This past Saturday was the fifty-fourth anniversary of the death of the late American playwright and author Lorraine Vivian Hansberry (1930-1965). Her untimely death at the age of thirty-four silenced one of literature’s greatest voices. However, more than fifty years after her death, her masterpiece, A Raisin In the Sun, continues draw audiences curious to learn why the play is one of the longest running on Broadway. I personally attended a run starring Denzel Washington and his portrayal as Walter Lee Younger is as good as the original performance by the legendary Sidney Poitier. For some, Hansberry remains a bit of a mystery. and a throwback to an era long past. The younger generation of today largely have yet to discover her genius and her influence on the African-American experience. And what many of them are unaware of is that five decades ago, she was a voice advocating for the many freedoms they have today. Sadly, it has taken many years for her to be recognized for the gifted writer that she was. As we come to know her work more intimately, we must ask ourselves, who was the real Lorraine Hansberry? Imani Perry searched for and found her in this semi-autobiography and psychoanalysis. The book is an examination of Lorraine’s thoughts and writings while also adding recollections of historical events filled with larger than life figures who are no longer with us today. But make no mistake, this is about Lorraine, the woman who changed Broadway.
Before I started the book, I was not sure what to expect. I had previously read a biography of Hansberry, Young, Black and Determined: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry, by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack and Lorraine’s published works. Surprisingly, this book takes a completely different approach in revisiting Hansberry’s life. The author does follow her life from beginning to end like a standard biography but where the book takes its own path is in the author’s excellent analysis of who Hansberry while breaking down each part of her life so that we may unravel the complicated layers that composed the dynamic figure. And like most popular figures gifted with talent, her life was anything but ordinary.
If you are expecting this book to read like a standard biography, this is not the case. In fact, things get very psychological as we step deep inside Lorraine’s mind to understand how she came to view the world she lived in. Jim Crow, Communism, homophobia and Vietnam were just some of the many topics she felt so passionately about. Her words were sharp, cutting right to the heart of the matter and her point was made, always unapologetic. Today she is viewed as a pioneer and visionary, but in her era, she was viewed as a radical who even attracted the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). But such was the character of Lorraine Hansberry, afraid of no one and nothing. Perry captures her fierceness and determination with a haunting accuracy that caused me to feel as if Lorraine was alive and speaking directly to me. In addition, throughout the book, I could not help but feel a strong sense of loss over the death of Hansberry, a woman who died many years before my birth. But those feelings are a testament to her gift and legacy which continues to thrive.
There is one subject in the book that I feel deserves special mention. For many years, rumors have persisted about Hansberry’s sexuality. We know that she was once married to Robert Nemiroff (1929-1991), who worked dutifully to preserve her legacy all the way up until his final days. But from Perry’s research and Lorraine’s own words, I believe the rumors can be put to rest once and for all as her true feelings are clearly shown. Fittingly, Hansberry’s sexuality is a key component to her work and the story at hand. Perry handle the subject perfectly, making sure not to let it dominate the story or detract from it. And that is one of the true hallmarks of a good biographer.
To say that Hansberry’s life was eventful is an understatement. This is her life, a story filled with love, civil rights, fame, loneliness and tragedy. She was far from simple and it is clear that from everyone that knew her, she was unique and one of those rare people who come into your life and change it forever. It is my sincere hope that more young men and women continue to discover her work and learn about her life. For Black-Americans, she is sometimes a forgotten voice in a power movement that changed the United States and countries around the world. If you have the time, take a journey with Imani Perry and go looking for Lorraine.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains one of the most secluded nations on earth. To some, it is the best example of the society George Orwell described in his masterpiece, 1984. Documentaries, photographs and videos taken in North Korea have given the rest of the world glimpses into a nation ruled by an iron fist, where individuality and personal expression are as forbidden as foreign literature and films. Every living moment of North Korean life is in service to the State under the tutelage and patronage of the “Dear Leader”. The ideology of the North Korean Republic known as “Juche” was made famous by the late Kim il Sung (1912-1994) and has been carried forward by his son Kim Jong il (1941-2011) and currently his grandson, Kim Jong Un. Portraits of the leaders can be found on the walls of nearly ever building in the country, reinforcing the demand for subservience by the government of its citizens. The threat of American Invasion and moral corruption of young Koreans by foreigner influence are used by the State as justification for its seclusion from most of the world. But for some citizens, the smoke and mirrors become clear as nothing more than propaganda used to keep society in line. and curiosity of the outside world creeps steadily in. Their awakening results in a mix of emotions, one of which is defection to South Korea typically by way of China.
