Book Review: Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter by Kerri K. Greenidge


Author: Kerri K. Greenidge
Title: Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter
Publication Info: Liveright (2019) 
Summary/Review:

William Monroe Trotter is remembered in Boston in the name of a public elementary school but his life, work, and legacy are otherwise look.  Kerri Greenidge’s biography is a great introduction to the life of the Boston Civil Rights leader and activist who was most active during the 1890s to the 1920s.

Trotter was born into a prosperous family, the son of a decorated Civil War veteran, and held the position of Recorder of Deeds in the Grover Cleveland administration. Trotter grew up in the Hyde Park, then a predominately white suburb of Boston, and studied at Harvard University where he became the first Black man awarded with a Phi Beta Kappa key.  Despite his elite background, Trotter as an activist would stand up for poorer and darker-skinned Blacks who were overlooked by other prominent Black leaders of the time. Much of his career was defined in opposition to Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist strategies and the influence of his Tuskegee Institute.

Trotter’s accomplishments include publishing The Guardian newspaper, which he set up to carry on the legacy of Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, which became one of the most influential Black newspapers in the early 20th century. Working with W.E.B. Dubois and others, Trotter participated in the Niagara Movement which lead to the establishment of the NAACP.  He did not think the NAACP was radical enough, though, and objected to the prominence of white people in the leadership, so instead ended up forming the National Equal Rights League (NERL) in 1908, which failed to gain the support and membership of its rival.

On political issues, Trotter was adamant that Black voters remain independent and not align themselves. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson won the Presidency with the help of Black voters who swung the vote of Massachusetts and other states. After inauguration, Wilson caved to Southern whites and segregated Federal offices.  Trotter lead protests against Wilson and had heated face-to-face meetings with the President which earned him a measure of fame in the Black community. Trotter also lead protests against the racist film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, which while they failed to stop the screenings of the movie, did energize the Boston Black activist community.

Trotter’s latter years saw him fall into a steep personal and financial decline.  Perhaps his fade from prominence contributed to why he was not well known after his death.  But Greenidge argues that Trotter was the link in radical Black activism for liberation between Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.  I’m glad we have this biography to learn about this overlooked Black radical in Boston and American history.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending October 10


Hit Parade :: One and Done Edition

We all remember the artists and bands who are famous for their one big hit, but defining a “one-hit wonder” is surprisingly controversial. Men Without Hats and Vanilla Ice officially have multiple hits, while Jimi Hendrix and Lou Reed are actually one-hit wonders. Chris Molanphy puts forward some parameters for defining a one-hit wonder that take in account cultural relevance as well as actual chart performance.

Planet Money :: Rethinking Black Wealth

A notorious government report in the 1960s held families headed by Black women as responsible for poverty in African American communities. Dr. Andre Perry reanalyzes the data and finds that Black people actually suffer from “devalued assets” and that Black women are actually not the problem but the solution.

Radiolab :: No Special Duty

The purpose of the police force is famously “to protect and serve,” but some shocking legal decisions revealed that the police actually have no requirement to protect the public.

The Truth :: Married Alive

A fictional story about a couple going through marriage counseling while literally buried in an avalanche of snow.

RUNNING TALLY OF PODCAST OF THE WEEK APPEARANCES

Podcasts of the Two Weeks Ending August 15


I subscribe to too many podcasts while simultaneously having less time to listen to them. Forgive the interlude as I catch you up on two weeks of podcasts.

Brattle Film Podcast :: Behind the Scenes on Boston Movies

The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge had a great series on Boston Movies and all four podcasts are worth listening to, but I particularly liked this final podcast where they interview on-set dresser Adam Roffman about the behind-the-scenes production of movies in Boston and how they’ve changed over time.

Fresh Air :: Jeffrey Toobin On The ‘Tragedy’ Of The Mueller Report

How the Democrats were out-maneuvered by the Trump administration allowing him to get away with obstruction of justice.

Radiolab :: Uncounted

An episode on voting rights focuses on the District of Columbia’s non-voting delegate to Congress and the movement to lower the voting age to 16.

This American Life :: Nice White Parents

A public middle school in Brooklyn with a predominately non-white student body deals with an unexpected influx of white students and the effects that of white parents involvement in the school operations.  This is the first episode of Chana Joffe-Walt’s series called Nice White Parents that is both fascinating in its exploration of the changes at one school over time and cringe-inducing by the careless and clueless behavior of white parents (and the school districts who cater to their interests).  I particularly like that Joffe-Walt asks tough questions and doesn’t let people get away without answering them.

Have You Heard :: Pandemics Pods: Parents, Privilege, Power, and Politics

Speaking of Nice White Parents, you may have heard of the latest trend of “pandemic pods” where parents pool together funds to hire a teacher or tutor to educate a small group of students at home instead of returning to school during the Covid-19 pandemic. This podcast explains the devastating effects this latest form of “white flight” will have and how it opens the doors to the worst offerings of disaster capitalists.

99% Invisible :: Policing the Open Road

A century ago, the rise of the automobile as a predominant form of transportation led to an increase of policing to enforce road rules. The changes lead to a vast increase in ordinary peoples’ interaction with the police, increased police power and professionalization, and even the loss of Constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizures.

