Book Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead


Author: Colson Whitehead
Title: The Nickel Boys
Publication Info: New York : Doubleday, [2019]
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Set in the 1960s, with a framing story in the present day, The Nickel Boys tells the story of the boys held at the Nickel Academy reform school in Florida. The protagonist of the story is Elwood Curtis, a studious teenager who begins taking courses at a local college. He is unjustly arrested and prosecuted when he accepts a ride from an acquaintance in what turns out to be a stolen car.

Elwood, an optimistic child inspired by the Civil Rights Movement finds himself among hardened and more cynical inmates including a boy name Turner whom he befriends.  Much of the novel details the harsh conditions of the “school” where boys are sexually abused, face severe corporal punishment, and some simply disappear.  The segregated facility is also much harsher in its treatment of Black students.  As much as Elwood tries to keep his head down and make it through his sentence, his sense of justice brings him into conflict with the authorities.

In the present-day narrative, the graves of boys murdered at the Nickel Academy are uncovered a few years after the institution is closed.  Men who survived incarceration at Nickel come forward with stories of their abuse.  There’s a big twist in the story that I didn’t see coming and makes me want to reread the book because I’m sure it would change the meaning of a lot of the narrative.

The Nickel Academy is based on a real reform school in Florida, and Whitehead incorporates events described by survivors into his story.  The narrative is a grim tale and a microcosm of America’s sins of racial discrimination and the carceral state.

Recommended books:
Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Blindspotting (2018)


Title: Blindspotting
Release Date: July 20, 2018
Director: Carlos López Estrada
Production Company: Summit Entertainment | Codeblack Films | Snoot Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Real life lifelong friends Daveed Diggs (of Hamilton and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fame) and Rafael Casal wrote and star in this film about gentrification and police violence in Oakland.  Diggs plays Collin Hoskins on the last three days of probation after being convicted for assault . Casal plays his volatile friend Miles Turner who does things like purchase a gun illegally, smokes weed, and picks fist fights that seem destined to get Collin to violate the terms of his probation.  Collin and Miles work together at a moving company and spend much of their social time together as well with Mile’s wife Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and their adorable child Sean.

The movie starts off as a goofy comedy as Collin tries to avoid getting ensnared by Miles’ clueless misbehavior and they both make fun of the white hipsters taking over Oakland.  Things begin to shift to a more serious drama after Collin witnesses a cop murder a Black man by shooting him in the back.   This is one of those movies where the sequence of events happening close together with a lot of coincidences is extremely unlikely.  But you have to set aside plot machinations to focus on the acting performances and the underlying social message of the film. Particularly well done is that while Collin and Miles have had similar life experiences, nevertheless, the experience for Collin as a Black man is different from what Miles has as a white man, something the latter has to learn.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Within Our Gates (1920)


Title: Within Our Gates
Release Date: January 12, 1920
Director: Oscar Micheaux
Production Company: Micheaux Book & Film Company
Summary/Review:

Within Our Gates is oldest surviving feature film by an African-American filmmaker and it was the second film made by prolific director/writer/producer Oscar Micheaux. It serves as sort of a response to D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and more immediately, the white supremacist violence of the United States’ Red Summer of 1919. It turns the tables on racist depictions of Blacks people as “primitives” by depicting the real depravity of white America. It also depicts its Black protagonists as exemplars of the “New Negro” movement, assertive and self-confident about their having a significant role in American business and politics, and also intent on displaying Black people as upstanding members of society.

The film portrays the trials of Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer), a young woman who works at a school for Black children in the South and travels to the North to raise money for the school. On her travels she has her purse stolen and gets hit by a car while trying to save a child. On the upside she also meets the handsome Dr. Vivian (Charles D. Lucas) and the white philanthropist Mrs. Elena Warwick (Mrs. Evelyn), who eventually decides to donate $50,000 to the school. The final segment of the film features a flashback to Sylvia’s past and features brutal depictions of her family being lynched while a white man attempts to rape Sylvia.

