Black Women of the Old West – William Loren Katz (1995)

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A literary friend of mine lent me this rather fascinating coffee table book featuring the role of black (African American) pioneers in the old cowboy Wild West. As I’m really interested in learning more about the African American experience, this book ticked most of the boxes that I look for in a good read.

As it’s more of a coffee table book, it’s concentrated mostly on photographs of the sometimes anonymous women who were living the pioneer life at the time. Generally speaking, I don’t see much focus from many people on the life of African Americans during the late nineteenth century as America traveled west across its new territories, but they were there just as much as The Little House on the Prairie family were.

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A number of the women who were featured in this collection went west as domestic help to pioneering families, but quite a few of these folk were also determined to be successful independent farmers, ranchers and other professional workers (e.g. teachers, accountants etc.). (Check out my review of another fascinating read of the Exodusters who flowed into Kansas for the ranching opportunities.)

A number of young AfAm women came west as mail order brides for men who were in mining camps and doing other types of work. The men who signed up for the service bought a one-way ticket for the young woman in question, and then, sight-unseen, the two would contractually get married to live in the west. (How very brave were these mail order brides! For some, this invitation to the west was just what they needed to escape terrible home situations so it seems that it benefited both parties for the most part.)

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(Above) – Stagecoach Mary (Mary Fields) was the first AfAm postal carrier in the county.

Many freed slaves had little experience apart from working on the land or helping in a domestic role, and once freed, African-Americans (as a group) were intent on getting an education, both for themselves and especially for their children. Literacy was the key to freedom and success, and these families were typically much more educated than the other groups out on the frontier (whites, Hispanics etc.) and their school attendance was at a notably higher level. Former slaves knew and understood the important of knowledge, and so were determined that their families were going to be schooled.

I went ahead and made a few random notes from this read:

  • An African American woman used to own all the real estate in the area now called Beverly Hills in LA.
  • In OK and other states, the newly freed slaves joined up with local Native American tribes (although initially the Native Americans embraced slavery as much as the white people had), and in the late 1800’s, 18% of Cherokees were AfAm, and 14% of Choctaws were AfAm.
  • The Native Americans had been introduced to the slavery concept by white people who wanted to make sure that the tribes would not harbor runaway slaves. Most tribes ended up embracing slavery, except for the Seminoles who had a fascinating overlap with the Buffalo Soldiers.
  • One of the earliest settlements of AfAms was in Mercer County, OH, in 1832.
  • Stagecoach Mary (Mary Fields) (photo above right) was the first AfAm mail carrier in the US, and drove a horse and wagon (not a stagecoach) on her route in the wilds of Montana. She wasn’t an employee of the US Postal Service, but had bid and won a contract to deliver mail as she was the fastest person who would drive a team of six horses. She never missed a day of work, and if there was deep snow, she would put on snowshoes and deliver the mail sacks on her back.

What I found to be most interesting to read was the common thread of how AfAms thrived in spite of the awful conditions and in spite of how challenging life was. Families had few resources, but they still came west. I wonder just how much more successful AfAms would have been if there’d be a stronger support system for them. There was the Freedman’s Bureau, but it was decades before the idea of ending slavery became common place and widely accepted. The sheer doggedness and determination of these AfAm pioneers is astonishing to me, and I wish their stories were told more often.

(If you haven’t already read this article on reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic, it’s a powerful and provocative piece.)

So, really enjoyed looking at the photos in this book. (The writing itself was pretty dreadful, so the pics made the book really.)

Other reads on similar topics and reviewed by JOMP are:

Dreams From my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance – Barack Obama (1995)

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Wincing at whatever the latest gaffe that our latest President has talked himself into, I thought it would be pretty interesting to take a look at the man who had just left the U.S. Presidency and learn a bit more about his life. Written in 1995 (and thus written when he was only in his early thirties), this well-written autobiography was an easy and interesting read about the life of the first African-American President in these here States.

I really enjoyed this deeper look at Obama, and seeing from where he came and how he had seen his life as he was growing up. I knew that he was born biracial and that he had had a lot of his childhood in Hawaii, but apart from that (and from his actions from when he was in office), I didn’t know that much about him. After having read this book and looking back at his Presidency, I can understand so much more about how he sees the world, how his world view included everyone (as opposed to a few rich white men), and how he had to piece his own identity together from a scattered family.

