The Travelers by Regina Porter

Looks like I need a new way to talk about novels like this: huge and sweeping in its scope, but in a neat, tidy package, right at 300 pages. The Travelers opens with a Cast of Characters, like a play, which made me a little nervous, and indeed I needed to use it some throughout, although less so in the second half once I got situated. These characters come from a few families over a few generations. Cast of Characters is followed by Time (“from the mid-fifties to the first year of President Obama’s first term”), Settings of Note (Amagansett, Long Island; Buckner County, Georgia; New York; Memphis, Tennessee; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Brittany, France; Berlin, Germany; and Vietnam”) and Background, which discusses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which made me still more nervous; what is this book I am entering? But it turned out wonderfully.

Where to begin? Clearly I cannot tell you about all these characters and happenings on several continents over several decades. I’m still not sure how Porter has managed to do it in 300 pages. Among my favorites, though, are definitely Agnes and Eloise, who were lovers as young women in Buckner County, Georgia, but who go on to live long, full, well-traveled lives, while never ceasing to circle each other at least in their minds and at least a little. (“Just because you couldn’t stand someone didn’t mean you no longer loved them.”) The man Agnes marries has an obsession with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that begins when he is serving in the Vietnam War, and remains ties to a trauma from that time period; his odd relationship to an odd play, and its impact on his and Agnes’s two daughters, was a fascinating through-line for me. There are plotlines that are linked to race, as well as gender and sexuality, another expansive dimension to the novel that I appreciate. I think what I’m most marveling at here is the compression: now that I’m trying to tell you about this book, I’m amazed at how much was in it, at how much American history got slipped into a story about regular people.

It’s absorbing. There are some problematic characters that I still felt for, and some downright entrancing characters (like Eloise, who trains as a pilot in homage to her hero, the real-life Bessie Coleman) who I already miss. The overall impression is spellbinding, really. I like that settings recur, and characters appear and reappear in new arrangements with each other – new relationships. These threads form a weave that help this somewhat sprawling plot and cast to cohere. It could have been too much to keep together, but it makes just enough sense, with the recurring connections. Oh, and photographs: chapters are headed by small black-and-white images, and there are a few more within the text. A ‘photo credits’ section is a great bonus. The images come from true history, while the novel is of course fiction, but they add historical authenticity; so this Black soldier in Vietnam is not the one I’m reading about (because the latter is a fiction), but it adds a layer.

I think I’m going to be thinking about this enormous, deceptively slim novel for a long time.


Rating: 8 pieces of pecan pie.

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Kindred is interesting to me in several ways. First, Octavia Butler stands out as a Black woman in a genre – science fiction – that is still awfully short on non-men and non-white writers, and was practically devoid of either when she began publishing scifi in the 1970s. This novel, her bestselling and I think best-known, might be more easily classified as fantasy than scifi, although I’m not going to get caught up in that labels argument. (I’ve tagged it as horror, here, too.) Either way, it is also very much realism and well based in history. Our protagonist, Dana, is a modern 1970s Black woman who suddenly finds herself time-traveled into the 1810s. “Time travel was science fiction in nineteen seventy-six. In eighteen nineteen–Rufus was right–it was sheer insanity.” Rufus is a young red-headed boy who she quickly understands has the (unwitting) ability to “call” her to his time when he is in danger; she seems bound to protect him. Because… it turns out he is her ancestor.

So we have the grandfather paradox, which ironically was just the other day explained to me by the character Natasha in The Sun Is Also a Star. Rufus grows into a deeply problematic white man and slaveowner, but she must preserve his life, even facilitate his relationship with the enslaved woman Alice who will bear his children, to ensure her own birth. Talk about tough subject matter and moral relativism. Back “home” in the 1970s, Dana is married to a white man, one of the good ones, named Kevin. But even the good ones may turn out to be a little troubling, especially when Kevin manages to get transported back in time with his wife. In the 1800s, Kevin can help protect Dana by posing as her master, but that only leads to more lines to be blurred.