Barbara Demick is the former Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and spent five years in Seoul interviewing defectors from North Korea. This book tells the story of several individuals who made the difficult decision to leave the only place they have called home. I think it is fair to say that anyone outside of North Korea is aware of the totalitarian regime imposed upon the people of that nation. Journalists have lifted the carefully guarded veil constructed by Pyongyang. But what is contained in the pages of this book might surprise even the most knowledgeable readers. In fact, descriptions of their daily lives will stun some but in order to understand their desire to learn about the outside world, escape a suppressive regime and find peace and happiness, we must learn their stories and the challenging lives they were born into. Their names are Kim Hyuck, Mi-Ran, Jun-Sang, Oak Hee, her mother Song Hee Suk and Dr. Kim Ji-eun. Their stories are different but they are all united in the defection to South Korea, leaving behind family members and friends. But what they witnessed will remain with them for the rest of their days. Those events which we learn about in this book are more than any of us would want to endure. I guarantee that for American readers, after you have finished this book, you will have a greater appreciation for the privilege of living in the country that is perhaps the most powerful nation on earth.
For those readers new to literature about North Korea and/or its defectors, the author provides a good history about the Japanese occupation of North Korea and its liberation following World War II. Kim il-Sung would rise as the leader of the new Soviet backed North Korea while Syngman Rhee (1875-1965) established him as the leader of the U.S. backed South Korea. The establishment of the 38th Parallel also known as the DMZ, as the dividing line between the two countries, remains firmly in place as the line that separates two very different countries and different worlds. Sung’s goal to create a new version of Communism, resulted in a regime that ranks among the most brutal anywhere in the world and seemingly stuck several decades behind the rest of the modern world. And as the nation endured periods of famine and near economic collapse, increasing numbers of North Koreans, including those in this book, made their way south by any means necessary.
When we first meet our characters, their lives are typical of North Korea, far removed from any knowledge of or influence by the western world. Allegiance to the “Dear Leader” is mandatory and all seem to stay in line willingly. But over time the facade wears away and the death of Kim il-Sung on July 8, 1994, would provide the catalyst for many to open their eyes to the truth about life in North Korea. Radio programs and even television from South Korea began to infiltrate the nation as growing numbers of citizens began to question all that they had been taught from a young age. For figures in the story at hand, the moment of revelation of a life outside of North Korea proved to be too seductive to ignore and once the decision was made, the next step was to act which they did under the most intuitive of ways. And in stark contrast to the idea of communist citizens all falling in line without thought, each of the characters prove to be as sharp and clever as anyone determined to seek asylum in the hope of a better life. Their successful defections to the South are not without complications and their adjustment to life in Seoul, also shows the complicated efforts that exist to undo many years of indoctrination and seclusion.
Throughout the book, a constant theme is the possible collapse of North Korea and even the author remarks that it has been predicted for many years. In spite of conditions that should cause the downfall of any government, North Korea continues to maintain its position as the rogue nation that issues threats to neighboring countries while preparing for a believed conflict with the United States. The government operates on a system of dysfunction and in some cases hypocrisy. While those at the top enjoy American cars, films and imported goods, millions of North Korea endure malnutrition and destitution. Time will tell if the regime will collapse but what we do know, not just from news reports but also from the stories in this book, is that outside of Pyongyang, life for millions of North Koreans is marked by famine, poverty and fear of the State. Defectors have survived the roughest of ordeals and no longer live in the fear that grips North Korea. However, their hearts are still with those left behind and they do believe in the dream that one day Korea may once again be unified. Until then, the number of defectors may continue to rise and people seek to move away from scavenging for food and praising the Dear Leader to having a full meal, talking freely and being able to watch any show they prefer on television. Their stories may give others inspiration that there is a life outside of North Korea and for some, it is worth dying for. But it is hoped that they are able to escape and enjoy the many privileges that so many of us take for granted.
This book has caused me to really think about the concept of freedom and how precious is truly is. I have seen and accomplished things that most North Koreans either have no knowledge of or ability to do. I am grateful for the life that I have and the author is correct when she says that life in North Korea is nothing to envy.
June 5, 1968 – Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) (D-New York) concludes his speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California after scoring a critical primary victory in his quest for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. As he walked through the pantry while exiting the hotel, he was shot and mortally wounded. Twenty-six hours later in the early morning hours of June 6, 1968, his life and the dream he inspired came to a tragic conclusion. He is survived by his widow Ethel and eleven children, the youngest of whom was born after his death. Her name is Kerry Kennedy and along with brother Robert, Jr., she keeps her father’s memory alive and well. Her book Robert F. Kennedy: Ripples of Hope: Kerry Kennedy in Conversation with Heads of State, Business Leaders, Influencers, and Activists about Her Father’s Impact on Their Live is a fitting tribute to her late father’s life and is yet another testament to the profound influence he had on those who knew him and even those who never met him. His alleged murderer Sirhan Sirhan, remains incarcerated at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County, California. The official narrative paints a picture of Sirhan being a deranged lunatic determined to murder Kennedy at all costs. He was initially sentenced to life in prison after his conviction but several years later, his sentence was commuted to life. In the eyes of many, he is the man who killed Kennedy in an open and shut case. But there have always been questions surrounding Sirhan’s actions that night that cause many to pause before proclaiming his guilt. Did Sirhan Sirhan really act alone and did he fire the shots that took Kennedy’s life?
