Bailey’s Cafe – Gloria Naylor (1992)

naylor1A recent find at our local FoL Spring Book Sale, this was a really good read and was actually just what I was looking for when I picked it up. I’ve heard a lot of talk about Naylor’s more famous book, “The Women of Brewster Place” (1982) and had originally gone looking for that title, but when I couldn’t find that one, this title popped up and into my grubby mitts and for once, I actually read a book that I had bought the same weekend that I had bought it. (A lot of times, I may purchase a book and then read anything BUT that title, but this weekend, there was the perfect overlap between my reading goals and the titles available. Dosen’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s simply magic.)

I’d been looking for a fairly comfortable domestic book written by a POC* author, and so although it wasn’t necessarily my first title choice, it ended up being a fantastic read all the same. I had wanted to read about several characters who perhaps lived in a community where their lives overlapped at times – similar to what I call a “tapestry” book where there are multiple characters (the different colored threads in a piece of fabric) whose individual lives overlap and interweave to create a multi-colored picture that’s richer for the overlap. (Similar to a tapestry in my mind.)

38550903nayl_20010701_01867.jpgI had heard of Naylor as the author of “The Women of Brewster Place”, but going along the shelves, I could only find this title. However, no worries. Everything that I had read about the Brewster Place novel had been good, so I considered this to be a low-risk proposition to pick up another title.

Additionally, it also met the criteria for another ongoing foci that I have right now of reading more POC authors and POC topics. I have a tendency to revert to Northern European authors and titles, presumably because they are more likely to come to mind, but after having had such a good experience reading authors of African-American descent in February’s Black History Month, I am determined to keep that awareness up throughout the remainder of the year until the pattern becomes something ingrained and one that I don’t have to particularly think about.

So, Naylor it was and I opened this title, “Bailey’s Café” late on Saturday night. After being unable to put it down for any long time between then and Sunday evening, I turned the last page with a contented sigh. It had been a great read.

But – pray. What is it about, I hear you ask? It’s a plot that revolves around a hole-in-the-wall café in an unspecified town and via the proprietor of the café, we are introduced to some of the regulars who come in for a (bad) cup of coffee and a (good) piece of pie or similar. It’s an idiosyncratic place with no menu and set food on particular days regardless of what you’re actually like to eat. It’s a home away from home for some of these characters and through the eyes of the café owner, we meet each of these memorable personalities with the common meeting place of the restaurant.

It’s a fairly straightforward read, with no chicanery in playing with time or other narrative structures. However, just because it’s a straightforward read in that sense doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s boring and predictable as each character is different and has a story (as you might guess) and towards the end there is some magical realism (but don’t let that scare you off).

There’s a transgender woman, someone who runs a brothel (except it’s much more than that to the people who live within its walls), and several other characters who have had (or currently lead) non-conformist lives, but Naylor’s storytelling carries no judgement for these people. The café is an accepting place for its customers, and as each person enters the building, the café owner (through whose eyes we see everyone) describes his take on each life and tells us some of the background of his customers, while at the same time, telling us about his own life with wife Nadine.

It’s very well done, and if you’re looking for a good solid read about some believable characters living fairly typical lives (but who fall outside the “norms”) then you’ll dig this read. I’m definitely going to scour around for Naylor’s other work after reading this book. (First one: The Women of Brewster Place…)

Naylor is a great author and has been recognized with a litany of literary awards, including being a recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships and “The Women of Brewster Place” won the National Book Award in 1983. She died in September 2016.

* Note: “POC” is an acronym which refers to “People of Color” meaning any person who is not white. POC individuals may come from any country in any part of the world, but they have a different life experience than the typical white/caucasian person which informs their work.

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General Catch-Up…

catch_upIt’s been a busy few days which has included several new lesson plans, two batches of grading, and the normal day-to-day stuff, which helps to explain the silence in this space.

Actually, it also included one of the houses on our street exploding (!) just before we went to bed and so that took a few days before life resumed its normalcy for us. Quite a week. (And honestly – one of the houses five houses away from us literally exploded. You don’t forget that in a hurry.)

However, despite this, I have been reading and writing (although more slowly than usual) and that’s what I thought we’d catch up with today.

I happened to come across Angela Thomas’ debut YA novel called ‘The Hate U Give” whose plot revolves around a young African-American teenager who is in the same car as her (also AfAm) friend when they get stopped for a perceived infraction by a white police officer and the young man gets shot and killed. The novel moves forward in time as the young woman and her community try to deal with this situation with its murky causes.

