Million Dollar Applause for Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys

If you bump into me on the street and you notice the matching luggage weighing down both of my eyes and ask me what happened, I will simply reply “It was all Colson’s fault.” On July 16th, Whitehead released his much anticipated novel The Nickel Boys. I first need to confess that I am already partial to this story because it is based upon the Dozier Academy, an actual reform school for boys that operated in the state of Florida from the early 1900’s until 2011. About two years ago, a number of unmarked graves were discovered on the academy’s campus. Upon careful examination of the bodies, it had been discovered that the remains belonged at the time to unidentified young men who suffered from life threatening forms of physical trauma. Upon careful research, Whitehead learned that the school had been clothed in rumors of allegations of sexual and physical abuse and in some cases murder by the school’s administration and faculty. Students sent to the school were often orphans or kids as young as five accused of petty crimes. Many of these allegations were overlooked for the school provided a nice source of free labor for the state of Florida.

My heart bled for Curtis Elwood, the main character of the story. He was born in raised in Tallahassee, Florida and reared by his grandmother. He comes of age in the 1960’s and grows intoxicated with the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King and his nonviolent ideology after his grandmother gifts him a record of King’s famous speeches. He almost makes his grandmother regret giving him the record, for he plays it continuously and memorizes every line of every speech. His admiration and energy is harnessed by a young teacher who proudly wears the scars he earned from his time in SNCC (Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee). I was so inspired by Whitehead’s portrait of this young teacher. As soon as he enters the class, he instructs all of his students to use a black marker to strike a line through all of the offensive messages left in their hand me down books from the white schools before they begin their lesson. He is Curtis’ first direct line to the movement. I was also excited by the fact that in the book Elwood attends Lincoln High School in 1964 which was the same high school and year my father- in law attended the school and like Curtis provided a pipeline to SNCC which was operating nearby on FAMU’s campus. Like my father -in law, Curtis participates in the 1964 sit in at the local Tallahassee movie theater. His teacher along with everyone else in the community sees Curtis’ potential and eventually offers him the deal of a life time: an opportunity to take college courses as a high school junior at a new nearby university.

Curtis is ecstatic . Unfortunately, he never arrives at the school. On the way he hitchhikes and is picked up unknowingly by a young man driving a stolen car. When they are pulled over, he is quickly sentenced to a period at the Nickel Academy. When he arrives, he is comforted by the exterior which is almost an identical mirror image to the university he would have instead attended. However, the inside and the horrors that await quickly introduces him to a new battle ground to test his commitment to the nonviolence movement. Among the psychological, physical, and sexual abuse he witnesses and in some cases experiences first hand, he has to determine to what extent can he still “love his enemy.” More importantly, he has to fight to resist slipping into the terrifying submissive, apathetic, and helpless role assumed by so many of the men in his community as their only coping mechanism under white supremacy. I am not sure but I believe the latter scares him the most.

I loved loved loved loved this book! We live in an age where King’s image has become safe and almost Mr. “Rogerish.” King was a radical. King was non-compromising. Whitehead’s repeated use of excerpts from King’s speeches throughout the book reminds us of just how radical the nonviolent movement was. I can not wait to use this book as a teaching tool this year.

Also , please read it to the very end because it has one hell of a twist. My only issue, is that the book had to end.

Night Time Reflection. . . . . and what am I Currently Reading?

Today was a great teaching day. My students participated in a first ever historic preservation project that actually made the afternoon news that will be the topic of my next post later this week. I was riding on cloud nine until I came home, laid my son to sleep, took a shower, and pulled out this month’s novel Red River by Lalita Tademy.

Now you literally need to stop and drop everything this very minute and run to your closest independent book store if you have never read her breakthrough novel Cane River. It was one of the most perfect works of semi historical fiction I have ever read. In her follow up Red River, the 1873 black residents of Colfax, Louisiana are trying to honor the election results for mayor. Local white supremacists refused to allow the newly Republican sheriff who was largely elected by the black residents exercising their still very recent right to vote to take office. Violence soon erupts after the Black Colfax residents break into and occupy city hall. The story is based upon true events that led to the 1873 Colfax Massacre in Colfax , Louisiana.

I know many people would wonder why the hell would I want to dive into such a gloomy book following an awesome experience I had with my students less than 5 hours ago.Sometimes I just feel more comfortable when I am lost in my books and that I can better relate to characters on paper versus real life. I sometimes feel like I eat, live, and breath, history so much to the point that I am better equipped to interact with someone in the 1870’s than in my own time. When the study of history is your life, the present doesn’t look the same as it does to everyone else. This feeling of disconnect kind of left me a little melancholy but thank God for books. Books are more than stories on pages. They are places and eras of refuge.

Going to wake up early tomorrow morning and run this melancholy out of me. In the meantime, stay tuned for a review of Red River.

Toni Morrison’s “Home” Forced me to Remember Home.

Toni Morrison portrait at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

Final Exams, teacher end of the year evaluations, and a community historic preservation project I am currently spearheading has me wishing lately that there were 48 hours to a day. As a result, I have not had time to read as much as I normally would but that is expected this time of the year and I know that rest and relaxation are only eleven days away! I did manage to squeeze in, Home, a novel last week by the queen Toni Morrison.