Tim Tate and Brad Johnson have taken another look at one of America’s most tragic murders fifty years after Kennedy gave his last speech, examining the crime from start to finish. And in the process they have raised many questions which have never been answered by the Los Angeles Police Department (“LAPD”) or the State of California. In fact, what we can see very clearly, is an investigation full of missteps, inaction and disturbingly, outright deceit by law enforcement. The investigation became a mixture of destruction of evidence, stonewalling and witness intimidation as the LAPD focused its attention on Sirhan with the intention of convicting him at all costs. But as Tate and Johnson show, there were many reason to doubt Sirhan’s guilt and proof that more than one gunman was in the pantry area that night. While they do not provide a smoking gun as to who the shooter may be, they do establish that there was more that occurred that night than police were willing to admit. And Sirhan may not have been the person he has been portrayed to be. We know that he did discharge a gun that night, but the authors have given reasons to believe here, that none of his bullets struck Kennedy.
As I read through the book, at times I could not believe my eyes. Similar to the murder of John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), Bobby’s death became shrouded in controversy as rumors swirled of a conspiracy. At the center of the many conspiracies is the infamous woman in the polka dot dress. The authors examine her role in the matter and give a strong explanation regarding her possible identity. Readers curious about the mystery woman will find Fernando Faura’s The Polka Dot File on the Robert Kennedy Killing: Paris Peace Talks Connection a good read regarding this infamous figure who official remains unidentified and ignored by supporters of Sirhan’s guilt. However, the authors have shown that not only did multiple witnesses see the woman, some had personal encounters with her, including Sandra Serrano, a worker in Kennedy’s campaign. Her experience with LAPD investigators is one of the most bizarre parts of the story but also reveals an important clue about the department’s motives in streamlining the investigation. We may never know who the woman in the polka dot dress is or was, but what is clear is that she was not a figment of anyone’s imagination.
Previously, I had read material on Kennedy’s murder but this assessment of the assassination, revealed many things which I did not have prior knowledge of. Sirhan’s trial was an easy win for prosecutors as they successful painted Sirhan with the image of a lone gunman with a deadly fixation on Kennedy. As the shadow of Dallas hung over the trial, authorities made sure Sirhan was tried and convicted as expeditiously as possible. However, there was one aspect of the trial that no one could completely put to rest which would come back to haunt the case until this very day. Sirhan’s claim of having no memory of the shooting was at first dismissed but as the authors show, there was and is strong evidence to support this theory. And at this point in the book, the story kicks into high gear as a cast of characters appear including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). And we are forced to ask, was Sirhan a “Manchurian Candidate”? To some, the idea sounds like another crack pot theory. But as Tate and Johnson show, the CIA actively engaged in mind control through several different programs it admitted to conducting, the most well-known being MK ULTRA. I would like to stress the fact that the authors never claim to have a smoking gun regarding Kennedy’s death. However, they do succeed in providing ample evidence provides a strong basis for a new investigation into the murder of Robert Francis Kennedy.
If you are curious about Kennedy’s murder or have studied it previously, then this book is a must have. To say it is mind-blowing is an understatement. The authors pull no punches, leaving the reader with chills as they show the side of the investigation police never intended for the public to see. Highly recommended.
The Declaration of Independence of the then Thirteen States of America, is often looked upon as inspiration for what liberty truly means. The second paragraph drives home the point with the following words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The words, when taken at face value, give off the impression of a country in which one can truly be free. But we very well know through history, that the opposite has been true, millions of people, in particular Black Americans have had to endure a long and hard struggle to achieve equality in the United States. Two weeks from today, America remembers the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) and his view for a United States in which its citizens were truly united. Great strides have been made since Dr. King’s death, but by no means should his legacy be forgotten. Congressman John Lewis (D-Atlanta) was a close associate of Dr. King’s and today he is one of the remaining figures from the Civil Rights Movement. Many of his peers are deceased but today at seventy-eight years of age, he is still serving in the U.S. House of Representatives continuing to fight for what he believes is the direction to the move the United States forward. At first glance he is unassuming but if you study his life and words closer, you will soon learn that this remarkable figure has an extraordinary story to tell about his participation in the movement for racial equality.