Although a heavy (and timely) topic, this novel moves along at a fast pace as it deals with the issue of police-related shooting, morality, race, and modern life in a city, and it’s probably going to make one of my Top Ten Fiction Reads this year. For once, the hype is worth it and I recommend that you pick this up at some point soon and then you can judge for yourself. Thomas does a great job of covering the multiple perspectives in such an incident without resorting to usual state of black-and-white thinking, and whether you agree with how the characters act or not, it’s probably going to leave you thinking once you’re turned that last page.

file3I also learned the acronym behind Tupac’s phrase, Thug Life which (according to the author) means The Hate U Give Little Infants F**ks Everyone (or maybe Everything?), meaning that it’s important to look after every person in your community whoever they may be. True that.

Moving on and to give myself a change in pace, I picked up a psychological mystery story, “The Girl Next Door” by Ruth Rendell, which was good fun to read (although oh-so-confusing at first due to playing with time and a lot of characters). I sorted it out in the end and I haven’t read just a mystery for ages, so this was rather fun and read like a hot knife through butter. Now I’m reading through one of America’s Best… series, this one a collection of science and nature from 2011 and edited by the wonderful Mary Roach. Just right for a Monkey Mind…

And then, thinking about a non-complicated plot and also filling in a slot in the Century of Books project that I have going on, I’m also reading the children’s classic, “Swallows and Amazons” by Arthur Ransome (1930). I haven’t read any of this series before, and although I’m not a sailor and have next-to-no-familiarity with sailing terms, I’m enjoying this quick read of two families of children enjoying their island adventures up in the Lake District of England. (Lots of ginger beer et al.)

With the semester fully underway, there have also been loads of events at the university including an entertaining talk by visiting Ruth Reichl, NYT best-selling non-fiction author and restaurant critic, which was really enjoyable. Plus, it’s play season on campus and we went to watch the one-act plays that students both write and perform. Good stuff.

So, it’s been a busy few weeks, but now we’re in the home stretch of the university term, and then I’m looking forward to some time off from work. What to do, where to go… Those are the questions…

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February 2018 Reading Review

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It’s just finishing up the second month of the year and the Spring semester, and everything is going quite swimmingly. 🙂 I’m not teaching that extra class this semester, and it has made a world of difference in terms of work load, stress, etc., so I’m happy that I made the executive decision to not take that on again.

It’s the start of Spring here in West Texas which can mean temperatures from the low 20s to the high 80s, so it’s dressing in layers here for most of the time. Keeps things interesting, let me tell you!

To the books read during February:

So to the numbers:

Total number of books read in February: 8

Total number of pages read: 1,823 pages (av. 228).

Fiction/Non-Fiction: 3 fiction / 4 non-fiction; 0 play. 1 DNF.

Diversity: 6 POC. (Hat tip to Black History Month.) books by women.

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 4 library book, owned book and 1 e-book.

Guilty admission: I ended up DNF-ing Roxanne Gay’s memoir, Hunger. (I just couldn’t click with it, but I did read 150 pages, so not a total loss.)

Plans for March: Read lots. Read widely. 🙂

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Kindred – Octavia E. Butler (1976)

OctaviaEButler_KindredBilled as the first science fiction book to be written and published by an African-American female author, Kindred finds itself quite commonly on community One-Read reading lists across the country, and although written in 1976, it’s still a powerfully relevant read for the world as it is today in America.

The story revolves around the main protagonist, Dana, an African-American who is living in 1976 and working on her writing in CA living with her white boyfriend/partner. One day to her surprise, she passes out after being dizzy, and finds herself waking up by herself in 1815 Maryland on a slavery-run plantation being put into the position of saving a young white boy called Rufus from drowning in the river. It’s only after some time passes that Dana manages to work out that she is slipping through time from 1976 back to the early eighteenth century with the goal of keeping Rufus alive so that he can father her grandfather in modern days, and the only way that she will not influence her future (and her very being alive) is to fight for Rufus.

“The ease. Us, the children… I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.”

Butler keeps the ethnicities of both Dana and Kevin under wraps for quite some time, so as a reader, it’s quite confusing as you read about how the African-American slaves with whom she interacts treat her. To them in their time period, she talks and acts “white”, but she looks African-American, so it’s tres confusing for everyone for quite some time. Eventually, Dana learns that her time slippage has the mission, and then as the chapters progress, the story fits together really well.

