Category: African-American

‘We Were Eight Years in Power’ is a vital addition to nation’s racial conversation

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 1)

8 years in powerIn Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book of essays We Were Eight Years in Power (One World), he recalls that he felt at odds with himself when penning the first one for The Atlantic in 2007.

Barack Obama was running for president but, as a black man, was hardly thought then to be a full-on contender. Coates’ feeling of being adrift was shared with young black men and women across the country. They were “lost in a Bermuda triangle of the mind or stranded in the doldrums of America.”

Obama’s election changed that, he writes. But it also changed the nation’s dialogue on race, one that continues with an urgency underscored by the headlines of the day.

The book is composed of the eight essays he wrote for The Atlantic during each of the eight years of the nation’s first black presidency, along with current commentary. But it is Reconstruction in the South that the title of the book refers to, quoting W.E.B. DuBois, that: “If there was one thing… (whites) feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government.”

With the rise of Donald Trump after a period of “good Negro government,” it can be argued we are witnessing from Washington and much of the country that frame of mind today. It’s manifested in displays by sports figures taking a knee in solidarity against police brutality against blacks, racial profiling, social inequality, disparities in education and opportunity, fueled by a president who finds no qualm in siding with Nazi protesters while calling those who demonstrate against it “sons of bitches.”

Before Obama, the idea of a black president lived as “a kind of cosmic joke,” Coates writes. “White folks, whatever their talk of freedom and liberty, would not allow a black president.” Witness, Emmett Till’s audacity to look at a white woman, the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “turned the other cheek, and they blew it off.”

Lincoln was killed for emancipation, Freedom Riders were beaten for advocating for voting rights, Medgar Evers was shot down in his driveway “like a dog.”

“That a country that once took whiteness as the foundation for citizenship would elect a black president,” Coates writes, “is a victory. But to view this victory as racism’s defeat is to forget the precise terms on which it was secured.”

It encapsulates a paradox: America couldn’t elect “a black man,” but it could elect a qualified man who was black–as long as he didn’t evince blackness.

Coates’ outstanding previous book, Between the World and Me, was as much a plea for understanding race consciousness as a denouncement of racism in America.

The question it raised in 2015: Is this plea heard? By whom? And are the intractable problems of race solvable by a society founded on centuries of racial and economic inequality?

In Power, the pleas are gone. Instead, with its contextualizing commentary, it’s a questioning odyssey throughout the Obama years and now of the fact of racial polarization and misunderstanding that colors all attempts at recognizing progress or reversal. It’s an indictment of a nation where even black citizens who hold conservative, mainstream values are turned away from the party that espouses them because of its open appeals to people who hate them.

Power is an exploration in many ways to explain how a society based on Enlightenment values could ignore its essential white supremacy, that the foundational crimes of this crimes of this country are to somehow be considered mostly irrelevant to its existence, as well as those excluded and pillaged in order to bring those values into practice.

Through troubling to read, the aggregate is a journey of wonder, even when topics are troubling, for the deep mental explorations they offer, often without road map or easy conclusions.

Power is an exemplary, perhaps even vital, addition to the national dialogue on race in America.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

Read, Lead, and Succeed: ‘The Talented Ribkins’ by Ladee Hubbard

talented ribkinsThe Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard is an amazing book to read, and yet the meaning can be evasive until the main character, Johnny Ribkins, can be fully understood. Johnny is a 72 year-old member of an extraordinary African-American family: the Ribkins, descendants of the Rib King™ (“said to have invented the best barbecue sauce recipe in the entire southeast”).  Each member has an extraordinary talent, or power, whose value can be initially dubious, and, in isolation, maybe useless. Johnny can make maps of places he has never been nor seen, his brother Franklin can climb anything (even flat walls), his cousin Bertrand can spit fire, and his niece Eloise can catch anything that is thrown at her.

Initially, during the Civil Rights movement, Johnny organized his family (and some similarly-gifted friends) to form the Justice Committee, dedicated to helping Civil Rights heroes through their Freedom of Movement Movement, allowing them to move safely about the country. But when the Justice Committee falls apart due to interpersonal conflict, money issues, and Johnny’s escalating paranoia and flights of fancy, Johnny feels lost. Later, after he discovers the existence of his half-brother Franklin, and his wall-climbing capability, he turns to a life of crime as thieves-for-hire.

