Jeffries simply retired as champion in 1905.  Finally, in 1908, an Australian promoter was able to provide a big enough payday to the new champion Tommy Burns to convince him to fight Johnson.  The fight was a mismatch, and Johnson easily took the title.

Over the next few years, the white boxing community put up several “White Hopes” to challenge Johnson, but Johnson was able to retain the title.  Finally, Jeffries was convinced to come out of retirement to challenge Johnson in 1910 for the “Fight of the Century” in Reno, Nevada.  Johnson once again dominated, and in the wake of the fight race riots broke out in cities across the country.

All of the above is detailed in Part 1 of the movie called “Rise,” while the aftermath of the 1910 title defense begins the “Fall” part of Johnson’s life story, although that’s a somewhat simplistic division.  Like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson would be in the future, Jack Johnson was much more than his fists, but a man with complex interests and interior life.  He played the bass and enjoyed automobile racing.  Born after the abolition of slavery, he never felt the need to behave himself any other way than the way he was, thus displaying his outsized personality.  And – most scandalous for the time – he dated and married white women, at times traveling with a coterie of several women.  When asked why white women were attracted to black men, Johnson mysteriously and poetically responded “We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts.”

In 1912, Johnson’s wife Etta Terry Duryea, her depression accelerated by loneliness and Johnson’s infidelity, committed suicide.  Later the same year, the government used Johnson’s relationships with prostitutes to charge him under the Mann Act for transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes, a law never intended to target individuals in consensual relationships.  After an all-white jury convicted Johnson in 1913, he decided to flee the country while waiting on the appeal and spent several years in exile. Johnson continued to defend his title while abroad, until a 1915 bout against Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba.  Ten years older than his opponent and tired by the intense heat of the outdoor bout, Johnson was knocked out.

Johnson returned to the US in 1920 and surrendered to the authorities, serving a one year sentence in Leavenworth Penitentiary.  He continued fighting up into the 1940s, although generally in exhibition matches, in order to make money.  Johnson offered his assistance to Joe Louis when the latter was contending for the heavyweight champion in the 1930s, but was disappointed when Louis and his manager rebuffed him.  Johnson’s flashy lifestyle made him persona non grata as Louis was trying to portray himself as a “respectable” black athlete. Jack Johnson, a man who lived a fast life, tragically died in a car crash in 1946.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

This movie is an entry into race relations in early 20th century United States history. It’s amazing that someone like Jack Johnson could’ve existed at that time considering the virulent racism, strict segregation, and risk of lynching.  Johnson certainly suffered a lot from a racist system, but it is amazing that he suceeded as much as he did, and did it with a smile.  That he was hated by white Americans was not a surprise, but the fact that black Americans also condemned him for his personal life as much as they did was unexpected.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Another one of my favorite documentaries is also about boxing.  When We Were Kings is the story of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s championship bout in Zaire in 1974 and uses boxing as an entry into bigger issues of race, colonialism, and celebrity.  Last year, I watched No-No: A Dockumnetary about Major League Baseball pitcher Dock Ellis, a pioneering black athlete similar to Jack Johnson in that he did not hide his personality and was criticized and condemned for it.

Source: Amazon Prime

Rating: ****


2019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films, Part II

A: Amy
B: Being Elmo
C: Central Park Five
D: Dear Mr. Watterson
E: The Endless Summer
F: F for Fake
G: Grey Gardens
H: High School
I: Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice
J: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
K: Kon-Tiki
L: The Last Waltz
M: Man With a Movie Camera
N: Nanook of the North
O: Obit.
P: Pelotero
Q: Quest: A Portrait of an American Family
R: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
S: Soundtrack for a Revolution
T: Titicut Follies

If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:

And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:

And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.

Movie Review: Quest: A Portrait of an American Family (2017) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “Q” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z.  This is the first “Q” documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleQuest: A Portrait of an American Family
Release Date: 2017
Director: Jonathan Olshefski
Production Company: First Run Features
Summary/Review:

Quest is an intimate, vertite-style documentary focusing on several years in the life of the Rainey family of North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The movie covers the years 2008 to 2016, although most of the film’s action is from 2012 to 2016.