It’s interesting that when Butler published this novel in 1976, it was the two-hundredth anniversary of American independence from the Crown, and about a century after the emancipation of slavery and thus, is an obvious link with that difficult history. It’s much deeper than you realize at first, as the novel is very well written and the relationships between Dana and her fellow slaves are delicately handled. With Dana’s first-person modern POV, the novel seems epistolary in some ways, a reminder of some of the earlier first-person slave narratives except that Dana was born free and then was enslaved (similar to poor old Solomon Northup), as opposed to the more traditional narrative of being a slave and getting one’s freedom, such as was the case for Frederick Douglass and others.

However, despite the serious topic, it’s a fast read. That’s not to say that it’s an easy read — some of the scenes are harrowing in terms of how her fellow slaves are treated or how she herself is treated – but the narrative flows very smoothly and once you get the hang of the how and the why behind this time slippage, everything makes sense. Despite the fact that this is fiction, Butler sets it up so convincingly that at times, I just fell completely into the story itself that it read as though it was actually happening. (Sign of a great writer, methinks.)

Octavia Estelle Butler was an American science fiction writer, and the first African-American female sci-fi writer. Butler was awarded both the Hugo and the Nebula awards, and in 1995, became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. She died in 2006.

I really loved this read and am now interested in reading more of Butler’s work.  Going to toddle off to the library soon…

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Negroland: A Memoir – Margo Jefferson (2015)

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“Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.”

Note: the historical meaning for the term Negroland (or Nigrita) was an old term used in some of the maps of Africa by European map-makers to describe the inland and poorly explored region in West Africa.

Margo Jefferson’s memoir, titled Negroland, addresses the privileges and pains of growing up in a small privileged segment of African-American society, a group that Jefferson calls the black bourgeoisie. This select group of wealthy African-American families called themselves various names: the Colored 400, the Talented Tenth, the colored elite…

Margo_Jefferson_2015No matter what their group name was, it was a world unlike any other for Jefferson and her family. Her father was the head of pediatrics at one of Chicago’s largest black hospitals and her mother played a socialite role, and so Jefferson’s perspective growing up in this rarefied space is unlike most of the other African-American authors whose work I have read in that they did not live in poverty.

This was a challenging read in the end, not because it was hard to read or follow, but because I had mistakenly entered the experience thinking it would be a straight-forward narrative arc, when actually, it’s more of a series of linked and not-linked memories. (I think that this is where some of the reviewers on GoodReads went astray in that they were expecting a fairly chronological read and instead got a more looping and wandering group of events. Several people did not enjoy this at all. It took me by surprise as well, but then I decided to hang on for the ride.)

Jefferson is an intellectual writer and university professor who has been recognized for her critical writing, so this is very well written, and once you get the hang of the book’s style, it works really well. The caveat is that it’s not a traditional read: I was born here, I went to school here, I attended university there… but is much more of a vague and meandering tour of her memories growing up in the era of Jim Crow (and its after-effects) whilst living in a rather removed world of privilege, surrounded by others who were in that same social and racial realm.

It’s a worldview that does not shy away from the indelicate surroundings of race, but one that is also enmeshed in a strict class distinction from other African-American families not so fortunate to have a large bank account. There’s a ripple of dissonance here. Yes, we’ve earned this and we should be allowed to enjoy our good fortune, and we are not going to be held back just because so many others do not have this privileged life.

There’s an uncomfortable push-pull mechanism here in terms of living an African-American upper class life (with the privileges that accompany it), but it’s also a life that seems a bit tenuous at times, in terms of not quite being secure despite their wealth. The surrounding society still has that racial bite that needs to be addressed, and I got the feeling that the Jefferson family are, understandably, irritated and frustrated by this fragile balance despite their healthy bank account and position in their class.

For Jefferson, who grows up in the 1950s and 1960s in Chicago, this insecurity is a heavy burden to bear as she is very aware of how fragile and easily broken this lifestyle of her parents actually is. It’s difficult for her parents (and thus her) to settle in and relax with this set up, and it must have been exhausting trying to balance it all, knowing that a simple racist incident could upset the whole hard-won apple cart. There’s such a responsibility, in some ways, to be more than perfect as “representatives” of successful African-American people in a country that conspired to knock them down at every opportunity.

