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guest review and more: Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss, from Pops

About three years ago, I reviewed Strong Inside. My father just got around to reading the galley copy I gave him when I was done with it, and he left the following as a comment on that post. I thought it deserved better billing, here.

I am so glad you left me this book so I would eventually read it, now three years later.

I was in high school becoming obsessed with basketball around the time Wallace became the first black athlete in the SEC. He played basketball for Vanderbilt, a university that would later accept my application although I attended elsewhere. I was entirely unaware of Wallace at the time, but I knew most of the prominent players and teams that comprised Wallace’s sports world. I was also ignorant of the more significant social struggle that defined his life, which despite other proximities I learned largely in retrospect; that’s an education that continues today with the help of narratives like this one.

His story is iconic in so many ways, and it is a gift that Maraniss discerned this and spent eight years preparing to tell it: Wallace was a boy raised amidst Nashville’s version of the civil rights movement, with maturity enough to see beyond his social place, and beyond just sports, to recognize potential both in higher education and his prospect as a pioneer during a nation’s essential historical moment.

The result is singular insight into the civil rights movement, from the intimate perspective of a special person at very specific time and place. As such, this book reminds us how capricious history can be as it consists of stories we choose to preserve and honor. Thousands of people contributed to this era’s history; few are as compelling and admirable as Perry Wallace, from start to finish–or as thoughtfully captured as Maraniss has done here. One must wonder, how many other such strands of history go missing?

That’s perhaps the saddest part of this tale, how many important stories go overlooked.

One more bit, on that very last thought, a quote from the book describing Wallace’s thoughts upon finally being fully accepted at Vanderbilt 40 years later:

Here he stood, achieving closure in a joyful setting, when in so many cases throughout history, African Americans who had accomplished significant things had ultimately been cut down in tragic ways.

In an email to me, Pops offered a more personal series of reflections, and permission to share here.

During the summer of 1968 my parents arranged for me and a friend to drive a Jeep wagon from Houston to New England for a relocating family. At a very immature 17, I found it an amazing and daunting challenge of independence at the time, and still. We chose a route through the deep south with no clue as to events or risks; I have no idea why, or why no one counseled us about this. So we passed south of Perry Wallace, but – more significant and relevant – the chasm between our paths was immense.

We passed through DC in late June soon after the Poor People’s Campaign had been forcefully evicted from their Resurrection City shanty town (3000 people) on the National Mall after more than a month, a time that included heavy rainstorms that resulted in a muddy morass. MLK had been killed in April during preparations; RFK was killed during the occupation and his funeral procession passed through Resurrection City en route to Arlington Cemetery. When we drove through, we marveled at the filthy desolation on the Mall, and kept on going.

A particularly nostalgic and tragic anecdote (of so many!) was the page-long excerpt in Strong Inside from RFK’s speech at VU, less than 3 months before he was killed. One never hears such hopeful and ambitious expressions of American idealism today, from anyone; but I remember that naive 1960s legacy, which we were trying to build on in the early 70s.

Sports references – so many! I wonder if you recognized the name Harry Edwards, the radical sports leader described in the book; he was very influential amongst prominent athletes like Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) and later Bill Walton, well into the 70s.

I remember the 1966 story when the all-black team from tiny Texas Western (now UTEP) beat Kentucky to be national champs in El Paso (!!) – such a stunning sign of things to come.

A major star from my Houston Memorial HS was Jerry Kroll, who from 1967 helped lead (with Mike Maloy) the Davidson teams mentioned in the book, so I knew of Davidson and followed their success at the time, as did Wallace. I knew most of the prominent player names Wallace crossed paths with: Rick Mount, Charlie Scott, Dan Issel, Bob Lanier, Pete Maravich, Calvin Murphy (you know that one!). Wallace was mentored later by famous 76ers coach Jack Ramsey.

The University of Houston had strong teams then, especially with Elvin Hayes; in January 1968 the “Game of the Century” had UH facing Alcindor’s UCLA team (both undefeated) in the first ever college basketball game on national TV, and the first basketball in the Astrodome. It held up to the hype, I followed it closely, and UH won by 2 in a great game. I wished I had gone, but imagine trying to watch a game way out there in the center of the Dome!