Christopher Rainey, aka Quest, is a music producer and engineer, who supplements his income with side jobs like delivering newspaper circulars. Quest’s flair at tossing newspapers onto stoops in the early morning darkness is one of the great cinematic images of the film.  Christine’a Rainey, aka Ma Quest, works long hours in a shelter for domestic violence survivors and is generally regarded as a mother figure in her community, whether she wants to be or not. Christine’a’s interviews provide some of the film’s greatest moments of introspection.  Their daughter Patricia, or PJ, is a teenager with a talent for basketball who is seen seeking out her identity.  Christine’a’s oldest son Will, is 21-years-old and simultaneously being treated for a brain tumor and becoming a father for the first time.  We see the absolutely adorable Isaiah grow from baby to toddler, and generally steal the scene when his father or grandmother are trying to give an interview.  One other figure figure in the film is Price, a talented rapper who Quest records, but also has substance abuse problems that test Quest’s patience.

The film shows many everyday moments in the family’s lives such as Quest walking PJ to the bus stop or repairing a leaky roof.  It’s clear that the Raineys are an important family in their community. Quest holds open freestyle sessions in his basement studio every Friday night where neighborhood rappers gather.  They also organize neighborhood events ranging from street parties to anti-violence demonstrations. Remarkably, the Raineys are open to even have the most traumatic event in their family life documented (HUGE SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH).  On a greater scale, the film represents a slice of life for African Americans during the Obama presidency, as the movie is bookended by the 2008 and 2016 elections.

Obama is heard speaking in part of the film as he talks about the Newtown Massacre and the greater scourge of gun violence in the United States. “These neighborhoods are our neighborhoods. These children are our children,” he says.  This is immediately followed by the shocking incident of PJ being hit in the head by a stray bullet from a gun fight in the neighborhood. Blessedly, PJ recovers from the bullet wound although she permanently loses an eye.  The scenes of PJ attempting to put in her prosthetic eye and coming to terms with feeling safe in her own neighborhood.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

Quest captures the beauty and love of family and community in North Philly, tempered with the constant threat of violence. The police officer who responded to PJ’s gunshot is warmly thanked, but nonetheless the police are also seen holding Quest for questioning since he meets the description of a black man who commited a crime.  Quest laughs at the meaningless of the description of a black man in a white t-shirt and jeans since it can describe just about every man in the neighborhood.  Late in the film Quest and Christine’a watch Donald Trump describe African-Americans as living in hell, and Christine’a angrily responding “You have no idea how we live!” It’s easy to recognize Trump as being willfully ignorant of the lives of African-Americans, but I believe a lot of well-meaning white Americans also have no idea how they live.  Quest is an entry point to beginning to learn.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Earlier in this A-to-Z, I watched High School, which was set in Philadelphia 50 years before Quest and is in interesting comparison of the same city at a different time.

Source: Kanopy

Rating: *****


019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films, Part II

A: Amy
B: Being Elmo
C: Central Park Five
D: Dear Mr. Watterson
E: The Endless Summer
F: F for Fake
G: Grey Gardens
H: High School
I: Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice
J: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
K: Kon-Tiki
L: The Last Waltz
M: Man With a Movie Camera
N: Nanook of the North
O: Obit.
P: Pelotero

If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:

And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:

And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.

Book Review: Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird


AuthorSarah Bird
TitleDaughter of a Daughter of a Queen 
NarratorBahni Turpin
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen is a historical novel loosely based on the true story of Cathay Williams, a freed slave who disguised herself as a man and served with the Buffalo Soldiers of the US Army.  The fictionalized Cathy’s story begins when Philip Sheridan’s Union Army liberates the plantation where she was enslaved, and mistaking her for a man, assigns her as an assistant for the cook.  The real Sheridan was a problematic figure, but the rapport and eventual friendship between Cathy and Sheridan in this novel is one of its most charming aspects.