This scifi/fantasy plot draws heavily on history. My paperback edition includes a critical essay at the back by Robert Crossley, who points out that Kindred is a sort of fictional memoir, following the traditions of slave narratives, which Butler studied closely. Aside from the time travel element, this story could be considered strict realism. And the time travel could be considered a literalization of a more metaphoric need to enter into another time – one far less distant than we are sometimes tempted to feel – and understand it better, because the forces of racism (and sexism) are alive and well. (While race is the forefront issue here, gender is absolutely at play as well, in the dynamics within slavery as well as the modern marriage of Dana and Kevin, among other places.)

Butler’s skills are on display. Dana’s first-person narrative voice is compelling and immediate; we experience panic, fear, rage, helplessness, and more along with her. Her relationships with Kevin and with Rufus, with Alice and with other enslaved people, are complex; the society of slaves offers a few apparent ‘types’ which Butler then immediately complicates, and Dana’s own biases are exposed in the process.

Topically, this is an important book to read and to think about. ‘Purely’ as a novel, it’s a hell of a ride, fast-paced and high-stakes and absorbing. Dana’s voice is compelling and intimate; she’s flawed and complicated and completely believable. It’s one of those stories it’s hard to look away from. Butler’s reputation is well deserved.


Rating: 8 aspirins.

The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Another great one that threatened to keep me up all night long. Keep ’em coming.

The Sun Is Also a Star is a YA novel of romance, fate, science, race, and more; 98% of it takes place in a single day in New York City. It stars two delightful and very different teenagers. Natasha is a serious science geek and impassioned fan of 90s grunge music, who firmly believes in provable facts and none of that gooey bubblegum stuff about love. She came to the United States when she was eight as an undocumented immigrant, like both her parents; only her little brother was born in the country, and now – thanks to her father’s unbelievable idiocy – the family is just hours away from deportation to Jamaica, a country that definitely does not feel like Natasha’s home.

Daniel is the younger son of Korean immigrants. His high-achieving older brother is their parents’ darling (of course), and a bully, and objectively a serious asshole; he’s just been kicked out of Harvard (Best School), though, so that’s something. Daniel has his Yale interview today (Second Best School), because he’s trying to follow the intended path and become a doctor, but what Daniel really wants to be is a poet. He is all dreams.

You can already see the drama setting up: Natasha and Daniel run into each other on this momentous day, as she attempts a last-minute legal defense against deportation and he approaches the Yale alum he’s meant to impress. They couldn’t be more different, but they’re drawn together nonetheless. Daniel intends that they will fall in love. Natasha, naturally, is having none of it. There are only hours to spare. Chapters shift between the points of view of Natasha and Daniel as well as a handful of others: side characters we’ll see for just glimpses, or a more omniscient view, including ‘future histories’ and etymologies (‘irie’), a ‘history of naming,’ a ‘history of decay.’ The effect is kaleidoscopic, and transcendent. The cumulative tone is frequently hilarious – both teens’ voices are darling, and Daniel especially is a riot; it is poignant in the ways of teenaged love; and, as established by a Carl Sagan-infused prologue, there is an all-encompassing, cosmic-scale sense of gravity and wonder.

This is a pitch-perfect story, lightning-paced as Natasha’s last day in the States and frenzied as young love, but serious as death, too. It’s absorbing, a world to get lost in. On one level it’s very much about race, racism, immigration and culture. Daniel’s father owns a Black beauty shop, like so many Korean-Americans do, and the book pauses to discuss the global forces that have set up this odd truth. Natasha wears her hair natural – which for some is a political statement, but (again the novel pauses to note, in one of those neat asides) it can also be simpler than that. “In the future, she may make it straight again. She does it because she wants to try something new. She does it simply because it looks beautiful.” I love this narrative voice: here is “an African American history” of hair; here is some of the weighty meaning that accrues; and also, here is a young woman who just wears her hair like she likes it. All of these at once.

The romance story that is the heart of this novel is very sweet and engaging. The topical content is well done and not preachy. The conversation between hyperrationality (Natasha) and dreaminess (Daniel) could have been cutesy and pat, but it’s not: it’s thought-provoking, expansive, and smart. I am, again, impressed with what YA can be. And I am therefore now interested in Yoon’s previous novel, Everything, Everything. I really think there’s something in this book for everyone. I am completely charmed. What a beautiful, book-filled world.


