Book Review: Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey. Bolster


Author: W. Jeffrey. Bolster
Title: Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail
Publication Info: Harvard University Press (2009)
Summary/Review:

I read this book with my co-workers to see if we can better reflect the experience of Black sailors in the archival records of ships and merchant mariners.  It’s a broad overview of Black sailors in America in the 18th and 19th centuries. It traces the sailing traditions of Black Americans to their African roots.   In some cases, enslaved Black men served as sailors and ship’s pilots at the behest of their enslavers.  Free Black men found a greater level of freedom and equality in the maritime trades than in other areas of work available to them, although the practices of ship discipline were contradictorily some of the most restrictive to liberty. A great percentage of New England and New York Black men found work in the maritime trades in the 1800s although at the cost of separation of families and loss of community leadership.

There are numerous fascinating stories in this book about people I’d like to learn more about.  These include Richard “King Dick Crafus who lead the Black US Navy sailors held prisoner at Dartmoor during and after the War of 1812, and who remained a revered member of Boston’s Black community decades later.  Robert Smalls was a pilot who escaped from slavery in Charleston during the Civil War and turned a gunboat over to the Union Navy.  David Walker distributed the abolitionist tract “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World” while working at a second-hand clothing shop near the wharves of Boston.  Honestly, these stories should be made into movies.


Favorite Passages:

“Whereas white seamen were among the most marginalized men in white society, black seamen found access to privileges, worldliness, and wealth denied to most slaves.” – p. 36

Recommended books:
Rating: ****

Book Review: Triangle The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle


Author: David Von Drehle
Title: Triangle:The Fire That Changed America
Narrator: Barrett Whitener
Publication Info: New York : Atlantic Monthly Press, [2003]
Summary/Review:

At closing time on Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire started at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building in New York’s Greenwich Village.  146 people – mostly young women and girls – died as result of the fire, many of them jumping to their deaths because locked doorways prevented their exit.  The fire proved pivotal in leading to legislation for factory safety and the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), a union that lives on today in UNITE HERE.

Von Drehle provides a thorough but concise history of the fire, with all the grim details, and the ensuing trial which failed to find the company owners guilty of manslaughter. There’s also a lot of background before the fire.  This includes the history of the factory owners, themselves immigrant strivers who rose to wealth and prominence.  The stories of many of the garment workers are also included, most of them immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy, who had survived pogroms in Poland and volcanic eruptions in Italy before seemingly finding stability in New York.  A massive strike lead by the ILGWU in 1909 is also covered in some detail.

If there’s any flaw in this book it is that it doesn’t quite live up to it’s subtitle “The Fire That Changed America.”  For the aftereffects of the fire, Von Drehle emphasizes the rise of progressive Tammany Hall politicians Alfred E. Smith and Robert F. Wagner, and how they brought about an urban liberalism that lead to the New Deal.  I wouldn’t say this is a stretch but I think it’s a more high-level approach to history than it would be to detail what women and immigrant communities did in response to the fire.  Nevertheless, I did find the book to be very interesting and informative.  The building that housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory still stands and I paid my respects to the workers killed in the fire on a visit to New York in 2007.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity by Jill Lepore


Author: Jill Lepore
Title: The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity
Narrator: Bernadette Dunne
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2021) [Originally published in 1998]
Summary/Review:

Jill Lepore explores the history of King Philip’s War, fought in New England from 1675 to 1678 between an alliance of several Algonquian-speaking indigenous tribes under the leadership of Wampanoag Chief Metacomet, a.k.a. King Philip, and the English of the New England colonies and their Mohegan, Pequot, and Mohawk allies.  The war is poorly defined in American history with even the name controversial.  Was Philip a King? Was his name even Philip? Was it really a war or an exchange of atrocities?

Lepore investigates how the war changed the way the English colonists identified themselves.  She also examines the historical resources to find the Native perspective on the war that’s not often directly recorded in Western literature. A large part of the book focuses on the captivity narratives that became one of the major forms of literature that arose from the war.   She also details the lasting legacy of the war, particularly how Metacomet became a romanticized figure in American drama in the mid-1800s at the same time that Andrew Jackson is forcibly removing the Cherokee from the Southeastern states.

It is a very interesting historical account of a significant but forgotten war and a historiology of the study of war itself.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: Fannie Lou Hamer’s America #atozchallenge


Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter F that I have previously reviewed include:

Title: Fannie Lou Hamer’s America
Release Date: February 22, 2022
Director: Joy Elaine Davenport
Production Company: WORLD Channel | PBS | Black Public Media
Summary/Review:

Fannie Lou Hamer, the indefatigable civil rights and voting rights activist from Mississippi, is someone I wanted to know more about.  She’s also someone I think everyone should know about.  This short documentary covers the highlights of her life and career, and is special because all the narration comes from Hamer’s speeches and interviews.  Similarly, the soundtrack includes Hamer singing several freedom songs. It’s hard not to be inspired by Hamer’s persistence despite the obstacles she faced, and her calls for justice and equity sound all too relevant decades after her death. I felt outrage at a scene when Hamer and a small group of activists went to the US Capitol and were met with a massive show of police and were arrested, whereas in our own time there was nowhere near the number of necessary police on hand to meet the actual threat of white supremacist insurrection on January 6, 2021. Fannie Lou Hamer lived a life that was too short and too hard but she left behind a legacy that continues to make a better America today.