After the war, Cathy decides there isn’t much opportunity for her as a freed person, and disguises herself as a man under the pseudonym William Cathay.  In the novel, she gets herself into the cavalry and is known as a sharpshooter.  Nevertheless, she faces the challenge of keeping her real identity secret amid bullying from the other soldiers and the fear of the danger she faced if discovered.

The earlier parts of the novel seem stronger to me as a plot in which Cathy has romantic feelings towards her sergeant dominate the latter half of the book.  I suppose it’s a natural plotline, but it seems the most obvious trope of stories in which someone disguises themselves as the opposite gender going back at least to Shakespeare.  On the other hand, if you are drawn to romance, it provides a nice balance to the grim realities of war, toxic masculinity, and racial prejudice depicted in the novel.

My enjoyment of this novel was greatly improved by the terrific voices that Bahni Turpin provides in her narration.
:
Recommended booksJubilee by Margaret Walker, Blindspot by Jane Kamensky
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson


AuthorIsabel Wilkerson
Title: The Warmth of Other Suns
Publication Info: New York : Random House, c2010.
Summary/Review:

The Great Migration occurred in the 20th century when millions of African Americans left the South seeking better futures for themselves and their children in the cities of the North and the West.  This migration is typically recorded in history as occurring during World War I and into the 1920s, but Wilkerson recognizes that the migration actually continued and increased in numbers into the 1970s.

The reasons for leaving the South are clear. Many Black Americans worked as sharecroppers where their labor was exploited and what little income they took in was taken away again in payments to the landowners leaving them in a state of debt peonage.  The system of segregation, formalized under the Jim Crow laws of the late 1800s, prevented Southern Blacks from seeking to improve their station in life through education, jobs, or political action.  Intimidation and lynching forestalled attempts to challenge segregation. Starting in World War I, recruiters from Northern factories began to travel South to encourage African Americans to come North to work (often risking beatings or death from Southern Whites).

The promise of jobs and an escape from the segregated South encouraged many Blacks to make the journey North.  In addition to facing the challenges of finding the money and resources to leave their homes and families for the unknown, these migrants also risked threats from Southern Whites who, despite their prejudices, did not want their source of cheap labor to leave.  In addition to lynchings and beatings, Southern Whites would prevent Blacks from migrating by exaggerating or making up entirely criminal charges and debts to keep them tied to the South. The railroads were the main route of migration and the cities African American migrants ended up in were often the ones served by railroad routes that connected to their Southern communities.  In many cases, people from the same Southern towns and counties would end up living in the same neighborhoods in their Northern and Western cities.

Moving to the big cities provided African Americans with numerous opportunities – good jobs that paid well, better education, the opportunity to own property, the right to vote, and an escape from the strict caste system.  Nevertheless, these migrants found that the North and the South often had their own systems of segregation, a more genteel, unwritten code they referred to as “James Crow.” Seeking places to live, Black renters found themselves restricted to certain areas of the city and forced to pay higher rents than white people would pay for similar properties.  Immigrants from Europe resented that Black workers would take lower wages.  On the other hand, they showed little solidarity, and restricted Blacks from joining their unions.

African American migrants kept close ties to the South, acting as resources for future migrants, and helping newcomers get settled.  They also kept an eye on the growing Civil Rights Movement, supporting it from afar.  By the mid-1970s, the flow of the Great Migration ceased.  The Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s began taking effect, meaning there were more opportunities for those remaining in the South.  At the same time, the fiscal decline of the big cities meant that good-paying jobs were no longer available and crime was on the rise.

Wilkerson tells this story through the lives of three main characters who make their journey in three different decades.  Ida Mae Brandon Gladney and her husband George are sharecroppers in Mississippi who move to Chicago in the 1930s.  There she becomes a pillar of the working class African American community for several decades, yet never loses here Southern accent. George Swanson Starling is forced to leave college early to find work picking fruit in Florida.  During the labor shortages of WWII, George begins organizing the pickers for better pay and conditions, but eventually the threat of lynching forces him to flee to New York.  He spends 35 years working as a porter on the trains connecting Florida to New York.  Robert Joseph Pershing Foster is a highly-skilled physician and veteran who marries into one of the most prosperous and influential African American families of Atlanta.  Nevertheless, he feels that he will never achieve his potential in the segregated South, so in the 1950s he makes the journey to Los Angeles.  There he indeed becomes a wildly successful and prosperous physician (even mentioned in a song by one of his patients, Ray Charles).  But success comes at the cost of strained family relationships, alcoholism, and compulsive gambling.