Home revolves around the story of Frank Money, a Korean War veteran and modern day African American Odysseus wandering through the South trying to find his way back home to Georgia following the war. However, unlike Odysseus, the only gods he encounters are the gods of the American South in the 1950s: Segregation, Poverty, and White Supremacy. I love Morrison’s subject matter and her ability to create characters and settings that remind me of places, family members, and experiences I have and have never been nor had. She is able to recount the African American experience in such vivid and emotional details with her choice of words and an uncanny ability to convey emotion that she always strikes a cord with me. I love her stories for their depth and development but I love them even more, because I feel that she is telling my story and my mother’s, father’s, grandmother’s, and great great grandfather’s story in this country. I feel the ability to appreciate and connect with her stories because the characters and their experiences flow through my very veins.

Picture of African American soldiers during the Korean War from americanradioworks.publicradio.org

The story begins with Frank Money daring to return to Lotus, Georgia a place with few opportunities with the intent of finding his sister Cee who he heard was in grave trouble. Along the way, he is plagued with some pretty horrific flashbacks from his tour of duty in Korea that often curbs his ability to decipher reality. In the end, you finally get a better idea of what part of his flashbacks were rooted in true past events or fabricated to help him deal with his past sins. I also really enjoyed the tender but despondent chapters where Frank and Cee reminisce about about their relationship. Frank was Cee’s valiant protector and Cee’s innocence and naivete gave Frank’s life purpose even during childhood.

Gordon Parks
Segregation Story Series

However, it was the women who come to Cee’s aide when she was horrifically violated in a incident that too closely mirrored the real actions of James Marion Simms, the “father of gynecology” that I loved the most in this story. Their determination, dedication, solidarity, and strength warmed my heart and made me pick up my phone to check on my 80 something year old aunt. Everyone with a female loved one from that era can find comfort and nostalgia in the way they called on the old remedies that would earn the ridicule of modern day doctors but were the only element of salvation poor African American women in the South could depend on to save or treat their children and spouses.

Gordon Parks, Untitled
Taken in 1950 in Ft Scott, Kansas

As you can see from the pictures above, I am currently trapped in a Gordon Parks vibe. However, looking at these photos from the 1950s really made me feel like I was in Lotus, Georgia while I followed Cee and Frank as they learned to come to terms with their past and become the masters of their own destinies and how they saw their own purpose in this world. Home forces to me to remember home and was definitely worth a read.

Respect and Reverence for “A Gathering of Old Men”: a Tale of Redemption

I am thoroughly convinced that in my past life I roamed the streets of New Orleans or Sao Paulo adorned in bright colors ,dancing carefree to Rag time jazz, or complex Samba beats. I have not yet had the pleasure of traveling to Brazil but I swear when I visited New Orleans I felt I had been there before and was being welcomed home. I know that both places have been romanticized and are not paradises without their share of economic and racial problems. However, New Orleans has been one of the only places where I felt completely enveloped and surrounded by historic imprints of the African American culture. No one can visit New Orleans without acknowledging the “swag” its been blessed with by its African and African American residents throughout the centuries.

For that reason, I am naturally drawn to any work of literature created by Ernest J. Gaines. I love his storytelling and plots. But above all, I appreciate the respect he shows each of his characters and his ability to tell a story and simultaneously open windows to the rural African African American Louisiana culture. The story centers around a murder of a white landowner with a reputation for harassing the local African American farming community by a number of potential elderly African American men living on and near the farm. All of the men claimed to have committed the murder, but it is apparent only one could have actually carried out the crime.

Ernest J. Gaines

Each of the men have a backstory and I love the fact that Gaines provides them all with an opportunity to share their life’s accomplishments and regrets in Jim Crow Louisiana. Each story is historically invaluable because it provides readers unfamiliar with Louisiana or a basic history of the South with an understanding of how the South stole all of the men’s ability to be men because of the color of their skin. This opportunity is their last opportunity for redemption for some life changing event in which they failed or lacked the courage to stand against Jim Crow. I absolutely loved this book and felt that any of the past male members of my family coming of age in the Jim Crow South could have been one of the characters in this book. This book would also be a great teaching or discussion tool for young men of color today trying to figure out how to muster the courage to stand straight in an era of income inequality, mass incarceration, over policing of African American communities, and police brutality.

A Review of Hunger : A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Last month, I read Roxane Gay’s latest publication Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. I reviewed her novel An Untamed State in my last post, but her writing style, use of language, and overall ability to tell a good story left me in a sense “hungry” for more. I also caught an NPR interview with her on Fresh Air in which she discussed her latest book. She had me hooked when she read the opening lines for chapter two. “The story of my body is not a story of triumph. This is not a weight loss memoir. There will be no pictures of a thin version of me…This is not a book that will offer motivation…Mine is not a success story. Mine is simply a true story.” (4) Throughout the course of her memoir, Gaye discloses that she once weighed 577 pounds, had tried almost every celebrity fad diet known to man, and even looked to bulimia  as a means to control her weight. She offers her readers what most individuals classified as obese and whose weight often captures the unsolicited attention and  cruel comments of those they rarely know cannot. Gay chronicles the story behind why she has become a prisoner to a body  that has led her down a road of health complications and self-esteem issues. Without giving too much away, Gay suffered an unthinkable tragedy as a young woman. This tragedy was and continues to be the source of her complicated relationship with food. Those familiar with the story line in An Untamed State will easily make the connection between Gay’s real life and the life of her lead character Mireille Duval Jameson.

