Elvis Presley, Reluctant Rebel: His Life and our Times – Glen Jeansonne, David Luhrssen and Dan Sokolivic (2011)

I happen to be visiting Memphis (and Graceland) over Spring Break next month, and in preparation for that trip, I thought I’d look for a good bio about Elvis at the library. There were a couple, one of which looked very serious and intimidating, so of course I chose the other one. 🙂

I’m not the biggest Elvis fan in the world, but I grew up hearing his music and watching a few of his films, and I well remember that day when Elvis died in the ‘70s. So my thoughts of him are a tangle of Elvis in Hawaiian clothes or being rather overweight in a white rhinestone-sparkly outfit. I know, however, that there are people on this planet who live, breathe and die Elvis… (Hoping to rather see some people like this at Spring Break!) 

LOS ANGELES – APRIL 1964: Rock and roll singer and actor Elvis Presley in a movie still with a woman on the set of ‘Blue Hawaii’ at Paramount Pictures in April of 1961 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Going to Graceland seems like a very American pilgrimage to do, especially for my English mum (who I’m meeting there). My mum was around the right age to revere Presley (late teen/early 20s) and she probably wasn’t a SuperFan, but I know she knew his songs. 

So, never one to turn down American kitsch when it comes my way, I’m looking forward to the adventure. 

To the book: It’s written by three guys, two of whom are in academia (Ph.D. and/or doctoral student) and one a music journalist, but all three are very interested in the King of Rock and Roll, but mostly, their focus is on his music. 

(Editorial aside: What was pretty interesting was that the writing styles throughout the book were all very consistent. Sometimes, when you have multiple authors doing separate chapters, the styles don’t mesh but whoever edited this book deserves kudos for making this not the case for this title.)

‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”
Sam Phillips, recording studio executive.

It’s quite a short read for the life of someone who led such a meteoric life, but this is balanced out with the substantial bibliographies at the end of each chapter and at the end of the book (for further reading). However, what I found really appealing about this was that it was not just a straightforward biography (i.e. Elvis was born, he lived, he died). 

This looks at the life of Elvis via the perspective of the huge influence he had on American (and global) music and culture during his career while also considering who influenced the man himself. 

I don’t know if perhaps I’ve been pretty dense about this, but I hadn’t realized until now quite how much of an influence the African-American culture and music were on Elvis, although now I look back at it, of course it’s pretty obvious.

In fact, Elvis wasn’t even the first white singer to sing blues music, but he was surely around the beginning. (Actually, Elvis first gained attention for singing country music and its cousin rockabilly, but he was also influenced by the smooth crooning of Perry Como, Bing Crosby and the like. It was a huge mashup of musical influences.)  

Bought up in Mississippi, Presley’s mother and father were poor and worked in the fields picking cotton alongside the many African-Americans who were also employed in that manner. 

Mississippi was originally the location of the biggest slave market in the country, and was a hub for both industry and immigration. It had been one of the way-stations along the route for those African-Americans who were moving to the North as part of the Great Migration, and thus, the Mississippi Delta is one of the birth places for blues music. 

(Interestingly, the Great Migration also included large numbers of poor white people, including the Presley family. Although born and raised on the “wrong side of the tracks” of Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis ended up living in Memphis, Tennessee, another informal station on the Great Migration route and where his family had moved trying to find a better life.)

Elvis’ parents were a hard-scrap couple, his mother employed at a shirt factory and his father with blue-collar jobs (via the New Deal) along with some involvement with bootlegging, and in fact, one suggestion was that his father’s activities with that was one of the reasons for the family’s move to Memphis. 

As common in the South, religion played a big role for the family and, despite living during one of America’s most racially charged periods of time, the Presley family did not hold racist attitudes to others. (Perhaps because of the constant exposure to their neighboring African-American families as friends and co-workers.) This close proximity also led to Elvis being exposed often to the gospel music and blues of his friends in the neighborhood. 

The Great Depression had ended just a few years before, WWII was a recent memory, and being the South, the centenary of the Civil War was close by, so it was a time of change for many. Elvis’ father had been charged with a poverty-motivated crime and sentenced to three years which caused a lot of financial hardship for the family. 

So, being of low income, their small home had no electricity or plumbing, but they could afford a battery-powered radio which was how the small Elvis was exposed to all these influences. Curiously, Elvis also became a huge fan of comic books, especially those of the superheroes like Captain Marvel. (Their capes became an integral part of his stage costumes in later life.) Huh. I hadn’t put that together…

(And so it goes on. This was a great read. I had no idea that Elvis led such a fascinating life. 🙂 )

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Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History – Vashti Harrison (2017)

I happened to catch this title in a display for Black History Month at the library, and curious, picked it up. My own knowledge of notable African-American women was limited, shamefully, but I knew that there were loads of inspiring and not-quite-so-famous women role models out there. Who would be included in this title? Let’s see…

Among the forty or so trailblazing women, there was Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895). In 1860, she applied to the all-white New England Female Medical College where she was accepted and graduated in 1864. Out of a total of approx. 500,000 physicians across the country, only 300 were female physicians, and out of that number, Crumpler was the only African-American woman. In. The. Whole. Country. (Can you imagine how hard she had to work in this world?)