A larger iconic moment was the Mexico City Olympics later that year, with Smith and Carlos raising black-fisted gloves in the awards ceremony; a very powerful moment with the whole world watching, and again I was paying attention because of the confluence of sports and cultural political events.

He couldn’t stop, sending more links and notes, but I couldn’t help but pass these on as well. It’s a fine example of how reading can open up into contemplations of all the parts of life. He says, “you know how these things accumulate when you nuzzle into a subject.”

I’m sending on this essay about the Poor People’s Campaign only because it overlaps with my recalled 1968 history (see photo below) – a history in focus now with a year’s worth of 50-year anniversaries.

photo credit – click to enlarge

Also: The Atlantic has a whole series on King, including this essay from Jesmyn Ward about her family’s legacy of poverty and why she is raising her own kids back home in Mississippi.

David J. & Janice L. Frent / Corbis / Getty, from here

Also, another in that series: Rev Barber (of North Carolina Moral Mondays fame) reminds us that King’s ‘three evils’ (racism, poverty and war) are still very immediate, and are now four (environmental decline.)

Also, my anecdote: as MLK’s multi-racial poverty campaign was ramping up, he was referencing in part The Other America, a classic still on my shelf authored by an American ‘democratic socialist’ in 1962.

Plenty of reading there for today, friends.

Thanks, Pops.

The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday, illus. by Al Momaday

I was first told these stories by my father when I was a child. I do not know how long they had existed before I heard them. They seem to proceed from a place of origin as old as the earth.

A short book, recommended to me by Kim Dana Kupperman as a way of considering an oral tradition. N. Scott Momaday is a Kiowa Indian, born in Oklahoma but raised on reservations in the southwest. He travels home to Rainy Mountain in Oklahoma to visit his grandmother’s grave, and this book reflects his journey as well as the original one the Kiowas made, from Yellowstone through the Black Hills, and south to the Wichita Mountains. This book is a record of the legends, the orally passed-down traditional narrative of a tribe and a culture now passed on. It is told in three voices. The first is the ancestral voice of the oral tradition (“the voice of my father,” Al Momaday, who also illustrates the book); the second, a historical commentary; and the third, Momaday’s own voice “of personal reminiscence.” Each short section separates these voices from each other visually:

It is a spare, slim book, under 100 pages and with lots of white space as in the spread above, and with illustrations to space things out further. It is therefore just a sketching (no pun intended) of a history, and somehow this feels right, since as Momaday points out, “the golden age of the Kiowas had been short-lived, ninety or a hundred years, say, from about 1740. The culture would persist for a while in decline, until about 1875, but then it would be gone…” His ability to piece these stories together is a rare one, and the record is necessarily scanty. But the scraps that we do have here are wise and hold a certain dignity.

They also hold a sense of place. I loved lines like, “Houses are like sentinels in the plain, old keepers of the weather watch.” It somehow makes sense to me that Momaday would have so much to say about a place he feels tied to without actually inhabiting; that it’s an ancestral belonging.

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk.

In terms of the oral tradition, I noticed that the storytelling style in those parts was simple, and often involved shifts that we are unaccustomed to in the written stories; but when read aloud, they sound more like the way we still tell stories today. “Bad women are thrown away. Once there was a handsome young man…”

Simply told, easy to read, but thoughtful and thought-provoking, and a way into stories that we don’t have much access to. As Momaday writes himself in the preface to this edition, twenty-five years after the first: “One should not be surprised, I suppose, that it has remained vital, and immediate, for that is the nature of story. And this is particularly true of the oral tradition, which exists in a dimension of timelessness.”


Rating: 7 black-eared horses.

Street Shadows by Jerald Walker

Before he wrote The World in Flames, Jerald Walker wrote this memoir-in-essays focused on a later part of his life, when he was navigating a growth from a series of performed roles, most dramatically that of a Chicago inner-city gangster, to college professor and married father of two. This book only touches upon that supremely weird upbringing (black child of blind black parents in a white supremacist doomsday cult, whew), concentrating instead on the period from young adulthood into, say, early middle age. Central to this arc, unsurprisingly, is his evolution of understanding race, which remains incomplete for the narrator at the time in which he’s writing.