Wilkerson tells the stories of her three main characters in a novelistic style.  Interweaved with these personal histories are more general demographic trends and anecdotes of other migrants’ experiences.  The style is reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath – itself a story about migrants – where the narrative of the Joad family alternates with vignettes of other people’s experiences. This is an important book about an under-recognized phenomenon in American history written in an engaging literary style.

Favorite Passages:

The Great Migration would not end until the 1970s, when the South began finally to change—the whites-only signs came down, the all-white schools opened up, and everyone could vote. By then nearly half of all black Americans—some forty-seven percent—would be living outside the South, compared to ten percent when the Migration began. “Oftentimes, just to go away,” wrote John Dollard, a Yale scholar studying the South in the 1930s, “is one of the most aggressive things that another person can do, and if the means of expressing discontent are limited, as in this case, it is one of the few ways in which pressure can be put.”


What few people seemed to realize or perhaps dared admit was that the thick walls of the caste system kept everyone in prison. The rules that defined a group’s supremacy were so tightly wound as to put pressure on everyone trying to stay within the narrow confines of acceptability. It meant being a certain kind of Protestant, holding a particular occupation, having a respectable level of wealth or the appearance of it, and drawing the patronizingly appropriate lines between oneself and those of lower rank of either race in that world.


The arbitrary nature of grown people’s wrath gave colored children practice for life in the caste system, which is why parents, forced to train their children in the ways of subservience, treated their children as the white people running things treated them. It was preparation for the lower-caste role children were expected to have mastered by puberty.


The disparity in pay, reported without apology in the local papers for all to see, would have far-reaching effects. It would mean that even the most promising of colored people, having received next to nothing in material assets from their slave foreparents, had to labor with the knowledge that they were now being underpaid by more than half, that they were so behind it would be all but impossible to accumulate the assets their white counterparts could, and that they would, by definition, have less to leave succeeding generations than similar white families. Multiplied over the generations, it would mean a wealth deficit between the races that would require a miracle windfall or near asceticism on the part of colored families if they were to have any chance of catching up or amassing anything of value. Otherwise, the chasm would continue, as it did for blacks as a group even into the succeeding century. The layers of accumulated assets built up by the better-paid dominant caste, generation after generation, would factor into a wealth disparity of white Americans having an average net worth ten times that of black Americans by the turn of the twenty-first century, dampening the economic prospects of the children and grandchildren of both Jim Crow and the Great Migration before they were even born.


The people who lived in the cabins gave the best hours of their days to cotton, working until the sun went behind the trees and they couldn’t see their hands anymore.


On Wall Street, there were futures and commodities traders wagering on what the cotton she had yet to pick might go for next October. There were businessmen in Chicago needing oxford shirts, socialites in New York and Philadelphia wanting lace curtains and organdy evening gowns. Closer to home, closer than one dared to contemplate, there were Klansmen needing their white cotton robes and hoods.


Many years later, the people would stand up to water hoses and sheriffs’ dogs to be treated as equal. But for now the people resisted in silent, everyday rebellions that would build up to a storm at midcentury. Rocks stuffed into cotton sacks in Mississippi at weighing time. The COLORED ONLY signs pulled from the seat backs of public buses and converted into dartboards in dorm rooms in Georgia. Teenagers sneaking into coffee shops and swiveling on the soda fountain stools forbidden to colored people in Florida and then running out as fast as they’d come in before anybody could catch them. Each one fought in isolation and unbeknownst to the others, long before the marches and boycotts that were decades away.


