Crikey. This was one heckuva read about an amazing Black woman. It’s also an excellent nonfiction book with cool modern graphics integrated in amongst its well-written text. (I know. Lots of praise but this volume deserves every ounce of that.)
If you’re unfamiliar with Harriet Tubman, get thee to at least the Wikipedia page and read about this true American hero. (No hyperbole there.) Her life story just blew me away. 🙂
So – not only is this the life story of an astonishingly brave woman, this title presents her history (or herstory) in a modern and extremely graphically-pleasing format. And — it’s well-written. As you can perhaps surmise, this was an informative and wonderful read for me, and I highly recommend it for you.
If you’re not familiar with Tubman (and disregarded my advice in the second paragraph to go and read the Wiki page on her), you’re missing out. Tubman may have been small in stature (five feet tall) but holy cow – she had the biggest and bravest heart and used that courage to save hundreds of people from slavery.
Not only was she a leader in the historical Underground Railway system for escaped slaves, but she was also a hardcore soldier, a brilliant spy, a suffragette for the vote AND an advocate for old people. And – she had brain surgery without anesthetic. Phew. Can you see why I am amazed by this fabulous woman?
Author Erica Armstrong Dunbar, the Charles and Mary Beard professor of history at Rutgers in New Jersey, has done a great job here of relating Tubman’s life and endless achievements, all done in an energetic and graphically pleasing presentation which made this a pure pleasure to read.
It’s written in a conversational tone (despite Armstrong Dunbar’s academic status), but this tone comes across as friendly and informative, similar to watching an approachable historical documentary onscreen but while retaining the sheen of academic rigor to the text.
A powerful and mesmerizing read about one of the most impressive historical figures I have ever come across. I’m astonished that Tubman is not more well known for her life and times – she should be. This will be definitely be one of the top reads for 2020. Amazing.
(Curiously – Tubman was scheduled to be honored on the design of the $20 dollar bill [to replace racist President Andrew Jackson] but true to form, the Orange Goblin has put the kibosh on that for now. See this CNN article for the (disgusting) details. Sigh.)
You’re still here? Shouldn’t you be at the library checking this book out? Or buying it online? Why – yes. You should. 😉
Having picked this up as part of February’s Black History Month (and an ongoing focus on reading AOC* and related topics), I found this to be a really fascinating read about a notable woman who I have not heard of before: journalist Ethel Payne, one of the first African-American female reporters in the U.S. and the first in the White House for several presidents.
Born in 1911 on the south side of Chicago, Payne grew up in a family whose roots were in slavery until the end of the Civil War. Her father worked as a Pullman porter (which meant days away from home) and her mother looked after Payne and her siblings. She was a voracious reader with a Latin teacher mother so education was important in her family. (I can only wonder how many African-American female Latin teachers there were in the U.S. at this time. Not many, I would wager.)
At the start of Payne’s career and wanting to travel further afield, she was adventurous enough to apply (and get accepted) to work in Japan for the Army Special Services Club where she would act as a host at the social club on the base for their servicemen. In 1950, when the Korean War began, she took notes in her journal about the segregated treatment of African-American soldiers. The U.S. Army had been ordered by the President (Truman) to be desegregated but General McCarthy refused. (Grr.) This led, of course, to ongoing social problems, including the issue of AfAm (and others, of course) soldiers having relationships with the local women, whose babies ended up being abandoned by their Japanese mothers. (Culturally, the Japanese were not welcoming of other races or mixed-race children.)
As part of Payne’s social duties, she met another African-American reporter who was in Japan representing the newspaper, The Chicago Defender, a newspaper focused on the large African-American population in Chicago. He handed copies of her notes to his editor stateside, and they ended up being published as a series of articles in the Defender. This was the start of her journalism career.
African-American newspapers were described as “the most predominant media influence on black people… they were our Internet.” (Vernon Jarrett.)