This wasn’t a comfortable read in any way, but I think that’s the whole point of it for the author. Her whole life has been uncomfortable and ill-fitting in some ways (notably for people outside her own life) so that there is a level of rage below these descriptions of events and of her friends and family, and I think that Jefferson wants you, as a reader, to feel just as out-of-place as she had to.

This was a pretty provocative read for me that I’m still contemplating a few days later.

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(Above) A eighteenth century European map of north African countries,        including Negroland.

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Go Tell It on the Mountain – James Baldwin (1952)

bookxxxxI had no idea of what to expect, but went along for the ride with this book to see how the narrative would go. I’d heard of this title, naturally, but had not read it, and thought this month would be the month to try it.

Hmm. I’m not sure that I can say that I enjoyed (or even understood) the read. It’s strongly influenced by Christianity, specifically the African-American Pentecostal perspective, and so I think, since I’m not religious, that I probably missed half the references and thus didn’t really understand what the book was talking about.

It’s well written – very lyrical – but hell’s bells if I wasn’t mightily confused for the majority of the read. So, this might be a short review!

The title of the book comes from an 1865 African-American spiritual song, “Tell it on the Mountain”, and this book has been highly ranked in both the Modern Library’s 100 English-Language Novels of the 20th Century, and Time Magazine’s 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923-2005.

So – short post today. Glad I read it. Highly unlikely that I will ever read it again. :-}

This title is part of JOMP’s celebration of African-American History Month.

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Native Son – Richard Wright (1940)

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…they needed a certain picture of the world; there was one way of living they preferred above all others; and they were blind to what did not fit. They did not want to see what others are doing if that doing did not feed their own desires. All one had to do was to be bold, do something nobody had thought of…

Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, is one heckuva powerful novel to read, and I can’t believe that it’s not more common in required reading lists for English classes, because it brings up so many discussion points: racism, housing, poverty, education, perseverance… And the writing… It was just great.

To back up a little, let me explain how this title was chosen in the first place. February is African American (or Black) History Month in the U.S., which is I think an important public recognition of the contributions of the African-American people over the years.

I have been wanting to add more POC authors and topics to my TBR, and thus, this reading project was born.

Native Son is a novel that covers the journey of one Bigger Thomas, raised in one room with a single mother and two other siblings, and one of thousands who lived in on the South Side of Chicago (or the Black Belt as Wright describes it). It’s the late 1930’s, and Bigger (like a lot of other people) had stopped his education early due to having to work to support his family. It was during one of the gaps in employment when the crux of this whole matter arises.

Bigger is selected by one of the wealthy philanthropists to get trained to be his chauffeur. It’s win-win for everyone it seems: the rich people feel better for “saving” one of the many poor people, and the guy in the job gets to feed his family. What could possibly go wrong?

Surrounded by desperate people with little access to resources, Bigger is skirting the edge of crime, but it’s not until one night that he actually crosses over into that dark world. After accidentally committing murder one night with someone in his employer’s family, Bigger finds a freedom in himself and his life that he had never experienced before. And once someone has tasted freedom after years of being in chains, it’s very hard to go back…

 “No Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull.”

The novel is divided into three separate parts (Flight, Fear, Fate) and time is very compressed in the story. The whole book’s action happens only over a couple of weeks, and it’s compelling to see Bigger’s life journey as it just spirals and spirals down.

wright_richardWright uses an omniscient POV, so readers can see what everyone is thinking as the narrative progresses, and it’s a really good writing choice to use this as you get to understand the motivations of each person in the story balanced with what the rest of the world sees. The world only sees the actions and reactions of the characters, and without the access to the characters’ thoughts, you can see how things can go very very wrong.

So – to the story itself: Bigger takes the new job eagerly, and meets his employers who allow him to have a room in their big house. You never really know when you might need a chauffeur, and the married couple who hired him thinks themselves very big-hearted to take a boy out of the South Side. Indeed, they have done a lot for the African-American community, donating millions of dollars to black schools, and training centers.

On the first night of his first day of chauffeuring, Bigger takes Mary, the (white) daughter of the house to a party elsewhere, where she stays for a while and picks up a male friend, and then they cruise around, reluctant to go home. Both Mary and her new friend are progressive for the time, so when they want to stop and get a drink or two, they naturally invite Bigger in with them to have a drink as well.

