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Black History Month, day 16

At the time of its rediscovery in 1981, Our Nig was the earliest known novel written and published by a black woman in the United States. I learned about it at a lecture by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., that I attended with my parents not long after that–I think it took place at my high school auditorium. Gates was a young scholar at Yale at that time, and told the audience about how he had come across it in an antiquarian bookstore and, based upon the title, put it on his “Racist Literature” shelf. It wasn’t until later that he opened it and began reading, and realized that the narrator was a black woman whose agenda was fervently opposed to slavery. So was the author, research revealed: Harriet E. Adams Wilson.

At the time that Gates did his research, he wondered why the book didn’t receive more attention at the time of its publication. It was published by a Boston firm in 1859; Boston was the center of a great deal of abolitionist activity; it was known to be by a free black woman (though she remained anonymous at that time). Yet judging from its reception, it was barely known to her contemporaries. How could that be?

Eric Gardner, doing further research ten years after Gates republished the book, proposed an answer that I’m afraid is probably correct: the abolitionists did know all about Wilson’s novel, and did very little to publicize it because it indicted Northern abolitionists.

Many abolitionists may not even have recognized Our Nig as having an anti-slavery message simply because the story takes place in the North, where most abolitionists were not prepared to recognize “slavery’s shadows.”

Furthermore, he writes, it is “far from flattering to Northerners or abolitionists.” He makes the case that Our Nig is the opposite of most slave narratives, and other sympathetic works, of the time, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in that the North is not “portrayed as a magical land where the protagonist will eventually realize the promise of freedom.”

My parents owned the book (they must have bought it after the lecture) and I am pretty sure I read it at that time, but I don’t remember the plot at all. It sounds extremely relevant to our own troubled times, when many white liberals will go so far for racial justice and no farther. Another one for the reading list!

 

Black History Month, day 15

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, traces the history of two branches of a family, from the Asante woman Maame through her two daughters, who are unknown to each other, and their descendants in West Africa (mostly Ghana) and the United States. The telling moves forward in time, alternating between the two lines of descent. We the readers are given what the characters themselves can’t access: a view into the characters’ history. As one of them says, “My grandmother used to say we were born of a great fire. I wish I knew what she meant by that.” We know, because the book begins with the fire. But few of us know much about our ancestors’ lives more than a few generations back, if that.

It is a stunningly beautiful book, making it un-put-downable despite the painful subject matter (war, slavery, convict labor, rape, drug addiction . . . ). It manages to be epic in scope despite being only about 300 pages long. Each portrait is so vivid that I wanted to read an entire novel about just that character. Then the story would move on to the next generation, each person’s story both anchored in history and drifting on its own.

How do we go home, if we know so little of our own heritage? For my part, after reading Homegoing, I feel homesick for villages whose names I don’t even know, where ancestors whose names I might be misspelling lived and dreamed and died. Maybe all we can do is learn the history of those regions, those peoples, and imagine the specific stories, as Gyasi does for people with roots in West Africa and everywhere.

Black History Month day 13

First, the apology. Several years ago, when Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for Brown Girl Dreaming, Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) made a comment that undermined her achievement in a racist way. He apologized (whether adequately from Woodson’s point of view, I don’t know), but I haven’t done so myself, and I need to. I resisted understanding the problem, resisted hearing the voice of my better self, and thus amplified the harm. I won’t go into the details of my response at the time, because I think White People Publicly Repeating Insults They’ve Inflicted Upon Non-White People is part of the problem, but I’ll be happy to go into it privately to anyone who wishes to know more. I just want to apologize: to Ms. Woodson, though she will most likely never know or care anything about my struggles to awake to white supremacy, but more importantly, to friends who patiently tried to get me to see what now seems obvious. Thank you.