Payne was quite a fearless reporter and refused to back down from difficult issues. She covered African-American adoptions and single mothers; she covered the McCarthy trials, and she was assigned to stay on in Washington as the newspaper’s on-the-ground reporter to cover politics. Payne also was accepted to the elite White House Press Corps, the first woman and the first African-American woman to reach their level of access, and she became known for asking tough questions to the presidents of the day, especially those addressing civil rights and other tricky issues (even if it annoyed the politicians).
She was on the front lines for so many huge civil-rights events for the U.S., one, for example, was the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education case about desegregating schools and in fact, Nixon was so irritated with a question that Payne asked him about this that he refused to answer any of her questions for the remainder of his political term.
Additionally, she was sent abroad for several sentinel events, including the Vietnam War and on several Presidential trips to the African continent (again, as the only African-American female journalist). She must have had some lonely moments.
However, as much as her coverage excelled, her editors were not always supportive of her efforts and there were a couple of missteps on her part. However, her legacy as one of the leading lights in journalism during the Civil Rights era remains untarnished and although she is not a household name in the news-reporting world, she should be (and probably would be if she wasn’t an African-American).
This was an amazing story about a woman who refused to back down, both professionally and personally, and in doing so, made her mark in the journalism field. She died in 1991.
(Asterick refers to Authors-of-color, not U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York City. :-))
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)
Like so many others in the book-blog sphere, I enjoy taking a look back at what I’ve read over the past twelve months of 2019 – some have been complete winners and some not, but overall, I’ve been happy with what I’ve read.
Big trends in choosing my titles have been mostly in choosing POC titles and topics and preferably the combo of both titles/authors of color. This has been eye-opening for me, and is a trend that will definitely continue over the future. I’d like to get to the point where I don’t really have to search out names and topics… Until then, I’m going to carry on this special effort to continue that focus until it’s a habit. It’s up to me to educate me, after all.
To the Top Ten Reads of 2019 (in no particular order):
The Rotter’s Club – Jonathan Coe (2001) (F). A novel written around the time that I grew up in England so brought back many happy memories. Plus written in a very creative structure and approach. I have the sequel on the TBR. <rubs hands with anticipatory delight>
There, There – Tommy Orange (2018) (F). An excellent fictional read written about Native Americans in the modern world by a young Native American writer.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI – David Grann (2017) (NF/history/Native American). True tale of a series of early 20th century murders in a First Peoples tribe which happened to own large swathes of land with oil reserves on it…
Greengates – R.C. Sheriff (1936) (F). A lovely straightforward mid-century British novel.
Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? – Beverly Daniel Tatum (2003) (NF/sociology/African-American/race). (No blog post [only due to job busy] but you might check out this list of related AfAm NF titles I’ve read…) A timely NF that looks at race and how it plays out in the country today. Valuable on so many levels. We also saw the author speak – wonderful as well.
The October Country – Ray Bradbury (1955) (F/short stories/spec pic). A collection of different spec fiction stories written by a master writer.
The Parable of the Sower – Octavia E. Butler (1993) (F/spec fiction/sci fi). Really good sci fi novel by one of the first (and best) sci fi authors of color (also a woman). Try it even if you’re “not into sci fi”. It’s a good read, however you categorize it.
Other annual reading-related statistics:
Total pages read: 25,253 (average: 275 pp).
Total number of titles read: 94. (Compare with 2018: 77.)
DNFs for the year: 4.
Mixed gender (e.g. an anthology etc.): 11.
POC: 30 (for a total of 32%). Close to one in every three titles. Go me. 🙂
NF: 54 (57%)
TBR Titles: 60 off the TBR (of 64% of the total read).
Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).
This prompt took me down a few rabbit holes (in a good way) and forced me to take a good objective look at what I’ve been reading in terms of POC-related authors, topics and titles. To that end, I’ve collected many of the POC titles that I’ve read and reviewed on my blog over the past few years, certainly not as a method of boasting or as positioning me as any sort of expert, but more as a reference for others who may also be interested in digging a little deeper into this subject.
I’m also rather hoping that others may also have lists of related titles that they might want to share… There’s always room for more books on the TBR, don’t you agree?
COMPLETED AFRICAN-AMERICAN RELATED NF TITLES (from last couple of years):
And the Band Played On – Randy Schiltz (1987) NF – DNF, but on hold for a later date.