The essays included here are both narratives from a life and traditional essays that explore questions in the narrator’s mind. I noted their organization, which generally alternates between the more distant past (a youth filled with mistakes) and the apparent present (or “narrative present”–not without its ongoing mistakes, but with an emphasis on self-awareness and attempts to understand and improve). The next step that seems natural to me, which I have not (yet) taken, would be to examine each essay for its content in terms of narrative vs. traditional assay/thinking on the page. I have a hunch there may be an organizational trick on that level, too.

I found these essays thought-provoking, engaging, and easy-to-read, a trifecta much harder than it looks. There was something a little effortful for me, though, that I’m having trouble articulating. It’s like I can catch just a glimpse of the writer in the background, building his work, on purpose. The essays that most blow me away have a feeling of effortlessness to me, like there’s no writer at all–a narrator, but no writer, no craftsman. Think of E.B. White, or Eula Biss, or Joan Didion. I’ll be hard at work trying to figure out what makes the difference I’m talking about. And for the record, I think it’s a matter of taste: I know readers who prefer the more crafted-feeling essay to the more obscurely drawn one (I’m thinking of Eula Biss’s subtle through-lines).

Feel free to ignore the above confused paragraph, though, and take this recommendation: Street Shadows is a remarkable work on several levels, including its organization, its storytelling style, and the intense and important subject matter Walker is moved to address.


Rating: 8 photographs taped to the door.

Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice, ed. by Francisco X. Alarcón and Odilia Galván Rodríguez

Back to residency today, and so here is one of the assigned readings, for a seminar entitled “Boy Breaking Glass: Political and Protest Poetry,” taught by Mary Carroll-Hackett. (She assigned a good-sized packet of poetry and articles, additionally.)

You know that poetry often mystifies me. I struggle to release my need to understand or dissect every line and choice; but I’m getting better at that (and of course I’m in school to help me understand such choices). This collection was easier than usual for me to get behind. For one thing, it begins with a lovely foreword by Juan Filpe Herrera, and introduction by editors Alarcón and Rodríguez. These gave clarity, context and passion to the poems that follow; they made clear the backstory that yielded these works, and made their point matter to me. In a word: this collection began when nine Latino students chained themselves to the Arizona State Capitol building in 2010, in protest of Arizona’s SB 1070, the “reasonable suspicion” bill. The students’ civil disobedience was followed immediately by a poem Alarcón wrote in response; and then by the Facebook page, “Poets Responding to SB 2070,” which in turn gave birth to a spreading protest poetry movement. This book is one of the many results of that movement.

The poems selected for this collection were voted on by poet-moderators; their authors are diverse in geography and ethnic/national backgrounds; some are new and emerging writers and others are well-established. Most of the book’s contents are printed in English. Some are in both Spanish and English (and one, in Irish, Spanish and English). A minority are printed only in Spanish, so those of us less than fluent in that language will miss a few pieces, or struggle over them. I appreciated this as an effect, though.

I feel less confident about my ability to write about these poems’ content. I don’t generally review poetry. But I found this reading engaging: politically moving, thought-provoking, stimulating, and comprehensible in a way poetry isn’t always for me. I’d recommend this book to anyone, for its artistic value as well as for its political worth. That’s all I have to offer today; Poetry of Resistance has it all.


Rating: 7 poems become bread or water.

Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca by John McWhorter

A linguist argues for the legitimate and complicated contributions of the language he calls Black English.

talking-back

Linguistics professor John McWhorter (Words on the Move) has a message in Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca: he exhorts his readers and the general public to recognize Black English (a term he prefers to African American Vernacular English or to Ebonics) as a language unto itself, not merely a mess of grammatical mistakes and slang: “a development that happens alongside the standard variety, not in opposition to it.”

