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.

“Dream Land Burning” by Jennifer Latham Burned a Hole in my Soul

I review quite a few young adult books because I am a high school teacher and our school librarian has created an out of this world book club that would make any bibliophile salivate. She brings in the most amazing authors of  a diverse array of young adult and adult works.  Last year, she invited Jennifer Latham to discuss her book, Dreamland Burning. Now I love a good mystery book as much as the next; however, this book made my soul shiver. To begin, the book crosses between two eras in Oklahoma history: modern day and 1921. 1921 is a pivotal period in Oklahoma history, for it was the year of the Tulsa Race Riots. The Tulsa Race Riots occurred during a period of heightened racial turmoil in U.S. History following the conclusion of WWI. Latham visited our book club when she was still a resident of Oklahoma and she shared the amount of research she conducted for her book. Her firsthand research and interviews with survivors and their descendants is what makes this book so enthralling. 

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She centers her story around Rowan Chase a teenage biracial amateur detective  who accidentally unearths a skeleton dating back to the 1920s  in her backyard during a renovation. As the police and Rowan work to recreate the story surrounding the skeleton, Rowan finds herself unraveling a past steeped in racism, blood, and tears that many members of the community white and black have tried to keep buried. Not only does the author give an account of the consequences of violent white supremacy in the 1920s that led to the riots but also incorporates the little known story of the Osage Nation with William the teenage son of a white Oklahoman man and Osage woman who survived the riot. I was aware of the Tulsa Race Riots and have given many lectures on it in school. However, I was unaware of the specific injustices the Osage Nation suffered in the 192os. The Osage Nation had become one of the wealthiest Native American tribes in America at the turn of the century after oil deposits were found on their reservation. The Oklahoma state legislature passed a law requiring the finances and spending habit of Osage Indians to be overseen by whites. Many white men married Osage women preceding a spike in mysterious murders and suspicious deaths of Osage women.

While Rowan attempts to process the events that led to the 1920s riot, she finds herself at the center of a racially charged uprising in her own time involving a fatal incident of police brutality and the plight of undocumented immigrants attempting to make a better life in Oklahoma.  

This book is a MUST READ. It is a great source of historical fiction but it is an equally  awesome “Who done it?” The ending is not predictable!!! I loved it and I hope that this book is one day turned into a film.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Ashes: The Seeds of America Trilogy.”

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Everyone who knows me knows that I am an absolute history nerd. I live, eat, sleep, and breathe history and always have.  I particularly love learning and sharing the history of people who have traditionally been silenced and marginalized.  However, there was always one era in history that I had absolutely no interest in learning.  I would purposefully put my head down in silent protest whenever it was the topic of discussion by my 11th grade U.S. History. I absolutely hated learning about the American Revolution. It had always been presented to me as a period  where Black people were completely absent or simply sitting around and twirling their thumbs while white patriots and Englishmen battled it out for control of the 13 colonies.  It was not until graduate school  when I learned that could not be farther from the truth.

In fact, not only were enslaved men and women present at almost every major battle of the Revolutionary War, slavery and Black participation  was a major influence right down to a section of the original draft of the Declaration of Independence blaming King George for the  colonists’ dependence upon slavery. Thus, I was excited when I heard about Anderson’s  Ashes, a young adult historical fiction novel about Isabel, a young black woman (which almost made me do a dance) on a quest to find her developmentally challenged sister Ruth who had been sold away. She is accompanied by Curzon, a young runaway who initially cast his lot with the British as a volunteer soldier seeking his freedom only to be tricked and suffer detrimental consequences and later join the Patriots.

The story highlights the challenges, hopes, fears, expectations, choices, and overall experiences of Blacks during the Revolutionary period, particularly Black women. Isabel, the main character, is the quintessential heroine. I appreciate the author’s ability to show her strength and vulnerability. The Revolutionary era was a time of great uncertainty and I never felt Anderson, who is white, tried to simply lump Isabel and Ruth’s entire experience with one completely identical to their white female counterparts.  At no point could her readers forget that every trial Isabel was enduring was a result of the fact that she was  Black, a runaway, and a woman. Ashes was an  interesting story rooted in solid historical research and I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, I have to admit, I was once again disappointed with the ending. I hate to spoil the story for those who have not read it, but Anderson leaves her tale on a very optimistic and naive outlook. Isabel and her family step into a new country believing it will embody the  Enlightenment ideals white, Black, free, and enslaved patriots fought for. I acknowledge the fact that many Blacks who  fought in the war on the side of the Patriots held the very same optimism. Sadly, my knowledge of the Black experience  in early American History prevents me from being able to share such a hopeful ending. The new country  missed its opportunity to completely abolish slavery and instead cemented  an inhumane institution in the very legal documents that define our country today. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and will actually use it as a teaching tool in my high school African American class.

By the way, I guess this might be a great time to share the fact that I was nominated for an Outstanding Teacher Award by my local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. I do not believe I have a chance of winning; however,  I am honored to have been nominated. I will find out later this month if I won 🙂

Later Gators!