When we think of the Civil Rights Movement, John Lewis is typically not the first figure many would have in mind. With his short stature and plain image, he appears to be the loving grandfather on the neighborhood block rather than the activist he was and still is. But just how did a young kid from the country in Georgia go on to be a pivotal figure in the movement that changed America? The answer to that question and many others about Lewis’ life are contained within the pages of this autobiography that is sure to leave the reading asking for more. In fact, I found it increasing difficult to stop reading the book once I had started. With Lewis’ easy-flowing narrative and endless anecdotes about himself and some of the most legendary figures America has ever seen, the book transplants the reader back in time to witness how a cause became a national and world-wide struggle against discrimination.
One of the things that I found likeable about the book is Lewis’ openness about his own shortcomings. He never portrays himself to be above anyone or all-knowing. In fact, he easily recalls the times in which he was lacking in knowledge, overcome with fear of his opponents and reluctance to partake in the cut-throat world of politics. Quite frankly, he has walked the walk and talked the talk, risking his life in sit-ins, marches and voter registration drivers in the deep American south, culminating with the showdown with the virulent racist Sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, Jim Clark. (1922-2007). In fact, the events Lewis recalls, are also discussed in the book by another of his close associates, Ralph David Abernathy (1926-1990). His autobiography and memoir of the movement was appropriately titled And the Walls Came Tumbling Down . Both authors played an important part in those events and do not fail to explain in full detail how they developed and why they were important. I highly recommend that book as a complement to Lewis’ story.
Similar to Abernathy’s book, King is a critical character in the story and both authors show how important King was to the movement at hand. What is also revealed, particularly here is the complicated power struggles within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Infighting, jealously and egos all play their parts in the story revealing the sometimes fragile relationships at the base of the movement. Misogyny, homophobia and even racism against White Americans became the tools that turned the SCLC into a shell of its former self. The assassinations of the 1960s convinced many that nothing could ever be the same again. Lewis addresses all of them and his relationship to several of the late figures. Students of the movement will recall that Lewis eventually became part of the campaign by Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) for President of the United States. His memories of Kennedy are touching and is yet another example of the extreme sense of loss that following in the wakes of the assassinations that became all to common in the turbulent 1960s.
Today it is nearly impossible for youths to imagine what life was like for Black Americans during Jim Crow and later, even as President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) pushed forward an earth-shattering civil rights bill. As Lewis puts it, raw fear was a daily reality in a time where social justice warriors sometimes died early deaths and authorities used every trick in the book to maintain a strict social structure of power. His ability to fair in the book and examine every situation from all sides has earned him followers and detractors but here, Lewis explains himself, leaving it up to the reader to digest his words and perhaps use them in a positive way. What I found equally important as the story at hand is his messages to Black Americans as well. Change in society must come from all places, and only then can a nation truly move forward. John Lewis has spent the majority of his life fighting for equality on behalf of those who sometimes have no other voice. His eyes have seen some of the most important events in history and he is a living testament to the strong character common to his peers who became world-respected figures in their own right.
If you are looking for a good read about the Civil Rights Movement, this is a fine place to start where you can follow John Lewis as he is walking with the wind.
It is difficult to put into words, the polarizing effect of the trial of O.J. Simpson had on America. The ugly history of racism took center stage as lead attorney Johnnie Cochran (1937-2005) formed a defense based on it and the prosecution under the guidance of lead attorney Marcia Clark, sought to exclude it. The crime was beyond brutal and contained a level of savagery that caused a twitch even in the most hardened of stomachs. Photos of the crime scene are available on the internet in all of their shocking and gory details. I vividly recall the car chase that played out on the television screen as the Los Angeles Police Department followed Simpson’s white Ford Bronco. The truck later became fodder for parody but at the time, caused bewilderment as everyone wondered where on earth Simpson could be going. When he was acquitted of murder, loud cheers could be heard throughout the school. To many of us, it seemed unfathomable that Simpson, the gridiron great could have committed such a heinous crime. Further, the L.A. Riots remained fresh on our minds and the video footage of the beating of Rodney King, a reminder of the fragile co-existence between the police and Black communities across the country. To some, the justice system had worked and we knew O.J. was innocent. Or did we? Were we assuming his innocence based on his skin color and our need for a hero? Or was it, as some believed, a chance to “get even” with the system? The trial was many things but above all it was surreal.
The moment when Simpson was asked to try on the gloves found at the scene, is among the most intense in television history. Cochran’s famous line “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”, has become a classic catch phrase that instantly recalls memories of the trial. For prosecutor Christopher Darden, it was a pivotal moment in the case that changed the course of the trial. Legal experts thought it was a mistake. Even Darden’s own team had wanted to stay clear of it, but the seasoned prosecutor held to his belief that it would happen at some point and there was only one way to be sure. After the trial, he slowly faded out the public light but has continued to serve the county of Los Angeles as a dedicated prosecutor. Initially, he had resisted writing a book but slowly came to terms with the fact that he did have a story to tell, one that is just as important as co-counsel Marcia Clark’s “Without a Doubt” . And this is Darden’s show, he is here not only to talk about O.J. Simpson, but about his private life which many people had very little knowledge of.