Crumpler focused on women’s and children’s health, and published her own textbook, A Book of Medical Discourses, in 1883. (View the book here.) Wowee.

…There was Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978) who was a junior high school teacher for 35 years, as well as an artist (at a time when African-American people did not have many rights). She was a leader in the Color Field Movement which created paintings using bright blocks of color and was an important influencer in art. (Rothko was influenced by Thomas.)

Apollo 12 – Splashdown – Alma Thomas (1970).

—There was Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), whose poetry I had heard of but whose personal life I was unaware. She published her first poem when she was just 13. After publishing books of poetry, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, the first African-American ever to earn that honor.

—There was Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983) who was a social psychologist and counselor. Educated at Howard University (where quite a few of these forward-thinking leaders were educated at different times), Phipps Clark is notable for designing some research on children and how they see the world.

Called the Doll Test, researchers would give children, both black and white, dolls from which to choose in answer to some questions. After being asked questions along the lines of “which doll would be nice?”, Phipps Clark’s research showed that African-American kids who attended segregated schools would choose the white dolls for the positive characteristics that the questions asked, and the African-American dolls for questions as “Which doll is mean?” 😦

Unsurprisingly, these kids had really poor self-esteem of themselves and of others of the same race. This research became the basis for the 1954 legal case that changed America: Brown vs. Board of Education, where the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional.

And the list goes on and on of notable and extraordinary African-American women who are just not talked about when they should be household names. Every page introduced me to someone who either I’ve never heard of or didn’t know much about, and one of the best things was the Harrison has drawn each of these figures with the same face, to allow young readers to imagine their own faces in a similar position.

This was such a lovely book, and I hope it’s widely available in school libraries across the US. I learned so many new names to learn more about. I bet you will as well.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” – Zora Neale Hurston (1931)

As part of Black History Month (and part of my ongoing goal to read more diversely), I saw this title on a blog somewhere (not sure where), but it seemed to align perfectly with my reading goal. Plus it looked fantastically interesting, so I found a copy at the library and set to reading it.

Barracoon is the name for a type of hut that was used for the confinement of slaves and criminals, and this book features remarks from interviews which Neale Hurston had with an 86-year-old former slave called Oluale Kossula. His slave name was Cudjo Lewis, and he arrived in America from West Africa where he was captured and brought across the sea on Clotilde, the last ship to cross the waters for the transatlantic slave trade.

Written in 1931 (but only published quite recently in 2018), Neale Hurston was at the start of her career as an anthropologist when she was tasked by her boss, Franz Boa, to meet and interview an 86-year-old former slave, one of the few survivors who could remember and then talk about his journey from Africa. (It’s astonishing to me that there was actually a living person with this memory back in the twentieth century. In my head, slavery happened yesteryear and ages ago, but obviously, I was wrong on that.)

Despite slavery having been deemed illegal in the US, Kossula was snatched from his African village and enslaved in the US in 1860. He was trapped as a slave for more than five years, when he was released and with others, worked to establish a community called Africatown in Alabama, a place where the other survivors from the Clotilde could live and work.

As Neal Hurston gradually gained the trust of Kossula, she was given more pieces of his history. Kossula was understandably not that trusting at first, but slowly and without rushing the process, Neale Hurston sat with and listened to this remarkable old man. Recalled in a heavy dialect that’s written almost phonetically, I could almost hear this old man recount his life in his accent.

It’s not that easy to follow, but you get the hang of it after a while and being able to “hear” his voice (via the writing) adds a level of intimacy that perhaps you wouldn’t be able to get in any other way (especially now with Kossula long gone from this earth).

Some of the freed slaves who lived in Africatown.

Without getting in the way of Kossula’s memory, Neal Hurston does a remarkable job of letting him tell his own life story without the need to be a filter for him. His story requires no translation, but it’s all the more remarkable when it’s “heard” in your head as his accent.

What makes this a stand-out account is that Kossula still has memories of his growing up in a small African village so it’s a more immediate account of a slave’s journey than perhaps other first-person recollections of slave life (for example, Frederick Douglass or Solomon Northup).

Kossula’s memories of being captured and taken to the ship with a long and harrowing journey ahead of him is detailed and immediate. Since his memories are personal, the descriptions of the ship journey and his slave life are all the more powerful due to them being recent memories for him.

An NPR review puts it best when it describes this book as being not only about the brutality of slavery in this country, but also about the emotional toll of being taken away from your home and own language, of being lost and losing almost everything. It’s a multi-layered recollection that is all the more powerful for being so personal.

This is a tough read due to its focus on how inhumane people can be to others. But it’s also a powerful read to hear a man’s own words describe his journey from freedom to captivity to freedom again.

For a review of Zora Neale Hurston’s Eyes were Watching God, check here.

