Monthly Archives: January 2012

Makeda by Randall Robinson, Akashic Books/Open Lens, Kindle Edition, 2011,

I completed Stand the Storm some days ago.  It was a gentle, slow read the way I vaguely recall River, Cross My Heart, her first novel, as being.  The story had a sense of being biographical in that it could have belonged to any African American…the characters were familiar, not endowed with any special traits that set them apart.  They possessed a cultural trait of not wanting to be “torn asunder” and were the recipients of a series of blessings that enabled the family to rise.  The blessings came in the form of opportunities that revealed each character’s personal strengths and weaknesses.  For example, when Gabriel, a tailor, had to face the decision to spend his savings to save his sister’s adopted daughter, who never met with favor from Gabriel, to save her from being sold further south.  Another example, when he wrestled with joining the USCT in the Civil War and leave his family; his aging mother, sister, and wife with 3 daughters behind to run the tailoring shop.  It was a relaxing read.

I’m now reading Makeda by Randall Robinson. It is a novel and before this, I had no clue that he wrote fiction.  I believe this is his 2nd novel.  Makeda is the grandmother of Gray, whose story is being told.  Makeda was blind from birth and a mystic.  Gray gains self-confidence growing up by way of sitting with Makeda in her parlor sharing dreams and secrets.  

I’m just at the point (about 20% from the beginning) where Gray, who is narrating the story from his literary pen, is going off to college in the early 60s.  Much of the time while reading, I keep finding myself wishing that Mo and Ade would give this a read.  Most of what I recommend to them only receives a condescending nod.

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Stand The Storm: A Novel by Breena Clarke, Little, Brown and Co., Hachette BookGroup USA, e-book edition 2008.

This is the author’s second novel.  I read her first, River, Cross My Heart, some years ago and only vaguely recall it.  As I started with Stand The Storm, the writing style is what I recalled.  Like the first novel, it is a grounded narrative with an even paced tempo.  As a reader I’m kept on the outside of the narrative…never drawn in.  The story remains grounded in an African American perspective in that the survival and growth of the characters lays in what goes on amongst them and between them and the White gaze is only anecdotal and supportive for moving the story along.  I think for me, not certain, that it was the historian John Blassingame who spoke to this being key to our survival in detail.

The characters are a family of needlefolk…Sewing Annie, her daughter and son, Ellen and Gabriel…extended members of the family Daniel Joshua and Mary.  The setting is urban life in the 1800s with bordering plantations in Washington D.C., Virginia, and Maryland…a setting when compared to life further south affords a slight, slight more measure of physical movement for enslaved and free Africans of the time period which Clarke utilizes as a support for the development of the story.

The location of the novel centers around the back rooms of a tailoring shop where Gabriel has become the chief tailor.  Gabriel and his family are owned by Jonathon Ridley and Ridley owns the shop that he purchased from a Jewish tailor who Gabriel apprencticed under.  Aaron Ridley, the owner’s nephew oversees the shops but is less concerned with its daily runnings and the people who do the work than he is about hobnobbing at the local eateries…in turn, affording Sewing Annie, Gabriel, and others a great deal of personal freedom…but freedom that do not squander as is the focus of improving their lot and the lot of others when opportunities are present, stay at the forefront of their minds and doings. Sewing Annie and Gabriel have purchased their own freedom by burning the midnight oil sewing military uniforms.

I’m just under half-way through this book and the extended family is growing to include a new woman freshly escaped from slavery along with 8 children.

Breena Clarke’s website

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The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

It was a nice break from intense reading but I must admit that by that time I reached the month of September in the author’s year-long happiness experiment I was ready for the year to be over!  There were points that Rubin wondered about the self-indulgence of her own experiment.  In the first 2/3rd’s of the book I dismissed this concern and leaned toward it being a worth while endeavor based on her approach and worthy of sharing with the larger world.  Overall, I would mention it to anyone as an interesting and approachable read.

