Last week, my mother and I had a discussion about the actor Denzel Washington, who is widely regarded as one of Hollywood’s greatest stars. For both of us, his role as civil rights figure Malcolm X (1925-1965) in 1992 biopic ‘Malcolm X‘, was a shining moment in which he showed the world his talent as an actor and Spike Lee’s known skills as a powerful filmmaker. I had been contemplating my next book to read and came across this biography by late author Manning Marable (1950-2011). I had previously read The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley and Bruce Perry’s Malcolm: THe Life of Man Who Changed America . The former is a classic read widely across the globe. Perry’s biography is a great read and addressed many topics that Haley did not include. Stepping into the picture is Marable with this phenomenal biography that surpasses Perry’s and provides an even more intimate look into Malcolm’s life.
One of the hardest parts of completing a project as daunting as a biography is separating fact from fiction. Marable exhaustively researched his subject and it clearly shows throughout the book. The amount of information in the book is staggering and will leave many readers speechless at times. I cannot say with certainty how much information Spike Lee had access to when making the film. But what is clear from reading this book is that there is a good chance some things were withheld from him by those with intimate knowledge of Malcolm’s life and that editing the film down to three hours and twenty-two minutes resulted in a fair amount of footage ending up on the cutting room floor. Regardless, Lee created a masterpiece of a film. However, there was far more to Malcolm’s life than what moviegoers saw and some of that information shows his life and the Nation of Islam in a whole new light.
No story about Malcolm is complete without mention of Elijah Muhammad (1897-1975), the former leader of the Nation of Islam. His influence on Malcolm’s life and their subsequent falling out is covered extensively in the book. I personally learned new information that I had never anticipated when I started the book. As to be expected, Malcolm’s time with the Nation of Islam, his marriage to Betty Shabazz (1934-1997) and the creation of Muslim Mosque, Inc. make up large portion of the second half of the book. And it truly is a story that is surreal at times. Undoubtedly the book carries a serious tone but there are bright moments in the book, some of which focus on Malcolm’s time outside of the United States. His visits to the Middle East, which helped shape and then change his views are pivotal moments in the book, showing the process of reinvention that he goes through as he matures.
Some of the reviews I read on Amazon were interesting but one in particular caught my attention for its critique of Marable’s discussion of Malcolm’s sexuality in his youth. I do not believe that Marable tainted Malcolm’s image or was irresponsible in the way that he chose to handle the subject matter. In fact, Bruce Perry also addressed it in his biography of Malcolm and there is a strong possibility that both authors were on the right track. Marable devotes a very small portion of the book to the subject and I think he made the right decision. And the overall story is so interesting that I believe most readers will go through the section and quickly move forward to the rest of the book.
One of the book’s major strengths is the author’s willingness to take on even the most sensitive parts of Malcolm’s life. In fact, there were many things revealed that I am sure the Nation of Islam would have killed to protect years ago. These events are not only about Malcolm’s life but they also reveal information about figures intimately involved in his life such a Minister Louis Farrakhan, Malcolm’s protege and Ella Little (1914-1996). Interestingly, both figures do not make an appearance in Lee’s film for reasons known to the filmmakers. Marable does provide some insight and what he reveals might surprise some readers. Civil rights figures such as Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), Dick Gregory (1932-2017) and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1908-1972) are also part of the story and reading Marable’s words made me feel as if I stepped back into time during the tumultuous decade that was the 1960s. Readers who lived during the era will surely reminisce about a time in American history where fear permeated across the nation and the assassination of political figures was nearly commonplace.
About two-thirds through the book, the stage is set for Malcolm’s tragic end at the Audubon Ballroom. The tension and outright hostility between him and the NOI had reached a deadly level. Marable highlights the multiple attempts on Malcolm’s life and the escalation in fearmongering that ensued. The assassination is revisited from start to finish and the author sheds light on a few things that I had previously been unaware of. It is well-known the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) had been keeping Malcolm under surveillance. The paranoia of J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) was endless and he wasted no time in having his agents open a file for the Bureau’s benefit. But what is often left out of the discussion regarding Malcolm’s controversial life is the role of the secret Bureau of Special Services and Investigation (“BOSS”), formed by the New York City Police Department. The roles and actions of these two entities raise new questions about Malcolm’s death that remain unanswered. Perhaps in the next fifty years, more files will declassified and we may finally know the truth as to what state and federal agencies knew about Malcolm, the Nation of Islam and his murder on February 21, 1965.
