“The American Paradox,” lectures by Heather Cox Richardson

If you haven’t been receiving Heather Cox Richardson’s daily email “Letters from an American,” you’ve been missing out. She’s also been producing (prodigiously) several series of lectures on YouTube, including “American Paradox,” which we’re told follows the main themes and points of her recent book, How the South Won the Civil War. The paradox Richardson refers to is baked thoroughly into this country: that “all men are created equal” but that “all” doesn’t mean “all”; non-white men, and non-men, as well as certain classes of men, have been excluded from the beginning, and quite purposefully so. As we’ve moved as a country toward the idea that more people should receive equal chances in life, there has been a traditional pushback that is still alive and well, based in the fear that more equality for some people somehow means less equality for the original “all men,” meaning white men with a certain amount of money and power. Richardson portrays these points through storytelling, beginning well before the founding of the U.S., and catching up with Trump’s presidency. This lecture series has nine installments of about an hour apiece.

I listened to Richardson speak while working around the house, which means she didn’t always have my total attention, but I still got a lot out of the experience. I love her infectious enthusiasm for her subject – I feel there’s nothing so inspirational as an expert really excited about their field, and she definitely qualifies. As she occasionally reminds us, she delivers these lectures without notes. It’s astonishing the depth of her knowledge, and I am very comfortable with the trade-off that she is sometimes unsure of a precise date. I also really love the connections Richardson makes across disciplines (something I’ve been working to show my students this past semester), like noting the trajectory of Shakespeare’s playwriting career against world history and technologies, as in: The Tempest‘s setting in the Bahamas places that late-career play in time, as England colonizes that part of the world, a project made possible by new designs in sails and therefore in the shapes of boats. Literature, world history, and shipbuilding technologies are all a part of the same story! This exhilarates me. She also includes references to popular books, movies and television at different points in history, noting their subtle political or ideological contributions to culture, which is a method I recognize from Stamped, where I also appreciated it.

The central paradox in our country-as-concept didn’t feel like a new idea to me, but I think she presents it so logically that this series could serve as an introduction. (Who doesn’t hear the irony in “all men are created equal,” I don’t know, but I guess they’re out there.) For me the most exciting aspects of these talks were Richardson’s mastery of her material, how neatly she integrates interdisciplinary material into a single thread, her avid storytelling, and the big-picture perspectives she brings (which is what I love most about her email Letters). She is definitely, as my father says, a “history wonk,” a geek (I say in the most loving spirit) who excels at and loves storytelling. As my father again notes, this can “result in some enthusiastic ‘really cool!’ diversions into personalities and anecdotes that risk diluting her narrative,” and she sometimes has to pause to clarify that a story might be ‘really cool’ in terms of research and meaning-making, while being abhorrent in terms of what actually happened. This can be a bit jarring, but I think if we accept Richardson’s history-geekness, we can appreciate what she has to offer, which is an extraordinary body of knowledge and ability to draw connections and see patterns, and a boundless, contagious love for her work. I’d take a history class with her any day.

If you’re still learning our history (and who isn’t?) and if you feel that it sheds light on our present and future (which I think it certainly does), I highly recommend Richardson’s expert teachings, free and online for the taking.


Rating: 9 mules downstream.

The Book of Rabbits by Vince Trimboli

Disclosure: Vince is a colleague and a dear friend.


A slim poetry collection with a story at its center: Mary Toft was a young peasant woman in 18th-century England who became famous after she gave birth to more than 15 dead rabbits. The sensational story had doctors scratching their heads and the whole country riveted, until it was found to be a hoax. (This is a true story.) Throughout The Book of Rabbits, Trimboli pokes and prods at this history, questions of gender, womanhood, motherhood, class, family, agency… Some poems deal directly with the woman and the rabbits, while some approach its themes from more oblique angles, but the questions raised by Toft’s story are always present. Part of his concern is who gets to relate these events to us, centuries later. Toft herself was illiterate, at any rate in a time when women’s voices were not much valued.

A foreword by Nancy Lynée Woo gives some of this important background information on Toft’s story – I think the reader needs it – and also describes and assesses the collection some, in ways I found very helpful (because you know poetry still intimidates me). I’m a little tempted to just reprint her whole foreword here as a review, if that weren’t a copyright violation!