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The Warmth of Other Suns, (continued)

Over the last couple of years I’ve noticed my sadness when I come to the last chapter of a book that deeply touches my heart.  I don’t want to say goodbye.  I did this with this book.  Wilkerson’s is a superb narrator.  Ida Mae, Robert, and George are the 3 people from over 1200 that she selected to tell their story alternating from their lives to a larger historical perspective and I found myself so immersed in their lives and the history and reflecting on my own family that I just didn’t want to stop.  Back in the 80’s I set out to do genealogy and oral interviews with family members which would become the basis for poems.  This book sent me back to that mindset and my mind spiraling about future projects in quilts.

I was so immersed in the 3 lives Wilkerson focused on that I didn’t want their stories to end.  I wanted to know even more…I wanted more historical revelations…not because the narrations or histories where inadequate, but because the lives of African Americans is so full and rich and yet so little known beyond generalizations by the larger public regardless of race.

Wilkerson also treats history as a fluid, living, breathing body of knowledge.  I take the view that there are artifacts, letters, data that have yet to be dusted off, studied, and revealed and we need to be gingerly about clamping down on fixed notions, ideas as if they will never change.

This book along with The Grace of Silence will be on my lips for years to come and will become re-reads in the future.

Henry Louis Gates video interview with Isabel Wilkerson

Charlie Rose interviewing Isabel Wilkerson

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The Warmth of Other Suns-The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Kindle Edition, by Isabel Wilkerson, 2010, Vintage Books and The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin, 2010, Harper-Collins E-book.

You might be wondering why I’m discussing these 2 books in one post.  The Warmth of Other Suns is a Pulitzer Prize Awarded book that chronicles narrates the history of  migration by African-American in post-Reconstruction through the 50’s/60’s.  The strength of the history is highlighted by narratives of 3 people during the decades of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.  Three people who took different routes, propelled by different circumstances, but all for the same reason of escaping the strangulation of the Jim Crow South for Freedom and Dignity and Life itself.

(click on either photo image for more info)

This is a FANTASTIC pairing with The Grace of Silence, my previous read.  Both of these books that have gotten inside of me and I’ve become an advocate that both are must-reads for everyone!  Of course I recognize that sly hopeful, maybe naive, current that if everyone understood and  knew the details of the African-American experience we would be respected for what could be described as a story of Biblical greatness and thus Reparations would begin in earnest and without conflict.  But then I am who I am, and the snarky self arises and I know that even if everyone read these books and knew, they wouldn’t care…but at least, it couldn’t be said that not knowing was the cause of ignorant and fearful behavior.

The 3 main narratives in this book cover the events prior to individual decisions to migrate away.  First is Ida Mae and her husband George, cotton sharecroppers, who left Mississippi in the 3o’s after an in-law had been murdered by a mob for stealing turkeys which later found out not to be true at all.  The next narrative covers George, a fruit picker with a year of college in Florida, who decides to leave in the 40’s after orchard owners discuss plotting to kill him over his attempts to organize labor. The third narrative covers Robert, a surgeon from Louisiana, who couldn’t stomach the indignities after returning from military service in Austria where he was afforded some freedoms and respect.  All their lives are placed squarely in the larger narrative of millions of people who formed this historical phenomenon.

This book and The Grace of Silence have filled me with inescapable reflecting on my own family and their journey.  Back in the 80s when I was actively writing poetry and researching genealogy and collecting oral histories, I wrote a series of poems using the information I had gathered.  The reflecting gets intense and fills me so that I feel like I’m going to burst.  As a way of lessening the internal feeling of pressure I wanted something light, humorous…I first reached for a book by David Sedaris but it wasn’t doing the trick. Solely by accident, well maybe not true since Amazon analyzes my buying habits and searches  I found The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

Rubin’s book was the literary prescription.  She explores her own personal life happiness, not because she was unhappy or depressed, but to challenge herself to maximizes her life to the fullest appreciation of it.   She went all far-reaching by reading everything and everyone on the subject of happiness and then sets out to personalize her own journey and observing the effects upon her life and those around her.  She has just enough of the keeping-it-real attitude that gives the book a humorous touch while not being dismissive about what she is attempting to do.