Rating: 8 little notebooks.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The only difference between lying and acting was whether your audience was in on it, but it was all a performance just the same.

I’m on a roll: here’s yet another book that threatened to keep me up all night. When I finished reading this novel, I went immediately to buy Brit Bennett’s first book, The Mothers. So far there are just the two; I hope she’s writing right this minute.

The Vanishing Half begins in a curious town called Mallard in Louisiana, just two hours west of New Orleans, founded by a man whose father once owned him and whose mother hated his lightness. “He’d married a mulatto even lighter than himself. She was pregnant then [1848, when he thought up the town] with their first child, and he imagined his children’s children’s children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream. A more perfect Negro. Each generation lighter than the once before.” And so Mallard, “a town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes. A third place.”

This colorism suffuses the novel, which is about family and secrets and the identities we inherit and choose for ourselves and those we cannot, and so much more, but always about race and color too. From that founder, generations later, are descended a pair of girl twins who watch their daddy get lynched and then run away from Mallard to New Orleans, where they part ways. One lives her life as a Black woman, and eventually returns to Mallard with a child “blueblack… like she flown direct from Africa.” The other crosses over, and becomes White.

You could drown in two inches of water. Maybe grief was the same.

Usually I get nervous when I read about ‘multigenerational sagas’ that I’m looking at a 500+ page book. This one is just 343 in my hardback edition, but does span generations – chiefly the twins and their daughters – and the country, from Louisiana to Hollywood to New York City, with other brief stopovers. It went by quickly (again, I had to force myself to sleep and finish it on day two). And yet it feels enormous. I’ve traveled so far, I feel like, with these women (centrally) and men. The plot centers on problems of race and of colorism within the Black community, but it also handles gender, sexuality, class, art, personal agency, and especially and in several forms, questions about family and love and hurting those we love, keeping secrets (as a form of love and wounding), and those questions about chosen identities (gender as well as race). I do love these Big Questions. But Bennett is also astonishing at plot, scene, and character – there are so many characters here whose stories, even briefly, captivate. I mourn closing this book (which is why I instantly ordered Bennett’s other one). Don’t even wait: do yourself a favor and get into The Vanishing Half, if you haven’t already. I wish I could read it again for the first time.


Rating: 9 worn calculus textbooks.

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

Ring Shout is a most interesting, slim, swashbuckling adventure story about hunting and fighting the monsters of the Ku Klux Klan. Here, those monsters are literal: ‘regular’ (human) Klan members are called simply Klans by our narrator Maryse, while those who have ‘turned’ are Ku Kluxes, horrifying beasts who love dog meat and wear human skins but are visible to those – like Maryse and her friends – with ‘the sight.’ What we learn alongside Maryse in the course of this story is that Ku Kluxes are not the only, nor even the worst, monsters in this world.

Ring Shout is set in 1922 and begins on the Fourth of July in Macon, Georgia, where Maryse, Sadie and Chef have set up a trap for the demonstrating Klan: a stinking dog carcass laced with explosives. We begin mid-scene and then slowly get to know our heroines. Sadie is an ace with her Winnie (Winchester 1895), and Chef carries a German trench knife, taken off the enemy when she fought in World War I; but she’s earned her nickname through her expertise with bombs. Maryse Boudreaux is from just outside Memphis, where she experienced a trauma as a young girl that has set her on the path she walks now: she hunts monsters. Maryse, Sadie and Chef are backed up by other talented and badass women at a cabin in the woods outside Macon: Nana Jean is an old Gullah woman with powers of prophecy and root magic; Molly is a Choctaw scientist experimenting on the body parts of Ku Kluxes that the hunters bring her; the German widow Emma Krauss is a folklorist and ardent socialist. It is a motley and formidable crew, backed up by a few male allies who mostly serve as helpers and sexual partners but lack the sight. (This novel attacks racism head-on, while its feminism is inarguable but resides in the background. I love it.)

