Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris (2017)

Having picked this up as part of February’s Black History Month (and an ongoing focus on reading AOC* and related topics), I found this to be a really fascinating read about a notable woman who I have not heard of before: journalist Ethel Payne, one of the first African-American female reporters in the U.S. and the first in the White House for several presidents.

Born in 1911 on the south side of Chicago, Payne grew up in a family whose roots were in slavery until the end of the Civil War. Her father worked as a Pullman porter (which meant days away from home) and her mother looked after Payne and her siblings. She was a voracious reader with a Latin teacher mother so education was important in her family. (I can only wonder how many African-American female Latin teachers there were in the U.S. at this time. Not many, I would wager.)

At the start of Payne’s career and wanting to travel further afield, she was adventurous enough to apply (and get accepted) to work in Japan for the Army Special Services Club where she would act as a host at the social club on the base for their servicemen. In 1950, when the Korean War began, she took notes in her journal about the segregated treatment of African-American soldiers. The U.S. Army had been ordered by the President (Truman) to be desegregated but General McCarthy refused. (Grr.) This led, of course, to ongoing social problems, including the issue of AfAm (and others, of course) soldiers having relationships with the local women, whose babies ended up being abandoned by their Japanese mothers. (Culturally, the Japanese were not welcoming of other races or mixed-race children.)

As part of Payne’s social duties, she met another African-American reporter who was in Japan representing the newspaper, The Chicago Defender, a newspaper focused on the large African-American population in Chicago. He handed copies of her notes to his editor stateside, and they ended up being published as a series of articles in the Defender. This was the start of her journalism career.

African-American newspapers were described as “the most predominant media influence on black people… they were our Internet.” (Vernon Jarrett.)

Ethel Payne, pioneering journalist.

Payne was quite a fearless reporter and refused to back down from difficult issues. She covered African-American adoptions and single mothers; she covered the McCarthy trials, and she was assigned to stay on in Washington as the newspaper’s on-the-ground reporter to cover politics. Payne also was accepted to the elite White House Press Corps, the first woman and the first African-American woman to reach their level of access, and she became known for asking tough questions to the presidents of the day, especially those addressing civil rights and other tricky issues (even if it annoyed the politicians).

She was on the front lines for so many huge civil-rights events for the U.S., one, for example, was the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education case about desegregating schools and in fact, Nixon was so irritated with a question that Payne asked him about this that he refused to answer any of her questions for the remainder of his political term.

Additionally, she was sent abroad for several sentinel events, including the Vietnam War and on several Presidential trips to the African continent (again, as the only African-American female journalist). She must have had some lonely moments.

However, as much as her coverage excelled, her editors were not always supportive of her efforts and there were a couple of missteps on her part. However, her legacy as one of the leading lights in journalism during the Civil Rights era remains untarnished and although she is not a household name in the news-reporting world, she should be (and probably would be if she wasn’t an African-American).

This was an amazing story about a woman who refused to back down, both professionally and personally, and in doing so, made her mark in the journalism field. She died in 1991.

(Asterick refers to Authors-of-color, not U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York City. :-))

(Above) Payne confers with then-Vice-President Richard Nixon. (NYT.)

The Family Next Door – John Glatt (2019)

Subtitle: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and their Extraordinary Rescue. (Cue: longest subtitle in the world.)

From the publisher:

On January 14, 2018, a 17-year old girl climbed out of the window of her Perris, Calif., home and dialed 911 with shaking fingers. Struggling to stay calm, she told the operator that she and her 12 siblings – ranging in age from two to 29 – were being abused by their parents. When the dispatcher asked for her address, the girl hesitated. “I’ve never been out,” she stammered.

To their family, neighbors and online friends, Louise and David Turpin presented a picture of domestic bliss: dressing their 13 children in matching outfits and buying them expensive gifts. But what police discovered when they entered the Turpin home would eclipse the most shocking child abuse cases in history.