After a while, it gets to be very late and Mary needs to get back to sleep as she’s traveling out of town the next day. She is, however, completely wasted from all the alcohol she’s been drinking, and after dropping her friend off, Bigger is forced to help Mary into the house and put her to bed. No big deal, except that this was 1930’s Chicago, smack in the middle of Jim Crow laws, and “negros” didn’t go into young white lady’s bedrooms at three in the morning.

And then the story ricochets from there, and you go along willingly for the wild ride. Bigger ends up being accused of rape and murder, which is the start of his downfall, as you can imagine. However, as the book progresses, Wright carefully points out all the cultural problems in such a way that you can follow Bigger’s thinking and how easy it was for him to fall into this legal trap.

Murder is wrong, but it was accidental. Why didn’t Bigger just leave Mary in the room? Because one thing happens which triggers a whole onslaught of other related events, but every single stage of this journey is based on faulty cultural assumptions (i.e. White vs. Black), so honestly how could this event have played out any differently? It really couldn’t have, and that’s why it was a really effective writing decision to use the omniscient point of view. Having all the thoughts of each character means that you, as the reader, see the logic in some of the decisions that follow when the book’s characters don’t.

The first part, Fear, is when Wright is setting up the scene of the poverty and high levels of unemployment that the African-American community faces just trying to live their lives. There’s a lot of fear around: white people fear black people, black people fear white people, and almost every action that anyone takes is grounded by being afraid. It’s a fraught time for the country, and such racial tension is easy to be ignited with the open flames of unrest and discontent.

The second part, Flight, is right after Bigger murders Mary, and the events that occur very quickly after that, as Bigger has to leave home to hide from the police. This is a really tense novel, if you haven’t picked that up already, and it was soooo difficult to actually put down. (There are no chapter breaks and no paragraph breaks to take a breath. You are as exhausted as Bigger gets when you’re reading it.) Bigger is on the run…

The final section, Fate, is when the law catches up with Bigger and he faces his court trial for the death penalty for murder (and not just murder: murder of a white woman by a black man…). Even more shocking and great media fodder. The trial ends up drawing massive attention, and people rally outside the court room shouting and chanting what they think should happen to Bigger.

But Bigger’s lawyer, Mr. Max, gives an astonishing speech in his closing arguments – you’ll have to read it to believe it – and throughout his talk, Mr. Max clearly shines the spotlights on the cultural mores and assumptions that have led to this situation. Taking a birds-eye view (with the omniscient POV) opens the full range of reasons why Bigger murdered Mary. Was he culpable?  Sure, but how much blame can you assign to a racist society which cuts off opportunities for betterment to a large part of society? Where does the line stop?

Anyway, a fascinating read and one that kept me up rather later a few nights as I just couldn’t leave Bigger without knowing his fate. Highly recommended as a African-American classic. Everyone should be reading this, even (and perhaps especially) the Orange Goblin (if he can read).

Part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month.

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The Negro Motorist Green-Book – Victor Hugo Green

The_Negro_Motorist_Green_BookSo, scouting around the interwebs, I somehow came across a curious snippet of information that led me to the discovery of the Negro Motorist Green Book, an old travel guide book series designed for African-American car drivers who may have been looking for a safe space to have a drink, eat some food, or get some sleep when they were on the road.

Published annually between 1936 and 1966 when Jim Crow laws were abound in the U.S. and as African-Americans earned their way into the middle class and car ownership, these guides would help drivers know of safe places to travel to (or through) until they reached their destination. Car ownership was also necessary for African-Americans to avoid using public transportation and the problems that would be encountered there, so these guides played an important role for a lot of families.

Open widespread discrimination and arbitrary rules were not uncommon for the African-American car driver, from restaurants who would refuse to serve African-Americans to “sundown”* towns to communities with a police force who would enforce laws with a very heavy racially-biased hand. Thus, seeing a need for some reliable and up-to-date info, newspaper man Victor Hugo Green began to publish this guide in New York.

AfAm_car_ownersOriginally, the guide (or the Green Book, as it was known) was published only with a focus on New York City, but as its circulation grew, the geographic areas that the guide covered expanded until it covered the entirety of North America and Canada (and even Bermuda and parts of the Caribbean) by the end of its run. Written by Green, it was a directory that was really important and was effectively crowd-sourced from its readers as new entries were added by word-of-mouth via personal experience.

