Luster by Raven Leilani

Race, sex, shifting social rules, art, inspiration and digestive troubles plague the compelling protagonist of this debut novel.

Raven Leilani’s first novel, Luster, is a rocket-paced, sensual fever dream of sex, trauma, relationships and conflicting perceptions.

Edie is in her 20s and struggling, with her crappy shared Bushwick apartment, her low-level position in children’s publishing, her uninspired sexual choices and her irritable bowel syndrome. Her parents are dead, but the psychic wounds they inflicted are not. Her painting is not going well, and she is a Black woman in New York City. “Racism is often so mundane it leaves your head spinning, the hand of the ordinary in your slow, psychic death so sly and absurd you begin to distrust your own eyes.” Early on, her affair with Eric seems different, refreshing, in spite of, or because of, the 23-year age gap. Then Edie gets fired and evicted, and she spirals, landing, weirdly, in the middle of someone else’s marriage. She knew from the start that Eric was in an open marriage–his wife set a lot of rules for his relationship with Edie. But suddenly she finds herself taken in, literally, by Rebecca, living in their guest room in New Jersey, asked to mentor this white couple’s adopted Black daughter, Akila. Surreality seems to be Edie’s default, but now the funhouse mirror tilts again.

Edie’s first-person narration is nearly stream-of-consciousness, long sentences overflowing with imaginative visual impressions and self-deprecation: “as the car is pulling away he is standing there on the porch in a floral silk robe that is clearly his wife’s, looking like he has not so much had an orgasm as experienced an arduous exorcism, and a cat is sitting at his feet, utterly bemused by the white clapboard and verdant lawn, which makes me hate this cat as the city rises around me in a bouquet of dust, industrial soot, and overripe squash, insisting upon its own enormity like some big-dick postmodernist fiction and still beautiful despite its knowledge of itself, even as the last merciless days of July leave large swaths of the city wilted and blank.” Edie’s particular blend of despair, panic and self-destruction is spellbinding. As she hesitatingly helps Akila with her hair and accompanies Rebecca to work (conducting autopsies at the VA) and to a midnight mosh pit, Edie begins to paint again. She is inspired by the minutiae of this family home: lightbulb, dinner plate, Rebecca’s body.

Luster is intoxicating and surprising, never letting readers settle into recognizable patterns. Leilani has crafted an unforgettable novel about a young woman making her own way.


This review originally ran in the July 20, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 Captain Planet mugs.

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.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Recommended by Liz to help break my reading slump. I picked up Pachinko as an e-book from my local library, and saw the descriptors ‘multigenerational epic,’ among others, go by as I opened it. Now, normally ‘multigenerational’ and ‘epic’ are both turnoffs for me, but I trust Liz entirely. And it’s a great book – maybe I should consider more multigenerational epics.

The cultural backdrop was fascinating to me, and almost entirely new. Pachinko is set in Korea and Japan, following a family of Koreans who become Korean Japanese, across most of the twentieth century. The cultural implications – the perceptions of Koreans in Japan – were a big part of the appeal, and the point, of this novel. I learned a lot. And as far as that (potential) ‘multigenerational epic’ problem, any hesitations I might have felt were well taken care of by Min Jin Lee’s excellent handling of a large cast of characters over time. I didn’t have any trouble keeping track of them, because each was well-developed and clearly delineated. I lived so thoroughly with these people that I still feel myself a little bit with them, even now it’s been a few days since I finished reading.

The first line of the book reads: “History has failed us, but no matter.” In 1910, in a little Korean fishing village, an old fisherman and his wife have a single son, Hoonie. Given his cleft palate and club foot, he considers himself lucky to marry at all. With his wife Yangjin he has a single surviving daughter, Sunja. She becomes pregnant as a young woman by an older, wealthy, married man. Therefore she also considers herself lucky to marry Izak, a young minister who considers it a charitable act to give her child legitimacy. Izak and Sunja go to live in Osaka, in Japan, with Izak’s brother and sister-in-law. Sunja’s first son is Noa; her second, with Izak, is Mozasu.