Regardless of how you feel about Obama, his life is an interesting read. He’s not perfect, but there is much to admire, IMO, and he has always been honest in his flaws and used them as a framework to develop a more tolerant country in so many ways.

This was a fast and fascinating read for me to learn about our former President, one who (for me) is missed every day.

Sula – Toni Morrison (1973)

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The purpose of evil is to survive it and they determined (without ever knowing that they had made up their minds to do it) to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance. They knew anger well but not despair, and they didn’t stone sinners for the same reason they didn’t commit suicide – it was beneath them.

Read for a bunch of different reasons (including Black History Month and to fill in a year in my on-going Century of Books project), Sula was a great read once you got into it. It’s not the easiest book to read as it flips back and forth between an experimental style and a more straightforward narrative arc, but once I let go of any notions of expecting the traditional format, it became a really good read. It features two women, both very different from each other and the others in their small community. They meet when they are twelve, and from then on, they float in and out of each other’s lives as they get older and their lives change.

It’s a rather uncomfortable friendship with both friends choosing to be rather direct with each other (and crossing over into mean at times). The dichotomy between the two is around what the book revolves: Sula and Nel are frenemies for most of their years on earth, and it’s not a gentle read at times.

Having both grown up in a small community called The Bottom (although it’s up in the hills), their childhood overlaps and they are inseparable for their adolescent years. It’s not until both are young women that Sula leaves their home town and then disappears for years. Not until much later in their lives, does Sula return to her childhood home changed herself and bringing a tornado of memories and unpleasant truths with her to disrupt the Bottom’s own balanced little world.

It’s a good read with a lyrical tone to the writing – almost sultry and dream-like in places – and the structure of each paragraph reflects what’s happening in the characters (similar in some ways to Zora Neale Hurston and as things get complicated, the sentences become longer and longer and run on — similar to how dreams don’t really start or stop or have a logical arc to them. At first, I was wondering what was going on, but as with other experimental writing I’ve read, I found that the best approach was to just go with the flow and see where you end up. (It’s not even that experimental, really, when you compare this writing to others, but it’s not a straight-up A-Z narrative arc for sure.)

Morrison has written a lot of books, including The Bluest Eye (pre-blog) which I read years ago about a small girl who gets bullied by her school friends due to the color of her eyes. Similar to this read, it’s an uncomfortable and slightly edgy read but it’s really good all the same.

I recently read Morrison’s Beloved, and am looking forward to reading that whole trilogy. I’ve already ordered Jazz from the library. Squee.

Loved it. Highly recommend Morrison’s work.

Reading Review: February 2017

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Well, that month passed quickly, didn’t it? (At least it did for me in my world.) It’s Spring here, although to us in West Texas, Spring tends to mean high winds along with a high chance of being very dusty, and so the weather is sticking to that atmospheric format for today. That’s ok. The very next day after these high winds and dust is usually crystal clear and looks fantastic, so I’ll take it.

Reading: After a rather dismal January where I couldn’t find my reading mojo, February marked the month where the mojo returned (much to my relief), and so now I’m happily picking and choosing titles again.

February is also Black History Month here in the U.S., and for the past few years, I’ve really concentrated on reading materials from people of African descent here in the States. This year, however, has meant that my poor eye (and some poor planning on my part) has led to a rather weak effort. However, at the same time, it has strengthened my resolve to continue to read more POC authors throughout the rest of the year, so it’s not all bad.

I’m a bit behind in my reviews though, so I expect we’ll have a round-up post soon.

To the stats:

I read the following titles (with links to blog posts about said book where there is one):

Total number of books read in January: 7

Total number of pages read: 1,683 pages (av. 210).

Fiction/Non-Fiction: 2 fiction / 4 non-fiction; 1 play.

Diversity3 POC (2 from African continent: Nigeria and Ghana; 1 from India). 3 books by women + 1 mixed anthology of speeches by both women and men.

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 4 library books, 2 owned books and 2 e-books.

Great Speeches by African-Americans – edited by James Daley (2006)

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It’s African-American History Month here in the U.S., and although the month is almost half over now and I’ve been tardy, I have been making an effort to read some work by POC (specifically people of African descent). As part of that, I happened to drop by one of the library branches (I know, shocking, right?), and they had a display of interesting looking titles that were themed with this. As I am a sucker for library displays, I picked a couple of titles, one of which happened to be a slim Dover Thrift edition of a collection of speeches by African-Americans over the years.