I gave my daughter Woodson’s book Harbor Me for Christmas, and of the big pile of books she got that day, it was the first one she read. She recommended it highly and I read it last month. Now I want to read everything Jacqueline Woodson has written. (I didn’t get my daughter Brown Girl Dreaming because I thought it was the one she was most likely to have read already, but she says she hasn’t, and plans to soon.) It’s about a small group of students who become close through sharing their struggles with each other: grief, racism, deportation. Each unsafe in their own way, they seek harbor with one another, as Sweet Honey in the Rock sings:

Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?
Would you harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew,
A heretic, convict, or spy?
Would you harbor a runaway woman or child,
A poet, a prophet, a king? . . . (lyrics by Ysaye M. Barnwell)

The book deals with so many issues, but it soars above the young adult “issues” book genre because the characterizations are so  real and the writing so poetic. Stories unfold the way they do in real life, bit by bit and reluctantly. Some loose ends remain loose. I want to learn so much more about the characters, but we probably never will; we were given a glimpse into a few months in their lives and we will just have to wonder what has become of each of them. And try to make their real-life counterparts’ stories end well, by harboring whomever we encounter who needs it.

Black History Month, day 3

I learn as much about history through fiction as through non-fiction–probably more. That’s not because it’s historical fiction (it seldom is) but because fiction is such a powerful way into other people’s minds and experiences. Several years ago I made a personal reading list to remedy the lack of African-American writers (and history) in both my formal and informal education, mostly fiction. If you’re like me and love sci-fi/fantasy, you won’t be surprised to learn that one of the books from this genre, The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, had a particular impact on my understanding of history.

Whitehead is a kind of literary surrealist. He takes historical facts, like the Underground Railroad, and adds some dreamlike twist, like the actual subterranean rail line in The Underground Railroad. Or in John Henry Days, he draws a connection between the legendary John Henry and a modern-day self-imposed endurance contest, his character J. Sutter’s junket-a-thon: how many literary junkets can one freelance journalist string together? And Zone One is quite straightforwardly true to life if you accept that zombies are taking over New York City. Maybe most sci-fi is essentially surrealist, which explains one reason I like it (I’m a fan of surrealism in visual art as well).

The Intuitionist has a comically bizarre premise: that elevator inspectors are a powerful political and politicized force. Accept the premise, and the book becomes a heartbreakingly realistic (and sometimes hearteningly hopeful) portrait of African-Americans’ options for their own identity and dignity within a culture where whiteness is held to be superior. I knew as soon as I read it that I would want to pick it up again in a couple of years–that it would have changed me in the meantime and that I’d want to check in on those changes and learn something new from the second reading. It’s about time to do that.

As I’ve done before, I’m challenging myself to blog about African-American* history, thought, and culture every day this month.

Today’s post arises from my having just finished the audiobook of Letters to a Young Artist, by the actor, playwright, professor, and author, Anna Deavere Smith. She reads it herself, naturally, and I’m glad I heard it in her voice, though I am going to buy a paper copy as well. It’s a book I’ll want to reread, thumb through, underline bits of, pull off the shelf frequently, and give copies of to friends.

She’s writing to a painter, and many of her examples come from acting and writing, but the advice–no, the wisdom–goes far beyond any particular art form. In fact, what the artist M. C. Richards once said kept running through my head as I listened to Smith’s direct, engaging, humble yet confident words: All the arts are apprenticeships; the true art is our life. It’s life wisdom she’s imparting here, as valuable for minister-me as artist-me, and most of all for human-me.

Not having a print version before me, I can’t properly remember the things I wanted to underline and share. (I couldn’t even place electronic bookmarks, because I was driving.) But if you’re looking for a hopeful, urgent response to the crisi/es that we 21st century people face, try listening to the voice of Anna Deavere Smith.

