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Misremembering Dr. King

Posted on 18 May 2014 (0)

Jennifer J. Yanco’s Misremembering Dr. King – Revisiting the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is out from Indiana University Press. Don’t be scared off by her academic publisher: Yanco writes in clear, non-jargon language how “we” (she includes herself) so easily forget Dr. King’s core beliefs. It’s easy for us, she says, to remember Dr. King’s non-violent civil disobedience, which justice movements have used ever since. But it’s harder to remember […]

Read This Memoir on Understanding Whiteness

Posted on 28 February 2014 (55)

If you’ve been enlightened by Tim Wise’s White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, or intrigued by my white privilege-related essays, do read Debby Irving’s memoir, Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, just out in 2014. The book’s cover is of a happy little girl at dinner, surrounded by silver, crystal, and gauzy curtains. The word WHITE stretches across the width of the book’s cover; the subtitle makes clear that although race isn’t real, biologically, the stories we tell ourselves about “race” result in powerful and damaging realities. Irving looks back at incidents in her life from age five on, as a way to understand her own race and class privileges, of which she was unaware until well into her 40s. When she did learn about race and class privilege, she didn’t do so entirely on her own. Throughout her memoir, she acknowledges the range of people she learned from, and profiles each in the mentor section of her website, She’s frank about her stereotyped thoughts; even as an adult she catches herself feeling mistrustful of her new chiropractor when she sees that he is a person of color. She examines her racial and class privilege in every area of her life but also learns that, since “nearly all of my thoughts are born of the culture in which racism is embedded,” it makes no sense to wallow in guilt. Irving manages to be witty about her own shortcomings, including missteps in speaking up against another’s racism: “I got all puffy and angry like I thought an anti-racist activist should.” As for class privilege, she learns most from her husband Bruce: his “talking to the nuns” story is particularly both funny and apt. She’s a great story teller, writing as if she’s talking directly to you. Her metaphors are as illuminating as Peggy McIntosh’s image of an invisible backpack full of unearned privileges, which white people carry wherever they go. Irving compares her years-long avoidance of authentic interaction with people of color to the electrical fencing systems people use to “zap” their dogs to train them to stay in the yard. “For decades the racially charged Zap sent me scampering back to my comfort zone. Rather than examining the source of the social tension I felt around people of color, I retreated to my social comfort zone – other white people.” I couldn’t put her book down because her stories made me think about similar incidents in my life. She ends each chapter with questions, in effect, asking the reader: “I’ve showed you mine, now you show me yours.”

Why Read Slave Narratives?

Posted on 01 October 2013 (329)

I bring an array of books to the People Challenging Racism class I co-lead, offering to loan them during the semester. These books include memoirs by formerly enslaved men and women. But that none of the students – young, old, white or of color – asks to borrow any of these personal accounts of bondage.

I understand their reluctance: I wouldn’t have either, until recently. Yes, I’d read about slavery. But I’d never considered going to the source: the wide range of slave narratives available both in books and online.

My avoidance dates back decades, to the Roots mini-series. I couldn’t watch more than the initial show, so appalled was I by the graphic scenes of whippings, and by a horrific punishment I could never have imagined: metal grills clamped over slaves’ faces that allowed them to neither talk nor eat.

I had also turned away from accounts of the Holocaust. In both cases, I feared that they’d be solely about bondsmen and bondswomen stripped of dignity, agency, and humanity.

My change of heart and mind started with a plaque I noticed in front of a house in my neighborhood in Cambridge (MA). Installed as part of my city’s new African American Heritage Trail, it marked the home of Harriett Jacobs, who, more than 150 years ago, self-published under the pseudonym Linda Brent, a memoir of her enslavement, escape, and life as an emancipated woman.

As a fellow writer, I was intrigued. So I put my qualms aside, and read Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, and then a dozen other books penned by men and women who had endured bondage.

I found that yes, they describe the horror of forced labor, rape, hunger, thirst, 16-hour workdays, illiteracy, and brutality. But they’re also a testament to endurance and resistance.