While the movie pulls no punches on white racism, including a “Lillian Gish character” – Mrs. Geraldine Stratton (Bernice Ladd), a Southern woman who is a segregationist and anti-suffragist, it also doesn’t portray all Black people in a positive manner. Among the cast are Larry (Jack Chenault), who fails to woo Sylvia, and is a thief and a murderer. There also is a Black preacher who encourages his congregation to accept white supremacy in return for small donations from white people. Perhaps the most unsettling character is Efrem (E.G. Tatum), a servant who likes to spread gossip to gain favor with white people and falsely accuses Sylvia’s father (William Starks) of murdering a white man, inciting the mob that lynches her family.

The plot of the movie is disjointed, and like a lot of silent films it highly melodramatic. Also, the sociopolitical message is heavy-handed, but it probably had to be to get the point across in 1920. Despite this, I think Within Our Gates is a remarkable fictional document of the real issues of African-Americans in the early 20th century. I don’t think Hollywood would attempt to grapple with this issues for several more decades. This is definitely a movie that should be better known and viewed.

As an aside, I was happy that part of the film is set in Boston. Perhaps not surprisingly, this includes the scene where Sylvia is hit by a car.  I don’t believe it was filmed on location though, as it appears that most of the movie was filmed in Chicago.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Constant Rabbit by Jasper Fforde


Author: Jasper Fforde
Title: The Constant Rabbit
Publication Info: Viking (2020)
Other Books Read By the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

I’ve been a fan of Jasper Fforde’s works for many years and there are some things I’ve come to expect. 1) Elements of the fantastical in an otherwise ordinary world and 2) the characters in the story live under autocratic world in a dystopia.  The fantastical element of this book is that an unexplained event caused rabbits to take on human forms. The dystopia is that the British government has fallen under control of rightwing extremists who use fear to discriminate against the anthropomorphized rabbits. The dystopia is in effect the Britain of UKIP and Brexit (or the United States of Tea Party and Trump) and the metaphor isn’t even slightly nuanced.

The story is told from the perspective of Peter Knox, a human who is especially skilled in distinguish among rabbits and thus works as a Spotter for a draconian government organization Rabbit Compliance Taskforce.  Knox represents the the liberal person who is sympathetic to the cause of the oppressed but doesn’t want to get involved. In the novel, a rabbit family moves in next door to Knox including Constance, a rabbit Knox was acquainted with in college to whom he maintains an attraction. Over the course of the novel Knox is drawn into the rabbit resistance at the same time the government advances its plan to suppress the rabbits once and for all.

What I love about Fforde’s novels is that when he creates an alternate universe he always dives in deep into the detail about how the universe works.  The universe of anthropomorphic rabbits is no exception.  Fforde does a great job creating the culture and everyday life of the rabbit world that seems true to their species and their magical transformation. I particularly like a scene late in the novel when a rabbit lawyer is able to find loopholes in case against Knox in order to have the charges dropped.

This may not be my favorite Fforde novel but it is still a very good one. And if heavy-handed analogies to current events are not your thing, be warned that this book is full of them. But I believe it still works as an effective commentary and satire.

Favorite Passages:

Somebody once said that the library is actually the dominant life form on the planet. Humans simply exist as the reproductive means to achieve more libraries.

‘I fully appreciate what you’re saying, Peter,’ he said, which was Mallett shorthand for ‘I would utterly reject what you’re saying if I were listening, which I’m not’, ‘and all I want to do is raise awareness,’ which was, again, Mr Mallett’s shorthand for ‘I think I’ll stir up a whole heap of trouble and hope that in the ensuing scrum I’ll get what I want but not be held accountable for it’. He went on: ‘We must remain utterly vigilant at all times, and I’ll be honest, Peter, I didn’t have you pegged as a friend to rabbits.’