*or African, or African diaspora

My mind usually goes blank the moment Joy asks, “So what do you want for Hanukah / Christmas / your birthday?” Then reminders keep popping up when all the present-shopping has been done. Just now, an article someone posted on Facebook reminded me that I have been wanting a book about how to diagram sentences. This way of teaching grammar is recalled by a few people fondly, and by most as an archaic torture device, like an oubliette, but for me it is only an artifact of times long past. It didn’t even appear in unused chapters of our grammar books, as far as I can recall; I encountered it in whichever of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books she passes her teacher’s exam (Little Town on the Prairie, I think).

Being visually inclined, I thought it looked kind of cool. I don’t know if I would really have learned grammar any more easily with such a concrete, spatial analogue of parts of speech, but I would almost certainly have found it interesting. My daughter (also a visual thinker) agrees it would be fun to see how it’s done.

So I told Joy just now that I want a book on how to diagram sentences. She advised me to go look for one myself, as she wouldn’t know where to start. So I hied over to AbeBooks, used books being preferable to new in most cases, and the very first item that popped up in my search was by a woman I know. Well, I knew her when I was a little girl; she and her then-husband were longtime friends of my parents. Both couples have since split up and I haven’t seen her in years, but she is a novelist, and her daughter, whose wedding I officiated, and I are friends on Facebook. (The daughter is not the person who posted the aforementioned article.) Her book is actually a history of sentence diagramming as well, and I think it sounds fascinating.

So, Kitty Burns Florey, I have ordered a copy of your book, Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences, and I can’t wait to read it.

 

 

 

I kept a list of everything I read during my sabbatical two years ago. It’s been on this blog as a separate page, and as part of some blog housekeeping, I’m converting it to a post.

 

Books read during study leave & sabbatical, 2016

Anil’s Ghost, Michael Ondaatje fiction (f)

Promoting Diversity and Social Justice: Educating People from Privileged Groups, Joan Goodman nonfiction (nf)

Christ for Unitarian Universalists, Scotty McLennan nf

Armada, Ernest Cline f

El Cuaderno de Maya, Isabel Allende f

Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York, Adam Gopnik nf

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot nf

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates nf

Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago (the Xenogenesis Trilogy), Octavia Butler f

The Thief Lord, Cornelia Funke f

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Jack Thorne f (play)

Walk Two Moons, Sharon Creech f

Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell nf

John Henry Days, Colson Whitehead f

My Grandfather’s Blessings, Rachel Naomi Remen nf

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr f

The Amateur Marriage, Anne Tyler f

The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton f

The Great Train Robbery, Michael Crichton f

An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro f

The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd f

 My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante f

Inkspell, Cornelia Funke f

Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell nf

Take the Cannoli, Sarah Vowell nf

Persuasion, Jane Austen f

Malafrena, Ursula K. Le Guin f

The Wanderer, Sharon Creech f

Lock In, John Scalzi f

Orsinian Tales, Ursula K. Le Guin f

Unlocking the Air, Ursula K. Le Guin f

Family Sabbatical, Carol Ryrie Brink f

The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, Alexander McCall Smith f

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie f

 

 

plus numerous mysteries just for fun

and Emily Dickinson poems when I remembered.

I’d be hard pressed to name a favorite of the eight or so books by Philip Roth that I’ve read, but I wouldn’t hesitate at all to name the one that comes to mind most often: The Plot Against America. It affected me strongly when I first read it, and now it seems terrifyingly, but usefully, prescient.

Roth takes a few facts as his foundation and spins an all-too-possible alternative history from them. Those facts: Charles Lindbergh, son of a Minnesota Congressman, and a national hero for his solo transatlantic flight, ardently opposed a United States entry into the Second World War. He was a member of the anti-interventionist America First organization; unlike the organization, he was also anti-Semitic and a lifelong advocate of “racial purity.” His sense that Russia was a greater threat than Germany was not so much about fearing Communism more than fascism, but about his preferring the Nordic to the “semi-Asiatic”; he hoped that the U.S. and Germany would unite to oppose the “semi-Asiatic” Russia. He did support U.S. entry into the war after Pearl Harbor, as did many America-Firsters (the organization disbanded immediately after the attack), and fought bravely in the Pacific. But by then, he had set himself up as an opponent of the three forces he saw as agitating for war: the British, the Roosevelt Administration, and the Jews. He and Henry Ford were longtime friends, drawn together in part by their anti-Jewish paranoia. Lindbergh was also a candidate for the Republican nomination in the 1936 presidential election. The only scrap of this paragraph that I learned in school was that he was the first person to fly solo and nonstop across the Atlantic.