The epilogue of the book is equally fascinating, and in it Marable opens a discussion about fundamental differences between Malcolm and other leaders of the times. Death was a constant threat in his life and he clearly knew that he had been marked for it but refused to live in fear. Throughout the book, he makes a series of decisions that we can now look at with the hindsight unavailable to him. At the time, he was following his beliefs and remained dedicated in his goal to spread true Islam to anyone willing to learn. His faults and transgressions are also on full display, showing us a multi-dimension yet often streamlined person that helped place the Nation of Islam into the national spotlight. He is revered around the world as a champion of civil rights and a brilliant mind taken from this world far before his time. There is so much more to his story contained within the pages of this book which is an exceptional work that will cause one to ask, how much do I really know about Malcolm X? Here is a good place to start.
Several months ago, my uncle and I had a discussion about aging and how health becomes more important as the years pass by. He recalled when he left the military following his service in Vietnam. His hearing is permanently damaged as a result of being stationed near the 50 caliber machine gun while out on patrol. Over the years, he has spoken about Vietnam on rare occasions but I know for a fact that he and millions of other veterans of the war, carry with them many dark memories and emotional scars from their time in a war that has been viewed negatively for several decades. Author Mark Bowden revisits the war in this phenomenal account of the battle for Hue during the Tet Offensive in 1968. My uncle was not stationed in Hue but in another part of the country and has told me many things about the war that made my skin crawl. For the United States Armed Forces, the battle of Hue and the Tet Offensive changed the war in Vietnam and the for the first time, it became increasingly clear, that this was a war that America could possibly lose.
Bowden opens the book by setting the stage for the events that led up to Tet, the Vietnamese New Year celebration that marks the first day of the lunar new year. American forces led by Gen. William Westmoreland (1914-2005) had assumed that Khe Sanh would be the place where the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) would launch a surprise attack during Tet. Some downplayed the attack as rumors with no basis of truth. However, when the NVA launched its operation on January 30, 1968, it was a wake up call for the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) and Washington, where President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) became haunted by a war with no ending in sight. The book picks up pace at this point and it never slows down.
Instantly I was pulled into the story. Memories of Olive Stone’s ‘Platoon’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ by Stanley Kubrick came back to me as different but very vivid portrayals of the conflict in Vietnam. Both films are classics but neither touches in depth on the Tet Offensive. This book is different and what Bowden reveals shows a side of the war that neither filmmaker had enough time or resources to cover. The story at hand follows the Marines and Hue is ground zero. The battle was bloody, protracted and tragic for both sides. The concept of a happy ending does not apply here. In fact, not one person Bowden interviewed, viewed the war in a positive light. What I did find was that there is bitterness, heartache and the question of why the United States became entangled in Vietnam to begin with. It is a question America has struggled to answer. Former Rand employee Daniel Ellsberg revealed much of what Washington was thinking when he provided confidential memos that have become known as the The Pentagon Papers. The memos are striking and reveal monumental failures among the brightest minds in Washington. We may never know all of the details regarding the decisions to become engaged in Southeast Asia.
I warn readers that the book is not for the faint at heart. The injuries and deaths among the Marines are nothing short of horrific. We meet many of them, learn about their lives and follow the paths they took to Vietnam. Some of them do not survive and for those that do, Hue became a permanent memory that would haunt them for years to come. What shocked me, among many things, were the ages of the Marines we become acquainted with. Some are as young as 18 years of age and deposited into a place that they see as hell on earth. The scenes are savage and young men are forced to make decisions and carry out orders that cause them to question what is truly right and wrong. The common adage is that war is hell and it certainly applies here.
The author focuses not only on the battle at Hue but also on the domestic issues raised in the United States. While Gen. Westmoreland, known to many as “Westy” gave figures on the death toll and the successes of U.S. troops, many were skeptical including the late American journalist Walter Cronkite (1916-2009), whose trip to Vietnam is covered in the book. Americans had started to learn that something was not quite right about the reports coming back from Saigon and Cronkite became one of the leading voices in holding Washington accountable to what was happening to the boys overseas. Cronkite’s findings and Johnson’s realizations are one of the pivotal parts of the book and for the troops in Vietnam, a sobering reality.