Hostages to Fortune – Elizabeth Cambridge (1933) F
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? – Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D. (2003) NF
Plus (because I am a complete nerd) this jigsaw puzzle:
November plans? Not really. I am very open to whatever comes my way and I’m happy to keep jogging along in this particular lane. I might need to rein in the book purchases though. (With the caveat that there is a December book and jigsaw puzzle sale on the cards…) :-}
“My chief desire in presenting this book is to impress upon somebody’s mind the possibilities of prevention.”
Traveling around the web, as one does, I came across an interesting nugget of American history when I met Rebecca Lee Crumpler who was the first African-American female physician in the U.S. when she graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1860. (She was also the college’s only African-American graduate.)
Consider this statistic: there were only 54,543 physicians
in the whole of the country in 1860. Only 300 of those physicians were women
and Crumpler was the only African-American female physician. (And, in fact, as
late as 1920, there were still only 65 African-American female docs in the
entire country. I wonder what the stats are now…
(ETA: Only 4 percent of practicing physicians in 2016 are African-American, most graduating from HBSUs. Only 2 percent of nation’s physicians are female African-Americans. Female physicians now make up 34 percent of the whole physician population, but are still underpaid compared with men (64 cents for every dollar a man earns). Overall population of US (now) is 15 percent black (2013, US Census Bureau).)
Back to Crumpler: Crumpler was a remarkable woman and this is thought to be the very first medical text by any African-American author.
Imagine the U.S. as the country as it was then when Crumpler
was getting her medical education as a “doctress” (as the title says). How very
courageous and determined she was:
1860 – Crumpler graduates from the medical college as a “doctress”.
1863: US Emancipation Proclamation (meant that slaves were now free in the Southern/Confederate States).
1865 – US 13th Amendment ended slavery in all states. Establishment of Freedman Bureau (agency to help millions of black slaves and poor whites in the South after Civil War.) (Actually, Crumpler and her hub moved to Virginia to work for the bureau and “more than 30,000 colored” after the war.)
1868 – 14th Amendment secured American citizenship for African-Americans.
1870 – 15th Amendment secured voting rights for African-Americans (on paper)
But obvs slavery still happening. (Look at Barracoon
by Zora Neal Hurston (2018) which covers the life of Oluale Kossula who
arrived in the U.S. from West Africa where he had been captured as part of the
slave trade in 1860, same year as Crumpler is attending her first year at the
So, absolutely loads to think about with this nonfiction read, and that’s not even getting to the actual contents just yet!
Since this book is more of a how-to manual for the
healthcare of people (not just African-Americans although they may well have been
the main (and only audience for this text), I’ve put together a few notes on her
healthcare guidance during this late Victorian period in case you’re curious. (Crumpler
was also more than likely to only have been allowed access to care for the African-American
populations as well…)
It’s in a bullet list since that seemed the easiest way to present such disparate info:
health advice (under 5s):
One of the main baby healthcare advice chapters is titled this: Necessity of Agreeable and Soothing Surroundings. It’s meant to be in reference to infants but it certainly works for me as well. 🙂
“All loud talking or laughing should be strictly prohibited. To insure this, no sly jokes should be indulged in by anyone present; for by so doing convulsions of an alarming nature may be brought on. “ (Chapter 5)
If the baby has a rattling or wheezing noise in its throat,
Mrs. Crumpler recommends using a real feather (that has been wetted to tamp the
down) to tickle the back of the tongue to make the child cough or gag… Don’t
give the baby “soot tea”, by any
Saffron tea is really crocus tea? And was popular for baby’s poop problems?
Don’t give infants a “little
weak toddy” to “bring up wind and
make them sleep”. It can cause intoxication and then a “fearful attack of purging”. Plus it may
“inculcate a desire for tippling in many
of our weak-minded youth”.
