Following the end of WWII, the Atlanta Police Force reluctantly added eight African American police officers. Their beats were restricted to Darktown, the part of Atlanta without streetlights, and it almost goes without saying, without white people. Two recently hired war veterans, Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, stumble across an inebriated white man with a young black woman in his car. After they see her get punched and then escape from her driver they later find her body buried among trash in a vacant lot. Superficially, the novel is a 1940s murder mystery in the south, but the real story is the unflinching detail with which we observe Boggs and Smith endure Jim Crow. They are forbidden from arresting criminals, only white officers can, so they must subdue adversaries, run to a telephone, and call for a squad car whose white officers may or may not arrive. They may not question, nor even look into the eyes, of white officers, or for that matter, white men. They may not be seen alone with, nor speak to white women without fear of subsequent lynching. Boggs and Smith choose to uphold the law where they can while circumventing a white police force that alternately extorts, threatens, shoots, and convicts Atlanta’s blacks and despises its colored comrades. As with most elements of Jim Crow I don’t know whether I am more offended by the inhumane behavior of America’s white racists or the fact I was never taught anything about Jim Crow at any point in my education. The heat in this extremely well written mystery is as intense as a breezeless summer day in Atlanta. The audio version of this book is excellent.
March: Book Three by Andrew Aydin, John Lewis, and John Noel Claude Lewis **** (of 4)
This is the final installment of the biography of Congressman John Lewis’s youthful campaign for civil rights for America’s black population. Books One and Two cover the fight for desegregation in the later 1950s and early 1960s. Book Three details what it took to force President Johnson to introduce legislation allowing the federal government of the United States to override southern states that forbid blacks from voting. For years John Lewis led the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee through peaceful demonstrations to enable Americans with dark skin to register to vote like other Americans. Repeatedly, men and women approaching courthouses hoping to register were met with police beatings, enabled posses of armed white men, obstinate white judges, and murderous Klansmen. The story is a bloody one and sprinkled throughout are references to an event that was unimaginable in 1964: John Lewis, the Congressman, attending the inauguration of Barack Obama. And yet, today, gerrymandering of voting districts mean that Republicans (with negligible support or accountability to black voters) control the Presidency (who did not win the popular vote), both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, and a majority of governorships and statehouses. Everyone should read this book. And consider kneeling during the National Anthem.
The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty ** (of 4)
It is a great idea for research that is long overdue. Michael Twitty explores the role of enslaved Africans in shaping American foodways. Think about it. Africans captured in Africa and transported for sale to American owners brought with them foods and methods of cooking they knew from home. In America they were forced to work in the kitchens of slave owners and to keep themselves from starving to death too quickly — fieldwork for Africans was no different in duration or difficulty than it was for horses and mules — they grew small household gardens when they could. In short, their influence on what we know of today as southern cooking was deep and wide. Twitty is fascinating just by himself: black, gay, Jewish, historian, and foodie. Where the book falters, unfortunately, is the confusing intertwining of food history, Twitty’s autobiography, and his search for his genetic roots. By themselves, each story is a fine thread. Together, they are a hopelessly tangled series of knots and broken leads.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead **** (of 4)
Before Colson Whitehead ever gets to the story of Cora’s attempted escape from enslavement, he sets the stage in Africa. Cora’s grandmother and mother are captured beginning a saga of human beings herded, branded, chained, transported, discarded when insufficiently healthy, and sold like so many pieces of meat. Some are consumed, others are tossed overboard or left to rot. Whitehead’s descriptions of the relationship between white slave owners and the human beings they own is a delicately painted portrait of white men using all their faculties to subdue the humanity of their black workers with rape, torture, and psychological brutality. For this portion of the book alone, the real-life portrayal of slavery in the south, The Underground Railroad should be required reading of all Americans. Whitehead’s description of plantation work for slaves also makes the idea of escape almost logical. The alternatives are equally daunting: staying on the plantation means ceaseless labor, sexual assaults, tongue extractions for speaking up, castrations for being black and male and therefore a threat to white men’s sense of superiority, and beatings so severe that infections beneath missing skin are inevitable. Leaving for the underground railroad, in contrast, means fearing owners so desperate to regain their lost property that dogs trained to shred human tissue and professional slave catchers brandishing chains and iron collars will be sent even into free states to recapture lost goods. Cora’s lifelong sprint for freedom is harrowing, accurate, and the story of an underdog for whom you can’t help but root. Her plight is also an important reminder that in the age of Charlottesville the legacy of slavery has not yet been overcome.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi *** (of 5)
Gyasi uses her own experience as a Ghanaian American to create an original tale of history. We are asked to follow the descendants of one family member captured in northern Ghana, sold to the British, imprisoned in the Cape Coast Castle and shipped to the United States as enslaved chattel. The other continues residence in Ghana under the curse of the ancestors. While the raw brutality of enslavement is on full display, the remaining lives in Ghana are not to be envied. Over the centuries, Ghanaians capture neighbors and sell them, they fight off British overlords, barely, and are trapped by superstition and custom. Alas, Gyasi, a very young writer, has bitten off more than she can regurgitate in such a short novel. Trying to cover two continents and all the generations encumbered by nearly three centuries means the recounting of too many stories that feel just a bit familiar: an aborted ride on the underground railroad, a slave whose back is scarred beyond recognition by whippings, the Middle Passage is inhumanely sickening. The stories from Ghana are of course newer for us, but their brevity makes many of them too shallow to appreciate.