‘And don’t say you’re not personally responsible,’ continued Mr Ffoxe, ‘because you are. Your tacit support of the status quo is proof of your complicity, your shrugging indifference a favourable vote in support of keeping things exactly as they are. I’m not the murderer, Knox, you are – you and all your pathetic little naked primate cousins with their silly hairstyles and gangly limbs and overdeveloped sense of entitlement and self-serving delusion.’

While most humans are wired to be reasonably decent, a few are wired to be utter shits – and they do tend to tip the balance.’

‘Perhaps that’s what satire does – not change things wholesale but nudge the collective consciousness in a direction that favours justice and equality.

The bears in Oregon generally kept to themselves, but had recently been given Second Amendment rights, so were legally allowed to shoot hunters in self-defence – and did so quite frequently, much to the annoyance of hunters, who considered it ‘manifestly unfair’ because the bears, now suitably armed, were actually better hunters than they were.

The way we see it, London is just one massive money-laundering scheme attached to an impressive public transport system and a few museums, of which even the most honest has more stolen goods than a lock-up garage in Worcester rented by a guy I know called Chalky.’

‘Humans have a very clear idea about how to behave, and on many occasions actually do. But it’s sometimes disheartening that correct action is drowned out by endless chitter-chatter, designed not to find a way forward but to justify petty jealousies and illogically held prejudices. If you’re going to talk, try to make it relevant, useful and progressive rather than simply distracting and time-wasting nonsense, intended only to justify the untenable and postpone the real dialogue that needs to happen.’

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending October 24


Code Switch :: Is Trump Really That Racist?

Trump says the quiet part out loud, but a panel of experts evaluates US Presidents over the past 50 years and finds that many of them enabled racism through policy and laws.

Planet Money :: Frame Canada

A whistleblower exposes the propaganda campaign he created to (succesfully) make Americans believe that medical care in Canada is inferior to that of the United States.

The Thirty20Eight :: Disney Princess Non-Princesses & Non-Princess Princesses

What is a Disney Princess and who makes the cut? A surprisingly fascinating discussion of a cultural phenomenon.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Dies Irae

From medieval chants to symphonic compositions to the soundtracks of blockbuster films, a pattern of four notes has served to represent death.

What Next :: First Timers: Out of Prison and Finally Able to Vote

Incarceration strips American citizens of their right to vote, sometimes even after they are released. This podcast focuses on one formerly incarcerated person who will be participating in voting for the first time this year.

RUNNING TALLY OF PODCAST OF THE WEEK APPEARANCES

Book Review: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson


Author: Isabel Wilkerson
Title: Caste : The Origins of our Discontents
Narrator: Robin Wiles
Publication Info: Random House (Audio), 2020
Summary/Review:

The author of the remarkable work on the history of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, returns with a book about systems of caste.  Wilkerson focuses on three of the most deeply entrenched caste systems in world history: India’s millennia-old system, the subjugation of Jews in Nazi Germany, and the continued inequality of Blacks in the United States that persists even after dismantling slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

Through the lens of caste, which Wilkerson says trumps both class and race, we can understand how inequality persists and what can be done to dismantle it. Wilkerson works through eight pillars of caste and richly illustrates it with examples from history and current events.  Wilkerson also frequently draws upon examples from her own experience as a professional Black woman being treated as an inferior.  The book is eye-opening and sobering, and it is one that I believe should be on everyone’s must-read list.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending July 11


Last week I had no podcasts to share.  This week I have a bumper crop!

Afropop Worldwide :: Remembering Tony Allen

Pioneering Nigerian drummer Tony Allen died this spring, shortly after releasing his final album Rejoice, with Hugh Masekela. Afropop Worldwide revisits Allen’s storied career.

BackStory :: The End of the Road: BackStory and the History of Finales in America

My favorite history podcast BackStory comes to an end with an episode about finales in American history, from President George Washington to Mary Tyler Moore.