Later on:watch out if giving your baby any alcohol:it “tends to stunt the intellect and dwarf the stature of the youth of our land…”
And no oysters for the young one: they are “most dangerous”. A broiled lamb chop of beef would be fine to give the baby though, as support for the diet of mother’s milk though. (They help to prevent “cholera of infants at the breast, especially in our crowded cities”.)
And too much soda (i.e. in making breads) makes your baby bald.
And don’t overfeed or do the “coarse habit of ‘stuffing’ babes, to avoid frequent feeding of them”
– the habit needs to “vanish like dew
before the noonday sun” …
Children who eat candy are also at risk of developing “dwarfed statures”… but kids will also be
troubled with worms at the same time (due to the candy).
If your child is teething, “the greater mischief is done to the whole nervous system by the
unnatural but ancient custom of pressing and rubbing gums – it is possible to
trace the cause of insanity to this pernicious custom”
Teething and not
wearing shoes in puddles are believed to be a combo that directly cause
lung fever (another name for pneumonia) in infants. If your child does get
pneumonia, the best treatment is “patient
watchfulness, pure air and absolute quiet”.
Apparently, babies have always been tough to get to sleep. “Many children screamed with fright at the
noise created to get them to sleep”… What were the family doing to make the
kids scream when they’re trying to get them to go to sleep? The mind boggles…
Once you do have your child sleeping, don’t let your baby sleep too long in soiled clothes: it can cause “soft bones, enlarged joints, inverted feet, flattened back-heads, sickening sores, dropsy, blindness or numerous ills”…
If you are a family of “moderate means” and you are not able to keep more than one fire going in your house during the cold season, taking a baby from a hot room to a colder one can cause frequent and severe colds… So, try to live with all your rooms on the same floor in your tenement to avoid (or mitigate) this problem and help the heat (from your one fire) spread throughout the house more evenly…
If your baby does has a lot of snot in his/her nose, try to unstop it with goose oil on a feather. But – be gentle. If you’re not careful, you can break the baby’s nose and that causes cancer. (What?)
Reading for kids is also dangerous: “Can you not cut short the certain destruction that awaits your sons and daughters, through the influence of impressions gained by the constant perusal of fictitious, and in many cases, corrupt library books?”
a breast-feeding mother:
If the mother’s nipple [for breastfeeding] is not prominent
for the baby to suck, “a friendly adult
or child could soon draw out the nipple by sucking so that the babe can get
(Just try not to do this when one’s mouth is full of snuff
as it can cause other health problems (including “instant death”) for el bebe who breastfeeds immediately after this.)
If a new mom is waiting for her milk to “drop”, watch out: “diarrhea, convulsion, or even insanity may
be brought on through the means of any excitement whatever” unless you’re
careful… Diarrhea is also caused by “emptiness” in a baby (or a baby being
Don’t drink a glass of iced water when your baby is breastfeeding or this could happen: “the babe was seized with rigid convulsions and dropped from the breast” while the mother became “almost helpless with fright”… But some quick-thinking from Mrs. Crumpler with a tub of hot water and some mustard managed to save the day… Phew.
try to avoid cholera if you can:
There was a whole chapter on the issue of child/infant starvation
– it must have been a huge problem for the many poor families… Plus, failure-to-thrive
(or malnourishment) was also seen as an early symptom of cholera in children
(and cholera was one of the largest causes of infant mortality in those days)…
Cholera could also be caused by the mothers adding in a mixed or meat and veg diet too early after the birth of a child. (Poor mothers! They get blamed for everything!)
Cholera also increases the risk of having a “hair worm” which had been noticed to “infest the throat of some patients”. (Woah. What is that “hair worm” thing?)
And what is the cause of infantile cholera? No one really knows
at that time, but Mrs. Crumpler swears that it’s not contagious but does offer
this nugget: if you’re in a crowded space in the middle of a cholera epidemic,
it’s best to leave if you can. Poverty, “wretchedness” and crime spread
who’s responsible for all this?…
Places a heavy blame on mothers to “make a little sacrifice for the sake of equipping the mind” and look after their children better… Also, the child studying too hard can endanger your child’s health.
Mothers should learn more about health and prevention of illness, and get this: Crumpler, unsurprisingly, is pro-women’s vote. (But this wouldn’t happen until 1965!)