I love the variation of forms. There are a handful of haikus, some prose poems (some segmented), and some in different shapes on the page. There is no shortage of lovely, surprising, and thoughtful images: as Catherine Venable Moore states in a blurb on the back cover, “Rare is the poet who sees fire opals in a case of deli meats.” I puzzled over some poems, and I took advantage of having excellent access to the poet himself (Vince and I talk several times a week and sometimes daily) to ask some questions. A few poems included a pronoun whose antecedent was unclear; I considered possibilities and then asked. The author confirmed that that ambiguity was purposeful, as I suspected… I often appreciate syntactic ambiguity, but sometimes I’m not sure it’s intended. I figured it was here. “Some say this is the easiest part of being human,” Trimboli writes, in a section involving several actions; what is ‘this’? Ambiguities like this both thrill and unnerve me.

I’ve heard Vince read from this book a handful of times, so a number of these poems felt familiar, which doesn’t mean I’m not still grappling with what they mean. But I know that I love how he pushes against the gendered tensions of control, choice, and voice. There’s plenty to keep coming back to here, for someone like me who puzzles over poetry.

Some of my favorite poems are “This Is a Story About Poverty,” “Notes from a Field Trip to the Slaughterhouse,” “The Fourth Dream: Deus Ex Machina,” and of course a longtime favorite, “Haiku: Anatomy” (which confused a male undergraduate of mine this semester – naturally). I love lines like…

meats too rich for her purse

postpartum change purse

all pearls are traumas

fear is as much a part of hunger as the eating

And I think there’s a lot here to think about. Glad to know you, Vince.


Rating: 8 gossamer sacks.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

Liz recommended this book to me (in the audio format) as an excellent, succinct, accessible history of racism (including its purposeful invention) and antiracism, and she was (as usual) right. This is an outstanding introduction to, or review of, the concepts of race and racism in this country, in the context of world history. It’s truly for everyone: those new to such a history will find it manageable, and those not new will learn something new or at least have that larger picture – race in America within world history – clarified in useful ways. The audiobook is just four hours long, and every minute of it is engrossing. I wholeheartedly second Liz’s recommendation.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You is a “remix” of Ibrim X. Kendi’s highly-regarded Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. It’s approximately half the length (300 vs. 600 pages). I have not read the latter, fuller version, but my father should be finishing it anytime, and he’s appreciative; perhaps he’ll give us a review to partner with this one. Tables of contents show that the content of each books lines up neatly; they do appear to be two versions of the same material, and I think it’s a real service to give both versions to the world. For this remix, Kendi is joined by young adult novelist Jason Reynolds, who also narrates the audio version (excepting the introduction, delivered by Kendi). It’s my impression that Reynolds does the remixing of Kendi’s original work, bringing his facility with younger readers. The book is labeled for ages 12 and up, but to characterize this as a book for younger readers is too limiting; it’s great for adults, too.

The opening chapter begins,

This is not a history book. I repeat, this is not a history book. At least not like the ones you’re used to reading in school. The ones that feel more like a list of dates (there will be some), with an occasional war here and there, a declaration (definitely gotta mention that), a constitution (that too), a court case or two, and, of course, the paragraph that’s read during Black History Month (Harriet! Rosa! Martin!). This isn’t that. This isn’t a history book. Or, at least, it’s not that kind of history book. Instead, what this is, is a book that contains history. A history directly connected to our lives as we live them right this minute. This is a present book.

And I want to start there because I’m interested in that characterization of what makes a history book. Between you and me, I would like to assert that this is a history book, but I get what the authors are up to here: for those younger readers (or for all of us!), they’re trying to distance themselves from the dry and boring history book, the traditional history book, that separates “history” from what matters in the here-and-now. I think this is a history book, in all the best ways – one for history books to emulate.

Having gotten that out of the way: five sections organize the broad scope of this history. They are organized by years. “Section 1: 1415-1728” opens with “The Story of the World’s First Racist.” (In Stamped From the Beginning [SFtB], Part I is titled “Cotton Mather.” He is not the world’s first racist – that title goes to Gomes Eanes de Zurara.) “Section 2: 1743-1826” corresponds to SFtB‘s “Thomas Jefferson.” “Section 3: 1826-1879” corresponds to William Lloyd Garrison; “Section 4: 1868-1963” is W.E.B. Du Bois, and “Section 5: 1963-Today” is Angela Davis. Those section headings from SFtB appeal to me. Obviously the date ranges handle more than the lives of each individual, but I appreciate the choice of an individual for each section of history, and of the progress of racism in America. Methodically, then, Kendi & Reynolds move through history from the 1400s, and Zurara’s invention of racism (in Europe), to the present day. They hit the highlights in terms of events, personalities, laws, cultural shifts, and theories of race and racism and antiracism, the intellectual arguments offered for why some people should be kept under the boots of other people. I love that they note the markers in media and art for racist thinking, too, commenting on the timing and context of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, To Kill a Mockingbird, Birth of a Nation, Tarzan, and Planet of the Apes. I’m a big fan of spotting the connections across (what we think of as) disparate threads of history and study: movies, literature, history. I think it deepens our understanding of each to see how they fit together.