This wasn’t an easy read (in terms of the topic) but it was a quick read (in terms of how much time it took to actually turn the pages). The topic of this severe ongoing child abuse was so tough for me (because the parents were so very horrible), in fact, that there were several times that I nearly put down the book unfinished, and this would have been a shame on several levels.

I really finished it because I felt that I owed the book’s subjects, the Turpin family siblings, that I should finish it as a way of supporting them. (And I don’t have any child abuse in my family or anything and yet it was still a wickedly hard read to complete.)

If you’re not familiar with the case, this is basically a fairly straightforward recounting of the Turpin family, made up of a truly terrible mother and father and their thirteen poor children. The parents created a cult of sorts within the house which enabled the two adults to seriously abuse all thirteen of the kids every day of their lives, from ages newborn to late twenties. How did this happen? Why didn’t the older children run away when they could? Why did no one know this was going on?

Written by true-crime reporter John Glatt, this is a pretty well researched story that covers just how the Turpin parents managed to keep such tight control over their growing brood of kids – and yet no one (not a family member, not a neighbor, no one) noticed (or alerted authorities). The parents kept everything awful happening only within the house by keeping their children inside under lock and key (and sometimes chained to the bed for hours, days and weeks at a time).

Glatt goes into the background and history of the family, and, as is typically the case in situations like these, it’s related to the development of a cult-like situation, to a twisting and manipulation by those with power, and a testament to the ripples that can occur through generations of truly awful parenting.

The Turpin parents would not just abuse all these kids, but also do things that would amount to torture for children.

The Turpin kids (faces blocked out).

For example, the children were never given enough food or drink (leading to developmental delays) but the mother would buy a fruit pie and leave it on the kitchen counter in full display of these hungry kids. However, no one would be allowed to actually eat the pie and so, despite being really hungry, the family would have to watch the pie gradually rot in its own plate.

At Christmas, the parents would buy loads of expensive presents but again, the kids were not actually allowed to touch or use the presents. For example, one Christmas, each of the 13 siblings were bought a new outside bike to play with but the bikes were kept for years, rusting under an overhanging shelter with the tags still on them whilst the kids were imprisoned inside.

Education was another thing withheld. Some of the younger siblings (including young teenagers) were not taught the whole of the alphabet, despite the home being officially registered as a home school with the state. It’s this never-ending litany of awful things that almost made me put the book down, but I felt a responsibility to the Turpin siblings to finish it out.

There were two frustrating things with how the book was written, however. First was that Glatt, as a journalistic reporter, relies far too much on just one mental health/child abuse expert and only refers to this one source throughout the entire book. Additionally, this was also a mental health expert who hadn’t even met the family and so was entirely removed from the true story. What? You could only find ONE expert to talk about this story with all its twists and turns? No other sources out there who could, perhaps, address the world of religious cults, of child abuse, of family relationships…? Hmm. So that struck me as just being very lazy on the part of the author.

Second, there wasn’t that much information to finish off the story so it was a little dissatisfactory from a reader’s perspective. I can understand why – the Turpin siblings are off living their lives as best they can with new names and new environments – but it was still frustrating as a reader to not know a few more details, so the book ended rather suddenly for me.

I don’t know that it could have ended any other way, to be honest, but after all the detail in the first three-quarters of the book, the recounting of the court case seemed repetitive and superficial. But then that goes back to protecting the anonymity of the remaining Turpin siblings and their new lives. We don’t learn any further details about them, but I can completely understand the why and I only hope that they are thriving with support.

They Called Us Enemy – George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott and Harmony Becker (2019)

If you’re on FB at any time, you might look up George Takei (yes, that one) and read his feed because he has some good stuff going on. You also might be interested in looking up this graphic memoir because it’s fascinating and it’s really well done.

Takei is a son of first-generation immigrants from Japan – his father’s parents had immigrated from there and his mother, although born in the U.S., had been sent to Japan to go to school. George (and his young brother and sister) were raised with a foot in both cultures – all U.S. citizens but fully cognizant of their Japanese roots.