The Plot Against America proposes that Lindbergh wins the 1940 Republican nomination and goes on to defeat FDR. With the anti-interventionist in office, the U.S. stays out of the war; those who do want to fight the Nazis must flee to Canada and join the despised (by President Lindbergh) British forces. With a vocal anti-Semite as President, Henry Ford’s racial theories are given free rein and U.S. Jews have an increasingly uncertain and frightened existence, like immigrants and Muslims in 2018. Roth fills the novel with specific detail by focusing on the experiences of one family–“his” family–in Newark, New Jersey.

It’s a portrait of a nation gradually sinking beneath an internal sea of fascism. Last week, the president suggested that people who peacefully protest racial injustice should maybe just not be in our country; his administration pursued a policy of asking teachers to report students without documents and another of removing children from any undocumented adults; it was revealed that 20% of the children thus removed are either unaccounted for, or so terrified of the government that is supposed to be their guardian that they have gone into hiding; and the administration has repeatedly accused the investigators of foreign interference in a presidential election of employing “spies.”

In the middle of it, Philip Roth died, and for all his fear of death, was probably glad to shake the dust of Trump’s United States off his feet. But before he went, he weighed in on the nation’s tumble toward the dystopia he had so vividly envisioned. The parallels between Lindbergh and Trump were considerable, he said, but with this difference:

Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to Fascism, but he was also . . . an authentic American hero . . . [a] courageous young pilot . . . . Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac. (New York Times, January 16, 2018)

Lindbergh’s fictional rise to power is more probable than that of a multiply-bankrupt self-promoter who only regained wealth and a household name by parodying himself on a game show about business, and you’d think that it would be easier to both see through Trump and get him out of office. But so far, that sea is still threatening to take the whole country under. If you’re looking for insight into how it happens and what we can do about it, in the marvelous prose of the writer who came up with that phrase “the evil sum of his deficiencies,” or you’re just looking for an excellent novel for your summer reading, check out The Plot Against America.

It’s been a while since I wrote one of my appreciations of Ursula K. Le Guin, though I keep reading new and old works of hers. During my sabbatical last year I read Malafrena and Unlocking the Air for the first time and enjoyed both. This week I pulled one off the shelf that I have read once before–only once, several years ago, and I won’t wait that long again before my next reading, because there’s a lot to discover in Changing Planes (Ace Books, 2003). It’s a volume of short stories, in a sense, though what draws my attention in each is less plot or character, and more what, if this were non-fiction, might be called ethnography. The narrator is writing as a tourist, though a reflective one, of fifteen societies. They are sketches: brief anthropological visits to some of the rooms of Le Guin’s imagination. It’s as if she decided to just play at world-creation for awhile, and it’s something she does with so much creativity, humor, and generosity of spirit that I feel possibilities expand.

I would like to comprehend the language of the Nna Mmoy, whom no visitor has yet understood and whose texts “are not linear, either horizontally or vertically, but radial, budding out in all directions like tree branches or growing crystals, from a first or central word which, once the text is complete, may well be neither the center nor the beginning of the statement. Literary texts carry this polydirectional complexity to such an extreme that they resemble mazes, roses, artichokes, sunflowers, fractal patterns.” (166)

I would not like to visit the Veksi, who are perpetually angry: fighting, sulking, quarreling. But as unpleasant as they are, after this peek into their community I wonder whether their anger is not mostly a response to the perpetual losses and griefs of life. Maybe that’s where our anger comes from too.