Obviously, being an edited collection means that someone will choose and miss pieces, but I thought that this book had such a good selection – at least to a neophyte such as me. There were a variety of speeches, long and short, from both male and female speechmakers (more men since historically men were more likely to be in such a position), and this was so interesting for me.

I have a smattering of African-American history having immersed myself in it on and off over the past few years, and it was so interesting to read some of the words that reflected (and in some cases changed) the course of history in the U.S. for people of color.

As historical background, here are the large markers that illustrate the hideous history of slavery in the U.S. and the U.K.:

Brief run-down on the early history of U.S. history:

  • 1542 – Spain enacts first European law abolishing slavery
  • 1807 – UK Slave Trade Act makes slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire/colonies. (You could still own slaves – just not sell them.)
  • 1833 – UK Slavery Abolition Act – abolition of all slavery within the British Empire/colonies
  • 1863 – US Emancipation Proclamation (which meant slaves were now free in the Southern/Confederate States)
  • 1865 – US 13th Amendment ended slavery in all the states of the US

There was quite a list of speeches in this title, and so thought I’d spotlight a few of my favorites for you:

  • Ain’t I a Woman? by Sojourner Truth (1851).  A short but powerful speech delivered at the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, its brevity adds to its power and this is a fire-cracker speech not to be missed. Seriously.
  • What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July? – Frederick Douglass (1852)  Given on July 05, 1852, this is an inspiring speech given by freedman Frederick Douglass to show the hypocrisy evident when Americans were celebrating Independence Day from England, and yet a large percentage of their population were still not free. It’s powerful, it’s long, and I would have loved to have heard this speech in real life. I’m not sure how many people would have stuck it out to the end – brevity is not in this work – but it’s a powerful indictment of the hypocrisy of the time. Frederick Douglass has an amazing story and I reviewed his diary earlier a few years back. See here for the link.
  • Black Woman in Contemporary America – Shirley Chisholm (1974). Chisholm was the first AfAm woman elected to the U.S. Congress and in 1972, she was the first black woman to seek a major party nomination for the U.S. Presidency. (How brave is that??) She served in Congress until 1982, and gave this speech in 1974 at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.
  • The Ballot or the Bullet – Malcolm X (1964). Like Malcolm X or not, he was a pivotal influencer on the civil rights movement in the U.S., and in this speech, he argues that if America can send black men overseas to fight in the Korean War, surely that gives AfAm people the right to stand up for themselves and each other. It’s a fiery speech, no doubt about it, and his passion shines through. Interestingly (and frustratingly), many of the same issues that Malcolm raises are still social justice issues of today. Have a looksee.

This was not an easy read – quite a few of the speeches are really dense and last for more than a few pages – but they are worth reading to see their speech-writing skills and the passion that each presenter demonstrates. A really good read about an important battle that continues, I’m sad to say, to this day in some parts of the country.

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Shirley Chisholm in 1972.

Beloved – Toni Morrison (1987)

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Chosen off the TBR for being a classic, Beloved was a good read although quite challenging in some ways. The beginning of a trilogy* set by Toni Morrison, the book is based on the history of an African American slave, Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery in Kentucky in 1856, although I’m not sure how much creative license has been taken by anyone. I haven’t read any of Morrison’s work before, so had little idea of what to expect but loved it in the end. It’s not the easiest work to read and you have to concentrate on the plot and the characters (or at least I did), but the effort is so worth it at the end of the day. Just be prepared for quite a ride, reading-wise.

So – to the story. It revolves around Sethe, an African-American woman born into slavery and who has now escaped that life. However, eighteen years later, she is still not free from the ramifications of her prior slavery life at a plantation called Sweet Home, an idyllic name for a ghastly place and one that still maintains a tenuous hold on Sethe, despite her best efforts at unshackling herself and her family. The book plot delves into her life so readers can better understand the choice that she makes, and how that choice impacts her days for the remainder of her life. (I can’t really tell you any more about the plot without giving spoilers, and it’s the plot that makes this book such a good read. Well, the writing too, but the plot definitely plays a role.)

There is a dreamy gauzy quality to this narrative, and it’s not a logical or chronological retelling, mainly because the events that occur are of the most terrible kind and hurt where it hurts the most – the heart. There is a lot of poetry in this novel in terms of how it’s been written and how it flows, but once I gave up trying to impose order on it, it was a much better read. You will need to let go of the typical structural expectations, but if you do, what was once surreal and puzzling becomes more understandable and predictable. (Well, I’m not sure about predictable, but at least one can see some rationale for why the characters behave as they do.)