I found Reynolds’s audio narration completely lovely, and would listen to anything else he reads.

I understand that SFtB is an excellent, deep, rich, dense study. I know I have a lot to learn from it, and I hope to get to it sooner than later. The work of a book like that is important. But I’m so grateful that Stamped exists, too. It’s a truly masterful achievement to make such a swath of history so accessible in just 300 pages, and there are some pretty involved theories and concepts expressed here in a package that I think anyone can grasp (again, it’s labeled for ages 12 and up). I think this book is likely to reach even more people than SFtB. As Liz suggested, I can realistically recommend this one to my first-year college students. This is a book for anyone and everyone. It proves, through history and observations and stories, that we are not living in a post-racial world; racism (and a caste system based upon race) is alive and well in this country and culture, even if it’s learned to disguise itself – that just makes it more important that we learn how to recognize it in its trickier forms. Stamped is the book to help us begin that work. Recommended for everyone.


Rating: 9 privileges.

A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire by Yuri Herrera, trans. by Lisa Dillman

Having loved Yuri Herrera’s trilogy of novellas, I was excited to learn he had a new book out this year, his first nonfiction, and again translated by the outstanding Lisa Dillman. A Silent Fury is a slim history of a 100-years-ago tragedy in Herrera’s hometown of Pachuca, Hidalgo, in central Mexico. It is minimalist because records are minimal, but it is lyrical and powerful in its minimalism, and a righteous fury does shine through it. I’m ready to follow Herrera (and Dillman) anywhere.

The El Bordo mine, owned by a subsidiary of the United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company, caught fire on March 10, 1920. Within hours, the company estimated that “no more than ten” men remained inside, and that they were certainly dead; they ordered all three mine shafts sealed. Six days later, when the mines was reopened, seven men came out alive. Some eighty-seven were dead.

The story is full of problems, horrors, holes. How did the fire start? When did the fire start? What made the company so sure there were no survivors (when they would turn out to be so horrifically wrong)? How many died because of their decision to seal the shafts? What responsibility does the company bear? (The appointed investigation would go out of its way to swear up and down that the company was blameless.) There exist almost no documents bearing the voices of mine workers, survivors of the fire, or families of those lost. Herrera pieces together what he can from a case file and a few news stories.

But there are also oral accounts, given by miners and their families, and it was through these that I learned about the fire: there are at least two crónicas, one by Félix Castillo, the other by José Luis Islas; and a novel by Rodolfo Benavides. All were written years afterwards.

This book, like those accounts, refuses the judicial truth that reduces this history to a file in the archive. But none of these words are mine.

Instead, Herrera writes, he reconstructs events using the accounts available, choosing the most credible version where there are several, and pointing out contradictions and omissions. “Silence is not the absence of history, it’s a history hidden beneath shapes that must be deciphered.” For me, then, this book is in part a commentary on what history is. There is certainly commentary; it is not literally true that none of these words are Herrera’s. Of the surviving seven miners who came out of the sealed shaft after six days, the company’s doctor and local officials agreed

that the miners were “in a perfect state of health and had no internal or external injuries,” save for the fact that a few were in “an advanced state of starvation.” They really said that: in a perfect state of health but starving to death. Rarely has a boss expressed so honestly what, in his opinion, the perfect worker is like.

We hear Herrera’s quiet (but not silent) anger again when he recounts the struggles of the family members of the dead miners, in a section titled “The Women’s Fire.” Wives, common-law wives, daughters, mothers, and grandmothers were asked to prove their relationships to the deceased, in order to qualify for compensation. “Every single one of the qualified witnesses called in to vouch for the truthfulness of their testimony was male.” This kind of simple sentence communicates a great deal of emotion.

Silence is a recurrent thread in this story. The title occurs verbatim in just one moment: in a photograph of the seven survivors, Herrera tells us that “they don’t look like they just escaped from hell… with the exception of one, the first man on the left, who seems to betray a silent fury: lips clamped together, brows arched. But, again, no one recorded what they thought or felt at that moment.”

I say again: they sealed the mine shafts on nearly one hundred men, for six days.

This book is deeply moving in its brevity, with a clear grasp of the power of white spaces, what is left unsaid – silence. Herrera is the right writer to probe this story again. It’s beautiful and heart-breaking.


Rating: 8 signatures.

Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America by Elliot Jaspin

I came to this book from the podcast series “Seeing White,” where Elliot Jaspin spoke briefly about one of the cases handled in his book. I made a note of the title and got it through the college where I teach, via interlibrary loan. I love interlibrary loan. The subject of Buried in the Bitter Water is the instances in American history where a community has run its Black residents out of town. This is a very specific kind of occurrence, as Jaspin lays out in his fascinating introduction. I think it’s worth telling that story, of how this project began.

In the late 1990s, Jaspin visits a small town in northwest Arkansas. He observes that, despite a history of Black residents, he doesn’t see any in the present time. He asks and is told that “the Klan keeps them out.” Using census data over the last century, he goes looking for counties where the Black population shows a sudden drop – the standard he uses is a drop of fifty percent in a decade. He begins with Southern states but expands his search to include “thirty-one states in the South, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic where I thought I would be most likely to find racial cleansings.” (I wonder what he missed in the remaining nineteen states!) Census data, at least at the time of his research, was only available by county, so that’s the unit of measurement he uses, while speculating that he’s probably missing instances involving smaller communities – towns, villages. Having identified counties with suspicious numbers, he cross-checks contemporary newspaper records, and indeed he finds stories like those in Berryville, Arkansas (where he’s visiting at the start of this story) and Corbin, Kentucky (which was the story featured on “Seeing White”).

A word on language: Jaspin writes that the term ‘ethnic cleansings’ was coined in the early 1990s by Croatians fleeing Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. He acknowledges that it is problematic in its assumption that a place is ‘cleaner’ without an out-of-favor ethnic group, but concludes that it’s okay because it was coined by its victims. I’m not terribly comfortable with that, myself, but I appreciate that he at least considers the question. I feel like it at least needs “scare quotes” (if not a better term, please?), and I’ll use them in this review, as in: Elliot Jaspin has done some important original research on “racial cleansings” in American history.

And he has. For the book, he identifies a dozen of the “very worst” cases, and tells those stories in twelve chapters. In many cases he’s interviewed local residents, descendants of those residents who were run out of town, or even survivors. It’s part of the book’s thesis that these histories have never before been told, and based on Jaspin’s research I believe that to be true. So his work is important – this is primary research beginning to tell a story of American history that we absolutely need to get on the record. The case studies are predictably horrifying.

But they’re hard to read for another reason, too. Back to those problems of language. Buried in the Bitter Waters was published in 2007, but it feels older than that because Jaspin frequently makes errors in sensitivity. This is important research, but it’s important how we write it up, too. For one thing, he uses ‘black’ as a noun throughout, for people: the blacks lived here, the blacks did this and that. I’m pretty sure it’s been a part of social justice training since before 2007 that we should refer to people as people: Black employees of the mine, Black students in the school, Black people, as opposed to simply ‘blacks,’ which reduces them to perceived race and nothing else. This usage is all over every page of the book, and it grated at me, and affected my ability to concentrate on the stories Jaspin was telling. Now, 2007 was a long time ago in wokeness terms, and I’m trying to be patient with Jaspin, but I found this hard to take. He also makes a common error in naming the race of Black people, while other characters in the history might just be men, women, people. (We are left to assume that they’re white. It’s not always clear.)

It gets worse: a county is noted to have “lynched their own black seven years earlier,” a line which makes me shudder. And “if young Charles Stinnett had not decided to rob the spinster Emma Lovett, there might still be a black community in Boone County, Arkansas.” I am positive we knew what victim blaming looked like in 2007, and this is an excellent example of it. What made the white residents of Boone County run their Black neighbors out of town was not the alleged crime of an individual Black man. It was the white residents’ racism. Later, the six-day trial, conviction, and sentencing to death of Charles Stinnett is referred to (by Jaspin) as “speedy justice.” In reference to events in the early 2000s he writes that “a century earlier, segregation, disenfranchisement, and racial cleansings had established a white man’s country.” I would like to point out that this country was established as a white man’s country well before the early 1900s – in fact, before it was a country, the earliest white settlers were working to establish it as such, more than four centuries ago.

I’m not trying to pick on Jaspin, who I think is well-meaning, and earnest in his search for truth and justice. But I think it’s an important feature of this book that he doesn’t address all the baggage he brings up, including his own. We’re all on our own paths of discovery, hopefully all moving toward ever better awareness of social justice, and that process is never finished. I don’t know it all or get it all right, certainly. We have to keep learning; thinking we’re done with it is the easiest way to stop learning. I’m not here to crucify Jaspin for what he got wrong in 2007, but it’s part of my review of this book that he got a lot wrong, in how he writes about Black people and how he assesses the results of his research. His work is a contribution to research in this field, and future historians will consult it and add to it – and I hope rewrite it in better and clearer terms, soon. It’s only been thirteen years, but it’s time.