Until the 1943 uprising in Detroit, most riots in the United States, from the 1863 Draft Riots in New York to the riots in Tulsa in 1921, to Atlanta in 1906 to Washington, D.C., to Chicago, Springfield, and East St. Louis, Illinois, and Wilmington, North Carolina, among others, had been white attacks on colored people, often resulting in the burning of entire colored sections or towns. This was the first major riot in which blacks fought back as earnestly as the whites and in which black residents, having become established in the city but still relegated to run-down ghettos, began attacking and looting perceived symbols of exploitation, the stores and laundries run by whites and other outsiders that blacks felt were cheating them. It was only after Detroit that riots became known as primarily urban phenomena, ultimately centered on inner-city blacks venting their frustrations on the ghettos that confined them.


The pickers had more money in their pockets than they were raised to think they had a right to, and times were the best they had ever been, which said more about how meager the past had been than how great the present was. There was a war going on, after all. They hated that there was a war, but they knew that it made them indispensable for once, and deep inside they wished it would never end.


The Great Migration in particular was not a seasonal, contained, or singular event. It was a statistically measurable demographic phenomenon marked by unabated outflows of black émigrés that lasted roughly from 1915 to 1975. It peaked during the war years, swept a good portion of all the black people alive in the United States at the time into a river that carried them to all points north and west.


Like other mass migrations, it was not a haphazard unfurling of lost souls but a calculable and fairly ordered resettlement of people along the most direct route to what they perceived as freedom, based on railroad and bus lines. The migration streams were so predictable that by the end of the Migration, and, to a lesser degree, even now, one can tell where a black northerner’s family was from just by the city the person grew up in—a good portion of blacks in Detroit, for instance, having roots in Tennessee, Alabama, western Georgia, or the Florida panhandle because the historic rail lines connected those places during the Migration years.


The Great Migration ran along three main tributaries and emptied into reservoirs all over the North and West. One stream, the one George Starling was about to embark upon, carried people from the coastal states of Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia up the eastern seaboard to Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and their satellites. A second current, Ida Mae’s, traced the central spine of the continent, paralleling the Father of Waters, from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas to the industrial cities of Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh. A third and later stream carried people like Pershing from Louisiana and Texas to the entire West Coast, with some black southerners traveling farther than many modern-day immigrants.


For a time in the 1920s, the ride to Chicago was interrupted after the train crossed the Ohio River into Cairo, as if the train were passing from Poland into the old Soviet Union during the Cold War. Once over the river and officially in the North, the colored cars had to be removed in a noisy and cumbersome uncoupling and the integrated cars attached in their place to adhere to the laws of Illinois. Colored passengers had to move, wait, reshuffle themselves, and haul their bags to the newly attached integrated cars. Going south, the ritual was reversed.


He had learned that fear when he was little and once passed the white people’s church. The kids came out of the church when they saw him. They threw rocks and bricks and called him the vilest names that could spring from a southern tongue. And he asked his grandparents, “What kind of god they got up inside that church?”


Contrary to modern-day assumptions, for much of the history of the United States—from the Draft Riots of the 1860s to the violence over desegregation a century later—riots were often carried out by disaffected whites against groups perceived as threats to their survival. Thus riots would become to the North what lynchings were to the South, each a display of uncontained rage by put-upon people directed toward the scapegoats of their condition. Nearly every big northern city experienced one or more during the twentieth century. Each outbreak pitted two groups that had more in common with each other than either of them realized. Both sides were made up of rural and small-town people who had traveled far in search of the American Dream, both relegated to the worst jobs by industrialists who pitted one group against the other. Each side was struggling to raise its families in a cold, fast, alien place far from their homelands and looked down upon by the earlier, more sophisticated arrivals. They were essentially the same people except for the color of their skin, and many of them arrived into these anonymous receiving stations at around the same time, one set against the other and unable to see the commonality of their mutual plight.


By the time the Migration reached its conclusion, sociologists would have a name for that kind of hard-core racial division. They would call it hypersegregation, a kind of separation of the races that was so total and complete that blacks and whites rarely intersected outside of work. The top ten cities that would earn that designation after the 1980 census (the last census after the close of the Great Migration, which statistically ended in the 1970s) were, in order of severity of racial isolation from most segregated to least: (1) Chicago, (2) Detroit, (3) Cleveland, (4) Milwaukee, (5) Newark, (6) Gary, Indiana, (7) Philadelphia, (8) Los Angeles, (9) Baltimore, and (10) St. Louis—all of them receiving stations of the Great Migration.