My editor & buddy Dave didn’t love this book, reporting, “It felt like much more of the action-packed, wise-cracking, zombie-slaying kind of horror story than I’d hoped for. I like my menace to be a bit more subtle.” And I think his description is accurate, but it worked for me. Subtlety is not the language of Maryse or her friends; they are in-your-face angry, foul-mouthed, and unapologetic about their rage, passions, and needs.

Chapters are often preceded by ‘notations’ referring to the Shouts that give the book its title. (“A shout or ring shout is an ecstatic, transcendent religious ritual, first practiced by African slaves in the West Indies and the United States, in which worshipers move in a circle while shuffling and stomping their feet and clapping their hands,” says Wikipedia.) These notations are credited as transliterated by Emma Kraus – differently spelled but the same name as the character in the book. I was fascinated, when I looked up the author P. Djèlí Clark, to find that “Phenderson Djèlí Clark or P. Djèlí Clark is the nom de plume of American science fiction writer and historian Dexter Gabriel; he chose to publish his fiction and his nonfiction under separate names so that readers of one would not be disappointed or confused by the other.” (That’s Wiki again.) This leaves me moderately confident that Kraus and her notations are historical truths, but I can’t confirm that with anything I’ve found between the pages of this book.

Clark’s Acknowledgements paint an intriguing picture of his influences for this story, citing

The 1930s ex-slave narratives of the WPA. Gullah-Geechee culture. Folktales of haints and root magic. A few Beyoncé videos. Some Toni Morrison. Juke (Jook) joints. Childhood memories of reading Madeline L’Engle under the shade of a cypress. Juneteenth picnics. New Orleans Bounce. A little DJ Screw. H-town that raised me…

and more. (Yes, the Screw and H-Town shout-outs please me immensely.) I added one book and one album to my list, and went looking for a book I remember from childhood that plays a role in this story. In other words, Ring Shout ranges widely. It is indeed a rollicking mad adventure story, and in that sense easy to read – under 200 pages and action-packed. Entertaining and horrifying. It is a tale of the memory of slavery and of the Klan and violence. It is quietly feminist. (It is also being made into a television series.) I think I’ll be looking for more by this author.


Rating: 7 juleps.

movie: 17 Blocks (2019)

A filmmaker meets two brothers – Emmanuel, 9, and Smurf, 15 – at a pickup basketball game in southeast Washington, D.C. They strike up a friendship. Film footage from the following twenty years, shot by both filmmaker and the family members themselves, eventually yields this documentary: 17 Blocks, in reference to the distance between the Sanford family home (at the film’s opening) and the nation’s capitol building. Count that as a not-completely-subtle cue to consider certain contrasts.

The Sanfords and Durants are poor and Black and plagued by social ills including addiction, gun violence, and incarceration. They live through terrible tragedy. Their lives are presented here seemingly unmediated: they speak directly to the camera; raw footage is edited together. (All narratives are mediated, of course. And it’s worth nodding to the feat of culling 1,000 hours of footage to create such an intelligent narrative in 90-something minutes.) There is plenty of opportunity to think through larger issues, beginning with the commentary implied by the title. What is most horrifying about this movie is the pain in the lives of the Sanfords; what is perhaps even more horrifying is that they are representative of so many lives, that their pain is so common.

There’s a quite good review over at Rogerebert.com (although it gets the Sanford kids’ birth order wrong), to which I’ll refer you for a deeper look; reviewer Matt Zoller Seitz makes some good points that I agree with about why the film is excellent, as well as a few mild criticisms. I appreciate his point that the film “probably doesn’t push hard enough against reactionary, Puritan, possibly racist readings of the Sanford family’s misery as it should have.” He also warns viewers of how hard 17 Blocks is to watch, and he’s right: it’s awful, discomfiting stuff, and the discomfort one feels watching it is only appropriate and reasonable. There’s another layer for me, though, too. The first half or so felt awfully close to ‘poverty porn’ (a term I may have first learned when I first started to get to know Appalachia). The problem is that in order to recognize problems in communities, in systems, we have to look at people’s suffering. But there’s something inherently problematic about the looking at – something voyeuristic – that’s discomfiting in a different way. I haven’t quite sorted my feelings about this. Possibly, if we are to make a movie of the Sanfords’ lives and look at it like this, we have a responsibility to work harder to do the work Seitz mentions, the pushing back, “in order to guard it more righteously against bad faith interpretations.” I’m not sure. This is not properly a criticism I’m offering, but a question. Also, it is very relevant that Sanford matriarch Cheryl was an active part of the production and promotion of the movie; the family is on board and involved, which we should keep in mind in considering the complicated situation with this (white) filmmaker and any potential question of exploitation.