The book begins as an autobiography as Darden goes back to his childhood in the town of Richmond, California as the fourth child out of a total of eight children. From an early age, he forms a tight bond with his late brother Michael and the two quickly become known as trouble. In fact, some of Darden’s revelations regarding his youth might cause the reader to wonder how he became a star prosecutor. The answer is here and Darden minces no words about his many mishaps and errors in judgment as a youth and even as an adult. Bu throughout the book, he remains focused on the story at hand, never letting the pace slow down and bore the reader. His story picks up pace from the moment it begins and keeps building momentum. Darden finds his calling in law, working his way through law school while becoming a father and learning about life in ways he could have never expected. And his career as a prosecutor might have remained the way it was if not for the grisly murders of Nicole Brown Simpson (1959-1994) and Ronald Goldman (1968-1994).
As Darden explains, he had a feeling he would become part of the O.J. trial and he was right, except he could not have foreseen just how involved he would be. From the moment jury selection begins, it is clear that this trial will be one for the ages but Darden is not one to back down and as we follow him back in time to revisit the past, we are able to see the case from another angle, that of the man known as the “African-American prosecutor”. Cochran would throw the race card into every angle the case and the introduction of notorious detective Mark Fuhrman would ultimately prove to be one of the nails in the prosecution’s coffin. In fact, the battle of race, would pit Cochran and Darden against each other with both receiving death threats. Like a master narrator, Darden goes over what went right in the trial and what went horribly wrong. Further, he explains how and why many decisions were made even in the face of clear adversity. But he is a dedicated prosecutor who believes in the wheels of justice. However, in a trial inflamed by race, the L.A. Riots, fame, domestic violence and distrust of the California legal system, those wheels would turn in much different ways. For Darden, it was the time in his life where he was always in contempt. This is a cold hard look at one of the most notorious and important trials in American history.
In the annals of Latin American history, perhaps no other figure is as studied as Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), the liberator of South America. Former Venezuelan President Hugh Chavez (1954-2013) famously spoke with images of Bolívar behind him as he sought to transform the country into a contender on the world stage. The life of Bolívar lasted less than fifty years but within two decades he became the leading figure in the Latin American movement for independence from the Spanish Empire. The nations of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Panama and Bolivia (his namesake) are the products of his vision, a united South America free from the influence of its northern neighbor. And prophetically, many of his beliefs about the future of South America have come to pass, cementing his legacy as one of the continent’s greatest heroes. Marie Arana, a native of Bolívar’s beloved Peru, has composed a stunning biography of the late figure that shows a complex character, driven by ideology but crippled by his own generosity and disregard for personal well-being.
On July 24, 1783, Don Juan Vicente and Doña María de la Concepción Palacios y Blanco welcomed their fourth child into their growing family but neither of them could have imagined then that their son would one day become the liberator of South America. To understand the mind of the future leader, it is necessary to understand his past and Arana presents his story in a format that is guaranteed to pull the reader in. The story takes us back in time where the Spanish Empire controls nearly all of the continent and a young Bolívar is learning about colonialism first hand. Tragedy became a part of his life from an early age as the deadly disease known as tuberculosis wreaks havoc across the continent. What is clear however, is that from a young age, the rebel the world would come to know was being crafted through life experiences and the ugly hierarchy of exploitation and racism used to subjugate those considered to be unworthy by the Spanish monarchy in Madrid. The young revolutionary proved to be a fast learner and before long, he became part of the growing movement for freedom.
The book continues to heat up as Arana brings the past alive allowing us to follow Bolívar as he traverses Latin America, covering more ground than any of the greatest warriors in history. But the campaign was far from easy and behind the scenes, back door deals, treachery and in some cases luck, combined to push forward the independence movement. And as Bolívar rises through the ranks, a cast of characters develops, increasing the suspense in the story as the final showdown with Spain looms in the horizon. The author increases the suspense as the book moves forward, making it impossible for the reader to stop. I found myself captivated as I followed the events that culminated in the legendary battles that chartered a new path for Bolívar and millions of South Americans.