Many years later, people would forget about the quiet successes of everyday people like Ida Mae. In the debates to come over welfare and pathology, America would overlook people like her in its fixation with the underclass, just as a teacher can get distracted by the two or three problem children at the expense

of the quiet, obedient ones. Few experts trained their sights on the unseen masses of migrants like her, who worked from the moment they arrived, didn’t end up on welfare, stayed married because that’s what God-fearing people of their generation did whether they were happy or not, and managed not to get strung out on drugs or whiskey or a cast of nameless, no-count men.


The people of the Great Migration had farther to climb because they started off at the lowest rung wherever they went. They incited greater fear and resentment in part because there was no ocean between them and the North as there was with many other immigrant groups. There was no way to stem the flow of blacks from the South, as the

authorities could and did by blocking immigration from China and Japan, for instance. Thus, blacks confronted hostilities more severe than most any other group (except perhaps Mexicans, who could also cross over by land), as it could not be known how many thousands more might come and pose a further threat to the preexisting world of the North.

Recommended books: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, Native Son by Richard Wright, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Rating: *****

Book Review: When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele


Author: Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele
TitleWhen They Call You a Terrorist
Narrator: Patrisse Khan-Cullors
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2018
Summary/Review:

This memoir depicts Patrisse Khan-Cullors life growing up in a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles, where her family and community were under constant surveillance and harassment from the police.  Her father was in and out of prison and her mentally ill brother was also imprisoned and tortured by the police.  As Cullors grows older she also deals with her disillusionment with her mother’s church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and grows to understand her queer identity.  She became an artist and an activist in her teenage years, advocating for reform and abolition of prisons.  In 2013, responding to her friend Alicia Garza’s post about Treyvon Martin, she created the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and has been active in shepherding the movement.  This memoir is both harrowing and hopeful in depicting the lives of people of color and LBGT people in America that is under assault, but also the positive gains that come when people stand up for their rights, equality, and dignity. This is definitely required reading for all Americans in 2018.

Favorite Passages:

“I cannot help think that the drug war, the war on gangs, has really been no more than a forced migration project.  From my neighborhood in LA to the Back Bay to Brooklyn, Black and Brown people have been moved out as young white people build exciting new lives standing on the bones of ours.  The drug war as ethnic cleansing.”

Recommended booksThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and  Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Rating:

Book Review: Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson


AuthorTiffany D. Jackson
Title: Allegedly
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2017)
Summary/Review:

Mary is a teenager living in a group home in Brooklyn after several year of serving time for murdering a baby when she was 9-years-old. Allegedly, as is Mary’s frequent refrain.  When she falls in love with a man at the nursing home where she volunteers and becomes pregnant, she begins to reevaluate her past so that she can have a future with her baby and boyfriend.  The incidents of the night of the murder and her mother’s role in it as well as other facet’s of Mary’s past are slowly revealed while in the present time Mary has to deal with case workers, psychiatrists, and her hostile companions in the group home.  The book is good at showing the horrors of the modern day carceral state and Jackson does a great job at developing Mary’s voice.  However, the twists in the story seem unnaturally injected into the narrative to build suspense, especially the biggest twist at the end of the book, make it hard to recommend this book.

Rating: **1/2

Book Reviews: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer


Author: Z.Z. Packer
TitleDrinking Coffee Elsewhere
Narrator: Shirley Jordan
Publication Info: Highbridge, 2013
Summary/Review:

This is an excellent collection of contemporary short fiction.  Packer is great at quickly establishing characters, and while the stories tend to be more slice-of-life than a traditional beginning-middle-end format, they’re all the better for capturing the nuance of character developments.  Stories range from a conflict among troops of Brownies – one black, one white – to a teenage girl who runs away to Atlanta and is taken in by a pimp, to a boy forced by his father to try to sell birds at the Million Man March.  All the stories are from an outsider’s perspective and thus feel very relatable.  I’ll be looking out for future work from Z.Z. Packer.