Sunja is surprised to find how poorly Koreans are treated in Japan. Back home her family was poor; here they are poor and abused. Circumstances are harder still during World War II, until Sunja’s first lover Hansu – Noa’s biological father – resurfaces to help the family. It turns out he’s been helping behind the scenes all along, which is not equally appreciated by all. When Noa learns the truth, he cuts all ties, and establishes a new life for himself in another city, where he represents himself as full Japanese. Both brothers wind up working in pachinko parlors, in different parts of the country and in different contexts.

Sunja and her dearly loved sister-in-law support the household, now including elderly Yangjin as well. Mozasu’s wife dies young. They have one son, Solomo, who attends college in New York, then returns to Japan with his Korean-American girlfriend. But even in 1989, Korean Japanese occupy a special sort of cultural no-man’s-land, unable to return to a national home that no longer exists (Korea in its pre-war form), and not accepted in Japan despite having been there, in many cases, for four and five generations.

The book’s central themes include cultural dislocation and (the myth of) racial difference; home, identity, and belonging; gender (there is a refrain that “a woman’s lot is to suffer”), class, and the stereotypes about pachinko (a totally legal, highly profitable and enormously powerful industry, but with continuing perceptions of criminality). It is a gorgeously rendered novel, rich with details and with food (which I love), and with wonderfully wrought characters: complex, complete, sympathetic but flawed. I loved the, yes, epic sense of time and scope, everything that Hoonie’s generation and Solomon’s do and do not have in common. I noted that when Sunja got pregnant out of wedlock, her mother did not shame her; she seemed sorry that her daughter would have a hard road to walk, but she never called her any names. Yoseb and Kyunghee take her in and ignore the elephant in the room. It is only when Hansu returns to their lives that there is a sense of shame. “A woman’s lot is to suffer”: if she has a baby out of wedlock, certainly; if her brother-in-law won’t let her work for a living; if her son finds out she’d been pregnant out of wedlock; because she must work long and hard from childhood until old age ends her life; because she must bow to the wishes of the men in her life. But also, a Korean’s lot in Japan is to suffer; and they will remain “Korean” even when it’s been several generations since anyone in the family saw Korean soil. That sense of cultural homelessness touched me deeply.

My ebook came with an interview with the author. Lee indicates that it was indeed the cultural situation of Korean Japanese that she wanted to explore with this novel. “Although the history of kings and rulers is unequivocally fascinating, I think that we are also hungry for the narrative history of ordinary people, who lack connections and material resources,” Lee says, and I couldn’t agree more: the narrative history of ordinary people is endlessly appealing to me, and beautifully accomplished here.

This is an absorbing novel of a world quite far from the one I know, but with people I easily recognized and related to. I could spend more time lost in Lee’s remarkable writing and characters. Definitely recommended.


Rating: 8 cups of kimchi.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (audio)

Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped is lovely, painful, and important. It opens with three epigraphs, and the first, by Harriet Tubman, provides Ward’s title.

We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.

This memoir focuses on the deaths of five young men, close friends and relatives of the author, including her brother. One suicide, one murder, two car wrecks, and one death by drugs. Roger, Demond, C.J., Ronald, Joshua. Ward profiles each, tracks a life and a death and the consequences for those who loved him. In shining her light on these five individuals, she also examines race and racism, gender, poverty, and the historical patterns that contribute to deaths like these. Most centrally, racism. (See footnote re: caste.)

Ward introduces her topic and the five young men, briefly, then handles them one by one in reverse death order, from Ronald back to her brother Joshua. In between, sections titled “We Are Born,” “We Are Wounded, “We Are Watching,” etc., track the experiences of Ward and her family, growing up the eldest of her mother’s four children, in chronological order. In this way, two threads of her story meet when the backwards-moving and forwards-moving chronologies intersect with Joshua’s death, hit by a drunk driver in a hit-and-run for which the driver – a white man – would receive a sentence of just five years.