Jaspin details his twelve chosen case studies of ‘racial cleansings’ in eight states. They are hard to read, both for the right reasons (because this history is shameful and disturbing) and because I often cringed at Jaspin’s terms. He makes some astute points about the factors at play here, obviously including racism but also including, for example, economic factors, and capitalism’s successful pitting of poor white workers against poor Black ones. He finishes with a lengthy conclusion that felt a bit out of place for me: he tells the story of how this material was intended for the newspaper chain he worked for, but it got edited to death and/or left unused, because the chain included the Atlanta paper that badly mishandled its coverage of Klan activity in north Georgia in the 1980s, which is part of the continuing story of the ‘racial cleansing’ that took place there. (Whew.) This detailed story of a failure of journalistic integrity struck me as a little off-topic, and a little personal for the author, in ways that didn’t necessarily serve the broader goals of the book. (The related point is that we’re still not doing the self-examination of history that we need to do, which is valid. But it gets a bit wide of the mark, in my reading.)

Final assessment? This was a complicated one for me. I appreciate Jaspin’s introduction, in which he details his discovery of this phenomenon, and his research methods. (Note the limited capabilities of internet research in the late 1990s and early 2000s.) I think his primary research into under- or unexamined ‘racial cleansings’ is deeply important to the field of American history. The scholarship in this book is significant, and will bear further study. I’m glad for Jaspin’s contributions. But I’m also bothered by the shortcomings in his language, and his occasional failure to question the given narrative. I think the next scholar to take up this work can and should do better.


Rating: 5 times words matter.

podcast: the “Seeing White” series from Scene on Radio

“Seeing White” is a 2017 series on the podcast Scene on Radio, from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (in a very podcast-rich part of the country, it seems to me). Host John Biewen (a white guy) is upset by racial injustice in the United States, and curious about the invisible forces that go beyond simple, mean, interpersonal racism and account for the systemic, institutional forms that do still more damage and are less easily identified. Noting that our discussions about race tend to manifest as discussions of people or communities of color, he wants to “turn the lens” back on whiteness. What the heck is that?

My father recommended this podcast series to me, pretty forcefully, and my first reaction was to say, 2017? His recommendation came in the height of this summer, the summer of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and a new energy behind BLM protests, and it felt a little weird to look back three years for an angle on these events. Three years is kind of a short time, but also rather a long time, in the evolution of our (national-level) thinking on race. Well, I was wrong about the timeliness concern. While the most recent event markers have changed – Charlottesville being the landmark event when this podcast was released – the conversations we need have not. I’m adding my voice to my dad’s: this podcast presents ideas, facts, and history to help along that conversation, one that I found thought-provoking and useful, and that I absolutely still think is useful – nay, imperative – in 2020.

John Biewen and Chenjerai Kumanyika

Biewen examines whiteness via conversations with experts and scholars, including historians, researchers, and educators. On each episode (save one, I think), he then consults and reviews his new content with Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika, professor of critical cultural media studies, cultural industries, “and things like that” at Clemson University and then Rutgers. Kumanyika (a Black man) serves as a sounding board and a gut-check for Biewen, there to offer both a personal and an expert perspective and make sure Biewen doesn’t head off in any funky directions; he’s the Black friend, which is a concept that should give us some pause. (I hope he got paid for his role here.) But the two are friends in the real world, and Kumanyika signs on for this project eyes-open. The two do share a joke about his role: “You’re not asking me to speak for all people of color, are you?” “Yes! of course!” “Well good. Because that’s what I do…”

Big, complicated topics here; writing this review/response is intimidating, but here’s my best effort.

I thank my parents and my upbringing for the fact that I’m not new to concerns about race and racism. But it’s clear to me, too, that nobody (and most particularly no white person) can sit back contented, thinking that she’s got it all worked out. To be a good anti-racist means being constantly ready to keep learning and finding out where I’ve been wrong. One of the greatest offerings of “Seeing White,” for me, was its help in wrestling with a certain concept. 1) I see and understand that race is a social construct in our society, rather than a biological fact; that makes sense to me. 2) And yet race is also a reality in our society and culture: it affects people’s experiences in education, law enforcement, finance, real estate, health care, and so much more; we have a (wildly imperfect) system of identifying people by race just by looking at them. So 3) How can race be both made up and a reality at the same time? …I don’t think I would have articulated this philosophical puzzle before listening to the podcast, but it’s definitely been a puzzle for me for some time. After listening, I feel like I have a better handle on it. Race is indeed both a reality within our culture, and something we made up. We’ve manifested it. Suzanne Plihcik of the Racial Equity Institute, episode 2:

We know, for example, since the human genome project, that we are 99.9% genetically the same. There is more genetic variation in a flock of penguins than there is in the human race. There is more genetic variation within groups that have come to be called races than there is across groups that have come to be called races.