The book is primarily centered around Hue and is not intended to be a full discussion of the war’s origin. In fact, the leader of North Vietnam, Ho Chih Minh (1890-1969), makes only a brief appearance in the story. The author never loses focus and the story remains on the dedicated Marines, the constant reality of death and the mission to retake the City of Hue. Throughout the book, we come to know many of them intimately and towards the end, Bowden relays what happened to some of them after leaving Vietnam and how they adjusted to life back in the United States. Each does their best to put Vietnam behind them upon rotating back to America. As I read the book, I could not help but to wonder where many other veterans of the conflict are. Undoubtedly, some are now deceased but there are many others who served and fought in Hue who have done their best to forget that experience. This book is a testament to the bravery and perseverance required by the Marines in Hue. It is also a painful look at the misguided policies of Washington that plunged America into a conflict with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
After finishing the book, I thought of the the Ken Burn’s Netlfix documentary series The Vietnam War, which I watched several months ago. The series is riveting and Burns captures the era and conflict perfectly through remastered archival footage and interviews with those who served. It is an amazing work of art and highly recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about the Vietnam War.
Aviation is truly one of the world’s modern marvels. To say that it has made the world smaller is an understatement. There is something mystical and surreal about moving through the air at 39,000 feet, at speeds in excess of 500mph. Every flyer knows that there are inherent dangers when we take to the skies. Pilots are incredibly skilled and make the experience seem like magic to those of us in the cabin. And air travel is safer today that at any point in history but there many tragedies over the years that we have learned from in order to make air travel as safe as possible. Seasoned pilots will tell you that the early days of aviation were quite dangerous and flying literally was like rolling the dice. On January 16, 1942, movie star Carole Lombard (1908-1942) was a passenger on TWA Flight 3, a flight that began in New York and had a final destination of Burbank, California. Most of the trip was routine, but a sudden change of events in Las Vegas, changed the course of history and resulted in one of the deadliest aviation accidents of the 1940s. Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed full speed into Mt. Potosi, causing the aircraft to disintegrate upon impact. There were no survivors.
The official cause of the disaster is still a mystery. At the time, flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders did not exist in the form that they do now. The pilot, Wayne Clark Williams and co-pilot Stillman-Morgan Atherton Gillette, took what they knew with them to the grave. For decades, the case remained dormant but author Robert Matzen brings the past back to life in this gripping account of the life of Carole Lombard, her husband and legendary film star William Clark Gable (1901-1960) and the plane crash that shocked a nation. Matzen has visited the crash site which is still littered with debris and other grisly finds. He has reviewed thousand of pages of records including FBI files and official investigation records by the Civil Aeronautics Board (1939-1985). And what he has compiled is a thorough investigative report into the accident that rob Hollywood of one of its brightest stars.
Flight 3’s demise of the crux of the book but the author also tells the story of Lombard’s life, from her humble beginnings in Fort Wayne, Indiana to her success in Hollywood during the golden age. Matzen leaves no stone unearthed, revealing the very private side of Lombard’s life, replete with romances, tragedy and and a near-death experience many years before she met her fate on Flight 3. The author captures the aura of the golden era in Hollywood, a time unlike anything the world had seen previously. Some of the greatest names in Hollywood history appear in the story, coming into and going out of Lombard’s life as she moves through Hollywood’s upper echelon. She eventually crossed paths with Gable and Matzen provides an inside look into their marriage and the changes that took place in their lives after tying the knot. Hollywood has dark secrets and stars sometimes come with many shortcomings carefully guarded behind a thoughtfully crafted facade. Matzen looks past that showing the very human side of both. The result is an honest an intimate portrait of two stars at the height of their careers whose relationship was on borrowed time.
Matzen wrote the book in a slightly different style. In the first half of the book, the chapters alternate between Lombard’s life story and the reaction to the crash itself. Towards the middle of the book, the seam is merged and the story moves forward as emergency personnel formulate plans to visit the crash site and recover what they can. Readers sensitive to graphic descriptions of accidents may find this part of the book difficult to get through. The accident was nothing short of devastating. As Matzen explained the violent nature of the collision, I felt a chill go down my spine. I was also speechless as I read descriptions of the carnage that awaited personnel as they made their way to the crash site. At the end of the book, there are photographs included which help to give the reader a visual image of the crash site. Pictures sometimes do speak a thousand words.
Clark Gable remains one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars. But what the public did not see was the struggle he waged in the wake of his wife’s death. Matzen discusses Gable’s life after the crash and up until his death in 1960 at the age of fifty-nine. Apart from the crash, this part of the book is also a tough read. We witness the emotional and physical descent by Gable as he struggles to move on in life following the loss of Lombard whom he affectionately referred to as “Ma”. His sorrow is strong and his life was never the same again. The author focuses on his emotional state and his surprising decision to enlist in the military during World War II. Gable is a man apart and fans of the late star will find this part of the book to be equally heartbreaking.
