Category Archives: history

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon

First, let me acknowledge how difficult this book was for me to read.  It was emotionally wrenching and Blackmon painstakingly filled each page with names and scenarios of the most cruelest brutalities…because he delved so deep into the research I found myself wanting to honor the men and women and children he had given name to by absorbing and reflecting as much as I could handle until I completed the book.

Have you ever experienced an understanding so vivid that you have difficulty even breathing?  The continuum of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (widespread physical and psychic devastion and how it collectively effects the whole group) was laid before me and how the discrepancies and injustices present in our justice system just kept running rampant in my mind.  I know we sometimes do not want to acknowledge how oppression has operated in our past and present and we want to isolate occurrences as if they have no history, and even when we do, we speak in generalized speech.  Blackmon names names and ties those name to present wealth of today’s companies.  He does so by researching legal, prison, and company documents and presenting details in a narrative form.

After making the connections to how many individuals and corporations gained wealth at the expense of unjust prison labor system that randomly subjugated Black men, women and children to enslavement and continued risk of brutal death, Blackmon even reached out to present-day corporations to enlighten them on how their companies were built on the backs and lives of unjust prison slavery that lasted well into the 20th century.

The book begins with the search for the details of the life of one person, Green Cottenham, who was killed in a prison camp while still a young man in his 20s.  The search leads the reader through the lives of others on both sides of this horrendous practice with the revelation of how widespread this practice was across the South and how later on it was sustained by industrialists of the North and how the Department of Justice handled (or not) the investigations of the practice.   He eventually takes us to his attempts to connect with Cottenham’s living descendants and personalizing his work by connecting it to his interest from when he was a 12 year-old child in Louisiana.

Amazon link to Slavery by Another Name

I was going to add The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander to my reading list, but I’m needing some firmer grounding and renewal, so I’m going to concentrate on completing Lion’s Blood and a book I started on jazz and visual arts.

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Filed under African American, African American Men, economics, Enslavement, history, Kindle, Non-fiction, Prison complex

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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Filed under African American, Author Links, history, Kindle, Multi-racial, The Grace of Silence

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

Joplin’s Ghost, Tananarive Due, Atria Books, New York, 2005, Kindle

I abandoned The Artist’s Rule…not due to any reason associated with the book but my I’m not ready to focus on any spirit/life work right now.  Instead I found myself reading Joplin’s Ghost by Tananarive Due…my second foray into what is labelled sci-fi/paranormal genre.  My first was an Octavia Butler novel (I can’t recall which one) that I commanded myself to finish.  It was among the first books I dropped for Bookcrossing.

Joplin’s Ghost went beyond what I expected! The story is woven seamlessly and beautifully with  gems of history (and I guess that all good fiction writers do this) which captivated me to want to know so much more about Scott Joplin and kept me reflecting on the trails  and trials that early artists had to create and blaze.  Due made the personal agony very real by pitting Joplin’s thoughts and emotions and ego against the thoughts and emotions and ego of an uprising young woman coming of age in current times.

The book opens with Scott’s voice and the next chapter is the voice of Phoenix, the artist in contemporary times and continues to flip back and forth until their experiences merge intimately and passionately in the middle of the book (which held me wondering where it was all going and not at all predictable) and the end of the book their lives (Scott’s and Phoenix’s) battle to separate.  But what is history if not a mirrored reflection for us to study as we go forward…can you say Sankofa.

Due creates two parallel love stories; one being Scott’s love and passion for his second wife, Freddie; the other, Phoenix’s and Carlos’s,  a young music journalist who is the only one willing to believe Phoenix’s encounters with the ghost of Joplin.  There are a hosts of supporting characters which are interesting but slightly predictable in their roles…but the story development makes up for what lacks in character development and the central characters have strong situations and good personal dialogue.

In addition to exploring musical history, Due also handles the world and violence associated with hip-hop moguls, along with the dynamics of family relationships to create a very natural feel to the tensions and the dramas.  I think it would be a great cross-generational read with teenager not only for the educational resource but the action in the story is fast-paced enough for young people and the situations the characters continually face sparks plenty of opportunities for moral and philosophical and financial discussions.

To find more out about the book:

http://books.simonandschuster.com/Joplin’s-Ghost/Tananarive-Due/9780743449038

I will be reading more books from Due.