However, after more than 400 years of entrenched racism, discrimination, and enforced segregation on this continent, we have built in differences that weren’t there. Health disparities are not a result of racial difference, but a result of different treatment over lifetimes and generations.

From episode 8, Dorothy Roberts, professor of law, Africana Studies and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and leading scholar on racial science:

The sickle cell example is the resort of people who know that there’s a mountain of evidence showing that race is an invented category, and so they grasp at sickle cell all the time… Peoples who live in areas where there’s malaria have developed this mutation, or have a higher prevalence of this mutation, because it protects against malaria. But it’s not confined to Africa, it’s not present in all of Africa, and so it simply is not a ‘Black’ disease. It just says nothing about race whatsoever. It’s linked to groups that developed in areas where there’s a lot of malaria, that’s all.

This was a lightbulb moment for me: sickle cell has nothing to do with race! It’s about where the mosquitoes are!

So yes, 1) race is a social construct and simultaneously 2) race is a reality in our culture because 3) we have made it one, over centuries of social construction. Which means that 4) we have to consciously, purposefully, effortfully, and over years, decades, possibly more centuries, deconstruct it. Race and racism will not go away because we wish them to, and they certainly won’t go away because we turn our gazes in another direction and claim to not see color. We made this, and it’s now on us to unmake it, at personal and collective cost.

There is much to be gained and learned here, no matter how openminded you think you are.

I think perhaps the best single episode to catch might be the penultimate, episode 13: “White Affirmative Action.” This episode spells out in hard facts and figures and a thorough study of history how white people have gotten ahead, methodically, throughout American history, how we’ve been given advantages at the expense of other groups. It offers some good answers to those who would say “How could I owe reparations? I was born in 19–. My people didn’t even own slaves. My people only came over in (whatever year).” Etc. Answer: if you’ve been white in this country for more than a few minutes, you’ve benefitted from institutional racism, period. Even if you’re well meaning. Even if you didn’t want to. Even if you’re not, personally, racist. Even if you grew up poor! (I’ve linked to it before, but still good: “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.”) To become better versed in explaining this concept, I highly recommend episode 13. (For the record, I am absolutely in favor of paying reparations to Black Americans.)

I’m barely scratching the surface of what’s available in these 14 podcast episodes, of course. I am not particularly qualified to teach this content to you, but what I can do is offer my review: this is deep and rich and complicated content, excellently explained and articulated and discussed, in fairly manageable chunks. Spend some time with it. Improve yourself and try and improve the world.

Good tip, Pops. Thanks.


Rating: 9 questions to sit with.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

In this meticulously researched and beautifully crafted book, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson argues that the U.S. has a race-based caste system.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns) offers a singular and vital perspective on American society with Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. This examination of caste and its consequences on every aspect of culture is unusual, eye-opening and of life-or-death importance. As in her previous work, which she continues and deepens here, Wilkerson lives up to the scope and significance of her subject matter, delivering a book that is deeply researched, clearly structured, well-written and moving.

The root of so many social ills in the United States, Wilkerson argues, is not precisely racism but casteism, which is closely linked to the concepts of race invented and reinforced since before the country’s founding. “Caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive,” she writes, and then explicates and defines her terms precisely, with the support of exhaustive research. “Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.”

Wilkerson interrogates and defines caste systems by comparing and contrasting three: those of Nazi Germany, India and the United States. The job of analyzing more than 400 years of American history, social structures on three continents and the complexities of sociology, psychology, history, anthropology, philosophy and more is an enormous one, but Wilkerson is more than capable. She lays out eight pillars of caste, including divine will, heritability, occupational hierarchy, and terror as enforcement. She puts to work a number of convincing metaphors to illustrate her points: infectious disease, the challenges of owning an old house, actors (mis)cast for a theater production, rungs on a ladder, the biblical concept of the scapegoat. She uses a new vocabulary to recast old problems, usually referring not to terms of race or class but of caste, and discusses recent electoral politics with descriptions rather than names, defamiliarizing the familiar and thereby offering her reader a fresh perspective.

Wilkerson’s understanding of caste proposes a nuanced take on the Trump election: many working-class white voters did not in fact vote against their interests, but rather prioritized one interest–upholding the caste system–over others, including access to health care, financial stability and clean air and water. She effectively argues that while “caste does not explain everything in American life… no aspect of American life can be fully understood without considering caste and embedded hierarchy,” and shows how it causes psychological and physical health damage to everyone living within this system.