The battle of Ayacucho in the Peruvian War of Independence proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back with the Spanish Empire withdrawing the majority of its forces from South America. For Bolívar this was just the beginning of a long struggle that would see the continent nearly tear itself apart and result in his exodus from the place he called home. Assassins, opportunist, traitors and cowards became major players in a deadly game of treachery that ensued following the continent’s liberation from Spain. Arana puts all of the players and pieces together in a narrative that is both shocking and disheartening. And through the story, we can clearly see the development of the Spanish Empire’s system of racial hierarchy that has remained with Latin American society to this very day. Fully aware of this, Bolívar made it a point to include everyone in his campaigns with the belief in his heart of a truly united and free Latin America.
Before he died, he recorded a statement regarding the lessons he learned after two decades of service in the revolution. Hauntingly, his words proved to be correct and to this day, Latin America has never been able to eradicate the very issues proclaimed by Bolívar in 1830. And if he were alive today, he would be discouraged to see that he was correct. Nevertheless, he did succeed in liberating Latin America before greed and deception caused infighting among the new republics that has never fully subsided. But perhaps one day, we may finally see a truly united continent, free of demons from Spanish and British rule and the dreadful effects of the systems of class division and slavery. And in that moment, the spirit of Bolívar will truly live on.
The story at hand is one of courage, love, triumph, betrayal and vindication. Bolívar is long gone but his name and legacy continue to live on. Marie Arana has done a great service to a legendary historical figure who changed the course of world history and paved the way for the birth of a new South America.
Any former First Lady of the United States will tell you that there is nothing “easy” about that lifestyle. As the wife of the most powerful man on the planet, there is a high demand on appearance, initiatives and unwavering support for the policies that originate from the White House. Michelle Obama is an alumnus of this world, serving as the nation’s First Lady from January, 2009 to January, 2017. Her style, look and presence is unmistakable and she will be remembered in time as one of the most dynamic to have lived in the White House. Almost two years have passed since Donald J. Trump took office and the where the United States is headed seems at times uncertain. There exist a political climate built on division and hate, which will require many years ahead for healing and understanding. As the first Black-American woman to be a First Lady, she has unique perspective on Washington, D.C., and the country she calls home. Her views and life story are presented here in this phenomenal autobiography of the life of Michelle Robinson who went on to become Mrs. Barack Obama.
As I purchased this book, I satisfied a growing curiosity about the story the former First Lady. As an American citizen at times dismayed, but I believed that the book could take me back to time in which a sense of normalcy was found at the highest levels of government. Not only was I completely engulfed in the book, having read it in three days, but it reminded me that it was less than two years ago that the Obamas were in the White House and America seemed to be moving forward in the right direction. Today it seems like an eternity has passed and only time will tell who will occupy the oval office next. But this is Michelle’s story and to understand the former First Lady, it is necessary to hear her story as a young girl from the South Side of Chicago who commits to hard work, dedication and supporting the presidential campaign of one of America’s most popular political figures. In many ways, her story is the epitome of the American Dream supplemented by the added variable of her being a Black-American.
On January 17, 1964, Fraser and Marian Robinson welcomed Michelle LaVaughn Robinson into the world, but I do not believe anyone could have imagined then, the heights she would reach in less than fifty years on earth. As the product of a hard-working blue-collar home, her story reminded me of my own upbringing. My father worked for General Electric and my mother for what is now J.P. Morgan Chase. Both are retired now and I am fortunate to have both of them present each day. In my neighborhood of East New York, diversity was lacking after New York City endured its own “white flight” to the suburbs. Over time East New York became one of the worst ghettos in the country with a murder rate that was astronomical. But our parents and extended family members refused to let my brother and I slack on anything. And just like Michelle’s grandfather, affectionately called “Southside”, we had my grandparents and great-parents there to remind us the importance of an education in life.
From the start, the story is seductive as the reader becomes eager to learn about the life of the former First Lady. Her teen and college years are pretty typical for most young ladies and after graduation from Princeton, she earns a position at the law firm of Sidley Austin, LLP, where fate intervened and she met the man who would change her life forever. It is at this part of the book that the story kicks into high gear and the ride never lets up. To say that her story is incredible is an understatement. But what makes it even more special is her humbleness and firm grip on reality. While I read the book, I never detected any sense of arrogance or entitlement nor was it her chance to brag about herself. She never loses touch with the fact that at the core, she is still the same Michelle Robinson from the South Side of Chicago., only now older and wiser. Her time as the First Lady has left her with a veteran’s seasoned view of Washington, politics and life.
Some readers might be wondering where Barack Obama fits in to the story. After their initial courtship, he is as integral to the story as one could imagine. In fact, it would have been virtually impossible to separate their stories for obvious reasons. His decision to enter politics was the point at which their lives forever changed in ways they could have never imagined. And as he ascends to higher office before winning the 2008 Presidential Election, we are given a rare inside view of what was transpiring behind the scenes in his campaign and the changes that took place in the lives of the Obamas. Following his inauguration in January, 2009, the young couple were placed into an entirely new world in which learning is always constant and surprise around the corner. And although the focus is always on “Mr. President’ , her story is equally interesting even as she settles in to the role of the First Lady while trying to be a good mother, friend, daughter and sister.