Hidden Brain :: The Night That Lasted A Lifetime: How Psychology Was Misused In Teen’s Murder Case

The story of a Black Boston teenager, Fred Clay, who spent 38 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted based on evidence the police extracted using hypnosis.

The Last Archive :: For the Birds

Rachel Carson, the extinction of bird species, and climate change.

99% Invisible :: Freedom House Ambulance Service

The modern practice of paramedics serving communities with an emergency medical service began in the Black community in Pittsburgh just over 50 years ago.

60-Second Science :: Animals Appreciate Recent Traffic Lull

One side benefit of the COVID-19 pandemic is the reduced use of automobiles.  Some cities (not Boston, of course) have even taken advantage of creating space for people to walk and bike by closing roads to cars.  But even in rural areas, animals are thriving because of fewer collisions with motor vehicles.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Take Me Who Out to the Ballgame?

If you’re American, you’ve inevitably sung along with the chorus “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” baseball’s unofficial anthem.  But if you’ve never heard the chorus, you may not know that the song is about a woman who wants to watch baseball at a time when that was considered a men’s only activity.  The podcast explores the history of how the song went “viral” and features music by Chicago White Sox organist Nancy Faust.

Throughline :: The Long Hot Summer

Civil disturbances in Black communities in America in 1967 lead President Johnson to call the Kerner Commission. The commission’s report revealed evidence of police violence that was criticized and ignored at the time, but still reads as a diagnoses of our present-day crises.


Movie Review: Birth of a Movement (2017)


TitleBirth of a Movement
Release Date: February 6, 2017
Director: Susan Gray and Bestor Cram
Production Company: Northern Light Productions
Summary/Review:

This documentary is about William Monroe Trotter, a civil rights leader and newspaper editor in Boston in the early 20th century.  Raised in a well-to-do family and Harvard educated, Trotter advocated for more radical civil rights activism than his peers such as Booker T. Washington.  He participated in founding the NAACP, but ultimately did not find it radical enough.

The documentary is also about D.W. Griffith, the groundbreaking filmmaker, who made the first Hollywood blockbuster in 1915.  Released 50 years after the end of the Civil War and based on a novel  called The Clansman, the film was eventually re-titled Birth of Nation. The movie depicts the Civil War through a sympathetic portrayal of the insurgent Southerners.  The post-war Reconstruction is depicted as a time when bestial, sexually-aggressive Black men (portrayed by white actors in blackface) ran rampant until the Ku Klux Klan restores order.

The movie gained widespread acclaim and opposition as Griffith opened it in cities across the country, and even held the first ever film screening in the White House for President Woodrow Wilson.  Knowing that Boston had a history of supporting abolition and Black civil rights, Griffith targeted the city for an opening knowing that success there would lead to widespread distribution of the film.  Trotter organized massive protests against the film’s opening at Tremont Theatre across from Boston Common.  While the protests failed to stop the screening, Trotter’s protests did invigorate a new direction for Black civil rights activism.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Freedom is a Constant Struggleby Angela Davis


Author: Angela Davis
Title: Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement
Publication Info: Haymarket Books (2016)
Summary/Review:

This books collects several interviews with long-time activists Angela Davis as well as some articles and speeches.  The downside to this collection is that she touches on some of the same issues in each of the pieces (as you would expect of someone delivering speeches to new audiences) but the format of this collection doesn’t allow the reader to see Davis delve deep into any of the issues.

Davis reflects on the Civil Rights movement and feminist movies, her involvement in each, and their accomplishments.  She also compares it to the revival of activism in the Black Lives Matter movement that rose out of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri against the police killing of Michael Brown.  Davis urges the reader/listener to recognize the intersectionality of movements and that Americans need to broaden their scope to include global crises in their activism (with a particular emphasis on Palestine).

