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. 🙂

 

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Dr. Cornel West rocks.

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Wow.

Dr. Cornel West visited our campus last week as part of the African-American History Month, and wow. He was a fantastic orator. You can tell that he has experience as a spoken word performer and you can tell that he is probably one of the smartest people you’ll ever hear from. (Huge vocabulary!) It was great.

cornelDr. West’s talk was along the lines of how African-American lives have been changed (or not) during the Obama administration and I had been expecting to hear how great President Obama has been and all that jazz. Instead, we heard a fairly diluted message of support for him, and a lot about how it’s much more important to be the best person you can be, regardless of color. Great message. However, Dr. West was also very astute in his biting commentary about how racism still exists for African-Americans in the U.S. and he particularly focused on the “Black Lives Matter” campaign. It really got me to thinking and linked nicely back to Ta Ne-Hisi Coates’ book, Between The World and Me. (See my review here.)

(I had expected the lecture hall to be as packed as it was with Black Violin , but instead (and rather disappointedly), it was only two-thirds full and mostly with older white people. I was saddened because Dr. West was rather a coup for our university to secure. He’s an important intellectual activist and his messages crosses boundaries of all kinds. They missed out is all I can say.)

So – to the talk. Instead of focusing on President Obama’s eight years in office, Dr. West revolved his talk on the problem of systemic racism in the U.S. and linked that with four questions from the African-American writer, W. E. B. Du Bois:

  • How shall Integrity face Oppression?
  • What shall Honesty do in the face of Deception?
  • What shall Decency do in the face of Insult?
  • What Virtue do to meet Brute Force?

(Du Bois had some other questions as well, but these were the four that Dr. West chose to focus on for his talk.)

It was a powerful talk. Dr. West is a fiery and passionate speaker and covered a wide swath of issues. He addressed some uncomfortable realities (at least for me, as a privileged white person) and the advice that he gave to address these four questions in an honorable and powerful way was dead on.

It was really a good lecture, and if you should ever get a chance to hear Dr. West, then please go. It was a thought-provoking and energizing talk from one of the leading activists and philosophers in the U.S. Highly recommended.

(I’m also going to look for some of Du Bois’ writing at a later date. It looks v interesting to me.)

Brown Girl, Brownstones – Paule Marshall (1959)

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“Unlike Chauncey Street, Fulton Street on this summer Saturday night was a swirling spectrum of neon signs, movie marquees, bright-lit store windows and sweeping yellow streamers of light from the cars…”

“Brown Girl, Brownstones” is a title that has been on my shelf of Viragoes for years (and that’s not hyperbole there), and as part of this month’s African-American History Month celebration, I picked it up. (I’d also just finished a collection of short stories by Marshall last week and I’d loved that read.)

Paule Marshall.

Paule Marshall.

And this read was the same level of literary excellence that I’d been hoping for after that short story collection. Marshall continues with her high level of wordsmithing here in this bildungsroman of a young immigrant child whose family are first-generation arrivals from Barbados living in early 20th century NYC. Historically speaking, after having dealt (and lived) with years of servitude, there was a wave of Barbadians (or Bajans as they’re called in this novel) who immigrated to New York hoping for a better life. New York was, at that times, called the “City of the Almighty Dollar” among this group, and all who arrived there came with dreams of big money and big success. They were literate, ambitious, and business-minded, and considered themselves as separate from the African-American population for the most part. They were Bajans.

So – to the story itself. As mentioned, it’s a coming of age novel set in Brooklyn in this immigrant neighborhood. The protagonist is Selina Boyce, a girl of twelve when the novel begins and whose parents are complete opposites of each other. The father is a dream-large layabout who talks big without following through on the action whilst her mother (always referred to as “the” mother to emphasize the distance between them) is a reality-based ambitious hard worker who has to provide the money for the bread and butter and the board for the family. Selina grudgingly admires her mother, but her father she views as “Christ-like” as the mother points out in one paragraph. Selina admires her father enough to side with him in the many family arguments that arise, and so she often defends her father’s ways in opposition of her mother who is faced with paying for the daily bread and board.

Over the years, Selina is smart in school and grows up with dreams of being a dancer. She also falls in love with a man who is older and who is, incidentally, very like her father in that he has half-baked dreams of being a successful artist but doesn’t have the wherewithal to make that actually happen. So, young Selina is torn in terms of who she wants to be: should she model herself after her father and his pie-in-the-sky ways, or after her mother who is more down-to-earth and realistic?

It’s this dichotomy which runs its thread through this novel. Selina can see that her father is not going to achieve much, but still – she admires his dreams of freedom and success and strongly identifies with him. Her mother, on the other hand — Selina can’t ignore her skills and her own dreams of being a successful independent business owner. And so Selina has to learn to decide her own future – does she have to choose one parent over another or is there another way?

This was written entirely in dialect which made it a slow read at first, but once I got the hang of it, I could hear it in my head and really enjoyed the novel. Marshall is a superb writer, and this was a good read for Black History Month.

(Part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition.)

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