There are many highs in the book and also some lows, but throughout, her story remains inspiring and I recommend that every woman and young woman read this book. Her story is yet another example that women that achieve great things in this world regardless of what any misogynist may think. This is a former First Lady of the United States, who personifies class, intelligence and many other things that young women all over the world can aspire to achieve.
December 10 will mark twelve years since Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte (1915-2006) died from the effects of a heart attack in his native Chile. For many Chileans, he is the epitome of evil and a ruthless tyrant whose regime persecuted thousands of citizens, many of whom were “disappeared”. He also has his supporters, known simply as “pinochetistas”. His rise to power after the CIA- backed coup that overthrew the government of Salvador Allende (1908-1973), resulted in a new level of human rights violations across Latin America. Allende’s removal and death has become known as the other September 11th and a day that no Chilean can ever forget.
Washington’s involvement in the coup and the destabilization of Chilean politics was initially kept hidden from the American Public through the efforts of President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (b. 1923). The true story of the Nixon Administration’s interference in Chile might have remained a carefully guarded secret if not for the efforts of famed reporter Seymour Hersh who broke the story of what was known as Track II and the CIA efforts to bring down Allende’s government, through a published article in the New York Times. But what Hersh did not know at the time, was that the relationship between Washington and Pinochet was much darker and uglier than anyone could have imagined. It is here in this look at the Pinochet file, that author Peter Kornbluh goes deep inside the story of what became Chile’s worst nightmare.
I warn the reader that this a book you will not want to put down once you have started. From the beginning, it pulls the reader in with an iron grip as Kornbluh opens our eyes to what really happened in the 1970s as Chile was on the verge of taking a different course from the one approved of in Washington. As an American citizen, I found myself overcome with a range of emotions from shock to anger and eventually regret. Declassified documents serve as the backbone of the book and what is contained in those files is simply astonishing. As a nice supplement, Kornbluh includes copies of the documents for the reader’s reference. Some readers, particularly Americans, may find the story hard to believe at first. But I assure you that this is not fiction. Similar to Jacobo Arbenz (1913-1971) and Mohammed Mossadegh (1882-1967), Allende found himself on the wrong side of Washington foreign policy as he embraced a left-leaning government, believed by many to be a possible pawn of the Soviet Union. The beliefs were unfounded but the suspicion was enough for the Nixon Administration to set in motion, a deadly chain of events that gave rise to one of Latin America’s worst dictators.
In a cruel twist of fate, the rise of Pinochet and its aftermath was not confined to Chile. Other rulers seeking to emulate Pinochet’s style, began their own campaigns of oppression and through the Pinochet inspired “Operation Condor”, they would embark on a campaign of extermination of exiled citizens designated as “Enemies of the State”. The wave of terror spread across several continents including the United States, culminating with the assassination of Orlando Letelier (1932-1976) on September 21, 1976. The attack also claimed the life of Ronni Karpen Moffitt (1951-1976), the wife of Letelier´s assistant, Michael. The attack in broad daylight, sent shock waves around the world causing anger and outrage across the nation. Operation Condor had reached American soil but the U.S. Government´s response is one of the darkest moments in its history with Chile. There is far more to the story of Operation Condor and Kornbluh does a masterful job of explaining it, in all its mind-blowing detail.
Kornbluh takes us on a carefully guided timeline from start to finish where we witness the downfall of the Pinochet regime. On October 5, 1988, Patricio Aylwin (1918-2016) was elected the next leader of Chile in a landslide victory after U.S. Officials warned Pinochet not to interfere. Aylwin served four years and was succeeded by Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle. Although out of office, Pinochet still maintained a presence in Chilean politics. But as Washington threw its support behind the newly elected government, Pinochet’s star began to fade and while in London recuperating from back surgery, he was arrested by British Agents and held for over a year before being returned to Chile where he was indicted more than a dozen times for a multitude of crimes. At the time of his death, convictions and imprisonment loomed on the horizon and his departure allowed him to escape justice. But his dark legacy remains a reminder to Chileans of a past which should never return.
This book is simply incredible and the amount of research that went into is nothing short of monumental. Kornbluh has given us a gift that will continue to give as more learn about a ruler that controlled a country with an iron fist used in conjunction with murder, arrests and other acts of violence. They will learn about the many American citizens in Chile, also murdered at the hands of the Pinochet regime and their own government’s inaction and indifference. For the families of Charles Horman, Boris Weisfeiler and Frank Teruggi, Pinochet escaped the fate that laid before him. But their efforts and help with this book have resulted in the full story of his murderous reign. The Chilean government long denied any involvement in Operation Condor, Letelier’s murder and other deaths that occurred as Pinochet expanded his power and used the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), under the rule of the infamous Manuel Contreras (1929-2015), as his own personal group of enforcers. But as we now know and can see here with our own eyes, there was far more than meets the eye. Pinochet had support from many places and some of them will certainly surprise the reader. I firmly believe that every American should read this book, to understand what was done in the name of our country and why it should never happen again.