Davis always offers harsh truths but is never disparaging of efforts towards revolutionary change that are incomplete.  Instead she encourages the reader to keep trying and keep struggling.  I’m particular impressed by her reflections that Black Americans truly defined democracy since they are the ones who advocated for true freedom, which is more than civil rights.  I have had this book for some time and to my shame only got around to reading it now, but I’m glad I’ve read since it speaks to issues that are front and center in the current moment.

Favorite Passages:

Trying and trying again. Never stopping. That is a victory in itself. Everyone and everything tells you that “outside” you will not succeed, that it is too late, that we live in an epoch where a revolution cannot happen anymore. Radical changes are a thing of the past. You can be an outsider, but not outside the system, and you can have political beliefs, even radical ones, but they need to stay within the bounds of the permissible, inside that bubble that has been drawn for you by the elites.


It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.


It’s very interesting that during the commentary on Ferguson, someone pointed out that the purpose of the police is supposed to be to protect and serve. At least, that’s their slogan. Soldiers are trained to shoot to kill. We saw the way in which that manifested itself in Ferguson.


The civil rights movement was very successful in what it achieved: the legal eradication of racism and the dismantling of the apparatus of segregation. This happened and we should not underestimate its importance. The problem is that it is often assumed that the eradication of the legal apparatus is equivalent to the abolition of racism. But racism persists in a framework that is far more expansive, far vaster than the legal framework. Economic racism continues to exist. Racism can be discovered at every level in every major institution—including the military, the health care system, and the police. It’s not easy to eradicate racism that is so deeply entrenched in the structures of our society, and this is why it’s important to develop an analysis that goes beyond an understanding of individual acts of racism and this is why we need demands that go beyond the prosecution of the individual perpetrators.


I fear that if we don’t take seriously the ways in which racism is embedded in structures of institutions, if we assume that there must be an identifiable racist… The “bad apples” type of… …who is the perpetrator, then we won’t ever succeed in eradicating racism.


But if one looks at the history of struggles against racism in the US, no change has ever happened simply because the president chose to move in a more progressive direction. Every change that has happened has come as a result of mass movements—from the era of slavery, the Civil War, and the involvement of Black people in the Civil War, which really determined the outcome.


Many people are under the impression that it was Abraham Lincoln who played the major role, and he did as a matter of fact help to accelerate the move toward abolition, but it was the decision on the part of slaves to emancipate themselves and to join the Union Army—both women and men—that was primarily responsible for the victory over slavery. It was the slaves themselves and of course the abolitionist movement that led to the dismantling of slavery. When one looks at the civil rights era, it was those mass movements—anchored by women, incidentally—that pushed the government to bring about change. I don’t see why things would be any different today.


At this point, at this moment in the history of the US I don’t think that there can be policing without racism. I don’t think that the criminal justice system can operate without racism. Which is to say that if we want to imagine the possibility of a society without racism, it has to be a society without prisons. Without the kind of policing that we experience today. I think that different frameworks, perhaps restorative justice frameworks, need to be invoked in order to begin to imagine a society that is secure. I think that security is a main issue, but not the kind of security that is based on policing and incarceration. Perhaps transformative justice provides a framework for imagining a very different kind of security in the future.


Optimism is an absolute necessity, even if it’s only optimism of the will, as Gramsci said, and pessimism of the intellect. What has kept me going has been the development of new modes of community. I don’t know whether I would have survived had not movements survived, had not communities of resistance, communities of struggle. So whatever I’m doing I always feel myself directly connected to those communities and I think that this is an era where we have to encourage that sense of community particularly at a time when neoliberalism attempts to force people to think of themselves only in individual terms and not in collective terms. It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.


Deep understandings of racist violence arm us against deceptive solutions. When we are told that we simply need better police and better prisons, we counter with what we really need. We need to reimagine security, which will involve the abolition of policing and imprisonment as we know them. We will say demilitarize the police, disarm the police, abolish the institution of the police as we know it, and abolish imprisonment as the dominant mode of punishment. But we will have only just begun to tell the truth about violence in America.