His partnership with Franklin eventually sours, too, leaving him freelancing his maps for slick gangster Melvin Meeks, from whom Johnny has been embezzling money for years. Now, Johnny has one week to pay off his $100,000 debt to Meeks. His plan is to raid his squirrel-holes from his past all up and down Florida, having burying money like a paranoid pirate, in places that are almost designed to bring back memories. It should be a relatively easy job, what with the amount of money he has stashed away. But he keeps running into people who need a hand-up, and ends up paying for two mortgages. Also, he finds the nature of his mission radically altered: his discovers, for the first time, his deceased brother Franklin’s 13 year-old daughter, Eloise (of catching ability). Soon, he finds her escorting her all over Florida, introducing her to her people, the talented Ribkins, and what it means to live life when you’re just a little bit…different.

The name of this novel and its themes are inspired by W.E.B. DuBois’s concept of the Talented Tenth. Basically, DuBois argued that a well-educated aristocracy of African-Americans would, if educated and equipped, rise up and lead the race of their race into prosperity and success. While this idea might sound elitist, context is critical. He was countering Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta compromise“: that the races could be separate as the fingers, but work together as one hand economically. While Washington accomplished much and was interested in black advancement, his ideas appealed to pragmatic white supremacists, who wanted to keep black people not only humble but subservient. DuBois’s arguments were for black dignity, and full personhood, although not every black person would benefit initially.

The Ribkins are literally talented, standing in (in many ways) for the Talented Tenth. Eloise is talented and smart, but young and the product of a single-parent home. Can the examples of the elder Ribkins be emulated? Should they be? Do all the Ribkins(and Flash and the Hammer, the friends from the Justice Committee) use their talents the same way, and for the same purpose? This is important background information for a novel that is neither parable nor allegory, but definitely infused with important ideas.

But this isn’t a book with just ideas, it is filled with artistry and craft. The setting and history is immersive, and the characters are unique and memorable. Johnny himself is a cipher whose nature seems to shift through the paradigm of whatever old acquaintance he is interacting with. He is an interesting foil for Eloise, who is in the youthful process of discovering herself and her potential. The journey they make is an odd odyssey, filled with hosts with their own complicated motivations. Personally, one of my very parts is the “pie scene,” filled with some of the most delicious dramatic tension I have ever read.

Ultimately, though, you can’t fully appreciate the book until you finish it, when the story comes back home to Leigh Acres, when you find out what Johnny really is (and, for that matter, the true nature of Eloise is capable of). It is then that you see the way forward, and you will understand what DuBois says later when looking back at his Talented Tenth idea:

My own panacea of earlier days was flight of class from mass through the development of a TalentedTenth; but the power of this aristocracy of talent was to lie in its knowledge and character and not in its wealth.

Ladee Hubbard will serve as a panelist on the “First Fiction: The Discovery of the Debut” discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, August 19 at 4 p.m. at the State Capitol in Room 113.

ms book fest

Humanity and history in ‘Homegoing’ by Yaa Gyasi

To be totally honest with you, historical fiction was not really on my radar this time last year when I started working at Lemuria. However, some of the best books I’ve read over the past year—A Free State by Tom Piazza and Free Men by Katy Simpson Smith—have totally turned my attitude around on the genre. And then came Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, a book I’d call a masterpiece.

JacketHomegoing tells the story of two family lines descended from the same woman, Maame: Effia is her daughter born when she was slave in a Fante household; Esi is her daughter by the union with her Asante husband. Effia ends up as the wife of a white English slave trader, whereas Esi ends up herself as a slave, shipped across the Atlantic. The novel follows the descendents of both Effia and Esi each for seven generations, through war and slavery and discrimination.

What’s really fascinating, I think, is that although the characters face experiences emblematic of whole peoples, they never seem less than real people. My heart breaks for Kojo, a shipbuilder in Baltimore who spends almost all his life free, with a large, happy family, yet is isolated in his family lineage on both ends through slavery, not really ever knowing his mother Ness or son H. Or Akua, whose abuse at the hands of a missionary drives her to destructive insanity, only to end as one of the wisest, strongest, and oldest characters in the entire book. Almost every character retains his or her individuality or humanity.

And yet history matters so much. Characters have the free will to make their own choices and shape their own characters, but they are often denied the chance to make a difference in their descendants due to the historical narrative. Personal morality only makes so much of an impact, and often characters have to reach back two generations for strength.