Men We Reaped is a personal memoir of Ward’s own life, as well as a profile of five individuals and their social and family circles. It is also an examination and social critique of race, gender, and class, within the United States and within the historic Deep South. Ward was raised in and around DeLisle, Mississippi, near Gulfport-Biloxi. It’s a particular place, of the old Confederacy, divided by race even as its inhabitants recognize that this is a false division; poverty-stricken, it provides few opportunities for its young people, especially young black men. Ward offers her reader the history of this place as well as of her own family, hearkening to the town’s former name: “I want to impart something of its wild roots, its early savagery. Calling it Wolf Town hints at the wildness at the heart of it.” That this range of subjects is so neatly woven into Ward’s intriguing narrative structure – those forward- and backward-moving chronologies that meet in the middle – results in an extraordinary piece of literary work. Ward’s points about social structures and prejudice are intelligently made, her personal stories are deeply moving, and her craft is admirable. Her writing is lovely and expressive. I am deeply impressed.

This audio narration by Cherise Boothe felt right to me; I appreciated the pacing and weight and pronunciations of place names. (There are so many ways to say “New Orleans.”) As I’ve struggled to write this review – often more difficult the more I appreciate a book – I’ve missed having access to a text copy for reference, but the experience of the audiobook was excellent, so that format is recommended but having the print copy alongside would be ideal.

Everyone should read this book.


Rating: 8 holes in the ground.

I listened to this book while reading Isabel Wilkerson’s forthcoming Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, also a stellar and deeply important book. As Wilkerson illustrates, these forces are the work of caste and casteism. I chose to stay with the term of racism for this review, as it’s the one Ward uses and I think it’s an accurate term, but please see also Wilkerson’s arguments.

reread: The Stand by Stephen King

My copy of The Stand runs 1,153 pages, and I have a lot to stay. Sorry for the long review.


I loved this book before, and all over again, although not without qualifications. It took me nearly two weeks to read these ~1,200 pages, but only because I was reading other books at the same time (and teaching three classes) – it was really a handful of nights reading 300+ pages at a go. I loved this book all over again.

The very obvious impetus was the current pandemic, and my curiosity about how well The Stand tells a story that we are now (in some ways) living. The answer is, pretty well, actually. In the real world we don’t have a supernatural evil force in the form of a shapeshifting man with a cadre of more and less intelligent evil-minded followers; but there is plenty of metaphorical material there for those so inclined. I’ll leave that work to each of you. The superflu aka Captain Trip’s infection itself is different from Covid most importantly in the speed and rate of transmission, the death rate, and the speed with which it does its deadly work. It is infectious massively more of the time, and nearly always deadly. Covid is wildly infectious and pretty deadly by real-world standards; Captain Trip’s takes this to a logical extreme, which is often what fiction does, but the parallel is striking and instructive. That it is also wildly fast-acting is an interesting point. In some ways, the slowness with which Covid makes itself known (meaning, we can be infected for days or weeks before we get sick – and we can be infected and not get sick, therefore acting as invisible vectors)… has helped its spread, because we humans have a hard time taking seriously something that we can’t immediately see happening. Captain Trip’s, on the other hand, looks more like this: guy coughs near you; 20 minutes later, you are coughing. You might both be dead in a day or two. This is much easier for people to grasp as a concept; they feel fear and wish to take precautions much more, and much sooner, than we have with Covid. The flip side is that it’s much harder to fight against (especially because if you cough, you die). At least to this lay reader, this difference between reality and fiction feels like a simple difference between two types of virus. To my (again, layperson’s) knowledge, a virus could act as quickly at this one does; we just didn’t happen to get one of those. There would be pros and cons.

Captain Trip’s was also manufactured in a lab as a form of biological warfare which then accidentally escaped. This is not the case with Covid.

Because of the massive death rate of Captain Trip’s, the post-pandemic world looks very different than the one we will be living in the real world. Roughly, let’s flip the numbers of living and dead: the United States in The Stand is populated by some tens of thousands of people. That means their challenges in rebuilding, and in thinking about designing a new world, are very different from the ones we’ll face. Well, I’m trying to write a book review and not entirely a social commentary; but let me say briefly, I think the Covid crisis is highlighting the inequities and injustices we’ve always lived under, and we have a rather special opportunity to do something to fix our systems, with this new (to many of us) vision we’ve been granted. The survivors in this novel, on the other hand, have been left with the “toys” (Glen Bateman’s term) of a previous world, but limited knowledge of how to use them, and the power (etc.) has been turned off. Ideally, they’ll choose what to pick back up (book learnin’, heat in the winter, animal husbandry) and what to leave lying (nuclear weapons). But Glen Bateman is not terribly optimistic. (I must confess, neither am I.)

On to the book review proper. This remains a thoroughly compelling, expertly paced, engrossing story. Characters are delightfully wrought, various and complicated. The sympathy drawn out of us for the Harold Lauders of the world is disturbing as hell; he’s a villain but he’s very human. (The Walkin’ Dude is just evil, and not human.) While there are “types” in Glen Bateman, Larry Underwood, and Stu Redman, they’re convincing human beings at the same time that they’re types. Let’s face it, there are types in the real world, too; that’s where they come from. The momentum with which this plot moves could perhaps not be better executed; Stephen King is a master, and as I said above, I can easily take in 300+ pages in a single sitting (and stay up until 3am, I’m sorry to say), because it’s just all so juicy and absorbing.

That said, I did have a few concerns on this reread that I didn’t have just three years ago. Partly I suspect this is because in reading a print copy, I was able to pay closer attention to certain details. The audio experience I had in 2017 was entertaining, and I certainly followed the story and many of its finer points, but I do feel like I can watch a story more closely when I read it. I can speed up and slow down at my own pace, reread a line if necessary. And I think seeing a word printed imprints it on my mind more thoroughly than a word heard. I don’t know if that’s because I have a certain kind of brain or if it’s relatively universal.

On the other hand, I also think I’ve become more attuned to certain issues and injustices in the world in the last few years. So, on this go-round I noticed a problem in particular with race and ethnicity. King’s characters are almost all white, which doesn’t seem statistically plausible in this country, although I’ll allow that in 1978 (when this novel was originally published) the country probably looked a lot whiter than it looks now – it probably was a little whiter, but it also would have looked a lot whiter, in terms of where society (and therefore Stephen King) directed its gaze. And the few characters of color? Well, we have the “magical Negro” trope, which Stephen King gravitates toward in many of his works. (There’s a decent write-up of the concept in King’s work available here thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.) “Although from a certain perspective the character may seem to be showing blacks in a positive light, the character is still ultimately subordinate to whites. He or she is also regarded as an exception” (source). Mother Abigail is delightful, and she does get her own backstory, but her function in terms of plot seems to fit squarely into “magical Negro” territory. It could be said she also serves as a token. Headline: Black woman character as hero! There are very few other non-white characters, and they’re all problematic: the abominable Rat Man, the heroin addict in the “second epidemic” section, the “black junta” early in the pandemic (they wear loincloths. This is disgusting, SK). But the ending really got me, and take note, writers of all stripes: the end of your book is the taste that is left in your reader’s mouth. At the end of The Stand we get the evil force sometimes known as Randall Flagg reawakening in an unknown place where he is surrounded by brown-skinned men with spears who don’t speak English but worship him. Not cool.

King’s women are sort of up-and-down with me; I rather love Frannie Goldsmith, the pregnant college student who is part scatter-brained and part moral compass, but I’m also getting weary of the pert young thing who lusts after the middle-aged man. And Tom Cullen, the mentally challenged man with occasional rare wisdom who is able to tune into a higher frequency than his peers-of-normal-intelligence – well, he feels a little like the mentally challenged version of the “magical Negro.”

These concerns dismayed me on my second reading, and while I want to be clear that I really enjoyed rereading this book and still find it to be a masterpiece, it is a flawed masterpiece. And I wonder what King would see fit to correct, if he were to edit this novel for a reprint in 2020. He’s still problematic now, as we know, but I think we should ask of our heroes (literary and otherwise) not that they be perfect, but that they be always learning, progressing, and always willing to learn. I’m certainly still learning: for example, it took a second reading for me to track some of the concerning elements of this book.

I still recommend The Stand. In some aspects it nears perfection. In others, cause for concern and fodder for discussion.

I am letting my original rating stand (ha), because I have new observations in both the positive and the negative columns.


Rating: 8 chocolate Payday bars.

movie: The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

Again thanks to my mother’s urging, I watched this introspective film online the other night. It was odd, slow-moving in that way that art films often are, but visually beautiful, thoughtful and poignant.