It’s a good read, and all the more powerful for not being written or structured in a straight-forward narrative style as that fits the story being told: unreliable narrators, this dream-like quality, the nightmarish events, the resilience of the human spirit…

It’s a super book (obvs since it’s won loads of accolades including the Pulitzer Prize in 1988), but it plays with reality and with dreams, it plays with time and space, and it can all get a tad confusing if you’re not paying close attention. (This was my situation. I was picking up and putting down this book all over the place, and in retrospect, I think the book is best read in huge long chunks of time for immersion into the narrative and characters. I bonded with the story much better when I could dedicate some time to it.)

This is one of those books where the reader may need to work a bit at the story, but in this case, it’s so worth it. If I was going to compare it, I would pair it with “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. I loved this on its own rights though, and I think you will as well.

  • I had no idea that Beloved was part of a trilogy. In case you’re wondering, # 2 is Jazz (1992) and #3 is Paradise (1997).

All Involved – Ryan Gattis (2015)

book387All Involved is a far-ranging novel that explores the aftermath of the 1992 LA riots that occurred right after the end of the trial for the police officers who were involved in the beating of Rodney King. In 1992, I’d just finished graduate school and was very busy working my little heart out at an all-consuming job, so I remember this but not in very great detail. However, I do remember the six days of rioting in LA when the streets in South Central were in a state of chaos day and night with law enforcement struggling to regain control. Additionally, with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, this seems pretty recent and relevant history even though it was actually 24 years ago. (Huh. Most college students weren’t even born then so it must seem pretty Olden Days to them.)

Anyway, this novel weaves and interweaves (and then weaves again) the many disparate characters whose lives were impacted by the riots in some way. There are representatives from both sides of the law – the lawless and the enforcers – and each chapter sees the events through the PoV of that character. You have to keep your wits about you, and it’s ambitious, but if you don’t daydream (a la me) you’ll probably be fine. (I might suggest a diagram at the back of the book for reference as it can get a mite confusing at times. The glossary was a good tool though.)

So as the story progresses, the reader sees the events play out through the eyes of various gang members, through a firefighter, through a nurse (receiving the injured at the ER), and through the friends and other contacts of these characters. It’s well done, and I found it drew me in and had me reacting in the immediate present as the riots built up to a crescendo and then wore out. It’s quite the ride, and I enjoyed it.

The only thing that niggled me was that Gattis is a white guy, but he wrote through the eyes of several people of color (POC), and I’m just not comfortable with that. How can a white privileged guy know what it’s like (really like) to be a socio-economically disadvantaged gang member in East LA? To the author’s credit, he does acknowledge having talked to numerous sources to get their experiences, but really, at the end of the day, I think it’s a tad awkward for someone in his position to pretend to “know” what life is like for someone from a very different background. And it’s not just one character, either. It’s character after character, which just seemed to be a large assumption on his part. However, is this the perspective of a similarly privileged white woman who might be over-sensitive about the issue? It just seems that it’s presumptive to write through the eyes of someone of a different race when the whole incident around which the plot revolves is a racial issue (which the Rodney King riots all boiled to in the end).

But then again, it is classified as fiction and I’m not grumping about anyone writing as a vampire when they clearly haven’t ever lived their life as a vampire. I’m not sure. I just think it’s a little insensitive (for a white man) to co-opt Latin@ and African American characters at a time when race is such the hot-button issue that it is right now. What would you think?

But – good read all the same. Various reviewers on Goodreads have compared it to the TV series The Wire, but I think that that was a much stronger end product than this.

Blackass – A. Igoni Barrett (2015)

book385Wow. This novel is quite a ride as we see a modern-day Lagos, Nigeria, through the eyes of a young black man who’s struggling to make his way in the world around him. He’s a pretty average person, but what makes the story strong is that on the day in question, he wakes up a white man (except for his bottom, as the title admits). From then on, the narrative offers lots of questions about identity, possibility, and the world around him.

As Furo, the protagonist, lives his first day as a white man with red hair and green eyes, he learns about white privilege and learns to take full advantage of that as he determines to lose his former life. To his family (parents and sister), he has simply disappeared and as they search grimly for him, worried for his safety, Furo is working out how he needs to live successfully in a world that he has only seen from the outside. People are confused about him as he speaks pidgin and knows the black culture, but to them, he is an oyibo (a white person). The question is: How can he be both white and Nigerian?