As many times as I’ve spoken during Black History Month, I never tire of urging people to remember that it wasn’t a single individual or two who created that movement, that, as a matter of fact, it was largely women within collective contexts, Black women, poor Black women who were maids, washerwomen, and cooks. These were the people who collectively refused to ride the bus.


But freedom is still more expansive than civil rights. And in the sixties there were some of us who insisted that it was not simply a question of acquiring the formal rights to fully participate in a society, but rather it was also about the forty acres and the mule that was dropped from the abolitionist agenda in the nineteenth century. It was about economic freedom. It was about substantive freedoms. It was about free education. It was about free health care. Affordable housing. These are issues that should have been on the abolitionist agenda in the nineteenth century, and here we are in the twenty-first century and we still can’t say that we have affordable housing and health care, and education has thoroughly become a commodity. It has been so thoroughly commoditized that many people don’t even know how to understand the very process of acquiring knowledge because it is subordinated to the future capacity to make money. So it was about free education and free health care and affordable housing. It was about ending the racist police occupation of Black communities. These were some of the demands raised by the Black Panther Party.


I tell you that in the United States we are at such a disadvantage because we do not know how to talk about the genocide inflicted on indigenous people. We do not know how to talk about slavery. Otherwise it would not have been assumed that simply because of the election of one Black man to the presidency we would leap forward into a postracial era.


For some time now I have been involved in efforts to abolish the death penalty and imprisonment as the main modes of punishment. I should say that it is not simply out of empathy with the victims of capital punishment and the victims of prison punishment, who are overwhelmingly people of color. It is because these modes of punishment don’t work. These forms of punishment do not work when you consider that the majority of people who are in prison are there because society has failed them, because they’ve had no access to education or jobs or housing or health care. But let me say that criminalization and imprisonment could not solve other problems.


We will have to do something quite extraordinary: We will have to go to great lengths. We cannot go on as usual. We cannot pivot the center. We cannot be moderate. We will have to be willing to stand up and say no with our combined spirits, our collective intellects, and our many bodies.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Just Mercy (2019)


Title: Just Mercy
Release Date: December 25, 2019
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Production Company: Endeavor Content | One Community | Participant Media
Macro Media | Gil Netter Productions | Outlier Society
Summary/Review:

This movie flew under radar when it was released last Christmas, but it was available for free on streaming networks in June, so I thought I’d check it out.  The movie is based on the true story of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and adapted from his book of the same name.  Stevenson is a Harvard-trained lawyer and as an idealistic young man we see him move to Alabama to begin the Equal Justice Initiative. With the support of local activist Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) he works to represent poor prisoners, including death row inmates, get proper legal representation.

The main plot of the movie relates to the case of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of white teenage girl  in Monroeville (a town the is shown to be proud of  its connection with Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird). Stevenson sees that Johnny D. was convicted primarily on the testimony of another prisoner, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), who received a lighter sentence in exchange, and that witnesses who saw Johnny D at the time of the crime (including a cop) were not called at all.

I expect it is no spoiler to note that Stevenson will get Johnny D.’s conviction overturned, but the procedures and indiginities he has to go through still create a lot of tension. The early 1990s were a time when “tough on crime” was at its post-Jim Crow era peak, so its amazing that Stevenson is able to succeed (compare this movie with When They See Us, the story of the Central Park Five case happening around the same time). There is also a subplot involving another death row inmate, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam veteran whose mental health was shattered by PTSD and is convicted for planting a bomb that unintentionally kills someone. Some of the most harrowing scenes in the film relate to Richardson’s case.

The movie falls back on some of the cliches of civil rights themed biopics, but it does stand a notch above them.  Jordan and Foxx are absolutely spectacular in acting their roles, and they are a joy to watch.  The movie also foregrounds the Black characters, so it avoids Hollywood’s predilection for “white savior” narratives.  If you haven’t seen this movie, check it out while it’s still free (although it would also be worth paying for).

Rating: ***1/2