Jimmie Fails is a little bit obsessed with the family home – that is, the house that his family lost some years ago. He and his buddy Mont hang around and work on the house when they can get away with it – the white lady who lives in it now is apt to throw croissants when she catches Jimmie touching up the paint on the trim. Jimmie lives with Mont and his blind grandfather as sort of a charity case, in an outlying part of the city. A group of young men hang out on the sidewalk outside Mont’s house, talking shit as the pair comes and goes. There’s less action to this movie than there are scenes, even montages. Mont works at a fishmonger’s; we see him killing and wrapping catfish. Jimmie works at an old folks’ home. They wait on the bus. Jimmie rides a skateboard. The men on the sidewalk talk their shit. And Jimmie worries over the house.

Jimmie’s grandfather built this house – “the stairs, these windows, the columns, the archways, the witch hat, the balustrades, the fish scales, this balcony… all of it by Jimmie Fails the First with his own two hands.”

the house in question (click to enlarge)

And Jimmie’s determined to have it back. Accompanied by the eccentric (but who isn’t?), loyal Mont, he’ll get back there.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco showcases footage of the city and one completely extraordinary house (with a built-in organ in the front hallway, a hidden room behind a bookshelf, and all the flourishes), and takes time and attention with faces and personalities. Again, just visually, it’s a striking series of studies. See the white men in full haz-mat suits cleaning up sidewalks where Black children play among street preachers and those sidewalk loiterers, who form a Greek chorus of sorts… Jimmie and Mont spend as much time standing, sitting, riding, and musing as they spend in action, but their actions are momentous. Jimmie is driven, single-minded. Mont is an artist, a writer, and an unusual soul. When Jimmie asks why he’s lovingly drawing the sidewalk guys, who are basically bullies: “I shouldn’t get to appreciate them… ’cause they’re mean to me?”

Obviously, this movie is a commentary on race relations and on gentrification, the plague on San Francisco in particular but on many or all of the cities in this country. It’s about class and exploitation and how we value history, and family relationships. It’s also about friendship: the friendship between Jimmie and Mont is something really special.

I was fascinated to learn the backstory on this movie. Jimmie is played by the real Jimmie Fails, whose life story closely matches his character’s. (The house is not his family’s house, though.) Director Joe Talbot is his longtime best friend; together the two decided to tell this true story in fictionalized film form, and it’s genius. It also means that actor/character Jimmie has bared his soul in a pretty big way. Mont is played by Yale-trained Jonathan Majors, and I’ve seen indication in two different places that he both is and is not based on a real-life friend of Jimmie’s. Whatever the case, he’s an indispensable part of this story, as Jimmie’s foil, and partner both in musings and in action. His artistic inclinations move the plot along and allow for important commentary.

I’d say the only criticism to be made here is pacing, and that’s a qualified criticism; it’s just got that art-film thing where there’s plenty of space and time for ideas to expand, which is not for every viewer. But this movie is beautiful, thought-provoking, important, wise, and funny. I do recommend. Bonus points for SF lovers, of course; and for those of us with strong commitments to place, check out Jimmie’s line: “you don’t get to hate [the city] unless you love it.” Indeed.


Rating: 8 brush strokes.

Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete by William C. Rhoden

I had my composition students read this excellent article by Jemele Hill at The Atlantic, as we discussed issues in higher education and the rhetorical tools that make for good argument. I felt the memorable book title mentioned, Forty Million Dollar Slaves, rang a bell. I was motivated enough to go looking for a copy; I ended up getting it through interlibrary loan (ILL) at the college library, which fit neatly into our library instruction period – I got to show the students how to make the request, and I brought it to class when it arrived, so we could see how far it had traveled (just down the highway from Morgantown’s West Virginia University) and how long I’d get to keep it (sixteen weeks!). After all that, I was interested enough to read it, too.

William C. Rhoden’s deliberately provocative title comes from a racist comment made by a white fan at a Lakers game, and refers to the problematic relationship between Black labor and white profits. There’s a paradox at work here: the highest-paid Black athletes in professional sports pull truly unimaginable sums of money, but they still lack power over their own circumstances in some vital ways, and the owners, coaches, and powers-that-be in sports are still overwhelming white. It might seem counterintuitive to call someone a ‘slave’ who makes tens of millions, but Rhoden has some strong arguments to make about power dynamics. His book is partly a history of Black American athletes since the beginning of commercial sports in this country, and even before that. It is also partly a call to action: Black athletes have contributed for too long to the enrichment of white authority figures.