Throughline :: Reframing History: The Litter Myth

In the 1950s, industry leaders organized to create Keep America Beautiful that produced public service announcements against littering. The seemingly benign ads had the effect of transferring responsibility for the environment from industries that made disposable single-use packaging to the personal responsibility of consumers. This conflict in how to deal with environmental issues persists to this day, and corporations still rely on “greenwashing” to make them look environmentally responsible.

Code Switch :: Kamala, Joe, And The Fissures In The Base

If you listen to pundits, and the Democrats 2020 presidential candidate, you might come to believe that Black Americans are a monolithic voting bloc.  This myth is dispelled in Code Switch where the diversity of opinions and conflicts even within Black families over politics are strong.

Decoder Ring :: Mystery of the Mullet

The mullet hairstyle, short in front and long in back, is worn by a diversity of people ranging from macho men in rural communities to lesbian women, from hockey players to heavy metal heads. But the Oxford English Dictionary traces the use of the term “mullet” only to 1994, surprisingly late for a hairstyle identified with the 1980s.  Willa Paskin investigates this linguistic mystery.  Personally, I never heard the term mullet until the late 1990s and had heard them called short-longs prior to mullet gaining popularity.


RUNNING TALLY OF PODCAST OF THE WEEK APPEARANCES

Book Review: Tar Baby by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
TitleTar Baby
Narrator: Desiree Coleman
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2007 [originally published in 1981]

Summary/Review:

Tar Baby was the first novel I ever read.  It was part of the reading for a course I took as a college freshman on African American folklore in literature. I was required to take a writing course as a William & Mary freshman, but as they were all filled up I was allowed to chose from a new series of writing-intensive seminars, and this was the one I picked.  It was a good choice as I got to discuss some excellent literature with the professor and eleven other students and I have to say it was a very meaningful point in my education and life.

The irony is that while I would go on to become a devoted reader of Toni Morrison, I didn’t like Tar Baby when I first read it.  This time I liked it a lot better.  The story focuses on a group of characters on a Caribbean island.  Son, a Black sailor who jumps ship and swims to the island, ends up hiding in the estate of Valerian Street. Valerian, a retired candy manufacturer, has made his island home his permanent residence where he enjoys cultivating plants in his greenhouse despite the pleas of his wife Margaret to return home to Philadelphia.  Margaret is a former beauty queen who we learn is mentally unstable and suffers from the restrictions on her life as a woman.

Working at the estate are a married Black couple, Syndey, the butler, and Ondine, the cook.  Despite their servile position they each have a familiar relationship with their employers and are willing the share their opinions. Sydney and Ondine’s niece, Jadine, who they act as surrogate parents for after she was orphaned. Jadine is highly sophisticated and cosmopolitan after education at the Sorbonne, sponsored by Valerian, and working as a fashion model.

The discovery of Son hiding in Margaret’s closet begins a series of events that reveal the deep-seeded tensions among the residents of the estate.  Valerian makes a great show of treating Son as a guest while Margaret, Sydney, and Ondine disapprove. Eventually, Son and Jadine, both attractive, young people in their 20s flee and begin a romantic relationship.  They first go to New York City where Jadine thrives but Son feels stifled. Then they go to Son’s home town of Eloe, Florida where Son feels more at home being close to nature with his people, but Jadine is overwhelmed by the strict, traditional expectations for women.

The book covers many themes related to women and race. All the women in this story find themselves restricted in different ways. The relations of the Streets to Sydney, Ondine, and Jadine appear cordial at first but are revealed to built on white supremacy. Internalized racism is also revealed as first Sydney and Ondine, and later Jadine, judge Son for his natural and “wild” ways.  And there is the intersection of reality with African American folklore, particularly in the story of the wild horsemen of the island, descended from the first enslaved people brought there. This is also the first book of Morrison’s set in a contemporary rather than historical period which makes it stand out among her works.

Recommended books:
Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending June 13


Coronavirus Daily :: Masks Are Even More Important Than We Thought

Wear a mask.  Keep your distance.  Wash your hands.  Repeat.

The Last Archive :: Unheard

The story of Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, and the erasure of Black voices in history.

Throughline :: American Police

The history of policing in the United States from its origins in slave patrols to the present, with control of Black Americans as its central purpose.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Copyrights & Wrongs

The curious and convoluted cases of copyright in popular music: are musicians stealing from other musicians or just drawing inspiration?

What Next :: The Antifa Myth

The Antifa Bus is coming / And everybody’s rioting / New York to San Fransisco / An antifacist disco.


Podcasts of the Week Ending September 28


Code Switch :: The Original Blexit

Black Americans have never been fully supported by any political party, but after the Civil War, Black voters typically supported the Party of Lincoln.  Starting in the 1930s, many Black voters began switching their allegiance from Republicans to Democrats, a shift that was thoroughly completed by the 1970s.  Code Switch explains why and how that happened.

1619 Project  

This podcast debuted in August to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in what would become the United States.  The 1619 Project, created by the New York Times and hosted by Nikole Hannah-Jones, explores how the legacy of slavery, segregation, and inequality have shaped American history.  There are 4 episodes so far and they are all excellent.


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances: