guest review: The Marrow of Tradition by Charles Chesnutt, from Pops

Here’s how I ‘found’ this book. Your July 2019 post about various short-reads included Charles Chesnutt’s essay “The Banquet,” which I appreciated. You also linked to Wiley Cash’s fine essay recommending Chesnutt’s novel, and interpreting it in light of current events – which convinced me to eventually find a used copy. Along with the novel’s 1993 introduction, Cash’s explication of the book, its era and its implications is an excellent addition to a full understanding.


The Marrow of Tradition by Charles Chesnutt was published in 1901; I read the 1993 edition with introduction by professor Eric Sundquist. The novel was reportedly well-researched by the established black author, using the Wilmington, NC Massacre of only 3 years earlier as foundation for its story about a fictional ‘Wellington.’ Chesnutt had relatives who survived the event, and interviewed their neighbors as well; further, his personal history tied him emotionally to the wider narrative. In the book, the event itself is limited to the last ~100 pages (of 340), although that finish is given force by the involvement of fictional characters developed throughout the book. This is a fascinating, accessible look at an important historical event, through the unusual lens of informed and incisive literature of the same time.

Chesnutt’s main interest is in describing how much the post-Reconstruction period is reverting to the form of its racist legacy: white control and oppression are still functional; social relations serve to keep the town’s minority-white (~1/3) elites well-ensconced; mixed-race generations are in the shadows but ever-present (reflecting Chesnutt’s own family history). Indeed, this is a heritage of social complexity that Ta-Nehisi Coates is addressing even today in his new fiction. Chesnutt’s purpose is to give readers of the time a sense of “the complex psychology of white supremacy and black resistance” [Sundquist], for a close look at the social tensions stewing in this small town where a few white conspirators use the specter of rape to intentionally create conditions for a coup, for mobs to overthrow the elected Republican (white and black) leaders, and murder many citizens in the process. Chesnutt himself sent copies of the book to politicians of the time.

The narrative form is dated yet engaging, suggesting a period gothic novel of the antebellum south, often preoccupied with big-house romances, rivalries and closeted skeletons. Black characters too often appear mere background for that narrative. The melodramatic ending involves several fictional characters, apparently unrelated to real events. In effect, for a modern reader, Chesnutt generously ‘humanizes’ the white villains to a surprising extent, depicting their anxieties and self-justifying motives. It is curious that an involved black author, especially with historical purpose, chose this form and delivers so well; but it was an established form and likely effective – I am in no place to judge. To be fair, his description of the social mechanics of oppression are in spells direct and unvarnished. Still, I felt the limited narrative about black characters was glaring, and often served to trivialize them.

The essential 1993 Introduction (a detailed 37 pages) by white academic Sundquist addresses the author’s life and work, the country-wide factual context of reaction to Reconstruction, the factual basis of the event itself, the book’s references to real people; and convincingly analyzes the literary result. He tags the book as “One of the most significant historical novels in American literature.”

Prominent for Sundquist is this thesis: “The gender politics of the Wilmington revolution were of utmost importance to a national ethos of segregation.” This is not ‘gender politics’ in our contemporary sense. Rather, for me he refers to the broad historical morass of racism, gender and sexuality: the southern white male ego threatened by both black men and encroaching potent black culture; confusion arising from both sexual attraction and sexual assault amongst all manner of racial pairings; rape as both a weapon to dominate a people, and contrived as excuse to torture, mutilate and murder its men; biracial children as legacy complicating both the perpetuation and the extinction of white supremacy, for all parties; maybe more. His sweeping analysis defeats my capacity to summarize. Some threads of all this arguably appear in Chesnutt’s novel (e.g. the character of Chesnutt’s fictional Olivia Carteret); Sundquist provides further evidence in historical fact. His explication is compelling.

I am so thankful for this thorough review of a complicated book!

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

between the worldFinal review of the year, and the book is a great one. Pops reviewed it first, and I knew it was one I needed, but it just took me a while to get to it. The reason I finally prioritized it now is because I suspected a student needed it – actually, that was Pops’s suggestion, too – and so I needed to read it first, to know, and to be able to recommend it to her. So I have that student to thank for my own education, which is often how it works.