(Interestingly, George gets his name from Anglophile father after King George VI and his brother, Henry, is named after King Henry VIII [since he was a chubby healthy infant when he was born]. The sister didn’t get a royal name though, but was named after one of the parents’ friends for whom both the parents had high admiration.)

So, the Takei’s were a typical immigrant family, working hard and minding their own [dry cleaning] business. It was at the start of the American involvement in WWII and although the war seemed distant, all that changed when Japan launched its attack on Pearl Harbor catapulting the U.S. into this event. It also immediately changed the lives of the Takeis and thousands of other Japanese-American families.

I’d been sort of familiar about the awful history of the U.S. internment (really, imprisonment) of Japanese-Americans at the start of WWII, but reading about Takei’s experience of this was heartbreaking. And the fact that the Powers That Be reacted to an outside force in such a knee-jerk and paranoid way reminds me of another U.S. administration, 70 years later, but who’s naming names? ;-]

George Takei, actor and SJW.

This is a thoughtful read through the memories of Takei from when he was a young boy and from the after-dinner conversations that he has held with (mostly?) his father, it seems. I really appreciated how honest Takei is when he admits that his childhood memories of how fun and novel this whole situation was for him as a kid starkly contrasts with his parents’ more honest appraisal of how this edict uprooted them and forced them to lose almost all their possessions.

Looking back upon this time, it’s quite astonishing that the U.S. government allowed this situation to happen (let alone continue for a few years), but sometimes power corrupts. Hmm.

Good read about a shameful historic time that has led me down a few rabbit holes since finishing it.

February 2020 Reading Review

February has passed pretty quickly for me, but it’s also a short month and smack in the middle of the school semester so it’s not surprising really. Still, weird to believe that Spring Break is just around the corner and then, it’s only a matter of weeks until the summer break. Whoosh. Time does fly faster as you get older, doesn’t it? 😉

My February reading was steady but slow, sadly. The most impactful read for me (as part of Black History Month) was, no doubts about it, Invisible Man by Ellison. What an amazing read. (It’s also a Scary Big Book [in terms of page count – 581 pp], but the story carries you along nicely for the most part.  

I must admit to wading in the weeds of confusion for parts of it, but the big picture is that it’s a memorable read and is a classic for a reason.

If you haven’t read it, do pull this title off the shelf. Just know that there are passages that are a little dense (or perhaps it was me who was a little dense?) Just keep on truckin’ through these and know that it all makes sense in the end. 😉

To the actual titles:

In progress:

  • Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris (NF/auto) POC
  • Inside this Place, Not of It: Narrative from Women’s Prisons – Robin Levi and Aeylet Waldman (NF/bio) POC
  • Total number of books read in February4
  • Total number of pages read1,229 pages (av. 308 pages)
  • Fiction/Non-Fiction: 2 F and NF
  • Male authors: 4. Female authors: 0. (Yikes.)
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 1 library book and 3 owned books. 0 e-books this month.
  • Books off TBR pile this year: 12. (Go me.)

Plans for March? Spring Break is on the horizon, so very looking forward to that (as are the students!) I’m also going to continue the POC topic/author and the reading-my-own-TBR trends and yet, at the same time, open my reading selection up to the rest of my TBR pile.  There are some other authors I’ve been itching to get my little hands on…

And I’m not sure if I’ve told you this yet, but I’m also on a serious book-buying ban. It started on January 27 and I’m holding out until the end of April. An occasional library book can get thrown in the mix, but for the most part, my focus is on my own TBR. It’s going pretty well so far – only one book purchase and it was for the Kindle. :-}

Onward and upward, my friends.

The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears – Dinaw Mengestu (2007)

Continuing the focus on my own TBR, this title floated to the surface as part of the ongoing recognition of BHM and making a concerted effort to read more POC authors and related topics. This title, written by Ethiopian-American writer, Dinaw Mengestu, follows the life of an Ethiopian immigrant and struggling small shopkeeper living in Washington DC’s Logan Circle, a dilapidated but slowly gentrifying neighborhood.

