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.

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.

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

Image result for laurie halse anderson ashes

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.   

Image result for barracoon

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.

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”

 

Image result for zinzi clemmons what we lose

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!