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Filed under African American, Authors, developing artists, Fiction, history, Joplin's Ghost, Kindle, Multi-racial, musical, musical

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, Crown Publishers, New York, 2010, 369 pages

This blog was not intended to be just a basic review of books but more of a documentation of my relationship with the content of what I read.  This book reminded me of my mission.

I started this book on the first day of Kwanzaa.  But less than 60 pages into it and I must have cried on nearly every page.  Not solely due to the story as it laid on the pages but because of where the story landed and continued to expand in my head.  This true accounting for how one simple, poverty-strickened, African American Woman’s ill health impacts science and the lives of millions around the globe is a forceful spinning of just about every major and minor areas of life as we know it became too much for me and I didn’t want the ending of one year and the beginning of another find me covered in grief.

The book continued to lay on my bedside table until a few days ago when I took it with me to the hospital while sitting with my 10 month old grand-daughter who was born with chronic lung disease.   When I took a break from reading I intentionally laid it so that any staff who entered the room could see it and although I intentionally chose not to bring it up, I waited to see who would be curious enough to want to know what I was reading or either for someone to recognize the book from their own reading.  In this case it was a good thing my expectations were not high because no one asked or recognized.

In trying to find a way to discuss or even summarize it with my daughter, the story is still overwhelming.  Do I start with the injustice and inequality of health care, or ignorance, the impact of slavery, or misogyny and abuse, racism, capitalism???  Why isn’t there a word that conveys all of this and yet explains it clearly????  The story is omni-present and burdening as it should be.   What keeps crossing my mind is how it makes me “smell” history.  “Smell” history? What is that?  If I figure it out before I end the book, I’ll write more about it.

To give a brief summary since this is my first post about the book, it is the story of HeLa Cells.  The first human cells that scientist found that could grow outside the body and how it impacted disease research and cures.  It is not a dry story at all but Skloot does a superb job of keeping humanity central to the accounting.   Also, if you can, purchase the book!  Some % of the proceeds go into a foundation Skloot started for the descendants of Henrietta Lacks.  You can read more about it on the author’s link.

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Filed under african american women, Author Links, economics, history, Medical, Multi-racial, Science, sociology

A Mercy, by Toni Morrison, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008

This has to be the shortest novel that Toni Morrison has ever published at 167 pages.  After just completing my first read of it, I’m wondering if the shortness of it had to do more with Morrison rushing it to print for contractual reasons.  Let me explain further.  Just short of reaching the middle, the writing read more like very well written and sophisticated character sketches.  I was feeling a sense of being let down.  The feelings of intensity and gripping edge anticipation of the story unfolding or the actions and thoughts of the characters just wasn’t there for me. 

A little past midway of the book I begin to see the characters in physical form, performing monologues on a stage.  The stage props minimum, their voices slow (except for Mistress) and resounding reaching into the heart of the audience.  Could Ms Morrison have experienced some afterglow from Beloved being performed as an opera and this was intended to be a stage performance of which she adpated into novel form?

By the end of the book, I thought what a straight-forward story…that is until the end, the last chapter when the mother (minha mae) of Sorrow speaks.  The preceding chapters minha mae only speaks through the remembrance of her daughter, the one who is called Sorrow.  Bringing the presence of Spirit as a guiding force, the mother speaks in her own voice and ties the knot with the opening chapter.

It was in the end chapter that I came across the line that made the reading the most integrated and encompassing for me:  To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal.  Haunting, isn’t it?  At least it is for me.  The line that comes after, reads, Even if scars form, the festering is ever below.   

Memory.  No one uses it better as a literary device than Ms Morrison!   That always trying to recall and make sense of our world is where Toni Morrison reaches out to me and keeps me wanting to dig deeper and know what it is I don’t know…what it is she is trying to help me know and ponder further.  If only I could make this happen with my quilts?!

Another aspect of the book I really enjoyed is how she made the american landscape more real to me…the american landscape prior to america becoming America…when it was still territoriesand the dominion of overseas governments and the determined as much by the wilderness of what was untamed.  It was the first time I read a novel that made that historical period come alive as much as it did for me. 

I would recommend reading this book as a companion to the 2 previous books I wrote about in the posts below.

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Filed under african american women, Fiction, history, Immigrants, The Middle Passage