The annual guides included names and addresses of cities and towns with safe restaurants, safe hotels, or night clubs, and even, in the particularly small communities, the contact info to stay in someone’s private house if there were no hotels or inns that would house you. It’s incredible that this was the case, but that’s Jim Crow for you. Interestingly, the city where I now live does not have any entries in the Green Book for the year that I looked. I can only imagine that this meant that there were few (or no) safe places for African-American travelers. 😦

This led to a fascinating journey down some wormholes to learn about this neglected and shameful piece of history. I have never heard of these guides before. Have you?

  • ”Sundown” towns were all-white municipalities (in both the north and the south) that practiced segregation by enforcing impossible and awful restrictions such as all non-white/non-Christian people had to leave town by sundown. Not only was it impossible for African-Americans to purchase land or housing in such a town through extensive exclusionary housing agreements, it was also highly likely that such folks would be run out of town or lynched. (There are a couple of places that didn’t actually remove their anti-Jewish and anti-African-American covenants until 1990!! Shameful.)

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Jazz – Toni Morrison (1992)

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As the second book of the fiction trilogy that begins with Toni Morrison’s Beloved, this seems to be fairly straightforward: husband is long-time married to wife, but then has an affair with 18-year old girl. He gets jealous of her spending time with boys of her own age so he shoots her (his mistress). She dies. Wife goes to funeral of said girl and tries to stab corpse’s face. And then it takes off from there…

Obviously, there is a lot more to the story than that, and it’s a lot more complicated than that simple A-B-C-D progression would seem to suggest. It’s an urban novel set in 1920’s Harlem, right in the Harlem Renaissance period when the African-American art world really exploded, and the plot seems to reflect this as it darts about, like the notes from a trumpet during a jazz concert (ref: title). The non-linear plot lines veers rapidly from thought to thought (although it’s never confirmed whose thoughts they actually are), and the characters and their individual lives overlap all the time so that the narrative is complex and opaque.

As Morrison writes in the forward:

The challenge was to take [the book] beyond the rules. I didn’t want simply a musical background, or decorative references to it. I wanted the work to be a manifestation of the music’s intellect, sensuality, anarchy; its history, its range, and its modernity.

This novel also harkens back to the Great Migration when thousands of African-American families moved from the southern states to the more northerly ones based on the hopes for better jobs, better housing, and a better life.

Indeed, both Violet and Joe have moved to NYC as part of that historic move, and in part to live with others who reflect them and their economic goals:

“Even if the room they rented was smaller than the heifer’s stall and darker than a morning privy, they stayed to look at their number, hear themselves in an audience, feel themselves moving down the street among hundreds of others who moved the way they did, and who, when they spoke, regardless of accent, treated language like the same intricate, malleable toy designed for their play…”

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(Above) – Toni Morrison, author.

The story is told through the various perspectives of different people who have all been impacted by the imploding marriage, and interestingly enough (for me at least), I learned that some critics have likened this multiple-perspective technique to the call-and-response of jazz music (where instruments echo what was previously played by other instruments, but in a different way), and that also that same call-and-response structure echoes African-American history itself (e.g., some of the field work songs used during slavery times were in that sort of set up).

It’s also reflected in how some music is played in a lot of African-American churches where the pastor calls out for a response from the congregation (“Can I get an Amen?”). Wiki also reports that this polyphony (all the multiple lines of music playing at the same time) is also a characteristic of African tribal music, and so there is this long and fascinating line of thought that emerges. (In fact, there are all kinds of rabbit holes that you can disappear down once you start researching it a bit.)

So it’s a complex read, structurally speaking, and yet despite that, it’s not really that challenging to keep everything and everyone straight so long as you’re paying attention. Having said that, it’s not a book that I recommend that you pick up and put down during random moments, but that’s not a criticism of the author or her work. It’s that, just as you don’t often hear linear jazz music and it can be tough to figure out the pattern in the music (if there is one), this is not a plot that can be followed easily without effort. But it’s worth it. The writing is excellent, and the deeper that I dove (dived?) into the book and into the lives of these intermeshed characters, the more I kept thinking about them even when I wasn’t actually reading it.

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Morrison’s characters are stuck with very hard lives in a world that is not caring in the slightest, and yet despite that, they put their all into their very busy working and living lives right where they are, both historically and geographically. The husband and wife in question, Joe and Violet (later nicknamed Violent) Trace lead a quiet domesticated life at the start of this novel.