Jacobs wrote about being sexually harassed by her owner, a common oppression that was rarely acknowledged. It caused her to flee, hiding in the nearby home of her emancipated grandmother. For seven years, she stayed in its attic crawl space, watching her children at play, and writing decoy letters to be conveyed to New York City and re-mailed back South so that her master would think she’d reached a free state. She eventually did escape by boat to the North, although her owners continued to pursue her.

The wives of slave owners come off little better than their husbands in these “fugitive slave” memoirs. Jacobs was regularly beaten by her master’s wife, who blamed her simply for being the object of her husband’s lust. Wives often insisted that children born of such unions be sold to far away plantations. Many would use imagined infractions as an excuse to whip any slave their husbands forced into sex.

Each man or woman who owned slaves had a choice to treat them well or harshly. Frederick Douglass learned a few letters of the alphabet from his mistress until her husband told her to stop. Douglass then turned to Baltimore street urchins, trading pieces of bread for lessons and using Tom Sawyer-worthy stratagems. He’d declare: “I can write better than you can” and then copy whatever words they wrote down.

To my surprise, enslaved people not only found ways to educate themselves, they also often boldly fought back against abuse, despite the risk. Douglass, after resisting a severe whipping by a “slave breaker” overseer, bested his oppressor in a two-hour struggle and was never beaten again. The experience, he wrote, “rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.”
His memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave, is now considered an American classic.

Most slave narratives, I discovered, are not only testaments to resistance, they’re also gripping, even thrilling, accounts of strategically brilliant escapes. Light-skinned Elizabeth Craft disguised herself a white man and traveled by rail with her “slave” – actually, her darker skinned husband. She wrapped her arm in bandages to avoid signing her name, since she could neither read nor write. Henry Brown escaped slavery by arranging to be crated up and shipped, by wagon, railroad, and steamboat, to Philadelphia. His Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, was published in 1949. The next year, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act legalized slave-catching in free states. To escape bounty hunters, he fled to England, where he republished his book and gave hundreds of anti-slavery lectures.

One of the plethora of largely unread slave narratives is sure to be seen, if not read, by mainstream American. Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years A Slave came out as a movie in 2013. Northrop was a free Black man living with his family in Saratoga Springs, NY — educated, employed, and an accomplished violinist – when two white men persuaded him to join them on an entertainment tour and helped him secure papers to certify him as a free black man. Northrup woke one day without those papers, chained in a slave pen, having been drugged and delivered to a slave trader. Northrup’s insistence that he was a free man was met with a flogging that nearly killed him. Sold at an auction block within sight of the White House, he spent the next 12 years abused by a series of plantation owners. His family searched for him fruitlessly: the slave trader had changed his name to “Platt” to deceive anyone trying to find and free him.

The man who finally did free him was a white Southerner who opposed slavery. He helped Northrup send letters to Northerners to confirm his status as a free man, and showed up one day with a sheriff to free him. Reunited with his family, Northrup became a fervent abolitionist, giving talks about his experience throughout the Northeast to gain support for the movement.

Why hadn’t I known about enslaved people’s resistance, or about the thousands of slaves who managed to escape? Why had I absorbed only their victimhood? Back in the 1950s, most textbooks focused on the politics and economics of slavery, ignoring the human cost. I grew up viewing slaves as degraded by their experience ala Gone with the Wind, just as I viewed Jews as compliant when herded into boxcars and gassed in ovens.

Just after reading Northrup’s harrowing tale, I read similarly eye-opening accounts of Holocaust survivors, including A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France. Caroline Moorehead documents how ordinary women in concentration camps resisted their captors and devised ways to help each other survive. They made paste that would put color in an ill woman’s face so she wouldn’t be “selected” for execution. They documented the Nazi’s atrocities on stolen paper that they hid in cracks between bunks. One woman, assigned to help with an experiment on the uterus of a Jewish woman, instead drugged her, reported that she was dead, and smuggled her into another camp. Assigned to forced labor in munitions factories, they committed small acts of sabotage, loosening screws, mixing salt into grease, dropping fragile equipment, and burning out motors: “We did all we could to be “intelligently stupid.”

Enslaved people resisted in parallel ways. They “forgot” to put out fires, sabotaged equipment, feigned illness, ran away for weeks — returning only when guaranteed better treatment. Some resorted to mutilating themselves, to suicide, or to killing their children to save them from life in bondage.