 

 

 

Going Back in Time with Auntie Zora: A Review of Barracoon by Zora Neal Hurston

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The Harlem Renaissance has always fascinated since childhood. Every characteristic of this era intrigues me from the artwork, to the literary accomplishments, to the birth of jazz which happens to be my favorite genre of music. This was also a period of internal migration on levels never before seen in U.S. History where  from 1916-1970 over six million African Americans escaped a racist and oppressive South and moved north carrying with them their rich cultural heritage and hopes for a better life. Life influences art and with memories of life in the South still fresh in their minds, Great Migrationers channeled their experiences through their art.  Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Alain Locke, and Countee Cullen are household names. Unfortunately, female authors are less known. Zora Neal Hurston is the exception. Their Eyes Were Watching God,  her most popularly known work of fiction, was made into a movie for television starring Halle Berry. Yet Hurston was not solely a fiction writer and in fact was a successful anthropologist who studied cultures from the African diaspora.   

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Barraccoon,  was an example of her anthropological research that was completed well before her death but was just recently published. Barraccon is the story of a Cudjo Lewis an ex-slave living in Alabama in 1927. Over a period of weeks, Hurston works to gain his trust so that she could capture the story of his teenage years in West Africa, kidnapping by Dahomey female warriors, brief period of enslavement in the United States on the cusp of the Civil War, and his navigation as a freeman trying to protect his family after slavery in a hostile South. Hurston’s methods to gain Lewis’ trust is almost as intriguing as the events of his life and left me with a new appreciation for how to treat our elders and their stories with patience, respect,  and care. This woman has and always will have my respect for effort to capture our history and culture in fictional or academic scholarship. Definitely worth a read and gave me pleasure to add it to the shelves in my  home library.

Limited Praise for Bernice McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies

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I was absolutely blown away by Bernice McFadden’s Book of Harlan which was the story of a young African American man name Harlan who migrated to New York during the Great Migration with his parents, became lost in the booming jazz scene of the Harlem Renaissance, and then makes his way to France where he gets arrested and thrown into a WWII Nazi concentration camp .The amount of research she conducted to craft a believable story about a little known topic such as  African American prisoners in  WWII concentration camps  still gives me chills. Thus,   when I heard that she had recently published a new book, without hesitation or thought I ran to the book store to pick it up.

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Praise Song for the Butterflies is the story of Abeo Kata, daughter of upper middle class parents living in the fictional West African country of Ukemby in 1985. After a series of unfortunate events that leaves her family in an economic black hole, her father feels the only way to shake the curse that has befallen his family is to offer  nine year old Abeo to a religious shrine where she will live among a number of other girls who have suffered from similar family crises  as a sex slave to the head priest for the rest of her life. During her time there, she is overworked, underfed, beaten, raped, and constantly questions what she has done to dishonor her family and suffer such a fate. From the first page, McFadden had me hooked and once again the research she conducted only made me sing the author’s praise throughout the book.

The only flaw that I can find which was a deal breaker for me because I hold the author to the highest regard is the fact that the story was so darn believable that the happily ever after ending she gives the book left me feeling betrayed (yes, I know I am being quite dramatic but I am utterly infatuated with this woman’s art of story telling and the subject matter she chooses for her books) Of course I still recommend this book and of  course I will run without thinking to the bookstore to pick up her next masterpiece when it is released. It is a short read and worth every second. Check it out and let me know what you think.

 

Review of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing

IMG_2602 (1)Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward had been on my radar for some time since she was was awarded the National Book Award for Best Fiction last year. Once again, I lucked out and was able to tap into my connections at my high school to secure a free hardback copy. I only had the book in my possession for four days and believed that I could read it over the course of two weeks. Unfortunately, I misjudged and  am currently suffering from a book induced hangover. I stayed up all night until I finished it, because right when I thought that I had the book figured out and could predict at least the course Ward was trying to steer me, I was thrown for a loop. I could not put the book down until I was able to gain my bearings and unfortunately, that did not happen until the crack of dawn the next morning.

Nevertheless, I absolutely loved this book. I have not been moved to tears in a while, but I must say that Sing, Unburied, Sing broke my dry spell. The story is told from three different perspectives. The third did not present itself until the middle of the book when I was ready to go to sleep and thus is the reason why I currently have bags under my eyes. It tells the story of the truest definition of a dysfunctional rural Mississippi family. Leonie, is a drug- addicted self-centered and abusive mother to her teenage son , Jojo  and  her three year old daughter Kayla. She spends half of the book wrestling  with feelings of  jealousy of her children’s brother and sisterly bond, constant reminders of her emotional failures as a mother, and her desire to be free of her responsibilities and live a care free life no matter how self-destructive that might be. Her children’s father is white, also a drug addict, and is serving a three year sentence in prison.  Against the wishes of her father  and dying mother, she rounds up her children and takes a road trip with her friend Misty to pick up her children’s father when he is released from prison. From the start, JoJo  does not want to leave the confines of his grandparent’s farm. Although poverty robs him of materialistic items, he describes life on the farm as one enriched by  the love from his grandmother, wisdom of his aging grandfather, and comfort of the animals.   He does not trust his mother and has good reason not to, for while on the trip, not only does she care little to provide the basic necessities for her children such as food , medicine when Kayla takes sick, or compassion when JoJo is wrongfully handcuffed and taunted by a cop but it soon becomes apparent at least to JoJo that his mother has planned  this trip to obtain drugs to sell along the way.