I don’t know. But I do know that the film is artful, wrenching, visually intriguing and deeply affecting, and I’ll be thinking about it for some time. If you check it out, please let me know what you think.


Rating: 7 t-shirts.

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke (audio)

I reviewed Heaven, My Home, which comes second in this series. My father reviewed the highly-regarded first novel Bluebird, Bluebird, and now I’m finally catching up.

Pops did a good job with the high points of this one, and I remember Heaven very fondly (I rated it 8 fingers). There’s no question in my mind that Locke is at her best in handling the complex, nuanced, contradictory nature of Texas history and relationships (particularly in regards to race, but of course there’s more there too). The social justice questions, with no easy resolutions, are Locke’s greatest strength. I found the murder mystery part of this novel less compelling. And I should acknowledge that this audiobook took me way too long to finish, so maybe I didn’t give it the fairest shot in terms of my slow reading (listening) pace. It did get a little draggy for me in the middle; I think the contemplative interiority of Ranger Mathews’ thought processes and turmoil was a mite slow for my personal tastes. Which is related to my bigger concern with the book: I had trouble believing in Mathews (as a fictional character who ‘rings true’), and I had trouble caring deeply about his problems, because he exasperated me.

I had trouble with some of his unprofessional behaviors. Not morally, but in terms of believability: does he really get away with it? The drinking on the job, and the blurred boundaries with the murder victim’s widow, and with Geneva, a powerful matriarch in the small town where he’s investigating a couple of murders. It often felt to me like he was amateur at his job – I expected him to have it together more, or at least be better about hiding his boozing. He sure does rush off half-cocked. And while the widow’s character also made me a little impatient, I bought that this is who she would be. Everyone else feels believable; it’s just Mathews. I’m familiar with the self-destructive, loner, problems-with-authority police detective in fiction – it’s a type, and one I rather specialize in. But this one feels like he’s not very high-functioning in his self-destruction, if that makes sense, and it just rang less true for me.

I do not require that I like a character in order to care what happens in a plot. But there has to be some stakes that I can engage in, and I struggled with that here. My problems with Mathews were distracting.

More compelling was the conflict Mathews feels about the law, nicely encapsulated in his two role models, twin uncles who respectively work(ed) as a lawyer and a Texas Ranger. He’s been drawn in both directions, and still feels the pull of the law, although most of all in the pressures applied by others.

It made him sad, the degree to which this kind of credit hogging mattered to Greg, that three years behind a desk had made him so desperate for the climb that a double homicide was seen as an opportunity first and a crime against nature second. But wasn’t Darren a little guilty of this, too?

…Maybe justice was messier than Darren realized when he’d first pinned a badge to his chest; it was no better or worse than a sieve, a cheap net, a catch-as-catch-can system that gave the illusion of righteousness when really the need for tidy resolution trumped sloppy uncertainty any day.

And,

He got it confused sometimes, on which side of the law he belonged, couldn’t always remember when it was safe for a black man to follow the rules.

Point very well taken. Although, Mathews can occasionally feel like a mouthpiece for these musings, rather than a fully human character.

I did really enjoy the local culture of Lark, Texas, the blues and the home cooking at Geneva’s. And the complex relationships, which Pops refers to in his review, were well drawn (and feel very real).

Narrator J. D. Jackson has a nice voice but sometimes plays this one with a hair more drama than I needed – again, a little distracting.

Some good stuff here, but a lot that bothered me, too. If I’d started here I wouldn’t have read Heaven, My Home, which I think is a superior book. It’ll be interesting to see what comes next for Ranger Darren Mathews.


Rating: 6 plates to go.