The narrative also draws upon strong themes of identity, of belonging/not belonging, of friendship, money, immigration… The story covers a lot of themes, but it stays connected through the ongoing friendship of Sepha Stephanos, the shopkeeper, and his two African immigrant friends, Ken (from Kenya) and Joe (from the Congo). There’s also an important overlap with Sepha’s new neighbor, white history professor Judith and her mixed-race daughter, Naomi. 

Different though all these characters may be to each other and different though their paths through life are, there are enough commonalities for the reader to understand the overlaps between them – some are more closely overlapped than others – but they are all struggling with the feeling of belonging: to the neighborhood, to the city, to the country… It’s really well written by Mengestu and emphasizes that lonely feeling of displacement, whether you were born in a place or not.

The three African friends (Sepha, Joe and Ken) all met earlier in their immigrant journeys when they were still quite new to the US and each had fled their home countries due to unrest. The one thing that they have in common is that they enjoy passing the time playing their own game of Dictators.

As they hang out together, each pretty lonely and left out from the American life surrounding them, the three men list the many dictators from the African continent, old and new, and vow that the game continues so long as they can continue to list these. However, it’s not played in a mean or thoughtless way. It’s mostly due to their connected African selves, their identities from years ago and the ones that they have not left behind, despite having committed to life in the States. 

When new (and white) next-door neighbor Judith and her young daughter move on to the street, they stick out. Judith’s new home is a ramshackle but large house, and there are weeks of renovations before they move in. It’s also the only house on the block that receives that sort of care from its owner, and so there are numerous reasons why Judith is kept at a distance by her immediate neighbors: she is white (in a non-white neighborhood), her intentions are not well understood, she is far more wealthy then most of the residents (witness the renovations of her new home), and she is an academic (when most residents are working class, if that). She also brings in one of the few children who lives on the street, so there are lots of reasons for her to be viewed with suspicion by the long-time residents on the block. 

So the matter of identity and belonging occurs to the other characters as well: for example, take Mrs. Davis, the elderly busybody widow who watches everyone and their business. She has lived on this street for decades and has seen it go into a decline. She is lonely but doesn’t really mean any harm, but she can’t adapt to the changes as they happen around her, so she is also suffering from a feeling of dislocation and not-belonging. 

Back to the book: Sepha’s business acumen is not that strong and with his store being located in a disintegrating neighborhood (with gentrification moving in very slowly), there is an overall feeling of dread in the story. How long will Sepha’s little shop survive in this section of the city? How will Sepha survive if the store goes under? Sepha’s friends are also surviving on a thin knife-edge, and even though Ken is an engineer, his life is still unstable. The men’s friendship, actually, is the most stable thing in each of their lives and so it plays a really important role for them (although they may not realize it). 

And this ongoing feeling of doom threads its way through the whole plot. There is the gradual building-up of racial unrest in the city (and the country). There is income inequality and all that that brings with it. There is change and instability in the neighborhood which can be hard to deal with for many people (especially if they have no control or impact over it – which they don’t.) 

It’s a powder keg in a way and all it needs is one flame. When Judith’s house is set on fire… 

In fact, the only character who manages to pretty much escape these feelings of loneliness and dislocation is 11-year old Naomi, Judith’s daughter from a broken relationship with a Mauritanian businessman father.  Being a mixed-race child, Naomi is able to float, in a way, between black and white, between new and old resident, between belonging and not-belonging. Although she is really a child, she is actually more immune to these negative feelings of the grown-ups, perhaps because she is not old enough yet to recognize what they mean.

So, there is lots to think about in this book, but don’t let that put you off. It’s also just a plain good read with a story that keeps you turning the pages and wondering about the characters. Mengestu is a good writer (witness his loads of awards) and despite coming out of an MFA program, this writing does not fall foul to the narrative templates that can sometimes arise with such program graduates. This is a good read. Recommended.