It’s 1926, WWI has been over for a few years, and the world seems to have taken its breath and caught up with itself with a fairly rosy outlook in general. Joe is working as a traveling salesman selling women’s cosmetics from a suitcase while Violet is an unlicensed beautician working off the books with the more wealthy neighbors; neither of them seem to be particularly remarkable in that their lives are fairly typical without a lot of drama.

However, in the middle of this domestic balance, Joe decides to have an affair with a young woman, Dorcas, a teenager who lives in the neighborhood. However, trouble erupts when he catches Dorcas dancing with male friends at a private party, and he goes off the rails with jealousy and shoots her. Naturally, wife Violet hears about it – she’s friends with the family and it’s a close neighborhood – and when she does, things go way off the rails a bit for her as well.

For various reasons (and it’s different reasons for both of them), the couple keep a photo of the young dead girl on the mantelpiece in their walk-up apartment which doesn’t really help things, as you can probably well imagine. Violet has been hurt and humiliated by the affair, and knows that Joe is mourning his now-dead girlfriend with a strength of emotion that she believes he would not feel for her if she died, and so each character is hurting in his or her own way at his or her own pace. Few of her friends understand this married relationship, and it’s all a bit fraught. Money’s a big worry as well, which doesn’t help things.

So this is a tightly wound read set in Harlem, a place rife with racism and poverty throughout the neighborhood. You’d think that the shooting (which comes early in the novel) would be explosive enough, and yet, for the remainder of the novel, you’re just waiting for something else to happen. There’s a tension there, and Morrison does a great job of winding the springs for you, the reader. When’s the hammer going to drop? And what will it be?

If you’ve ever read any of Morrison’s other works (for example, I’ve read Sula, Beloved, and pre-blog, The Bluest Eye), you’ll know to expect expert original writing that doesn’t necessarily settle into the traditional well-worn grooves of most twentieth century books. This is not anything to hold you back from reading it, and actually, I think that the writing (and the wide-ranging freedom with the characters) is what keeps this book as such a strong reading experience.

I loved this read, and finished it quickly after only a few days. (Always a good sign of a strong read.) Not that easy, but so worth the effort. Highly recommend this.

 

Summer Reading List: The African-American Experience

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Credit: Keith Haring (1983).

I published a couple of posts the other day about summer reading, one of mostly fiction and then another on mostly non-fiction travel. In reviewing both of the lists, I saw that I was remiss in not recommending many reads from around the world from the POC experience, and so this post is to rectify that.

(Please note that just because these titles are under the POC category does not in any way negate their value. Sometimes I think it’s a good thing to be reminded of the many titles that are far outside the typical Western selection of literature than what’s on the best seller tables at Barnes & Nobles, and so that is what this post is. Just a signpost of some other excellent reads which may be more off the beaten track a bit… Feel free to add any titles. I’m always open for recommendations!)

For the queens of African-American writing (and superb artists in their own right), I would suggest starting with super stars such as Alice Walker (The Color Purple [1982]), Maya Angelou (who actually I haven’t really read yet, but is on TBR…) and the wonderful Toni Morrison (Beloved [1987], Jazz [1993] or perhaps Sula [1973]).

And for poetry, I happen to love contemporary poet, Nikki Giovanni, while Gwendolyn Brooks is also really good… What about Langston Hughes? And if you think about it, there’s definitely an argument for looking at rap and other song lyrics as poetry (even though some of the content can be a bit rough around the edges :-))…

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Part of a Langston Hughes poem integrated as part of huge public art project at Dallas Fort Worth Airport. Well played, my friends.

More fairly contemporary writing comes from the pen of author Paule Marshall with the 1985 Virago title and collection of short stories, Merle and Other Stories , and I recommend exploring her backlist – Marshall has a wide variety and I’ve enjoyed every one I’ve read from her. These are out in the trusty Virago Press if you see some around.

(Side note: Virago Press is famous for printing neglected works of female authors of the twentieth century, and the books are easily recognizable for their dark green spines — the contents of each book vary widely. Worth seeking out in if you see one in a charity shop or similar.)

For a great contemporary solid read, try  the recently published Homecoming by Yaa Gyazi (2016) or, if you’d rather have a go at some strong short stories, try Z. Z. Packer’s wonderful Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003). Don’t forget the excellent Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) or any of the other works by this author.

The historical experience of African-Americans in the U.S. has been long and pretty awful for the most part, so there are some very tough but fascinating reads about this. Go back in time to the terrible years of slavery, and learn from Solomon Northrup’s 1853 narrative of his life, 12 Years a Slave. Another really good memoir from a slave’s perspective is The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself.