Copperhead by Alexi Zentner (audio)

I was quite entranced by Touch and so I jumped into Copperhead with nothing but the author to go on. It’s quite a different book, ambitious, and good, but flawed. This novel takes on the timely – not to say trendy – topic of race and racism in contemporary America. I don’t question Zentner’s earnest commitment to the topic, but it’s a tricky thing to execute seriously in fiction without getting a little overwrought.

Our protagonist is 17-year-old Jessup, a high school senior in Cortaca, New York (a thinly disguised Ithaca, with Cortaca University obviously Cornell). He’s a talented football player and excellent student, but still wrong-side-of-the-tracks because of his family’s hand-to-mouth existence, the trailer they live in, and the fact that his brother and step-father are serving prison sentences for the deaths of two Black college students in what was either self defense or a hate crime, depending on who’s telling the story. Jessup’s mother and sister still attend the Blessed Church of the White America. Jessup would tell you he’s not a racist; his girlfriend is Black. He resents that people judge him for his family history and their association with the white supremacist church.

This is all background information; the novel’s action takes place over four days, Friday night’s football game through Monday night’s protests, but it is action-packed. What might be called a series of unfortunate events explodes into increasing posturing, grandstanding, violence. Jessup is pressured to choose sides. Zentner’s greatest accomplishment is the empathy his reader feels for this kid. We don’t like to spend much of our compassion on white supremacists, but this novel ticks boxes for two intellectual puzzles I’ve long been interested in: 1, the concept that bigots are made or taught, not born, and there’s somebody there, at some early-enough point, that I do feel for. And 2, the question of when we begin to hold a person responsible for his own crimes – the abused child we feel for, but when he grows up to be an abuser we don’t; at what age or stage is the cut-off? I feel like Jessup’s character begs both these questions. He is in some ways a good kid. And while he’s far more fair-minded than some of his family and church, he’s also a white supremacist, by default rather than by hate. The puzzle of Jessup himself I think is well-expressed; we stay with his close third-person perspective throughout the novel, and I find it easy to like and sympathize with him, even though he’s problematic too. I find it realistic that (especially) a 17-year-old boy with such a troubled past would have the kinds of blind spots that Jessup has. That doesn’t mean I think it’s all okay, but I think it’s realistic.

The events that kick off (no pun intended) the weekend’s action are a bit contrived, in terms of narrative: a perfect-storm sequence. Sometimes life really does work in such strange ways, but it is also clearly a novelistic device to get the issues moving that Zentner needs to address. That’s more or less okay with me, but the mechanics of plot here are showing a bit more than some might like. Characters other than Jessup are less well developed than he is (also understandable; a lot has been put into this protagonist, and there’s less left over for everybody else). Things get a little ham-fisted with the stepfather, David John, who is just such a great guy aside from the white supremacist business… and this allows Jessup to wonder how it’s possible for a racist to be such a deeply decent dude? (The answer, staggeringly obvious to everyone but Jessup, is that he’s deeply decent to white people. But honestly, I do buy Jessup’s blindness on this account – again, as one of those believable blind spots. Seventeen years old!) Where the novel goes most wrong is in the final events and epilogue: wrapping up this complicated and fraught story is a challenge, and Zentner was maybe a little overcommitted to a redemption narrative. Only in the final pages (minutes, in my audiobook) does the novel, which excels in drawing out my sympathies, descend into morality tale. It gets a little graceless. Again, Zenter’s earnest good intentions are not in question, and it’s a pretty good morality tale, one that will yield good discussions in classrooms and book clubs. But as a novel, the last bit is a bit cringey.

There are some beautiful, moving, thoughtful moments, and absolutely memorable images, and I think Jessup’s character is all win. The complexities of family, legacy, and the taught-and-learned nature of hate are well illustrated. Copperhead took on an ambitious mission, and as a novel, doesn’t quite stand up to that tall order, but it gives us plenty to think about. I think its greatest accomplishment was in how much I empathized with Jessup, and how uncomfortable I felt with my own empathy – not always a pleasurable experience, but an instructive one. I was certainly engaged throughout, and I do recommend this read, with a few caveats. I respect Zentner’s work here, and I’ll look for more from him.


Rating: 7 text messages.

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.

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.
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