BlacKKKlansman – Ron Stallworth (2018)

Continuing on with my focused reading for Black History Month (and also continuing my focus on my own TBR), I selected “BlackkKlansman: A Memoir” by Ron Stallworth (2018) since it met both of those criteria. My curiosity was also piqued by the movie (directed by Spike Lee) on the book’s events, so the title seemed to tick a lot of boxes for me.

I wasn’t that well-versed in what the book actually covered (apart from an African-American man infiltrating the KKK – a true story), and so I entered the read with a mostly-open mind about it. It turned out that it was both a better AND a worse read than I had originally expected.

To the narrative: Ron Stallworth was a young detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department, at a time when he was the very first POC to hold that coveted law enforcement position. At the same time as having to prove his worth to his colleagues, he also applied (as a lark) for membership to Colorado Springs branch of the Ku Klux Klan. Yes, Stallworth is black. Yes, to the Ku Klux Klan. So, how did this actually work?

Before I read the book, I had the idea in my head of Stallworth attending the meetings in person but being hidden by wearing the stupid bedsheet uniform of the KKK, but it turns out that he didn’t actually attend the meetings but sent in a (white) surrogate, which in retrospect was the safest and most sensible thing to do. (I just had it different in my head.)

So the Colorado Springs KKK accept his application (without knowing that Stallworth was black) and the detective continues to develop his relationship with the leadership of the pretty small group by only having telephone conversations and sending this other guy to the actual F2F encounters. It’s actually quite funny to think about this African-American law officer having detailed phone conversations with a local leader of the KKK. (I was also rather glad that the KKK leader is also portrayed as being highly incompetent and badly organized but with high goals for increasing membership.)

The actual campaign of undercover KKK membership only continues for a few months, but in these weeks, Stallworth manages quite a lot of contact with various KKK officials, including David Duke, the Grand Wizard (dumb name). However, as the book continues and I turned the pages, I started to become pretty distracted by several things which detracted from the narrative plot.

One was that the book was really terribly written. I understand that Stallworth is not a professional writer, but that’s what editors are for. However, in the Acknowledgments at the end of the book, the author goes out of his way to thank an editor for his work on the writing, so it may have been that the writing had been even worse than before it had been edited. (Hard to imagine – repetition galore. Poorly organized points. More repetition. Holding grudges longer than 20 years for former work colleagues and supervisors. Leaving out important points that make it hard to follow. More repetition… The readerly cringing never ended.)

And, after all this (and after more than 200 pages), as Stallworth is summarizing up the operation, he admits that it didn’t actually achieve anything of note re: the KKK. It didn’t change anything. It didn’t really add important previously-unknown knowledge to the files. He’d also “lost” the only photo that proved he did what he did with David Duke (and he bragged about this to no end – but come on. Show me the money! ;-)) This actually became endlessly irritating for me as the reader and when I turned that final page (because I stubbornly refused to DNF this one), I was pretty annoyed at having wasted my time (and money) on this.

I think that Stallworth was brave to attempt to infiltrate a group such as the KKK (that’s the good thing about the book), but in the end, it seemed like a lot of fuss for not much result, so I’m not sure how good the associated movie is going to be (unless they take some creative leaps in how things turned out).

This could have been such a good read – it’s a brave project but the courage is rather covered up in the author insisting on airing his personal slights to former colleagues (repeatedly) and professing to having lost some of the evidence (apart from a notebook and a few files). To add to this, Stallworth reports that the Colorado Springs Police Chief made the whole case “disappear” from official records and so there is no trace of it actually happening.

Hmm. It all makes me rather wonder about the whole situation. I’m pretty disappointed in this read as it could have been sooooo much better and I’m very surprised that the publisher actually went ahead and published it as it was written. It was a shame in the end.

Good story but so spoiled by the other factors that you just couldn’t appreciate it in the end. Probably not going to see the movie (even though I like Jordan Peele).