Another option is to read some of the speeches of the day by African-Americans throughout history. I enjoyed Great Speeches by African-Americans (edited by James Daley) (2006). This has a wide spread of historical speeches, ranging from the powerful Ain’t I a Woman? by Sojourner Truth to speeches by 1974 politician Shirley Chisholm, Malcolm X and former President Barack Obama.

If you’d like more NF background into the slavery issue, there are loads of titles out there. I started with this one and found it to be a good backgrounder: Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves by Adam Horschild — a really accessible and useful introduction.

Nella Larson’s 1929 fiction, Passing, looks at life for two female friends in the early twentieth century when people felt that they had to hide their origins in order to live a happy life. (Good read, btw, and will leave you with lots of thinking about it.)

Another excellent read from the early twentieth century, this one with the power of a hurricane, is Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God (1937). (Hold on to your hat for that one as it’s one of the best reads I’ve had in a long time. Highly recommended. Stick with it though… There’s dialect, but you get the hang of it after a while.)

The history of having African-American help is covered very nicely from the perspective in the novel Like One of the Family (Alice Childress [1954]) which explores the divide (obvious and otherwise) between the white families and the domestic black servants that they hire. (This is also a good read as it’s in one-sided conversations….)

Plays of that era are also excellent and powerful: Try A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry (1959) and her follow-up play, Clybourne Park (2010). (The sequel is by Bruce Norris, but it follows the narrative arc of Raisin.) (Really good if you can see if in person on a stage. Or check out the 1961 movie of the same name…)

For a more contemporary look at life in America, check out Stick Fly (2006) by playwright Lydia Diamond about family dynamics in modern America…

Coming forward in time, there are some really good titles from African authors, among whom would be the Senegalese classic So Long a Letter (Mariama Bâ [1980]) about a first wife who reacts when her husband takes a second wife, or perhaps Blackass (A. Igoni Barrett [2015]) about a twenty-first century young Nigerian man who is born black, but wakes up one day with all-white skin (except for his bottom). How does this impact his life? You’ll have to see…. (Blackass is written in a pidgin dialect, but stick with the read as you get the hang of it pretty quickly.)

Mentioned in the other post the other day, I really recommend the Aya graphic novel series by Marguerite Abouret and Clement Oubrerie set on the Ivory Coast in Western Africa, or if you’d like to read a poignant and really funny novel about a young girl growing up in 1970’s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), see if you can find Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1989). Great read.

If you travel north a bit from the African continent, you may run across Zadie Smith who has a great collection of work from which to choose… White Teeth is the one that brought her to the fore and the one that I remember the most, but the others are certainly as good.

For a non-fiction focus on the U.S., one of the best historical reads about African-American pioneer history I’ve read (in terms of opening up a whole new world of black history in the US) was Going Home to Nicodemus by Daniel Chu and Bill Shaw (1994) which covers Exodusters and the African-American migration to pioneering Kansas. (Fascinating.) Related to this would be Black Women of the Old West (William Loren Katz, 1995) about the rarely talked-about world of African-American female pioneers who traveled west when the frontier was open. This led me down rabbit holes for many happy hours…

If you’d like to trace more recent history and the absolutely amazing stories of courage with reference to the U.S. Civil Rights fight, you can do no better than reading Sen. John Lewis’ graphic novel series called March. (Volume I, Volume II, and Volume III right now.)

To fully understand and appreciate our great former President Obama, try his fascinating autobiography, Dreams from my Father. Regardless of which side of the aisle you’re on right now, it’s a good read about a very smart and level-headed man.

Moving forward in time, there are some excellent African American authors who are very eloquent and vocal about the state of their world.

A really good and passionate start to this would be reading journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work, including Between the World and Me, his essay to his teenaged son on life in the U.S. for an African-American young man, or, if you’d rather read a plea for feminism (through the African-American lens), pick up And We Should All be Feminists by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie (2012). Both strong and provocative pieces of non-fiction writing…

(Coates also has written an impassioned plea for reparations in this article from the Atlantic mag. Totally worth reading if only to make you possibly rethink and reimagine a new future.)

For a shocking and contemporary critical look at how the medical establishment has treated the African-American population, Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington (2007) will leave you shaking your head at the world around you.

In fact, there is so much really good POC literature out there, that it’s hard to choose. What a great problem to have!