I haven’t finished either one of them but I’m enjoying both of them for different reasons!

Isabel Wilkerson’s website

Gretchen Rubin blog

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Filed under African American, Author Links, history, Kindle, Self-Help, The Great Migration, The Happiness Project, The Warmth of Other Suns, Uncategorized

The Grace of Silence, by Michele Norris, Pantheon Books, NY, 2010, Kindle Edition

Michele Norris, journalist and host for NPR’s All Things Considered, set out to help Americans have deep and honest conversations on Race,  post-Obama’s inauguration.  Jumping from a community conversation in York, PA into her personal history and how it played into the larger scale of history, she discovers family events kept secret.  Events which held a profound impact on her upbringing, events, once discovered propelled her to want to reconcile the discrepancies between what she thought she knew and what was.

The central focus in on her father, (someone who she thought she knew well until after his unexpected passing), and his upbringing in Alabama and his own initiations into manhood.  She first opens with the secret held by her mother about Norris’ grandmother.  She was one of the women hired to promote Aunt Jemima Pancakes back in the days before Auntie got her makeover.  This translate into being in costume and character of the caricature.  Norris’ was stunned to discover this about a woman who took carried herself with great personal pride and dignity.

From page one to the end, Norris’ family history felt familiar and personal.  I knew the people she was kin to.  They were my own family members and Uncles, and Grandparents and neighbors.  The language, the discussions, and the family strife were so close to my own family that it almost could have been me telling my own story.

The ending of the book has about 20 questions for discussion and encourages readers to actually explore their own family secrets with openness and grace.  Back in the 80’s I attempted to do just that through poems.  I put together a manuscript based on interviews with family members.  I’m now continuing to work with those poems by finding ways to incorporate them into my art quilts.   I want my adult children to read the book.  I purchased the Kindle edition but would love to have the hard copy of this wonderful book.  At the end I found myself in tears reflecting on the depth and scope of what is lost to history about African American lives and over the potential we have yet to fully articulate and live.

Michele Norris’ website.

I started The Warmth of Other Suns today which I think will be a great companion to The Grace of Silence.

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King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era by Edward A. Berlin; Oxford University Press, 1994. Kindle Edition

After reading Joplin’s Ghost, my interest was peaked about the life of Scott Joplin.  Since Tananarive Due used actual historical data to craft her novel, I selected King of Ragtime by historian Edward A. Berlin who she referenced and characterized in Joplin’s Ghost.

Berlin has a great balance of story and technical information that appeal to both the musician and lay reader like myself with no-to-little knowledge of musical technicalities.   Joplin’s embrace and passion for being an artist pitted against the racial struggles of the times and woven through by the threads of his personal relationships in business, family, friends, and love really fascinated me.  Also, I learned that he was considered the King of Ragtime WRITERS.  Due to his passion for scripting his music and his popularity and name recognition, publishers made money from his Rags.  It was only when Joplin reached to grow as an artist with selecting complex African American syncopation to transpose into operatic/classical form was he met my marketing and cultural naysayers.  He was pigeon-holed as determined by White socio-economic power structure.  For that, I grieved because not much has changed in 100 years.

Edward A. Berlin’s Home Page.

I plan to do a quilt to speak to my new found impression of Joplin alongside another quilt inspired by Oliver Lewis, the first winner of the Kentucky Derby.  The times in which both men lived and worked overlaps.  I haven’t worked out a design yet,…wanting it only to hint at representational imagery and keeping with my love of mystical abstraction.

The one thing that I kept looking for is some reference of Scott Joplin appearing in Louisville, but Berlin doesn’t reference any.  However, one of Joplin’s brothers, Robert Joplin managed a club here for 2 months before being let go.  I’m going to start with research at the Filson Historical Society when weather permits to see if there is any record of Scott Joplin performing here.  With him being based in St. Louis, I can’t imagine that he never ventured here.  From there, I will delve into UofL’s records.  Something interesting is bound to turn up!

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Filed under African American, Art, Author Links, Biography, culture, economics, history, Kindle, King of Ragtime, musical, musical