BlacKKKlansman – Ron Stallworth (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison (1952)

As part of this year’s JOMP recognition and celebration of the U.S. Black History Month (BHM) which occurs every February, I pulled this title off my BHM TBR which I had pulled together here. I had bought this a while ago at one of our trusty FoL Book Sales, and, as part of the aforementioned Black History Month and also as part of my TBR focus, I thought that this book, although a little intimidating in some ways, would do the job as my next read.

It’s a little like what I had expected, but then also nothing like I expected but overall was a significant read. Did I enjoy it? Umm. Let me say this: I think it’s an important part of the American canon; I think it’s a valuable contribution to African-American literature and it’s an on-the-boots look at life for one African-American character in mid-twentieth century American society.

Ellison was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953, but pieces of an earlier draft were published as short stories across the literary landscape as far back as 1947. (Thus, there can be some debate as to when this story was actually published.)

I found it to be a very powerful read – full of passion and anger (rage, really) of the protagonist as he (justifiably) rails at the unfairness of his life and times. It’s also an intellectual journey into one African-American person’s experience and journey through life before the Civil Rights Movement, and as such, it was a tough read – not just from the intellectual/philosophical approach, but also because daily living was so hard for people of color at that time in the U.S.

However, don’t let this mention of high-falutin’ intellectualism make you turn from this novel. It’s also a strong narrative and bildungsroman of a young man’s experiences in the South and what happens when he ventures north to NYC.  I’d also argue that it meets the definition of a Kunstlerroman (which is a subcategory of bildungsroman but recounts the coming-of-age of an artist figure. I just learned that the other day, so thought I’d share.)

Ralph Ellison.

So – to the story itself. The narrator, an unnamed man, is introduced at the start as living in a cellar below-ground in a large city, his home lit by hundreds of light bulbs powered by energy that he has pilfered from the municipal electric company, payback (he feels) for society and those around him who do not see him as a human or as a valid member of society. It’s this idea of invisibility which is the dominant theme throughout the novel and it’s this idea of being uncounted and ignored that is the motivation for most of the protagonist’s actions throughout the narrative.

Since this novel is a coming-of-age project, the action flashes back to the narrator’s childhood in the South and his early educational years. As a college student, he attends a black institution and while there, is tasked with escorting a campus VIP around the grounds and the college’s environs. It’s here where things rather go off the rails for this poor protagonist as he tries to please the VIP guest while also exposing the visitor (as requested) to more unsavory aspects of African-American life in the area.

The ramifications of this visit lead to the protagonist moving up north to a large city in hopes of a better life, and he gets heavily involved with the Brotherhood, an organization of other black men with the expressed goal of improving conditions for African-Americans in the city. Our hero becomes rather a local celebrity, giving speeches for the group, but it’s not without its problems, including his own doubts about the true goals of the group.

Things turn to a head in the city, for both the narrator himself and for those African-Americans not affiliated with the group. Riots ensue, looting happens and by the end of the novel, the narrator is back by himself, completely isolated from others and back to being invisible. The final piece of the conclusion is where you, as the reader, can see the growth of the narrator.

It’s not an easy novel to read. The plot is linear for the most part, but the last third is composed of a stream-of-consciousness internal conversation for the narrator. Reading about this part I’ve learned that it’s reflective of jazz music (very loose and free structurally speaking), but from my own reading perspective, it was pretty confusing. Now I’ve read it, I can go back and see what the narrator was explaining but when I was actually reading it, there were several times when I needed to reread different passages to try to keep up with what was going on.

One of my own problems in appreciating this read is that Ellison hearkens back to lit influences with which I’m not familiar (or don’t really appreciate): T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (bleugh), William Faulkner (yuck) and Ernest Hemingway (double yuck),

Again, don’t let this stop you from reading this book. It’s a powerful read and an important title to experience. Just know that it’s got this non-linear tendency in places and good luck at the end…! 🙂

I am very glad that I’ve finally read this now I’ve finished the novel. It plays an influential part in African-American literature and political thought. It’s also highly unlikely that I’ll read this again though. :-}

Note and FYI: There are two different “Invisible Man” books out there: this one (called Invisible Man – no “The”) is the Ellison one. The other one is very different and titled “The Invisible Man” a scifi novel by H.G. Wells published in 1897. (Haven’t got to the Victorian one yet.)

February: Black History Month TBR Pile

Some of the reading suggestions for BHM…

As I’ve done for the past few years, I’m choosing to recognize and celebrate the U.S. Black History Month for February, which means that I step up my ongoing focus on reading POC authors and related topics. (It’s become more of a year-long focus now, but I specifically make an effort to bring attention to POC authors/topics during these weeks.)