 

However, the power in Gay’s memoir lies in the insight she provides into the most minute and everyday details of the life of an obese person. Gay’s personal stories  often left me both speechless and shocked by my own ignorance into the experiences of many women, men, and children in our society. From the physical torture of sitting in restaurant chairs too small to comfortably fit people of larger frames to publicly dealing with obnoxious flight attendants after being forced to purchase an additional seat because you once again fit outside of the physical perimeters of the plane’s design to purchasing clothes that both fit and acknowledge a femininity that most men and women insist you have relinquished because of your weight, I could not believe that I was so oblivious to everyday privileges  I enjoyed simply because of my size. Perhaps the most eye opening discussion revolved around her details of the media trolls who resort to body shaming her instead of effectively debating Gay on her position on sexism in this country.

I am a self professed gym rat and work out religiously five days a week. As a result, there were so many instances I would shout “Fight Roxane. You can lose the weight and live a life similar to Mireille Duval Jameson” as I read the book. Then I would bring myself back to what I believe was Gay’s reason for writing her fist memoir.  As she said in the opening lines of chapter two, this was not intended to be a story of triumph or a self help book on how to loose weight. For me, Hunger was an opportunity to put myself in the shoes of an obese woman living in this country trying to maintain her self -esteem and dignity in an image and capitalistic driven society that makes it almost impossible for the obese. It also left me asking myself to what extent have I both contributed and fallen victim to such a narrow way of thinking  and how can I change it. For that, Ms. Gay, I am forever grateful and recommend everyone read and experience Hunger. 

Tituba and I

A Review of Maryse Conde’s I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem

 

“There would be mention here and there of a slave originating from the West Indies and probably practicing hoodoo. There would be no mention of my age or my personality. I would be ignored. . . . There would never, ever be a careful, sensitive biography recreating my life and its suffering. And I was outraged by this future injustice that seemed more cruel than even death itself….”( Conde 110) . Here lies the premise behind I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem.  My interest was peaked immediately when I initially came across this book for a myriad of reasons. For one, I had read Sequ, one of the author’s previous works and became fond of her writing, but I was primarily compelled to dive into this books because whenever any topic regarding American colonial history emerged in any of my high school classes, as a student, I purposefully and very publically laid my head on the desk and drifted off into a deep sleep or daydreamed in what I thought was an admirable form of protest. Ironically, I later majored in American History in college and became an American History teacher. I did not hate history. I lived and breathed it at a very young age; however, any events that occurred before the Civil War, specifically the colonial era, bored me for it rarely reflected any individuals that looked like me. It was not until I went to college where I realized that people of African descent arrived in Jamestown three years before the Puritan passengers whose families would later take part in the Salem Witch trials.

Before I begin my review I must state that most historians now believe that Tituba was a Native American of Caribbean descent. However, in Conde’s tale, she is unapologetically West African, whose mother, a member of the Ashanti tribe, was abducted and raped aboard a ship destined for Barbados. Although her mother suffered extreme misfortune in life and attempts in death to guide her daughter to freedom, Tituba’s quest for love, acceptance, and relationships constantly redirects her to a life of bondage. Yet, it is at times hard to sympathize with Tituba, because the author effectively foreshadows the detrimental consequences of every single one of her choices. For example, ignoring her mother and godmother’s warnings from the spirit world, she relinquishes her freedom for a slave whose loyalty from the beginning seems facile. She then uses her hoodoo knowledge of healing for revenge which ultimately forces her to move from the gentle and protecting arms of the island of Barbados to the cold callous clutches of Salem, a town that is being held captive by the ignorance and religious fanaticism of the Puritan community. She suffers the fate of descendants of the slave trade and is completely cut off from her ancestral guides. She tries to form relationships with the same set of white women and young girls who will in the end be her accusers.   I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem was written in the 90s, and I feel that almost all of Tituba’s relationships and encounters are allegorical representations of different aspects of the feminist movement and the frustration and betrayal many Black women have felt for decades. However, sometimes I felt this message was delivered with minimal guile.  All of the men in her life do not mean her harm unlike almost all of the women she encounters. Although at times I wanted to throw the book across my room out of frustration of Tituba’s naiveté, I could not help but remembering events in my own life where I too made ill choices out of the desire to be loved and accepted. Whatever views you have on  modern feminism, I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem is worth a read because I have not come across a book in a while where eyewitnesses to  puritanism and the Salem Witch Trials have not succumbed  to the mass hysteria and religious zealotry of the town. From day one Tituba realizes that the people and the town are mad and it was entertaining following her while she tried to escape both their damning labels and deathly gallows of Salem.