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story (2020) #BloggingAtoZChallenge


Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter E that I have previously reviewed include:

Title: East Lake Meadows: A Public Housing Story
Release Date: January 13, 2020
Director: Sarah Burns, David McMahon
Production Company: Florentine Films
Summary/Review:

This documentary is a story about public housing in Atlanta, but it could be in Boston or New York or Chicago or St. Louis or Los Angeles, as the same story has played out again and again in cities across the country.  Once seen a vital stepping stone for the white working class, in post-World War II America, the emphasis shifts to subsidizing suburban living and public housing becomes the place to warehouse the poorest of the poor, typically people of color.  Even when new public housing is built it is poorly planned – in East Lake Meadows, the houses were flooding with sewage soon after tenants moved in – and poorly maintained.  Out of sight and out of mind, public housing is plagued by drug abuse and crime.

What’s great about this documentary is that it tells this familiar story from the point of view of the Black residents of the East Lake Meadows project.  They tells stories of crime and indignity, yes, but also of joy.  Despite all the problems of public housing there also were the advantages of forming strong community bonds.  And there were those who fought for their community to have something better, in this case the late Eva Davis.  Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, when improvements came with the demolition of East Lake Meadows in the late 1990s and replacing it with a higher-quality mixed-income development, it came at the cost of shutting out the poorest residents.

In addition to the many great interview subjects, East Lake Meadows features a great variety of archival footage.  I particularly like the homemade films made by some school children who lived in East Lake Meadows in the 1990s.

Rating: ****

BONUS DOC Movie Review: Attica (2021) #atozchallenge


I have a lot of documentary movies on my watchlist, so throughout the Blogging A-to-Z  Challenge I will be posting bonus documentary movie reviews, as time allows.

TitleAttica
Release Date: October 29, 2021
Director: Traci Curry, Stanley Nelson
Production Company: Showtime Documentary Films | Firelight Films | Topic Studios
Summary/Review:

I remember learning about the uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in Western New York, and the ensuing massacre,  in the documentary series Eyes on the Prize II in the 1990s. This movie offers a far more in-depth examination of the tense four-day standoff in September 1971.  Interviewees include surviving former inmates, guards, family members of the hostages, members of the observers committee who helped with negotiations, and journalists who covered the event.  This includes John Johnson, a Black reporter from ABC News in New York who I remember seeing on tv when I was a kid.

What’s fascinating about this story is how after the initial uprising the Attica inmates quickly organized a society with elected leaders, medics, latrines, shelters, and a security force.  While still quite chaotic, over a thousand people who probably never worked together before quickly organized an effective system of governance.  I had also not know of the role that Islamic inmates played in protecting the hostages.  The most heartbreaking aspect of this story is that the Attica inmates put together a set of demands to address the abuse in the prison that were deemed reasonable by the observers committee and yet the prison authorities (backed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller and ultimately President Richard Nixon) refused to budge.  Ultimately they chose to retake Attica with excessive force, allowing the correctional officers to carry out bloody revenge.  Even the lives of the hostages were expendable and they murdered nine of them.

Even fifty years later, this movie is a powerful indictment of incarceration in the United States and the virulence of racism that undergirds it.  This movie is unflinching in its depiction of the violence of the Attica massacre so take the content warnings at the start of the film seriously if you are so inclined. But I think a lot of people like myself need to see this and be made uncomfortable to fully understand the brutality of racist institutions in American history and the American present.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion by Jeff Baham


Author: Jeff Baham
Title: The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion
Publication Info: Theme Park Press (2016)
Summary/Review:

Like it says on the tin, this is a history of the legendary Disney Parks attraction, the Haunted Mansion.  The story of its is one of competing ideas among the imagineers – some wanted it to be scary, some wanted it to be funny, and Walt mainly wanted it to be clean and well-maintained.  The attraction opened after over a decade of planning and work, and despite – or perhaps because of – the lack of unity on what it should be, it became an instant classic.  The book also carries us through on a virtual ride on a Doom Buggy exploring the different details and modifications made over the years.  Would you believe they once had a live human performed in knight’s armor swinging a sword at passing guests?  This is a fun and in-depth book about the Haunted Mansion and what makes it brilliant.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen


Author: James W. Loewen
Title: Lies My Teacher Told Me
Narrator: L.J. Ganser
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc., 2019 [Originally published in 1994]
Other Books Read by the Same Author: Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong
Summary/Review:

This book is an expose on why high school students hate history and why Americans in general are ignorant of the historical facts of the United States.  With the teaching of American history once again being challenged as “woke” and more ridiculously as “critical race theory” I thought it was a good time to revisit this book.  Despite the title, this book is not an attack on teachers but on history textbooks which Lowen describes in detail as containing many inaccuracies and irrelevant details, as well as a boring writing style.