This makes the American line of descendants, starting with Esi, so particularly heart-wrenching. The psychic pain of detachment from home and family can be the most affecting of all the traumas. Although the novel is definitely a book about what it is to be human, it is both distinctly African and African-American, thematically probing how those things are forever connected and disconnected.

There are some words I remember from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me that kept echoing in my head as I read this book. He’s exhorting his son, Samori, not to confuse his ancestors in slavery with links in a chain. Coates says: “I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past….You must struggle to remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity….The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history.” The novel ends on a somewhat hopeful note that the the title perhaps promises, but there are several chapters in the book where, if ended there, could be construed as hopeful. History does not work in a straight line, trending neither strictly upward nor downward. One of the most powerful lessons of Homegoing is not the promise of hope, but the study of humanity, with beauty still present all the same.

‘We Love You, Charlie Freeman’ by Kaitlyn Greenidge

We Love You, Charlie FreemanJacket by Kaitlyn Greenidge starts with an atmosphere of foreboding. I was already worried when I read the set-up on the back cover of the book: a black family, the Freemans, is hired by the Toneybee-Leroy Institute for Great Ape Research to teach sign language to a chimpanzee named Charlie and raise him as their own.

I don’t think you have to know very much about the history of American race relations to be concerned about that problematic request, but Laurel, the mother of the Freemans and an outrageous optimist, views it as a challenge. Laurel, as the only child of the only black family in the Maine wilderness, learns sign language when words fail to encapsulate the isolation that she experiences.

The story is told from multiple points of view, but two perspectives dominate and are granted a first-person voice: Charlotte, the older daughter of the Freemans, and Nymphadora, a spinster schoolteacher and member of a black secret society in the 1920s whose story reveals the nefarious origins of the Institute. There is also one chilling letter from Julia Toneybee-Leroy, the founder of the Institute and progenitor of all this nonsense, saturated with a callous disregard for the humanity of countless (black) people in pursuit of her single-minded goal of getting a chimpanzee to talk.

One of the most infuriating aspects of this story is how stealthily the ingrained racism of society warps the circumstances of both the Freemans and Nymphadora before them. Is the blackness of the Freemans coincidental or essential to the experiment at hand? It’s a lid that Lyle, Laurel’s brother-in-law, tries to remove at Thanksgiving dinner before things go disastrously wrong in slapstick fashion. Mounting historical evidence suggests that its coincidence is impossible within the intentions of the Institute.

Infuriating as this may be, what is discomfiting is how this insidious racism traps Laurel and Nymphadora in their own decisions that lead them…if not into ruin, at least into the worsening of their own situations (and, for Laurel, those of her family). Laurel seemingly puts the needs of Charlie, a non-human, above the needs of her own family to be respected by others and even her daughter Callie’s ability to integrate into human society at all. She might see Charlie as vulnerable and her family as strong, but neither part is exactly true or worth the gamble she places on its certainty. Nymphadora, already isolated from the black community of neighboring Spring City through the actions of her parents, allows herself a seduction, of sorts, by the Dr. Gardener, who sees her as a “specimen.”

Concerning this book and Julia Toneybee and even Laurel’s perspective on Charlie and chimp-kind, I’ve thought a lot about something I saw Chuck Klosterman write about Project Nim, a documentary about another chimp-raised-as-human experiment. These experiments, he says, “illustrate that same backward, irrational obsession Americans have with lower primates: We always want to immediately imagine these nonhumans are pretty much like us…. We start from that position and become [disenchanted] when it proves false. And that’s completely unlike the way we think about exotic strangers, even though exotic strangers are pretty much like us.

I was also concerned about recommending this book, which for all its readability, deep characterization, and fascinating ideas to reflect on, can be kind of a bummer. I mean, “fun” is not the be-all, end-all goal of reading a book, but it does make the initial sales pitch a lot easier. But in Greenidge’s excellent introductory essay, “Harmony and Discord,” for Charlie Freeman in the Spring 2016 Algonquin Reader (which is a sampler from the publisher of this book), she explains why a story like this, about the challenge of being black in America that lies somewhere on the continuum between “uplifting” and “atrocity,” is so necessary. The nature of that experience is valid, ubiquitous even, and underreported. Failed by the limits of language like her character Laurel, Greenidge keeps pushing language past its limitations until the story is told.

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