Coates speaks painful truths about our society and the legacy of slavery and ongoing racism in this country. He speaks with specificity and detail of his upbringing in a Baltimore that was worlds away from what he saw on TV growing up, the world where “there were little white boys with complete collections of football cards, and their only want was a popular girlfriend and their only worry was poison oak.” I think of his narrative as accomplishing three things: a review of the evils of racism in this country since its founding and continuing today; a memoir of the experiences of one man, his coming-of-age and coming to realize the above, and of growing up in Baltimore; and a review of the writings and philosophies of Black American thinking and activism. Coates has an inquisitive mind from a young age. In this book, he actively investigates the nature of education, and who gets to define the value of a civilization. I loved the part where we learn that his mother used to have him, as a child, write essays about his own mistakes. This taught him to question, and that the question itself, not any purportive answer, is the point. This lesson has got to be the most important lesson anyone can offer a young person. This is the concept behind the classic liberal arts education, right: critical thinking?

Coates assigns his son the same essays in response to his own transgressions.

I gave [these assignments] to you not because I thought they would curb your havior–they certainly did not curb mine–but because these were the earliest acts of iterrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness. Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing–myself.

Oh, that I could teach one or two of my own students the same.

I have tried to write more about this book and what it accomplishes, both artistically/stylistically and in its content, but I keep observing that my dad did it better. (I especially like his work with what he calls metaphorical coding, and the Richard Wright poem that gives this book its title and a refrain.) His book review says everything I’d like to say about this book, and says it beautifully, so let me again try to send you back to it. Thanks, Pops.


Rating: 9 open, easy smiles.

guest review: The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, from Pops

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first novel is The Water Dancer, a victim of my high expectations I’m afraid; so this is an ambivalent, and very subjective, review. First, the challenges: an indirect narrative style that often confounds and obscures, with overworked symbolism and metaphor that just didn’t work for me. I appreciated the general sweep of the story and many key characters, and ultimately, the ‘message’ or ‘meaning’ I think it all carries. But ultimately the journey was not as satisfying as it may have been with a more comfortable form. Nevertheless, I match this with Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and films 12 Years a Slave and Harriet*, all providing healthy realistic images of slavery, and the human stories embedded in that history.

We follow first-person narrator Hiram Walker from a failing Virginia tobacco plantation (owned by his white father, who owns his slave mother), to a vibrant, diverse and urban Philadelphia before the Fugitive Slave Act, front-line base for the ‘Underground’; and then his return to the plantation. The story’s sweep is like the contrast of those places: from stifling oppression and decay, to liberating promise, and back again. That middle is also a high point in this work; it encompasses Coates’ version of important real characters and events at a time of social ferment wider than just abolition. Notably: William Still (a monumental historical figure whose book The Underground Railroad Records Coates credits in a brief Author Note); wonderful characterization of the vibrant city at a social moment in time that was creative and liberating; and Harriet Tubman, by that name a character in this story, including a slave-liberating foray into her native Maryland, based on fact. (It was uncanny and tremendously satisfying to see the wonderful film Harriet on opening weekend, just as her story was unfolding in my reading.) Sophie (focus of Hiram’s affection); episodic ally Corrine and her loyal aide Hawkins; the tragic Dr. Fields; and the whole White family in Philadephia – are all important and endearing supporting characters.

In his telling, Coates shows a sophisticated sense of history as he describes the workings of plantation economics, terribly destructive to human lives, rich naturally abundant soil and the values of a nation in the process of forming itself. The central idea that anchors Coates’ tale is one to embrace: nothing in this world is ‘pure’ – not simple, and not just one thing (except perhaps the evil institution of slavery, a touchstone never questioned by our protagonist and his cohort). It’s a lesson in dialectics, in nuance; life is messy and non-linear, throwing us unexpected curves, confusion and tragic irony. Individuals thought to be one thing, can surprise in their complexity. Bloodlines are all mixed up, connecting people in surprising ways, and not always predictive of their soul. Freedom is not a place one can entirely escape to; it is much more complicated than that. In all this, Coates offers useful space for observing both our history, and our human-centric world.

Given that I know Coates to be a thoughtful and helpful social observer, and a skilled writer, I suspect he wrote exactly the book he wanted to write. I also expect it will age well with me, and perhaps more perspective will emerge as Coates’ career matures.

Sounds like a careful and considered response, Pops, and thank you. This is why an unusual narrative structure is a risk. Metaphor can be overdone; and we all have different thresholds, of course. I appreciate you wondering how it will age with you, too, though.


*I want to acknowledge that the movie Harriet has seen some very mixed reactions. There have been some concerns (like about casting). There have also been some counterpoints; this source claims the white savior allegation is not factual. I thought Buzzfeed and Business Insider (of all places) did a decent job of trying to parse the controversies. (I haven’t seen the movie, so I’m just sampling a few other thinkers here.)

movie: The Pieces I Am (2019)

Transcendent, not that I’m surprised.

This documentary of the life of Toni Morrison was released shortly before her death, which has helped it make an even bigger splash, although it was doing fine anyway. My dear friend Liz told me I needed to see it, which pushed me further (I was already interested). I was so glad to get a chance to see it locally at a micro-theatre here in Buckhannon, West Virginia.