Ward had me hooked with this story line alone, but  using “Riv,” Jojo’s grandfather to  seamlessly intertwine their current stories with a horrific tale that occurred in a brutal and sadistic racist Mississippi of the 1930s, and revealing that part of the reason JoJo’s mother  is in such a dark place might be the result of a violent racist incident that happened in the racist Mississippi of the 21st century  elevated the story to another level. On top of that, just like Toni Morrison, she takes the opportunity to add a layer of the supernatural in which the characters are all haunted by the spirits of strong young black men with promise that died at the hands of white supremacy.

I have to warn you that there is a lot of symbolism in this book. There were times that I wanted to be free of the metaphors and alliterations and just jump to the next major turn of events. Needless to say, this was a true work of art in the exploration of want, frustration, the desire for love, and freedom in a world of racism and hate. It was definitely worth a read.

Let me know what you think!

A Review of Zinzi Clemmons “What we Lose”

 

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I have to first begin by confessing that satisfying my insatiable love of books can be quite expensive at times. That nice little library fine that keeps me up at night has prevented me from obtaining many new hardcover publications for free. Thus, my heart leaped for joy when I saw many of my high school seniors walking around the school with this week’s book review What we Lose by  Zinzi Clemmons. I immediately ran down the hall in my three inch heels to my school’s fabulous senior English teacher and asked if she had an additional copy she would not mind loaning me for the weekend. To my surprise, my coworker told me that she was best friends with the author and could give me a copy for free! I really wanted to ask her if she could somehow get Zinzi to autograph it, but I did not want to push it!

What we Lose tells the story of Thandi, daughter of an African American college professor and a light skinned South African immigrant mother who works as a nurse in Philadelphia. The book highlights Thandi’s repeated struggles to explore and affirm her identity dealing with issues surrounding race or the loss of a parent. Clemmons had me hooked after the first three chapters. I felt that she was in many ways telling my life story. I fully identified with her characters repeated brush with her peer’s limited and, at times, ignorant understanding of what it means to “be, talk, look, and act Black” while coming of age. I also appreciated her raw portrayal of Thandi’s struggle to come to terms with losing her mother to breast cancer and her attempt to anesthetize herself with a relationship of convenience that eventually led to marriage and a child.  Her periodic anecdotal facts throughout the book about the current inequalities in our healthcare system and the disproportionate rate of deaths within the African American community from cancer, heart disease, and diabetes forces white suburban and black upper middle class readers who have chosen to discuss What we Lose in the confines of their comfortable suburban homes and hipster coffee shops that Thandi’s fictional experience is a reality unfairly shared by many members of the African American community.

I would like to dive more into the book, but I do not want to give away all of the details. I can only say that it is an easy read and well worth it. When you finish, you will walk away feeling that Thandi was you, or someone you knew growing up, and as adult just trying to come to terms with who you are in life.

Until next time. Peace, love, and hair grease!

 

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 naivetĂ©, 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.

 

Review of Roxanne Gay’s An Untamed State

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This week I finished Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. An Untamed State is the fictional tale of Mireille Duval Jameson, a confident borderline arrogant successful immigration attorney, wife, and mother. However, it is her family name that makes her a target of ruthless kidnappers when she and her husband visit Port-au- Prince, Haiti on vacation. While in captivity, she endures countless forms of emotional and physical torture by her kidnappers as she waits for her wealthy father to pay her ransom. However, her strength and fortitude are challenged when she soon realizes that her prideful father has refused to pay 1 million dollars for her release. As a South Florida native of West Indian roots, I loved this book because it flips back and forth from Port-au-Prince  to the streets of Miami to the corn fields of Nebraska. Gay does a noteworthy job of taking her readers through tours of the opulent mansions of Haiti’s elites protected by barbed wire and armed guards  and the crime ridden streets of Haiti’s poor ruled by violence and organized crime lords. Nevertheless, Gay successfully never lets her readers forget that people with the same hopes and dreams makeup both sides of the island and are separated by an overwhelming feeling of helplessness to address and fix the inherent economic and geopolitical problems that have plagued this proud country for centuries. When Mireille is snatched away from her pristine life and held captive in a cell under the direction of a sadistic kidnapper named “The Commander,” she is forced to not only acknowledge but see “how the other half lives.” There were some parts of this book that were exceptionally graphic and brutal but were balanced by the raw love story  between Mireille and her husband  that Gay skillfully weaves between each chapter of Mireille’s confinement. I will warn you that the story neither ends with a happy  ending nor sad ending but a real ending and is worth a read.

I am really excited by the fact that the rights to a screen play have been purchased by Gina Prince Bythewood, the same force behind Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights. I can’t wait t see the film adaptation!

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