Accounts of survivors of both slavery and the Holocaust are testaments to the dignity and agency of people deemed less than human. “Those who were defined by law and custom as less than human literally wrote themselves into human existence,” writes scholar Richard Newman. We need these stories to balance our images of victims with counter images of resilience and resistance. And to know what forms of resistance we, too, are capable of, when humanity requires it in the face of inhumanity.

My Winter Reading Weekend Recommendations

Posted on 13 February 2012 (3)

When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka (Random, 2002). A slim, wondrous first novel with such straightforward, clean, yet vivid writing. A Berkeley CA immigrant family of Japanese heritage is sent to internment camps after Pearl Harbor is bombed: “the mother,” “the boy,” and “the girl” are sent to a Utah camp, but “the father” is sent to a Lordsburg, NM camp for enemy aliens because he refused to say “yes” when asked if he would renounce allegiance to the Emperor, reasoning that doing so would imply any allegiance, which he didn’t. The description of each character’s experience and the feelings and thoughts that remained largely unsaid, is spare, specific, and moving. Her second novel was a 2011 National Book Award finalist.

My Dyslexia, by Philip Schultz. This Pulitzer Prize winning poet describes growing up being assumed, and believing himself, to be dumb: it was not until he was 58, when his 2nd grade son was diagnosed with dyslexia, that he realized that he too was dyslexic. He describes how his non-diagnosis led to him acting out, to covering in many ways, to loving books but disliking reading, to discovering ways to teach writing (he created a Writers Studio). Ironically, his publisher, Norton, seems to have a disability, as well: it let slip a misspelling (dyslexia) and a blurb implying that he won a Nobel Prize in science rather than poetry. Gail Mazur loaned me this book (she knows the author).

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver (1998). A novel whose narrator shifts between five female characters, a Rashomon-like format that fascinates me. A fundamentalist Baptist minister takes his four daughters to an isolated village in the Congo, just as the Belgian colonizers (who used to cut off the hands of mineworkers who didn’t meet quota) hand over control. The people have just elected Patrice Lumumba, who the U.S. soon after arranges to be killed. The saga goes from 1959 to the 80s. It’s an excoriating vision of clueless, ineffectual Christian missionaries, of racial prejudice that personal interactions (except in the father’s case) break down, of individual women whose talents and goals and thoughts remain largely unsaid, but are eventually fulfilled. I wanted to finish the 530 page book by the end of our stay, so I raced through the last 100 pages, but the rich portrayal of each person’s experience and of the dynamics and consequences of colonialism will stay with me. Kingsolver funded (until recently, through the National Writers Union’s Service Organization) the Bellwether Prize: $25,000 plus publication of a fiction mss. with social justice themes.

Lone Holdout: A Memoir, by Linda Cox (Charles Street Press, 2010). Cox worked in the editorial department of an unnamed Boston publisher for 12 years, but after a successful class action sex discrimination case in which she was one of five named plaintiffs, she became co-owner of a Charles Street (Beacon Hill) bookstore. She describes serving on a jury for the first time and becoming the one jurist who doubted the prosecutions’ police witnesses. The book goes through the testimony, noting her questions and doubts. On trial was a young Dominican immigrant, charged with selling drugs and weapons violations. Her refusal to convict caused a hung jury: the young man was then retried and convicted. Convinced of the imprisoned man’s innocence, she rounded up pro bono lawyers and raised money to pay for private detectives. A judge finally granted a motion for a new trial, based on documentation of exculpatory evidence, and the inherent unreliability of single-witness identification cases. The arresting officer was proved to be a rogue cop who had been the subject of 27 internal investigations (for brutality, extorting money and sex from drug dealers and their girlfriends, etc.). He was convicted of attempted extortion and larceny and got a 4-6 year prison term. Cox is honest about the young man she defended: after 18 months in prison, he couldn’t get a job that paid a living wage. After taking a ride with someone who had drugs in car, he was sent to prison for a year and then deported to Dominican Republic. This case happened in 1988: it took Cox 20 years to write the book, which was almost made into the film, but in the end was self-published. I read self-published books by people I know because I like to make up my mind about their quality, and not react to mainstream-media hype. And I was proved right: her independently published book was chosen to be listed in Publishers Weekly new (as of last year) self-publishing section (25-pgs long) and one of 25 reviewed by Publishers Weekly!