(But she does earnestly wish that mothers would try harder
to not give their children to the alms houses… “Our women work hard, seemingly…” ooh. Them’s fighting words.)
Crumpler also strikes a critical note when she reports that
women “appear to shrink from any
responsibilities demanding patience and sacrifice”… Yikes.
She also blames the declining mortality in the “colored population of Boston” on “neglect to guard against the changes of the
for women’s health in general:
Exercising during your period will cause you to go barren,
have ovarian inflammation, dropsy or consumption. (Periods also called “bringing on the turns”).
Monthly cramps are caused (and worsened by) having cold and/or wet feet (or even when sweeping the floor). Interestingly, another household task (sewing at a treadle sewing machine) also causes vaginal ulcers (mainly from getting frustrated with the machine itself). (This, although very serious stuff, cracked me up at the time since I remember frustrations when I was learning to use my mum’s treadle sewing machine. Not sure about the vaginal ulcers but definitely caused me some strife!)
“Poverty, with chastity, is an enviable condition.”
Menopause is worsened by drinking ice-water (which, in fact, could cause paralysis) and helped by “securing cheerful exercise for the mind, with an abundance of outdoor scenery”… Drinking more water just prolongs the hot flashes.
(But how best to control the size of your family (i.e. birth
control)?: Mrs. Crumpler recommends that “if
these little ones are given in quick succession, it is just as well to have and
get through with it. Many are the women who have borne a dozen or more children
into the world, and afterwards filled positions of trust and nobility…”
Colds are typically caused by northeast and easterly winds…
Beware of sudden changes in air, food or medicines
(especially those that contract or
depress muscles): “may cause suffocation
and death at any moment.”
Tumors of all kinds are caused by fish, eggs, oysters, pork,
gaseous vegetables, and anything that
depresses or excites the mind. Also, gas and “loaded bowels”. Anointing the entire body with goose oil should
Brain fever was caused by “some irregularity, over-work or undue excitement” and effective treatment includes shaving your head sitting in a cool dark room and keeping wet cool material wrapped around your neck.
Subtitle: The true adventures of the first American explorer to bring back China’s most exotic animal.
Strolling around the library bookshelves, I happened upon the biography section and then within that, the biographies-which-include-animals-somehow section. Oh happy times. I’m always up for an animal read, but combine that with the life story of an interesting woman doing exploring during 1930s Shanghai? You had me at hello.
This is the joy of browsing at the library. I had no idea this book (or topic combination even existed)… I’m psyched to go and dig around and find more treasures the next time I visit there.
So – about this title. As the subtitle briefly mentions, it’s a biography of American Ruth Harkness, who went to China to bring back to the U.S. its first live baby giant panda. At this time in the world, giant pandas were just being brought to the fore for the general public across the world, but the few pandas who had been brought to the West by (male) explorers had been killed for their skins. No one had even considered the possibility of bringing a live giant panda, let alone a live baby one. Add to that, the story of a neophyte female explorer traveling through bamboo forests without much support, financial or otherwise. There lies a fascinating tale…
Some background: Harkness, quite a wealthy socialite, had met her husband at parties in NYC and he had been swept up in the exploring craze of the time. The hubby had planned several long trips to faraway places, including China, but on one of those trips, he became ill and then died.
Harkness had only been married a couple of years by then, but with her money, newly widowed and rather at a loss for something to do, Harkness picked up the exploring reins left behind by her husband – much to the horror and disbelief of her well-heeled friends and family. (Plus – she was a woman! Who had ever heard of such a thing?)
This tracks Harkness’s preparations (what little there were) for her first exploration trip. China at that time, was not that well-known by a lot of the West and so Harkness’s choice to travel to this mostly-unknown destination by herself to finish up what her husband had started was hard to believe for many people.
It’s really a fascinating story. Harkness doesn’t really seem like such a likable person, but she was determined, she didn’t know what she didn’t know yet and so in her view, this was just another adventure to a new place. This lack of knowledge really helped her, I think, as she wasn’t aware of some of the major difficulties that would lie ahead. Ignorance is bliss.