Recommended booksKrik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat, Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston by Zora Neale Hurston, and Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Rating: ****

Book Review: Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill


Author: Marc Lamont Hill
TitleNobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond
Publication Info: Atria Books (2016)
Summary/Review:

Hill’s book is a collection of essays focused on the people whose names have become party of a litany of violence against African-Americans in recent years: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin and others.  These people who have been made a Nobody in contemporary America are given their full human dignity in Hill’s account of their lives, as well as the incidents that brought their demise and their aftermath.  But Hill goes beyond the headlines and uses these incidents as a window into the greater societal and political trends that undergird them: “broken windows” policing, plea bargains denying people accused of crimes of their day in court and the incredible power this gives prosecutors, “Stand Your Ground” laws and the arming of America,  mass incarceration, and the neoliberal ideal of running the government “like a business” that leads to the exploitation and disasters of places like Flint, Michigan.  This is a powerful book and important book and one I highly recommend that everyone concerned about the future of our nation reads.
Favorite Passages:

“The case for broken-windows policing is compelling because it lightly dipped in truth.  Yet while there is a correlation between disorder (social and physical) and crime, research shows that this relationship is not causal.  Simply put, there is no evidence that disorder directly promotes crime.  What the evidence does suggest, however, is that the two are linked to the same larger problem: poverty.  High levels of unemployment, lack of social resources, and concentrated areas of low income are all root cause of both high crime and disorder.  As such, crime would be more effectively redressed by investing economically in neighborhoods rather than targeting them for heightened arrests.” – p. 44

“Unfortunately, since modern American society, as with all things in the current neoliberal moment, prioritize privatization and individualism, the very notion of the public has become disposable.  As the current criminal-justice process shows, no longer is there a collective interest in affirming the value of the public good, even rhetorically, through the processes of transparency, honesty, or fairness.  No longer is there a commitment to monitoring and evaluating public officials, in this case prosecutors, to certify that justice prevails.  Instead we have entered a moment in which all things public have been demonized withing out social imagination: public schools, public assistance, public transportation, public housing, public options, and public defenders.  In place of a rich democratic conception of “the public” is a market-driven logic that privileges economic efficiency and individual success over collective justice.” – p. 78-79

“There is plenty of reason to debate the central premise of privatization – that business always does it better – but we don’t have to go there to find this idea objectionable.  In the way that privatization separates government responsibilities from democratic accountability, the notion is flawed from its very conception.  Businesses are not made function for the public good.  The are made to function for the good of profit. There is nothing inherently evil in that.  In most cases, the profit motive will almost certainly lead to a more efficient and orderly execution of tasks.  But it does not necessarily lead to an equitable execution of tasks; indeed, it quite naturally resists and equitable execution of tasks. Furthermore, bu injecting moneymaking into the relationship between a citizen and the basic services of life – water, roads, electricity, and education – privatization distorts the social contract.  People need to know that the decisions of governments are being made with the common good as a priority.  Anything else is not government; it is commerce.  One only needs to look back at Michigan to see this idea manifested because the crisis in Flint, as Henry Giroux has written, is what happens when the State is ‘remade in the image of the corporation.'”

 

Recommended books: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson


Author: Jacqueline Woodson 
TitleAnother Brooklyn 
Narrator: Robin Miles
Publication Info:  HarperCollins Publishers and Blackstone Audio, 2016
Summary/Review:

This short novel is the reminiscences of the narrator August reflecting on her childhood in 1970s Brooklyn.  It’s a period piece that recreates a place and time so different from the Brooklyn of today, and very specifically the challenges of joys of being an African-American girl in that place and time.  It’s also a meditation on friendship, as August recalls the tight relationships with her friends Gigi, Angela, and Sylvia, friendships that at the time seemed permanent but have long since faded away.  The book is permeated with a nostalgic sense of loss, and is a poetic rumination of the more complex themes underlying everyday childhood.

Recommended booksSula by Toni Morrison and The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
Rating: ***1/2