If you find that you enjoy this book, I highly recommend Pamela A. Constable and Arturo Valenzeula’s “A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet“.
On June 25, 1950, 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army marched across the 38th Parallel and into the Republic of South Korea. In the wake of World War II, the country had been split between the Communist North under Kim Il-Sung (1912-1994) and the Democratic South under Syngman Rhee (1875-1965). The 38th Parallel served as the demilitarized zone between the two nations and remains in place to this day. In response to the growing North Korean advance, South Korean Troops with the assistance of the United Nations and the Unite States, mounted a counter-offensive to repel the invasion. As a tactical measure, President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), appointed Gen. Douglas McArthur (1880-1964), to lead the resistance against the communist advance. As the conflict unfolded, Korea became ground zero in the struggle for peace and a pawn in the brewing Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union.
The North Korean advanced surprised the South but the tide of the war was soon turned as American troops marched on and captured Pyongyang. To all it seemed as if the conflict would soon be over and for Syngman Rhee, it appeared that his dream of reunification would come to pass. However, in October, 1950, all of that changed as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army crossed the Yalu River, lending their support to North Korean troops. In Washington, alarm bells sounded and it soon became known and accepted that the Korean War would not a “short” conflict. Instead, the war nearly turned into World War III and the world found itself on edge wondering if the United States would once again use an atomic weapon. Behind the scenes, Washington was doing its best to remain calm while avoiding another world conflict while its top commander in field was doing the opposite. This their story, told beautifully by H.W. Brands in this book that it sure to leave you astounded.
Truman, largely unpopular across the country, finds himself at odds with the most popular general in America. To the public, McArthur was a legendary figure beyond reproach, committed to the safety of the United States at home and around the world. To the White House, he was a rogue soldier, interfering in foreign policy and possibly providing the spark that would ignite the next world conflict through public statements and unauthorized expansion into Chinese territory. To understand these two powerful and dynamic figures, it is necessary to understand their backgrounds. Brands provides a brief autobiography of the two, giving readers a complete picture of each and their importance to the story at hand. As the war rages, they take their place as opponents in a power struggle that coincided with the loss of large numbers of U.S. military personnel and a Congress salivating at the thought of punishing the White House for what it believed to be unauthorized military action on foreign soil.
The book is written in a thoroughly engaging style and once I began I could not put it down. Readers familiar with the Korean War from either reading about it or living through it will recall many of the facts in the book. But where the book excels is in its deep analysis of the battle between Truman and McArthur, and the political maneuvers occurring in Washington to prevent Chinese escalation, retain the territory of Formosa and possible involvement by the Soviet Union. Some parts of the book are absolutely chilling and the late Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) is vindicated in his belief that McArthur was at that time, the most dangerous man in America. Brands includes quotes directly from the central players, giving the book the authentic feel that is has. It is not simply the author telling the story, but the major players giving their side of the story. And through their words, we can come to understand McArthur’s belief in his actions which could have escalated the war and the administration’s response in relieving him of his command and substituting him with Gen. Matthew B. Ridgeway. And the result is a roller coaster ride that begins with a Korean invasion and ends with an armistice under President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) and the downfall of a military legend. Truman did not seek reelection but remained a powerful voice in American politics up until the time of his death.
It will soon be sixty-five years since the armistice was signed, and the 38th Parallel continues to be a source of tension between North and South Korea with both sides on high alert at all times for possible escalation and even invasion. The story of the two Korean nations is a long and tragic story, beginning with occupation by the Japanese military during World War II. The division of the country by the Soviet Union and the United States was a scene that played out in many nations following the defeat of the Axis powers. Peace became a central goal across the world but in 1953, North Korea decided that there was more at stake than civility. But due to the efforts of leaders who understood the dangerous nature of the conflict, the world was given a brief reprieve until the United States and Soviet Union once again clashed during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. That conflict would also be resolved, due in part to the efforts of the administration of President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963).
The story here is at times mind-blowing and shows just how close the world came to Armageddon. There were no scripts and the central figures were not actors on a studio in Hollywood. The events were frighteningly real and if we are to prevent future conflicts from going down the same path, we owe it to ourselves to remember the conflict by use of books such as this one by H.W. Brands. Those who are students of history and in particular the Korean War, will thoroughly enjoy and appreciate Brands’ work.