I have to note that when I was in middle school and high school, far from being bored, I was obsessed with history.  I was privileged to have teachers who somehow dodged many of the pitfalls of American history teaching as well as the proclivity to learn a lot on my own through reading, watching documentaries, and visiting historic sites. I read the first edition way back when it came out in the mid 90s and remember it being mostly debunking the false histories propagated in several prominent history textbooks.  On this reading I found it was less about debunking and more about why history isn’t taught in a way that allows for critical thinking.

The original edition evaluated a dozen textbooks, while the 2004 second edition revisited some of those books as well as 6 new textbooks.  This third and final edition was identical to the third edition but with a new introduction that pretty much noted that little progress had been made.  The problem with history teaching isn’t simple as one might imagine, and while fingers can be pointed at right wing politicians and parents for objecting to teaching warts and all history, they are just part of many complex and overlapping hindrances.  From publishers who appeal to the lowest denominator to sell the most books to the authors whose names are on the cover having little to nothing to do with the books (and the ghost writers who do write the book having very little knowledge of the history), there’s plenty of blame to go around.

As someone who loves history and thinks that kids should love studying as much as I did and gain the sense of perspective that critical thinking of history provides, I find this is an important book and highly recommend reading it.

Favorite Passages:

When confronting a claim about the distant past or a statement about what happened yesterday, students—indeed, all Americans—need to develop informed skepticism, not nihilistic cynicism.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

 

 

 

 

Book Review: So Many Ways to Lose by Devin Gordon


Author: Devin Gordon
Title: So Many Ways to Lose
Publication Info: New York City : Harper, 2021.
Summary/Review:

So Many Ways to Lose is a history of the New York Mets by a long-time fan and writer who happens to live near me in Massachusetts. Gordon’s thesis is that the Mets are a team that is known for their futility and for losing in creative ways, and yet that has only made their moments of greatness all the more endearing.

Since I’ve read a lot about the Mets (and of course, spent most of my life watching the team), I was familiar with many of these stories.  But I was impressed with the angles Gordon took on telling the stories. I particularly liked:

  • connecting Cleon Jones story to the history of Africatown in Alabama which was founded by people brought from Africa on the last known slave ship the Clotilda
  • How Mackey Sasser got the yips and had trouble returning the ball to the pitcher
  • While Bobby Bonilla Day has become a day to mock the Mets, Gordon explains that it was a good deal with positive outcomes for the Mets
  • the greatness of the Endy Chavez catch
  • How Bernie Madoff bamboozled the Wilpons, owners of the Mets, but nonetheless a somewhat sympathetic portrait of the Wilpons

The parts on the Mets success in 2006 (and subsequent flops in 2007-2008) and 2015 feel rushed.  But then again I’ve read about those accomplishments in other books.  This is an enjoyable sports book and a requirement for every Mets’ fan’s library.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Class Action Park (2020)


Title: Class Action Park
Release Date: August 27, 2020
Director: Seth Porges, Chris Charles Scott III
Production Company: Pinball Party Productions | Strategery Films | Warner Max
Summary/Review:

As a kid growing up in Connecticut, ads for Action Park were constantly on the tv and radio, but my requests to go there were denied.  My mother was not fond of driving to New Jersey nor did our family budget have much room for visits to theme parks.  It was only until years later that I learned that I may have dodged a bullet since Action Park had such a reputation for guests getting injured and sometimes killed.  In fact, back in the 80s, I remember New Jersey’s other theme park Great Adventure having the reputation for danger since several teens were killed in a fire and one person fell off a roller coaster.

Class Action Park features interviews with former employees and guests of Action Park mixed with archival news footage and old home movies.  The general theme of the movie is “can you believe how dangerous this place was” and the strange nostalgic feeling of having survived it.  The jokey tone of some of the commentators is placed at odds with survivors of people who died at Action Park, with the ending of the film actually featuring the most uncomfortable contrast of narration and film.

The villain of the piece is Gene Mulvihill, a shady investor in penny stocks who opened Action Park as a summer activity at his ski resort in 1978.  Action Park was a pioneer of the modern waterpark, so a lot of the rides were  experimental to begin with, but Mulvihill refused to hire professional ride engineers and often redrew the plans himself to make them more extreme. If the rides weren’t dangerous enough, the park was run almost entirely by teenagers with underage drinking and drug use common among the staff.  Mulvihill’s libertarian emphasis on freedom and profits with his callous disregard of people injured and killed at the park becomes emblematic of the USA in the Reagan Era.

I found this movie to be interesting in how it showed how the most unbelievable aspects of Action Park came to be and persisted.  But I also don’t think it is a very well-made documentary.  For one thing, it could’ve used a wider of variety of commentators as the handful involved said mostly the same things.  Also, the frequent reuse of b-roll footage throughout the movie feels lazy and unprofessional.  Still it’s an interesting movie to watch if you’re curious about how an experiment in pure libertarianism in Greater New York City went horribly wrong and why regulations may be good, actually.

Rating: ***