Uncovering Race: A Black Journalist’s Story of Reporting and Reinvention, by Amy Alexander (Beacon Press, 2011). Alexander used to live in Cambridge: I read her the book she co-wrote with Dr. Alvin Poussaint on African Americans and suicide, Lay My Burden Down. She wrote for the San Francisco Examiner while still in college, risked danger to cover the 1991 L.A. “riots” for the Sacramento Bee, only to have a copyeditor insert “savage” and “rampaging” into her otherwise carefully reported article. She later writes for the Miami Herald, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. She names what the few publishers who effectively diversified their staffs did so: by tying news managers’ raises and bonuses, in part at least, to the rates of minority hiring and retention. She is frank in her evaluation of the National Association of Black Journalists, calling it “toothless” except for its professional training programs.

Learning From the Sixties: Memoir of an Organizer, by John Maher (self-published 2011). I don’t remember how I heard of my neighbor’s book but the title intrigued me: what can we learn from the Sixties? He grew up with an Irish-background poor to riches businessman father, which gave him some economic leeway to devote much of his life to organizing. He was an organizer of SDS, Vietnam Summer, Neighbor to Neighbor, and also taught in the Somerville and Boston schools. He was involved in the Progressive Labor Party, but eventually left it, considering it a cult. His FBI file is 2000 pages long (maybe in part because his brother was an open Communist Party member). To organize lower-income people, he decided to work in a Cambridge rubber manufacturing plant, but left because it felt inauthentic to hide his Harvard background. Each chapter ends with a list of principles/practices he learned in each organizing effort. He is frank about the mistakes he made, but also clear about one-on-one, door-to-door, in-person dialogue that he sees essential. I may have been one of the people he recruited to go door-to-door to rally opposition to the Vietnam War (and later to get rent controlled passed in Cambridge, although I don’t remember him, which fits one or his campaign organizing principles – to listen more than direct.

My Food For Thought: 12 Books I Recommend

Posted on 25 December 2011 (16)

The Call , by Yannick Murphy (Harper, 2011). The format of his novel – it’s written as a veterinarian’s daily log, intrigued me. I started reading but wondered how a logbook can possibly “work” as a novel. How can the author develop a plot? But she did, and her format elucidates the main character’s psychology. The author‘s husband is a Vermont vet, and the book was a 2011 National Book Award finalist in fiction.

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka (Knopf, 2011) another 2011 National Book Award fiction finalist. It, too, is written unconventionally: in the first person plural (“We”). I doubted this would work in a novel, but it does. This the story of “picture brides” brought from Japan to the U.S. early in the 20th century, by Japanese men seeking wives. The “we” form lets us see their commonality but also to appreciate their diversity, and their individual ways of coping.

A Star Called Henry, by Roddy Doyle. Jon and I both read this raucus novel while we were in Dublin. [Jon “It gave me a real feeling for what life in Dublin was like, and fit what I saw there”]. Henry and his brother Victor are street urchins whose one-legged assassin dad and crazy, alcoholic mother, had more kids than they can care for. The boys turn to robbery and are eventually recruited into Michael Collins’ revolutionaries. They take part in the Post Office rebellion against the British, and then face retaliation. Jon will read another in Doyle’s novel series on our post-Christmas reading weekend.

The Irish Famine, by Peter Grey (Thames & Hudson). This book was an eye-opener: the Irish Famine was not just a matter of a failed potato harvest, as I had always thought. The famine could have been averted if farmers were allowed to grow other crops but the British plantation owners insisted that they export all non-potato foods to Britain, while 1 million Irish died of starvation and sickness, and another 1 million fled the county for the U.S., cutting Ireland’s population in half and leading to a long period of poverty, which may have affected my great-grandmother, Winifred Flanagan Moore, born in 1850 in Mayo County.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Reb ecca Skloot (Crown, 2010). Scientists have been using “HeLa” cells since the 1950s. This is the story of an African American woman whose cells, after she died of cervical cancer, were reproduced by scientists who went on to develop the polio vaccine and other medical advances. […]