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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.

Water Tossing Boulders: How a Family of Chinese Immigrants Led the First Fight to Desegregate Schools in the Jim Crow South by Adrienne Berard

Chinese immigrants to Mississippi challenged school segregation a generation before the famous Brown v. Board of Education case.

water tossing boulders

Thirty years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision made school segregation unconstitutional, a case originated in small-town Mississippi to challenge the same injustices. Journalist Adrienne Berard’s Water Tossing Boulders reveals the little-known experience of the Mississippi Delta Chinese population, including the Lum family, whose two daughters were sent home from the local white school they attended in Rosedale, Miss. The resulting case, Gong Lum v. Rice (1924), made it as far as the United States Supreme Court, but failed.

Berard has done rigorous research, as detailed in her author’s note, and offers a storytelling style with momentum. She expertly evokes her characters. Jeu Gong Lum and his wife, Katherine Wong, were Chinese immigrants who met and married in the Delta; their daughters had divergent personalities, Berda rebellious and Martha an ardent scholar. Their lawyer, Earl Brewer, spent his career fighting for social reforms. Ultimately an anti-lynching campaign would take his attention away from the Lums’ case, perhaps ruinously. Other legal players are profiled, including Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis and Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who penned the Court’s unanimous decision in favor of segregation. This is the story of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the tortured arguments of eugenics, racism and segregation as much as it is the story of a family who simply wanted a decent education for their children. Told with precision, sympathy and context, Water Tossing Boulders is a brief but incisive history of great significance.


This review originally ran in the October 28, 2016 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: 7 children.

The Black Panthers: Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution by Bryan Shih and Yohuru Williams

Photos, essays and interviews with rank-and-file Black Panthers “complicate the Panther story in a good way.”

black panthers

With The Black Panthers: Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution, photojournalist Bryan Shih and historian Yohuru Williams seek to tell a nuanced story of the Black Panther Party, one different from the popular conception of gun-wielding “thugs,” chiefly male, in black leather jackets and Afros with the leadership–Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver–centered in Oakland, Calif.

In pursuit of the rank-and-file perspective, Shih photographs and interviews Panthers or former Panthers, male and female, whose narratives express pride, humility, trauma, frustration and hope. Accompanied by essays solicited from scholars, this collection tells a more complex and sympathetic story. While not uncritical, the authors do champion an interpretation that emphasizes love and service over violence, featuring, for example, party programs like Breakfast for Schoolchildren (in more cities than just Oakland), free busing and ambulance services, free health care clinics and more. Shih’s photographs are striking and expressive, capturing the “humanizing details” he sought.

The Black Panthers is not the complete story: for instance, the “deep misogyny and sexism within the rank and file and leadership” is mentioned but not really addressed. Perhaps there is no complete story–as proven here, the party was made up of diverse members, with varied goals and motivations. Shih and Williams’s objective to expose this multiplicity, and inspire a second look at an energetic but ill-fated cause, is achieved with this intelligent, unapologetic book.


This review originally ran in the September 16, 2016 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: 8 humanizing details.
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