As the book moves towards its conclusion, the author gives us yet another surprise with regards to the crash of Flight 2793 on November 8, 2007. The Cessna was a T182t single-engine aircraft piloted by Civil Air Patrol. Col. Ed Lewis and copilot Dion DeCamp. Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed directly into the same mountain as TWA Flight 3. The coincidence was beyond creepy but did both flights crash for the same reason? And why did two planes, piloted by experienced captains slam full speed into a mountain that by all accounts, should have been seen? Matzen provides a very thorough and likely explanation for Flight 3’s crash and reveals interesting facts about 2793’s final moments. Perhaps the final truth will never be known about each flight but we do have an abundance of information about both crashes. They each highlight the dangers of flying at night without proper visual aids and pre-flight planning. May the souls on board of each rest in peace.
Before reading this book, I was not aware of Flight 3 and the sad ending to the life of Carole Lombard. The book came as a recommendation on Amazon and for some reason the cover pulled me in. It was truly a fascinating read and the pace of the book never let up. Matzen has done an outstanding job. Highly recommended.
If you want to learn more about TWA Flight 3, researcher Mike McComb has an informative post on the tragedy titled January 16, 1942: Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA), Douglas DC-3 (NC1946) Potosi Mountain, NV. The post includes more photographs of Mt. Potosi, the crew and some of the passengers. If you like this book, you will find the website to be highly informative and just as thought provoking as Matzen’s work.
I find that as I age, I am more focused on historical events that changed the course of America, in particular from Black Americans. It has been said that in order to know where you are going, you have to know where you come from. For millions of Black Americans, the question of identity has been a difficult one to answer. Some prefer the term African-American while others prefer Black-American. And there are some who prefer Afro-American or just simply Black. Regardless of the label, there is a shared history of pain, struggle and the never ending goal for full integration American society. Over the past fifty years, tremendous progress has been made in the United States but there is still much work to be done. But one of the greatest things about America is our ability to correct and learn from mistakes that have lingered for too long. The young generation of today lives in a world far removed from only twenty years ago. Their world is one in which technology is ingrained and life moves at an even faster pace. My father often thinks back to the period of integration and the times where it seemed as if America was going to tear itself apart. Even to him, as a kid it seemed as if the accomplishments by Black Americans over the years were just a pipe dream.
The Civil Rights Movement was a platform not just for Black-Americans but for all people that had been denied basic civil rights to which everyone is entitled, whether here in the United States or around the world. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., has always been seen as the “leader” of the American movement. The reality is that he was one of endless figures who displayed unparalleled bravery and dedication. But he is easily the most recognizable. But behind him, was his wife Coretta Scott King (1927-2006), who in later years became even more vocal in her commitment to Dr. King’s legacy and the movement they both believed in. This book is her autobiography so that the world can learn more not about Mrs. King but about Coretta.
Her story begins in 1927, in the small town of Heiberger, Alabama during the Jim-Crow Era. Readers sensitive to the subject matter might find this part of the book a little unnerving. Although there are some low points, there are equally many high points as well and the pride and dignity with which the Scott family carried itself offsets the darker memories that she recalls. From an early age, she is independent, tough and open to change. Those traits would prove to be invaluable later in life when a young bachelor named Martin Luther King, Jr., walked into her life. It is at this point in the book that the story picks up speed at an extraordinary pace.
Martin’s story is well-known and he remains one of the most iconic figures in world history so I do not think it is necessary to go into detail about his life in this post. Plus, Coretta does that for us but not in the position of a biographer, but simply as his wife and the mother of their four children. This is the behind the scenes look into their very private life which might surprise some. In contrast to the public version of Dr. King which was cool, controlled and always prophetic, the version shown by Coretta is humble, playful, a homemaker, a prankster and a father. The movement is never far away and Coretta explains early on that they both believed that the movement was a higher calling than anything else. And each would maintain that belief until the end of their lives.
As the story moves into the 1960s, the movement gains momentum and Coretta revisits all of the critical moments that changed America. The bus boycotts, Rosa Parks (1913-2005), Bull Connor (1897-1973) and Jim Sharp (1922-2007) are just some of the events and figures that she discusses. She also discusses the much darker moments that occurred such as a the murders of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy and her beloved Martin, whose death rattled the globe and changed her life permanently. Following his assassination, she became the heir apparent to the King legacy and she has never wavered in that task.