See Now Then – Jamaica Kincaid (2013)

Going along my TBR shelves and looking for my next read, I came across “See Now Then” by Jamaica Kincaid, which was her seventh novel. I’d not heard of the title, but have had some good reading from two of her other novels (see Annie John [1985]) and Lucy [1990]), and was hoping for a similar experience with this novel.

WARNING: Slightly grumpy review ahead. You may want to avert your eyes.

I do have to say that this was not the easiest read in the world. It did have all the other ideal characteristics checked off for a reader like me: good quality paper, nicely sized font, and a novel from the experience of a POC author. However, what made it seem rather hard for me to follow was how the book was written: it’s in a solid stream-of-consciousness with never-ending sentences making few paragraphs so the reader is faced with large blocks of text (even if it is in a nice font on lovely paper). Plus, when you add to that the fact that the whole book is focused on Time (with a capital T), and you have one rather confused reader.

(In fact, Kincaid admitted in one of the interviews, “The one thing the book is, is difficult and I meant it to be.” The NYT review described it as “not an easy book to stomach” and “the kind of lumpy exorcism that many writers would have composed and then allowed to remain unpublished…It asks little of us, and gives little in return.” Ouch. )

The basic plot revolves around a family with the last name of Sweet  (husband, wife, two adolescent kids), but the surname doesn’t fit: it’s a family rife with problems. The husband hates the wife, the wife knows this but doesn’t seem willing or able to address it, and so most of the novel is written via the thoughts of the unhappy couple. (It’s not a cheerful novel, to say the least.) 

And the couple is really unhappy all the time, judging from the continuous stream of thoughts that is reported. It’s rather a grinding experience, really, and although it’s a pretty short read, it’s not an easy read due to this incessant negativity stemming from both people. (The kids aren’t that happy either.)

I’m not even sure why I kept reading it because it was a solid broccoli book – even worse, it was a solid raw broccoli book. There was no joy anywhere in the novel (apart from my own when I turned the last page). Most reviewers seem to believe that the plot is strongly autobiographical along with being quite an angry read, but Kincaid has denied that charge. (Still, quite a bit of the narrative plot does seem to track along with her own personal experiences though.)

Grumpy review finishes here. 🙂

So – quite a bitter read that was challenging at the same time. Phew. I’m glad I read it, but I’m even more glad that it’s over. I’m pretty sure that I’m over Kincaid’s writing now, but there are lots of other great POC authors ahead. Onward and upward to the next book.

If you’re interested in a couple of other Kinkaid reads for which I felt more positive, you might want to try Lucy (2002) or Annie John (1983).

This is part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month (in the U.S.)

Catch up time…

catch_upLife has been a bit busy lately, so in order to get caught up a bit, I thought I’d do a quick round-up of what I’ve been reading lately. Please don’t think that just because these titles don’t get their very own blog post, these titles are not that great. They are awesome, but in the interests of time and resources, I thought a brief mention would be better than no mention.

Back in September, I finished up a powerful read of “Warriors Don’t Cry”, a recounting of when Arkansas was forced to desegregate its Little Rock Central High School, much to the dismay of a lot of people. There were supporters, naturally, but this is from the viewpoint of one of the young high school students who took courage to new levels when she decided to stick with the desegregation process, scary though it was.

Reading just how badly people behaved during this  time period was heart-breaking and stressful. There was a band of six high school students, all African-American, who were selected to be the pioneers in integrating their school, and once I had read about how just plain horrible some of the people (community adults, teachers and students) were to these brave students, my heart went out to them.

It’s an amazing read that takes you into the very heart of a reluctant Arkansas city’s forced 1957 racial integration of one of its largest high schools, and it shocked me to learn how mean and threatening people were towards people of African descent (and those who supported them).

The author, Melba Padillo Beals, was a fifteen-year-old student at the time, and her recounting of this terrifying time when she was trying to get her education is shocking. (At least it was to me. I knew things were tough for African-Americans during this time during America, but this shows to what levels the opposition stooped to do – against high school kids!)

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Shameful and rather difficult to read, but not half as difficult as it must have been to actually live in those times. A tough but necessary read, especially in the atmosphere of today where it seems as though America is going backwards instead of forwards.

(Linked with this topic is also a short book of essays I’m reading that argues that America is moving towards resegregation… More to come.)

Kaffir_boyWanting to read more about racism, I picked up “Kaffir Boy “by Mark Mathabone (1986), a title that’s been on the TBR pile for quite some time, this one about South Africa’s time of apartheid and how one young black man struggles to escape. This was another toughie to read. It doesn’t gloss over the hardship of life for black Africans who have to live under apartheid, and once you’ve read these descriptions of living in a black township at that time, you realize that this kid’s escape to a better life was actually even more of an achievement. It’s sickening that the world allowed this government to continue with apartheid for as long as it did…

And then, since I rather needed something a little more cheerful to read, I did a quick reread of a collection of Atlantic articles by David Grann called “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes.” (See review of an earlier read here.)

Another really enjoyable and well-written read about how strange people can be across the world sometimes. 🙂

 

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.

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

february_clipart

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. 🙂

AfAm_History_Month

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…

AfAm_History_Month

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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