Caste is a thorough, brilliant, incisive investigation of the often invisible workings of American society. Original, authoritative and exquisitely written, its significance cannot be overstated.


This review originally ran in the July 6, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 owners of old houses.

did not finish: Not a Gentleman’s Work: The Untold Story of a Gruesome Murder at Sea and the Long Road to Truth by Gerard Koeppel

I quit just over halfway through this work of history/investigative writing/true crime. In 1896, a small sailing ship left Boston headed for Argentina with a cargo of lumber. There were twelve people aboard: the captain and his wife, a paying passenger, and a small crew. Within the first week, three of the twelve had been hacked to death with an axe. One of the crew was convicted and served time and was later pardoned. Koeppel leans heavily toward the paying passenger as the true murderer: a silver-spoon Harvard dropout and drunk with some odd behaviors. But in the end, the ‘long road to truth’ remains unfinished; we don’t know what really happened on board the Herbert Fuller.

It sounded up my alley, but this slim history threw me in a couple of ways. Koeppel’s tone varies from the meticulously detailed chronology to the sensationalist crowing of what can only have been. Here is neither Erik Larson’s novelistic telling of well-documented histories, nor the measured and transparent speculations of literary writers like Kushner, Kupperman, Monroe, and Wood.

Koeppel’s standard of proof is not my own. For my money, he puts rather too much faith in the eyewitness accounts of discombobulated sailors, chicken-scratched down by their fellows, none of whom spoke English as a first language, and now viewed at a distance of more than a century. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously inaccurate in any case. To point to inconsistencies in records such as these and claim them as proof of dishonesty seems unreasonable. I was bemused by a preoccupation with who had children and whether they in turn had children: the continuing line of the key players seems important to Koeppel in a way I don’t comprehend.

As usual, your mileage may vary, but this is not for me.


No rating.

The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family by Bettye Kearse

A descendant of enslaved Africans and a president tells her family’s story with pain and dignity.


Bettye Kearse grew up hearing a line of advice that had been handed down in her family through generations: “Always remember–you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president.” In The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family, she works to explore this statement and its implications for her life.

West African griots (masculine) and griottes (feminine) have, for many centuries, been caretakers of the oral traditions of their families and communities. It is a role that is passed down and serves an important function in, for example, enslaved families, where literacy was illegal and “even their pockets were not their own.” Bettye’s mother was the seventh griotte in her family, tracing back to a girl who was kidnapped from what is now Ghana and renamed Mandy on the shore of Virginia, where she would be treated as a possession of James Madison, Sr., and bear him a daughter. As this book opens, Bettye’s mother delivers to her the box of records and memorabilia that generations of “Other Madisons” have compiled. This spurs the author on her own path to become a griotte, to retell the story of her family.

The Other Madisons includes a family tree documenting Kearse’s links back to Mandy and to the Maddisons (with two Ds), then Madison, Sr., whose son James Madison, Jr. would be a U.S. president. Her family has long felt proud of the Madison name, but for Kearse, the connection is a reminder of rape.

Kearse’s research, and that of the griots who came before her, is impressive. In search of deep truths, she travels from her home in Boston to Ghana, Nigeria, Portugal, New York City and Madison’s plantation in Virginia, walking in her ancestors’ footprints and grasping ever more deeply the magnitude of the tragedy of slavery. While there is surprisingly solid evidence (slave records being notoriously poor) to support much of the lineage back to Mandy, Kearse is unable to prove a genetic link to James Madison. She accepts this, but it doesn’t change her sense of the relationship. For a family that relies on the griotte‘s oral history to know its own past, the oral history’s confirmation of the Madison connection is enough.

The Other Madisons, as a thorough history of one family, may offer answers for other descendants of enslaved people as well. It is part personal quest, as Kearse works to understand and reconcile her own origins, and a carefully researched and documented correction to the American historical record.


This review originally ran in the March 3, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 steps.

comparative literature and lives, from Pops

The Living Mountain
Nan Shepherd (1945 / 1977)

Under the Sea Wind: A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life
Rachel Carson (1941 / 1952)


I want to celebrate early – and timeless – work from two remarkable women naturalists of the 20th century. This is not really book reviewing; it is tribute to these two writers’ noteworthy similarities and differences, and appreciation of their early, largely disregarded success. The books came to me unintentionally, separately, and coincidentally; that’s always a fun thing.

As shown in these books, both authors were naturalists in the purist sense: keen observers of the more-than-human milieu around them, with a literary voice enabling them to describe what they saw, which appeared so differently to them than most people. Humans rarely feature; they appear only occasionally as natural background to the author’s higher interest in place, or other inhabitants.