Because I’ve been trying to teach my students the strategies of argument this semester, I thought of this book in those terms. Rhoden has a strong thesis; we know from the outset his position on the question of Black athletes in the contemporary American sports scene. He offers substantial and substantive evidence, throughout history and in examining several perspectives (athletes, agents, parents, coaches, owners). Some of my students balk at arguments that voice a strong opinion; they have gotten it into their heads somewhere that ‘neutrality’ is desirable, but I argue that neutrality is first of all dishonest, and secondly, how will you ever convince anyone of anything if you are afraid to take a stand? Yes, Rhoden’s stance is clear from the start. And it’s worth noting that, as his audience in this instance, I was prepared to follow him: I was predisposed in his favor. But I think I can still say that his evidence, and the means and organization of his audience, were well-designed.

I learned a lot of history from this book. Major Taylor I knew, of course, but I did not know Isaac Murphy (horse jockey), Moses Fleetwood Walker (baseball), or Jack Johnson (boxer from Galveston). I knew Jackie Robinson, but not Curt Flood or Rube Foster. Althea Gibson and Wilma Rudolf were vaguely familiar at best. A number of individual stories, these and many more, I found fascinating, so involving that I was in danger of heading down a rabbithole until Rhoden brought me back to the larger picture. Also, I learned in this book that the alley-oop originated not in basketball but in football!

Chapters are named for the dilemmas he identifies as running through history: the dilemma of illusion, the dilemma of physical bondage, of exclusion, of inclusion without power, of neutrality, of the double burden (being both Black and female), etc. He coins the term “Jockey Syndrome,” for what happens when those in power change the rules in order “to maintain control in the face of a perceived challenge to white supremacy.” As the term suggests, this began with horse racing. When I read about this concept, I immediately thought about the unspoken ‘rule’ and general resistance against the jump shot, early in basketball history, and the NBA’s official rule against the slam dunk in the 60s and 70s. (Tell me that wasn’t racist.) He comments meaningfully on the “Conveyor Belt” that carries young Black talent from lower-income or at-risk areas through college and into professional sports, all the while impressing upon them that they should feel grateful for the opportunity, and meanwhile capitalizing on their skills. He decries Michael Jordan’s neutrality on social and political issues – race issues – as a lost opportunity. “Black athletes like Jordan have abdicated their responsibility to the community with an apathy that borders on treason.” He criticizes Bob Johnson, founder of BET (later owner of the Charlotte Bobcats), for using race and Black culture to make his billions but failing to deliver much in return.

At the center of the problem he identifies is the relationship of Black Americans to the larger American culture and socioeconomic systems in which they live. It’s vital that he takes this longer-term historical perspective, beginning with slavery and following through Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and whatever we’re going to call this present ugliness we’re living. Had the first Black owner of a major sports team come a generation earlier, Rhoden argues, the community would have celebrated; it would have meant the beginning of substantive change in power structures. But the success of integration, he writes, has led to the disintegration of Black communities and a certain sense of solidarity. What we have in place of a more segregated but more self-sufficient Black community is the Bob Johnson model. For example, the integration of Southern minor-league baseball meant the dissolution of the Negro Leagues. “A pattern was set: A black institution was dead, while a white institution grew richer and stronger. This was the end result of integration.” Johnson’s mentality, “of using backness as a way to get a piece of the pie without necessarily feeling any reciprocal responsibility to sustain black institutions… was the natural outcome of a half-finished mission.” That half-finished mission was integration, perfectly represented by highly-paid but powerless professional athletes. In other words, Rhoden’s argument about Black athletes is about something much larger than sports.

Rhoden has been a sports journalist since I was born, credited with elegantly handling the intersection of race, sports, and social history. This book was proposed in 1996 and published in 2006, and feels a bit dated already, in some of its details; but the essence of the problems he identifies has absolutely not changed. It’s an important argument; these are important conversations to have. Recommended.


Rating: 8 dollars.

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.

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.
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