It’s a simmering plot exploring how fluid identity can be on many levels, and who owns that identity – is it the world around that determines your identity based on your looks or can you overcome that to become someone other? As the story progresses, the narrative arc continues to boil until in the last third of the book, it explodes bringing you the reader along for the ride.

It’s an experimental book that plays with unreliable narrators, fluid POVs, and time, so it’s not a story to daydream through really. I’ve read that it’s based on The Metamorphosis by Kafka as satire, but haven’t read that so not familiar with it. Reviews relating the parallels are a bit grumpy about it though.

There are a lot of things at play throughout the book — truth/deception, real vs. not real – and quite a bit of it is written in Nigerian pidgin slang which is pretty fun to read (once you get the hang of it). (Speaking of which, a glossary would have been pretty useful.) It’s also written in British English with British spellings (aluminium vs. aluminum, settee vs. couch etc.) so you’ll need to keep your wits about you but if you pay attention, you’ll be paid in dividends by the read.

So, not an easy read but certainly a fun and interesting one if you’re up for the challenge.

Nigerian words that I learned:

  • Okada (motorbike taxi)
  • Batakari (type of shirt)
  • Oyibo (white person)
  • Buka (roadside food stall)
  • Fufu (not sure but might be food)
  • Eba (type of food)

Homecoming – Yaa Gyazi (2016)

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“Homecoming” is a debut novel that has set the interwebs and reviewers into a bit of spin about how fantastic it is, and so when I spotted it on the shelf, it leaped (leapt?) into my little grubby hands. It’s been hailed as one of the newest darlings of the literary world and as a new tour de force in African-American (or African?) literature.

However one chooses to describe it, it’s a good read. The narrative arc follows the fortunes (or not) of a family in Ghana tracing how slavery impacts its path over the centuries starting back in the 18th century.

Ghana_africa-map Told from an omniscient point of view and traveling through time and across continents, the story starts with two half-sisters who follow very different paths through life unknowingly, one living a life of relative wealth after marrying a white man and one who ends up on the opposite side of the coin, but both affected by the slave trade. The location common to both is that of Cape Coast Castle, one sister living on the upper floors in safety and comfort whilst her sister suffers on the dungeon floor in terrible cramped conditions with the others waiting for their travel on the ships to America or other colony elsewhere.

So it’s not that new a narrative structure or in how it’s presented, but it is well written. I am wondering if many of the other reviewers out on the web are inexperienced with slavery stories and perhaps that is how it’s had this great reception. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great book but not completely unlike others out there. (Am I being mean? I’m trying not to be. I just wasn’t so wowed to quite the same extent as others.)

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(So, I’ve only just now realized that the patriotic English song, “Rule Britannia!”, contains a reference to the slave trade. Partway through, the line goes “And Britons never…shall be slaves”, and growing up hearing this song, I had always thought this to be a call of maintaining national independence etc., when, as I think about it now, it’s more likely a reference to the slave trade. (D’oh.) The song was written in the 1740’s which was slap bang in the middle of slave industrial years for England so it makes sense. Hard to believe that I’ve only just put this together…)

In researching that song, it turns out to have a strong link with the Royal Navy who played a vital role in maintaining the independence of England, the island nation, and over time, the lyrics were edited from being an exhortation (“Britannia! Rule the waves!”) to more of a statement (“Britannia rules the waves!”) and which reflected the historical changes over time as England became more of a nautical powerhouse. This links with the Victorian phrase, “The sun never sets on the British Empire” which refs the fact that a lot of the world was pink on the world map (signifying British territories or colonies) and the colonies were spread out in such a way that regardless of whatever the time was, it was daylight somewhere in a colony at the time.

Huh. So now I know… Cool.

Back to the book: So, this is a multi-thread narrative from both the perspectives of the enslaved (or soon to be enslaved) and those who run the slave industry, so there are interesting power/powerless dichotomies to look at. It also covers some of the early Ghanaian tribal warfare which also adds another complex layer as humans (especially women/brides) also had a price, but in a different way. How is this way more acceptable than another way…?

So lots to think about. This was a quick read and a good one. Not quite sure why it’s getting all the hoopla vs. other authors out there, but if you’re looking for an interesting read, here you go.