While both show an informed ecological understanding of what they observe, such insight is rarely explicit; they ‘teach’ by example. Both prefer to rely on literal and figurative senses as a narrative lens, and the result on these pages, while different in style, is surprisingly similar in tone, feeling and impact. There is a sophistication to their form that impresses, especially for its time. Carson embraced the term ‘poetic prose’, which certainly applies to both.

They lived during the same era, against a backdrop of both constraint and change for women. They wrote the two works cited here within the same decade (1935-45); publication of each book was at least partially affected by the war. There is no suggestion they knew of each other.

While both traveled internationally, they lived on different continents. The focus of their attention in the natural world rarely overlapped, even while the results of their inspiration bore similar fruit on the page. Carson was a committed author and trained biologist; Shepherd, always ‘only’ a writer, and more introspective. Early writing success met Carson, followed later by greater success and international impact; Shepherd’s writing was only fully appreciated late in life, and even then mostly limited to her region.


Nan Shepherd was born (1893) and lived always within walking distance of the Cairngorm massif in Scotland’s central highlands – and walk she did, across every ridge and through every valley of her cherished place. Always a poet, sometimes an essayist, she had a brief burst of minor publication before she finished writing The Living Mountain in 1945 at age 52.

For various reasons – post-war disruption, intervention by a mentor, some factors perhaps inexplicable – the book was not published. Only in 1977 was the original manuscript revived by the author and publisher (4 years before her death); it immediately gained attention regionally. Largely due to ‘discovery’ and ardent promotion by Robert Macfarlane, it has belatedly become a classic. The Scottish five-pound note now displays her image, with a quotation.

Shepherd’s subject here is explicitly The Living Mountain, which she embraced passionately her entire life. Her brief Foreword in 1977 testifies to her continued attention to that place. While the narrative draws from her experience over decades, it is organized into 12 chapter categories of her choosing, from Water, to Plants, to Being.

Her focus never strays beyond its boundary of geography, shaped by water. But her meaning for ‘the living mountain’ encompasses everything about it: rocks and water; clouds and winds; plants and insects; large and small; above ground and below; its impact on the psyche. Implicitly, this is an ecological view. Her language is intimate, lyrical and dense – all, matching her perception of the subject. Yet her voice is calming & humble, conveying her affinity for Buddhism. There is likely nothing else in print resembling her work here.

Macfarlane’s introduction in the 2011 edition runs to 28 pages including three pages of footnotes. This is a superlative essay in itself (of course, one might say), partially because Macfarlane himself roamed these hills as a youth, and even today. But mostly this is his own tribute to Shepherd, as we hear her on these pages. As he says, this is “a formidably difficult book to describe.” I would agree, and say that about both books.


Rachel Carson was born more than a decade after Shepherd, in rural Pennsylvania. Even though she grew up land-locked her reading inspired an interest in the ocean. So it is unsurprising that the sea informed both her early interest in writing, and eventual degree in aquatic biology. Significantly, her early work in articles led to mentoring by a Dutch children’s author, who encouraged her simple, direct, descriptive writing style, which is so effective later.

Under the Sea Wind was her first book, published in 1941 at age 34. (Two subsequent books now comprise her ‘Sea Trilogy’: The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea.) While initial publication met with critical success, sales and popularity were dampened by the war. When The Sea Around Us became a bestseller in 1951, the earlier book was rediscovered and the next year also became a bestseller.

Under the Sea Wind is organized into 15 chapters, divided 5-7-3 into three sections, or ‘Books.’ Each Book is a theme that ties together its chapters in loose narrative; yet all three also naturally connect in a general sense, and comprise a generic year’s cycle.

Carson’s sightline in this book covers the broad western hemisphere, especially the western Atlantic, encompassing ocean and sea; shoreline and river; marine and freshwater; birds and fish; whales and sand fleas. Yet, on a given page, her attention is particular species, and even individuals of a species, which she sometimes assigns a proper noun. One can imagine children of a certain maturity devouring some passages; and adults of a certain proclivity cherishing its entirety.

The magic of her ecological view is how her ‘narrative’ seamlessly and endlessly follows one organism to the next, taking as a thread a trophic food chain, or an expansive migration path, or intricate inter-species symbiosis. But she rarely resorts to such jargon, any global perspective, or stated scientific facts. She simply knits together, piece by piece, story by story, an appreciation of this connected web of life.


The relaxed pace; the embracing language; the sense of peacefulness amidst natural turbulence; the reassurance in understanding how things work – both books display these things, and commend themselves to sympathetic readers.

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