Listening to the Crawdads Sing Above the Panic

(My reading room will be my retreat during this pandemic.)

Like many of you out there, I am anxious and quite nervous about what we will face as a nation in the next couple of months. Now is the time to definitely gather what we need. By this time, hopefully you all got enough medicine and food to last for the next few weeks. Although I fully understand the severity of the situation, I have to be honest and admit that I felt extreme melancholy following the Smithsonian’s wise decision to close all of their museums. When the governor of Maryland implemented an executive order closing all of the gyms I just knew I was going to go crazy consumed with cabin fever. I was also reckoning with the fact that I was going to have to keep my five year old entertained for at least the next couple of weeks. Yet, these small hiccups are nothing compared to the many blessings that surround my situation. Thus far my family is healthy and I have a job that will still pay me while we are home.To help keep my mind in a zen state, I plan on spending the few quite minutes I will have in my reading room. It was the first room I personally renovated when we moved into our 100 year old house. As soon as I saw it, I loudly proclaimed it “Mine” and informed all that it would be mine despite any future additions that would one day be added to my family. .

This week’s book will keep me company in my reading room and help get my mind off of the uncertainty outside. It came highly recommended by my sister and close friend. They both had one sole complaint and that was that it eventually had to end. Where the Crawdad’s Sing by Delia Owens is a book about Kya, known to many as “The Marsh Girl.” She lives in the backwoods secluded swamps of North Carolina in the 1960’s. Although there are many wild tales running through the town as to how she came to live such a secluded life, in actuality, she was abandoned by every member of her family who was driven away by her abusive and alcoholic father. Despite all the odds and the constant evasion of the local truant and child and welfare officer, she with the help of the ecological wonders of the swamp raises herself. She lives a simplistic and meager life without electricity and running water. There are many times where she is unsure where her next meal will come from and depends upon a local African American gas station attendant for hand me down clothing, sometimes food, and fatherly comfort. Her life of solitude; however, is interrupted when she meets two young men who both are intrigued by her and seek her company to fill an inner yearning and emptiness that haunt them both. The book opens with the death of one of the suitors with Kya as the main suspect. The book jumps back through time as the readers work to unravel this coming of age, love, and tale of who done it.

I am half way through. The author’s careful depiction of life in Kya’s world has me once again homesick for Florida. I keep envisioning my rides through the Everglades, specifically Shark Valley. It is a 14 mile bike trail right through the Everglades where you come face to face with alligators. It’s really cool and worth a visit if you are ever in South Florida. Speak to you soon! Be safe and we will get through this 🙂

Review of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child

Sorry I have not published a post in a while, but school is back in session and a few major developments in my professional life have kept me pretty busy but for the good. Yet, no matter how busy I am, I always try to still make time to curl up even for just five minutes at a time with a good book. I was heartbroken when I heard the news of Toni Morrison’s passing . I loved her novels because they always whisked me away to another era in U.S. history and helped me get as close as I can bear to aspects of the Black American experience. The other day I was listening to an old NPR Fresh Air interview with Morrison where she read a passage from her last novel God Help the Child and the few lines she read were so intriguing that I immediately made a detour to the closest bookstore to pick up a copy. The novel begins with Sweetness explaining the shocker, horror, and shame she felt when her daughter Lula Ann was born. Both Sweetness and her husband Louis are exceptionally light skinned and most likely members of the Blue Vein Society. In the maternity ward, she momentarily contemplates smothering the baby rather that have her dark skin body and lips press against her breast to nurse. In the end, she decides to spare her life but not her feelings. She refrains from as much physical contact as she can with her daughter through the most pivotal years in a child’s development. She provides her with the financial necessities in life but fails to provide her any outward displays of affection and emotional intimacy. Her husband, still convinced that she cheated, leaves her in protest to having to raise a dark- skinned child.

Nevertheless, Lula Ann grows up to be gorgeous and successful. Her onyx skin becomes an “exotic” feature that helps her win lovers from all nationalities and opens doors for her in the cosmetic industry. It appears that she has triumphed in the end over the taunts about her skin hue from her peers and her mother’s emotional neglect. She has proven to everyone and herself that she can certainly find the physical intimacy her mother deprived her of from almost anyone she chooses. Yet, as you continue reading, you later realize that she is still the same little insecure , skinny, dark-skinned, knobbly kneed, girl of her past and, Lula Ann begins to panic when a love loss brings this insecurity to the emotional and physical forefront.