For starters, check out that image above. The collage of Toni’s face is built up in an opening sequence that shows many faces of Toni Morrison as she ages, and as a portrayal of the creative process I found it moving and thought-provoking. The rest of the movie followed suit. I loved that they mostly let Toni speak for herself. A “present” Toni sits against a blank backdrop and speaks directly into the camera throughout the film. She is dressed in black, white, and gray, highlighting her beautiful gray hair. She speaks with humor and wisdom, and as she talks, we see images and film clips from her life. Friends and contemporaries including celebrities (Angela Davis, Oprah Winfrey), other artists (Sonia Sanchez, Walter Mosley), and college professors (Farah Griffin, David Carrasco) also speak to the camera; a voiceover reads from a few articles, like nasty racist criticisms of Morrison’s early work. But mostly it is Toni’s own voice that tells of her life, from the melting-pot steel town on Lake Erie where she was raised (Lorain, Ohio) to Howard University to Cornell, to teaching, marriage and divorce, raising two boys, and her influential career as an editor at Random House… and of course writing 11 world-changing novels in 45 years, along with children’s books, short fiction, drama, nonfiction, and an introduction to The Oxford Mark Twain‘s edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that I’d love to see.

The impression of Toni Morrison that I take away from this film is an entirely take-no-shit, strong woman who we might describe as brave, but I think her own view would be that she was not so much a brave woman as just doing what needed to be done, and what was right, without thinking twice about it. Of course that is brave, but it seems to have just come so naturally to her.

It was nice to see her celebrated not only as an earth-shatteringly talented, singular artist, but also as an incisive, gifted editor, who dragged Angela Davis’s memoir out of her and put Muhammad Ali in his place during the editing of his. I enjoyed the story of her Nobel Prize and the delightful party she so enjoyed in Sweden. In short, I found a rich and rounder portrait here than I think I’d seen of Toni before now.

Although I knew it before, I feel again what a loss we suffered this year when she died, and I feel how lucky we are to have her work in the world. I’m so glad I saw this movie. Don’t miss it. There are lots of ways to watch at home, so you’ve no excuse.


Rating: 9 dolls.

movie: The Watermelon Woman (1997)

This 1997 film is an autobiographical mock-umentary in which filmmaker Cheryl Dunye stars as “Cheryl,” more or less herself: a young Black lesbian working in a video store with her buddy Tamara, and working as well on a film project which documents her research into the identity of a historic Black female actor known in credits only as “the Watermelon Woman.” This actor played the “mammy” or kitchen/maid/”help” roles that were most of the available work for Black women of her time, the 1930s. Cheryl learns that this woman luckily lived in Philadelphia, where Cheryl also lives; she finds people who knew her; the research goes fairly well. At the same time, Cheryl meets and begins a romance with Diana – who is white, which causes friction with Tamara. Two plotlines, then: finding the Watermelon Woman, and navigating romance and relationships across race lines.

On the one hand, as some testy reviewers have pointed out, the script can be a little stilted, and the acting falters; a few lines are fumbled, and I wish they’d reshot those scenes. The research plotline, in particular, is overly simplistic: two friends drive from Philly to New York to get into a special lesbian archive (acronym C.L.I.T.) and are in and out in five minutes! The research is too easy, too quick. But, it’s all in service of a message, right? The film is all-around dated – but it’s over 20 years old, so, fair enough. Those reviewers who criticized jumpy camerawork just missed the message, though: it’s presented as hand-shot by relative amateurs, you guys. Remember Blair Witch Project?

On the other hand, this project is sweet, heartfelt, and in pursuit of the kinds of social work I’m absolutely behind. It was funny, and earnest. I kind of loved it.

Just before closing credits, the screen reads: “Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction. Cheryl Dunye, 1996.” IMDB quotes her further: “The Watermelon Woman came from the real lack of any information about the lesbian and film history of African-American women. Since it wasn’t happening, I invented it.” In other words, the outlines of this story may well be true, but in the absence of even a sketchy “watermelon woman” to investigate, Dunye has allowed a fictional one to stand in for those lost to history. I dig this way of dealing with absence.

Poo-poo to the crabby critics. An imperfect but fine film.


Rating: 6 photographs.

Angry Queer Somali Boy: A Complicated Memoir by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali

An angry queer Somali boy navigates race, family and sexual discovery in a series of countries before writing this startling, incisive memoir of pain and resilience.

Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in the mid-1980s; he was stolen away from his home at age four by his father, a stranger to the young boy. With his stepmother and several new siblings, the young Ali lived for a time in the United Arab Emirates and in various cities in the Netherlands. When he was in high school, the disjointed family relocated again to Toronto, where Ali still lives, writing Angry Queer Somali Boy: A Complicated Memoir from a homeless shelter.

The traumas start early, with the national distresses of Somalia represented by Ali’s socialist grandparents and his mostly absent businessman father. “I saw him as a philistine, but he was in tune with the flow of history, unlike his parents.” Ali’s stepmother and stepsisters are violently abusive toward him and toward each other: the genital mutilation the girls endure happens off-screen but nevertheless forms a visceral, horrific scene in a chapter titled “Torn Desert Flowers.”

Ali suffers in the increasingly white countries he is moved to, as an immigrant, foreigner, African–“since the words for African and slave are interchangeable in Arabic, my schoolmates thought hurting me was their holy right.” Bullied at school, he must also deal with discovering his sexuality in an immigrant Muslim family disinclined to accept a gay son. Eventually, his coping mechanisms for these and other difficulties will include addictions to Valium and alcohol. Later, en route to an arranged marriage in Somalia that he will manage to avoid, Ali spends time in London, a place he finds “more alive” than Toronto and where museums are free.

His book is filled with suffering, but Ali avoids self-pity with his matter-of-fact reportorial style and the odd, acerbic interjection. His focus is global as well as personal, as he considers Somali history, colorism within nonwhite communities, the way one marginalized group can abuse another and observed trends in racism, homophobia and xenophobia. Among the pain are poetic, searing images, like the white teacher who hands out sugar cane to accompany a story about Barbados, “to taste the sweetness that had claimed so many black lives…. Armed with the taste of sugar cane, I made my way to the library.”

This is a memoir of raw agony and uncomfortable histories, told in a style alternately lyric and stark. Ali’s life experience has ranged widely, geographically and otherwise, and the stories he shares here are both particular and universal truths. Angry Queer Somali Boy is painful but recommended reading for anyone hoping to look directly at this world.


This review originally ran in the August 30, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 sticks.

Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke

This scintillating murder mystery, set in Trump-era East Texas, with a black main cast and racial concerns, is gripping, gorgeously written and relevant.

Heaven, My Home is Attica Locke’s fifth novel, and the second starring Texas Ranger Darren Mathews (Bluebird Bluebird). In the time between Trump’s election and his inauguration, Darren has been assigned to look into the case of a missing child. In northeast Texas’s Hopetown, on Caddo Lake, Darren’s mission is not exactly to find the child, but to extract a confession–truthful or not–from a member of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas (ABT) for the murder of another ABT member. Darren’s life is a mess: he’s only just patched things up with his wife, and his mother is low-key blackmailing him in regards to the same murder.

He’s conflicted in several ways. A nine-year-old boy is missing, and Darren should save him, but this is a nine-year-old racist-in-training, and that training is going well so far. Darren knows justice should be absolute and blind, but the ABT man he’s being asked to frame was acquitted of another murder–of a black man–that he certainly did commit. Among the recurring questions of this novel: How far should forgiveness stretch?

Heaven, My Home is a rich, complex puzzle, with layers of characters: Darren’s not-very-maternal mother, the two uncles who raised him (a law professor and a Ranger, respectively), his lawyer wife, the Rangers he associates with and those he doesn’t, his white FBI buddy who prosecutes a black man for a hate crime. And, of course, the ABT and ABT hangers-on squatting in Hopetown, historically a freedmen’s community and the last enclave of a small band of Caddo Indians. This sounds complicated, and it is, but Locke’s absorbing prose, in a third person very close to Darren, keeps the reader well abreast of all the crisscrossing loyalties and betrayals intrinsic to these East Texas woods. This is a world where white families still remember which black families “stole” themselves away. Spouses cheat; close relatives feud; Darren is a deeply good man, unsure of how to right all of history’s wrongs.

There is a warmth and intimacy to the portrayal of Darren’s many internal struggles. This is a protagonist to love and sympathize with, although he is far from perfect. Locke’s expression of very real and contemporary anxieties is nearly painfully spot-on. Her East Texas is redolent of fried hushpuppies and catfish. For Darren, “it was not his East Texas. It was zydeco where he wanted blues. It was boudin where he wanted hot links.” It is a richly expressed place, filled with racial tensions and a fear of Trump’s coming regime.

Both a fascinating, smartly plotted mystery and a pertinent picture of the contemporary United States, Heaven, My Home is refreshing, dour and thrilling all at once. Readers will be anxious for more of Ranger Darren Mathews.


This review originally ran in the September 24, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 fingers.
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