I’ve pulled the pile (above) as a collection of titles which fit the bill from my own TBR (plus a couple from the library), and I’m excited to see which ones appeal to me as I go on to read some of them. What’s in the pile? Let’s take a looksie.

(Top to bottom in picture):

  • The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African – Olaudah Equiano/ Gustavus Vassa (NF/auto) 1789
  • The Free People of Color of New Orleans – Mary Gehman (NF/history)
  • Mr. Loverman – Bernardine Evaristo (F) 2014
  • Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison (F) 1952 (?). (Read this. Wow.)
  • Colour Bar: A United Kingdom – Susan Williams (NF/bio) 2017
  • They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky – Benjamin Ajak, Benson Deng et al. (NF/auto) 2015
  • The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts – William Still (NF/history/bio) 2011
  • Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne: The First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris (NF/bio) 2015. In progress.
  • The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears – Dinaw Mengestu (F) 2008. Post to come.
  • BlackkKlansman: Race, Hate and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime – Ron Stallworth (NF/auto) 2018. Meh.
  • I was Born in Slavery: Personal Accounts of Slavery in Texas – Andrew Waters (ed.) (NF/history/auto)
  • Days of Grace: A Memoir – Arthur Ashe and Arnold Rampersad (NF/auto) (1993)

The side pile:

  • The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander (NF/history/socio)
  • Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America – Charisse Jones and Kumea Short-Gooden (NF/socio)
  • The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color in a New Millennium – Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson (NF/socio) 2013
  • White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism – Robin Diangelo and Michael Eric Dyson (NF/socio/history) 2018
  • The Education of a WASP – Lois Mark Stalvey (1970)

As always, it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to read ALL of these, but certainly a nice pile to start with. Any titles that you’d recommend?

Movies, movies, movies…

As part of Black History Month celebrations, our local cinema screened a viewing of “Selma” (2014) which details the long march undertaken by Martin Luther King, Jr., and his group to secure equal voting rights. What was really cool was that the showing of the movie was followed by a panel of professors from the university’s law school, mostly constitutional law specialists but all of whom added a new level of interest to the whole thing. 

Anyway, back to the movie: this is a true story that follows a three-month period in 1965 in Selma, Alabama, when King and other members of the Southern Leadership Christian Conference were focused on voting rights and voter access for the African-American community at a time when there were many people still against it and when segregation was still common across the South. It culminated in the Selma-Montgomery march which ended with the (in)famous crossing of the bridge to enter the city. 

It’s a fascinating story to watch how the two sides waged war – the people who were anti-segregation and those who were for it. There seemed to be v little overlap between the two groups, and any contact between them was a tinder-box ready for flames, and the film does a really good job of showing how King, Malcolm X, and the other SLCC leadership had to work on many fronts to make any forward progress. 

If you’re interested in historical social justice, in voter rights, in politics, in American history, this would right up your alley. It definitely opened up a lot of rabbit holes down which for me to enter… 

(For a different perspective on this same event, check out Rep. John Lewis’ graphic novel called The March trilogy.  Or perhaps check out this autobio of Melba Pattillo Beals who was one of the Little Rock Nine, the small group of brave students who attended the first high school in Little Rock that became desegregated in the 1960s. Fascinating and horrifying at the same time.)

Author James Baldwin.

Last night, we watched an Independent Lens documentary called “I am not your Negro” which relies upon documentary footage and the words of writer James Baldwin to tell the story of race in America. It utilized a mix of historical footage and more present-day events (Ferguson etc.) to show how far America has (and hasn’t) come) in racial relations, and although I might not have been the biggest fan of Baldwin’s book Tell it on the Mountain, this documentary showed how powerful his words could be in the oral tradition. A whole other world when you hear it, and I encourage you to seek out this documentary. It’s very good.  

And then we also saw “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” starring Melissa McCarthy in a film about Lee Israel, another U.S. writer but this time one who had come upon hard times and who decided to create forged letters from famous authors for her to sell to collectors in NYC. Israel herself doesn’t seem to be a sympathetic character, but the story was fascinating (especially if you’re interested in reading, writing, books etc.) It’s worth tracking down to see. .

And then it’s Oscar season as well…. Happy times.

Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

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, and view my review of it 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.

(For more on a different (but similar) “Africatown” (this one called Nicodermus in Kansas), try this read: Going Home to Nicodemus – Daniel Chu and Bill Shaw.)

As Neale 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, Neale 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.)

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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