Although Lula Ann’s story is the focus of the book, all of the characters she encounters or pursues has their own story and each one is mired in a childhood pain or tragedy that has attached to them like a cancer and metastasized over the years into adulthood. I have to warn you that these tragedies are dark and unsettling but they were for me a constant reminder of the inability for any of us to ever free ourselves of our positive or negative childhood experiences. I was a little disappointed by the fact that with the exception of Sweetness’ story, the setting for the majority of God Help the Child takes place in modern day. Sweetness’ story was very compelling and left me with an insatiable desire to learn more about her, but maybe that was the point Morrison was trying to make. As a society we shine the light and focus on the perpetrators of crimes against children. We are obsessed with wanting to know why anyone could hurt or neglect children. Rarely do the children who are victimized get the opportunity to share their story and heal. We don’t care to know how they will cope into adulthood and the type of person they will become. Reading this novel left me like many of the characters also asking myself, ” Are my childhood experiences carrying me through life or am I carrying them?” If my childhood experiences are carrying me, “Are they tired, weary, and ready to rest?” Rest in peace Queen Morrison. Thank you for blessing us with your courage to tell the stories that no one else bothered to tell.

Review of Lalita Tamedy’s Red River and a History Lesson on the Difference between a Riot and a Massacre

Reconstruction has always been an era in U.S. History that has intrigued me the most. For a period to have held the most promise for the United States to work towards living up to the principles and ideologies espoused by its early designers, it is also the darkest period in U.S. history which is given the least amount of time for analysis in most U.S. schools. I speak from experience, for it was the smallest chapter in my 11th grade U.S. History textbook and was conveniently skipped by my much esteemed U.S. History teacher who confidently told me that I wouldn’t amount to much 😉

Since I learned about it in college, I continue to devour any additional information I can obtain on the subject whether it’s held in a textbook, historical novel, film, or piece of art.

I was first introduced to Lalita Tamedy through Cane River, her first breakthrough novel published almost twenty years ago. She held a pretty successful career in corporate America but left it to pursue a literary career writing historical fiction. Cane River primarily was based upon a story of the different generations of the women in her family in antebellum Louisiana. This breakthrough novel had many of us, including myself, rummaging through my family’s old photographs and documents to reconstruct my own history. I started this blog decades after I first read it and I have to eventually write a review because it still remains my all time favorite book.

Red River picks up after Cane River in Louisiana during Reconstruction. Unlike Cane River, the men of her family are the primary subject of this story. The book begins when some of the men of Colfax decide to defend the local courthouse. Members of the Lost Cause have refused to acknowledge recent election results in which Freedmen were able to cast their ballot for the first time. The men of the town have decided to force open the doors of the courthouse and defend their newly elected sheriff who just so happens to be a carpetbagger with little to no roots in Louisiana. It is clear throughout the entire novel, that their willingness to risk their life is not on behalf of the new sheriff but for the defense of their rights as American citizens and as men, and their children’s dreams.

Harper’s Ferry 1867 publication. “The First Vote.”

They wait in vain for reinforcements from the federal government and although they put up a valiant effort, are soon defeated after white supremacists from outside towns and parishes with weaponry used in the Civil War force the men to surrender. The author’s great great grandfather participated in defending the courthouse and was able to get out alive. However, that was not the case for most. Those who surrendered were systematically tortured and murdered. According to Tamedy, over 150 African American men were killed for simply asserting their rights as American citizens. Prominent historian Eric Foner labeled this day “one of the most bloodiest acts of carnage” in Reconstruction.

The first half of the book details the massacre and Tamdey’s ability to wisk you away to that night amid the same emotions that permeated the air in 1873 is noteworthy. I literally couldn’t put the book down and I loved that as I read I could feel the fear, resolve, helplessness, and hopefulness the men experienced at the court house. I also enjoyed her window into the emotions the women felt, for it reminds her readers that the defense of this courthouse was based on the courage of both the men and women of the town. Unfortunately, it took me a while to finish the second half where she detailed the life of her great grandfather’s children. Their fight to build a school and assume their positions as leaders in the community among stories of who married whom was hard to maintain my interests after the massacre and it felt at one point like the story was dragging.

However, I will say that this book is worth a read. It taught me the difference between a massacre and a riot. Although these men valiantly fought back, the level of unjust and unwarranted cruelty exemplified by the white supremacists of Louisiana can not be defined but as a massacre. It has led me to start reevaluating how I will refer to late 19th and 20th century race riots this coming school year. The sign below is the only marker that exists today where the newly freedmen of Colfax chose to sacrifice everything for their constitutional rights. Their story incenses me today when I hear Trump supporters attempt to define what patriotism looks like and who can only be labeled as true patriots. The “150 Negroes” who died in Colfax on Easter Sunday 1873 are the prototype of true patriots.

This marker is a disgrace. There is no mention of the bravery of the 150 “Negroes” referenced in the sign or their cause.

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.