McWhorter worries that academic linguists have relied too long on scholarly arguments in making this point. He does review some of those arguments–for example, Black English’s systematicity, meaning it has a grammar of its own–but then turns to global language patterns. Many cultures and language groups speak both a formal and a casual language in different settings, e.g., Standard Arabic and the local colloquial form (Egyptian Arabic, Syrian, etc.). While he acknowledges that racism partly underlies a general resistance to Black English as a legitimate language, he quickly moves on to what he sees as the larger problem: a misunderstanding of the value of diglossia, or speaking two languages. Along the way, McWhorter cites the relationship between modern Black English and the lingo of minstrel shows, makes the case for a recognizably black way of speaking (or “blaccent”) and examines usages such as “baby mama,” “who dat?” and what he perceives as two versions of the N-word.

Linguistics fans will be enthralled by McWhorter’s fascinating and logically presented study of two forms of English spoken in the United States.


This review originally ran in the January 24, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 vowels.

The Evening Road by Laird Hunt

Two women from different sides of the tracks explore rural Indiana on a single night that is both allegory and starkly real.
evening-road

The Evening Road by Laird Hunt (Neverhome) meanders the backcountry roads of rural Indiana on a hot and troubled night, exploring human ugliness and the lives of two remarkable women.

Ottie Lee Henshaw is a red-haired beauty, eternally exasperated with her ill-kempt husband, Dale, and pursued by her randy boss, Bud. She finds it easier to let Bud do “a fair amount of arm action and heavy breathing and pawing of my hair” than to fight him off. With a sharp tongue, a good appetite and a mind of her own, Ottie Lee does all right, even if she doesn’t look very respectable to the town gossips. On this summer afternoon in 1920, Bud comes in excited by the prospect of driving to the neighboring town of Marvel to attend the “show”: a promised lynching. Ottie Lee sets off with Bud, Dale and others; with a shifting cast of companions, she’ll spend the rest of a long, sweltering night trying to get to Marvel.

Ottie Lee’s adventures take up the first half of this novel before her counterpart, Calla Destry, appears. Calla is a light-skinned woman from the black side of town who faces her hard, violent world with stark defiance: she is inclined to head straight into Marvel to break the lynching’s intended victims out of jail, while her family and community runs the other way, lest they become victims themselves. It soon becomes clear that Calla’s real aim is to find the man who has promised her a new beginning. But her wanderings parallel Ottie Lee’s, and the two soon become more closely involved than either realizes.

The halves of this story are told in the first-person perspectives of these two women, and both are strong vernacular voices that bring flavor and color to their narratives. Hunt turns a phrase nimbly: a dirty parlor “looked like it had been soaked in water then spread in mayonnaise and left to turn,” and a courting man notes, “You think that’s the wind in the maples, but it’s not the wind. It’s the universe twitching.” This folksy layer of romance and redolence characterizes Ottie Lee and Calla as much as anything else does; their memorable voices and the close, heady setting of these backwoods make The Evening Road darkly compelling. A dreaminess comes and goes as Calla hallucinates in the heat and a friend of Ottie Lee’s talks to angels. The crime at the center of their story is a reality, of course, but remains a pivot point rather than the focus: the point is not the destination, but rather the winding roads that these women take to get there, their decisions and the secrets they keep along the way.

The Evening Road is a sad and raucous story, ugly and beautiful at once, evocatively starring two very different women.


This review originally ran in the December 23, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 jars.

Teaser Tuesdays: Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About American’s Lingua Franca by John McWhorter

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

Linguistics, race, and what is weirdly unique about the United States: I was drawn to this book for its subjects. It’s just a slim little thing, too. Here’s a teaser for you:

talking-back

When humans move, or are moved, in large numbers and have to pick up a language quickly, typically their version of the language is more streamlined than the original one. This is worldwide linguistic reality, not special pleading for the speech of black people in the United States. We know this from Modern English itself, as well as, if anyone asks, from Mandarin Chinese compared to other Chineses like Cantonese, Persian compared to languages related to it, like Pashto and Kurdish, Indonesian, Swahili, and many, many others.

There is some ambiguity in those final clauses: are we to understand that Indonesian and Swahili are similar to Persian, too, or just the Pashto-and-Kurdish phrase? (I think the latter. Maybe some semicolons would help!) But the overall point is well taken. It’s been an interesting & informative read; I hope you’ll join me.


This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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