And she wasn’t the only Western explorer racing to bring back a live giant panda to worldwide zoos. There were other more-experienced and more well-funded men who were also in the race, so not only was this a project running against time and resources, it was also a gender-based race as well. The odds were heavily against Harkness.
Harkness appears to have been one of the few Western explorers who truly respected China and its people. Once she was there, she felt as though she had arrived home, and this connection pulled her through some of the more-challenging parts of the months-long journey. She also really cared about the well-being of the actual giant pandas that she found (compared with the other explorers who saw them only as a product, dead or alive).
It’s a fascinating read since it covers so much: the Jazz Age, Shanghai (from both the expat and the native perspective), the cultural mores of the time, and the numerous moving pieces that make up a lengthy exploring venture.
Croke is a sympathetic author and has done her research. She uses a lot of primary sources as reference material along with interviewing various Harkness relatives, even traveling with some back to China to retrace Harkness’ travels and to walk some of the same paths.
There are a few patches when Croke crosses over into FanGirl territory, but to be honest, Harkness was an admirable person in many ways so there’s not much wrong with that. Besides, the enthusiasm is well-balanced with less-savory aspects of Harkness so it worked for me.
This was such a good read about an interesting person at a time when much was changing across the globe. Add baby giant pandas to the mix, and it was a fun title to dig into this summer.
Random note: I happened to be using a bookmark from the World Wildlife Fund, and their logo is a panda. Worlds colliding! 🙂
Continuing with my ongoing goal of reading from my own TBR (ha!), I pulled down this title. I’ve read Ehrenreich NF before (such as Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America [pre-blog]) so I knew to expect a well-written and pretty thoroughly researched non-fiction read from her (and the co-author), but what I was really impressed about was the breadth (and depth) of this look of women’s health (and the accompanying [mostly male] advisers.
So – what is this book about? It’s an almost academic survey of how the health of women (and thus women themselves) have been on the receiving end of very questionable “scientific” advice over the years, and since it was a large overview of a long period of time, it was interesting to see the general patterns of the authoritarian (mostly male) through the years.
For example, it’s pretty well known that the Victorian woman was treated as though she was an infantile imbecile by the males (and some females) in her life, but it was amusing to see how the advice from the “scientific experts” evolved from this to the Edwardian woman (who was told that her whole life was to produce children but then hand them over to a nanny or similar) to the next generation of women who were advised to treat their children via the whole “children should be seen but not heard” paradigm, to another stage when the foci of the family was to please the child first and foremost… and so it continues.
I am hoping that the most recent trend of viewing children as “equal” in power to (or sometimes with more power than) the parents will end soon, as I am seeing the result of that in some of the college students in my classroom at times.
(The Helicopter parent has now been replaced by the Lawnmower parent, it seems. Lawnmower parents do more than the hovering of the Helicopter parent: the Lawnmower group actually leap into their adult child’s life and mow down any obstacles for their kid. Thus, the analogy of the Lawnmower… Of course, I’m not asserting that every parent does this, but it is common enough to be a “thing” in higher ed.)
The “expert advice” for women has also evolved in tandem with the evolution and maturation of science as a discipline, since according to Ehrenreich, almost every piece of advice has been painted with the color (and authority) of science, whether it was crud or not. People followed what these “experts” recommended, regardless of how wacky the advice was. (This also follows with the notion that women were also infantile and did not have the wherewithal to make their own health decisions.)
(Thinking about it, it’s a horrifyingly interesting exercise to see how this is playing out right now in some of the states and their recent (anti-)abortion laws. Women are still being told how to control their bodies by large legislative bodies of ill-informed men. Plus ca change…)
So, anyway, I really enjoyed this provocative (in terms of “thought-creating”) read, and if you’re interested in medicine, in women’s issues, in medical history… you’d enjoy this title.
(Note though that this book was originally written in 1978, but the text has been updated in pieces. The updating is a little patchy in places, but overall, it’s a really interesting read as both a piece of history and an overview of social issues.)