On Gy, about one in a thousand adolescents develops wings, in a painful process that changes all of their bones as well as adding these two limbs. As a result, life on the ground becomes difficult for them, with their delicate bones and ungainly appendages; however, many winged Gyr choose not to fly, because catastrophic wing failure is a constant and unpreventable risk. Le Guin draws no analogy, but I draw my own. Maybe wings are like extraordinary talents; flyers are the equivalent of certain artists, writers, scientists, mystics, choreographers–visionaries of all kinds, who take risks in order to experience the inimitable intensity of “one’s whole body, one’s whole self, up in the whole sky. . . . It takes everything to fly. Everything you are, everything you have” (210). Do I live like that? Do I want to? And is it as risky as the Gyrs’ flights, fatal one time in twenty?

I’m both drawn to the migratory life of the Ansarac and sobered by the homesickness that must accompany it. Each of their years is about as long as 25 of ours, and they seldom live much longer than three of their years, never as long as four. So the annual migration north in spring, to where they live in families, in rural villages, and there dance their courtship dances, is made by each of them no more than three times. Come fall–which is a good dozen years later, in our terms–they migrate to an urban life in the south. Couples separate, children go off to school and away from parents, not to be reunited until the following spring, after another one-sixth of their lives has passed. What happens when they are offered a new development that would allow them to travel as often as they wish between the two places is vintage Le Guin. She is never naive, but resists the simplistic stories both of technology as ruin and technology as salvation. She’s interested in how and why people choose the changes they do–and so she imagines for us a more discerning, deliberate approach to “progress” than we have generally imagined for ourselves or our society.

This book doesn’t get the attention it merits. It’s a beauty. And it’s yet another reason that, when my daughter asked me this week who my favorite writers are, Ursula Le Guin was the first name from my lips.

I usually have about three books going at once: one in the car, one or two on the nightstand, one in Spanish for my weekly class. Right now, though, it’s out of control. I am currently actively, if slowly, reading:

  1. H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald, begun during my study leave last week that focused on two topics: death/grief and African American history/fiction.
  2. Ida: A Sword Among Lions, Paula Giddings, ditto. I only dipped into the first chapter, knowing that I needed to clear the pile before I got into a thick biography, but still. I started it, so now it’s on the currently-reading pile too.
  3. March, Geraldine Brooks.
  4. The Cure for Sorrow: a Book of Blessings for Times of Grief, Jan Richardson. Usually if I’m reading a collection of prayers or poems, I dip into it here and there, but with this one, I’m reading it straight through. Beautiful.
  5. The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henríquez. In the car. Beautifully read by several different people, and I’m loving the book, but I’m impatient. It’s time to return the audiobook and take out the print edition, which I’ll be able to finish myself in a day or two. But with all these other books on the pile, when will that day come?
  6. Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman, via Audible on my smartphone. I usually listen to podcasts while exercising, but right now it’s all Thor and Loki and Neil, all the time.
  7. Soy La Hija de Mi Padre, Maria Elena Salinas and Liz Balmaseda. For Spanish class.
  8. The Bible and the People, Lori Anne Ferrell. On the one hand, I’m interested in anything about religion. On the other hand, I’m not particularly interested in the history of the Bible. On the other hand, my mother gave me this after learning that the author was a seminary professor of mine (a great one). On the other hand, I have all these other books to read. On the other hand, this one is really being quite fascinating. All these hands add up to: I will leave it on the nightstand and keep nibbling, finishing it eventually.

Emily Dickinson’s complete poems are also always on the pile, but I won’t even count those. I read one when I remember (I fell off the one-a-day train ages ago), in order, and will keep doing so, but other books come and go while this multi-year project continues to spike my days with shafts of light.

No more new books! I must finish some, or my attention, which is happiest when split among a few different activities, will end up in such small shards that they’re good for nothing.

Do you read more than one book at a time? Which ones are you reading right now?

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