Negroland by Margo Jefferson *** (of 4)
Margo Jefferson is nearing the end of a successful career as an English professor and brings all of her skill as a cultural analyst and textual critic to bear on her life as an elite African American. What emerges, beyond a lot of references to literature I haven’t read, and cultural icons of the 1950s and 1960s that I barely recall, is the grinding, irrepressible tank tread of American racism. Jefferson is buffeted on one side by the burden of having to be forever superior to low blacks, black blacks. Always, because whites are watching and evaluating, and as her parents instructed her, she must be a model for her race. And yet no amount of education, intellect, acumen, or accomplishment can erase a skin color that immediately draws suppositions, most of them discounting, some of them denigrating, from white Americans. Despite claims to the contrary that her intentions were otherwise, Jefferson’s book is agonizingly tedious, monotonous in its inability to escape the premise that race pollutes everything in America. And I think that is the point.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis *** (of 4)
This first novel captures the bleak experience of Hattie, the black mother of a dozen kids, who has come north as part of The Great Migration. Escaping Jim Crow south to settle in Philadelphia and struggling to keep her head above a rising tide of poverty, poor relationships, wayward children, and a philandering husband, we read a series of loosely tied short stories about each of Hattie’s children. The painted pictures are rich with detail and character but poor Hattie is the bible’s Job. She is tested over and over and while she manages to maintain her pride, I was beaten down in the process.
March: Books 1 and 2 by John Lewis **** (of 4)
These graphical biographies cover the early years of John Lewis, now a congressman, but formerly a preacher and activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Book one revolves around the desperate attempts by African Americans to desegregate southern restaurants. It sounds simple enough: walk up to the counter and ask for a cup of coffee and perhaps a couple of slices of toast. In reality, nearly all southern commercial establishments from the Civil War through the 1960s were designated off-limits to people of color. The act of entering, sitting, and ordering was illegal and could be met with beatings and incarceration (and though it is not covered in the book, terrorism, see The Warmth of Other Suns). To chose a nonviolent response while whites screamed, hit, kicked, and spit on you was an act of remarkable bravery. Book two describes the 1961 Freedom Rides by blacks protesting segregation on interstate buses and bus terminals. Protesters were met with firebombs, the KKK, and police beatings. The cartooning and simple language make the books accessible to readers of all ages, who, if they are paying attention, will recognize that current protests over #black lives matter have deep roots and that the work of generating equality has not yet been achieved in America.
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride *** (of 4)
Of course I’ve heard of John Brown, the abolitionist, who tried to start an insurrection and free the slaves by himself. But, truth is, that is about all I knew of him until reading this fictionalized account of his life. The beautifully rendered narrator, who I suspect is the one truly fictional character in the book, is a young black boy nicknamed “The Onion.” Onion is freed from slavery by Brown in the 1850s and lives with John Brown’s army of abolitionist minded children, freed slaves, Indians, Jews, and spotty hangers-on. Only thing is John Brown mistakes Onion for a girl and thus Onion lives disguised as a girl for several years. It is not as strange as you think because survival for blacks under the dehumanizing burden of slavery required any possible ruse to avoid being worked to death (or worse) like a flea-infested mule. Onion portrays John Brown as a religious zealot of such ferocity as to be frighteningly fanatical. Yet, at the same time Brown was the one person in America to move beyond rhetoric regarding the savages of slavery to the very actions necessary required to undo the evil practice. While Brown’s attempts to overtake Osawatomie, Kansas and Harper’s Ferry, Virginia were folly, the Northern States were very soon to follow his example.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward *** (of 4)
A fighting pit bull in southern Louisiana gives birth to puppies. A black family is squeaking by: Daddy drinks too much; Skeetah only cares about China, the pit bull; Randall is desperate for a basketball scholarship; Junior just wants to play; Momma died right after Junior was born; and Esch is fifteen-years-old and pregnant. It is hurricane season in the south and while several storms that have preoccupied Daddy have petered out or veered off course, he remains focused on the next one, Katrina. Jesmyn Ward has put to paper voices of the overlooked in America. Think of them as Faulkner’s dark-skinned brethren. The plot builds like a hurricane: slow, swampy, and an occasional puff of air suggesting more ominous events to come, which is to say, it takes some work to keep reading. When the storm strikes, however, it comes with a viciousness and accuracy that is devastating and captivating. Winner of the National Book Award.