The book changes gears after Martin’s death and the focus shifts primarily back on Coretta. Her children also come into sharper focus and she discusses how each responded to their father’s death and what he meant to them. Although Martin was gone, Coretta was still in high demand and the movement never stopped. Her circle of friends and acquaintances changes slightly but the core group of support remains intact. Later in her years, she finds herself in what some would call the widow’s club but to her, it was far from that. She was a survivor of the movement who understood that death was a constant threat to anyone who dared to challenge the system.
There is one part of the book that did strike me and that was her discussion of rumors of Martin’s infidelity. Accounts of philandering, allegedly picked up through FBI wiretaps has circulated for years. It is true that tapes were mailed to their house and Coretta elaborates on what they contained. She also has choice words for J. Edgar Hoover and his bureau. King’s friend Ralph Abernathy (1926-1990) comes under fire here for his statements in his autobiography And The Walls Came Tumbling Down wherein he discusses Martin’s transgressions. Coretta remains firm in her beliefs about Martin’s actions outside the home and Abernathy never changed his position. All are now deceased, leaving us without the opportunity to clear up the issue. What I can say is that I have never seen any photo evidence of such activity and the main source for the information came from the very agency whose job it was to discredit him. I will leave the issue up to the reader to research.
Dick Gregory once said that Black History is American History. One month in February does not come close to telling the full story. But that is easily circumvented through books such as this, written by those who were present during the defining moments in the American experience. Coretta is no longer with us, but her words of wisdom and guidance remain as a light to lead us through our darkest times, some of which have yet to come. Highly recommended.
I am honored to announce that the Free Thinking Bibliophile has been nominated for the Liebster Award. Thank you to Rebecca at Fake Flamenco for her nomination. And a very big thank you to my followers for your support and feedback as this blog has grown. When I started the blog in the summer of 2015, I had no idea it would become such a big part of my life. It has been one of the best decisions that I have ever made.
The Liebster Award helps good blogs get deserved attention so more followers discover them. Lieb is the German word for kind, nice, or good. If you are unfamiliar with the Liebster Award, you can read more about it here.
Here’s an excerpt of my letter to Rebecca of Fake Flamenco:
I am honored to be nominated for the Liebster Award. Thank you for the nomination. I proudly accept it with deep appreciation and happiness. Per your request, here are three facts about me:
- Besides blogging, I am also an IT Administrator and when I’m not blogging, building, fixing and maintaining servers and computers.
- I’m left handed
- I love to travel.
Here are my answers to the three questions that you have asked:
- Which book have you read more than twice? Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth”
- What is your favorite meal? Old-fashioned Dominican cuisine of rotisserie chicken with beans, rice and freshly fried tostones (plantains).
- Where in the world would you like to travel? Having seen some of the UK, the next place I would like to see is Scotland.
Blogs I nominate for the Liebster Award:
My three questions to nominees are:
- If you could meet any historical figure of your choice, who would it be?
- Which event in world history shocked you the most?
- What led you to create your blog?
Today’s post will be quite different and discuss a subject that many of us are loathe to speak of let alone contemplate . This afternoon I received the unfortunate news that a friend and former co-worker died yesterday after a short and aggressive illness. And although the two of us hadn’t seen each other in a few years, we did keep in touch and her death has been usually tough to handle. When she came to the office in 2003, she was originally hired as temporary labor. But the boss liked her so much that he offered a full-time position and for thirteen years she served as the office manager. When she left the office in 2016, it was a tough moment to get through but I understood that employer and employee relationships do not always have a happy ending. Several weeks ago, she called me randomly at a new job because she needed some advice with regards to Microsoft Office. On the phone, she sounded full of life and excited about her new job. I had no idea at the time that she was sick and about to have a battle that would eventually take her life. Her death hits home as I get older and think of my own mortality. I have become aware of the fact that my time on this earth is finite and that no one is promised tomorrow.
The news of her death opened the floodgates of memories and I instantly recalled when she first came over to introduce herself. We instantly hit it off and remained friends ever since. I vividly recall the time I helped her move after a fire destroyed her previous apartment. I vividly recall when she phoned me at 2:00 a.m. on the night of her sister’s death. I vividly recall her mother’s passing and attending the wake with my own mother. And I vividly recall how she went to bat for anyone close to her if she felt that they were being taken advantage of. She was an extremely welcoming person but could be sharp as a knife when needed. And if you looked at her, you would have no idea that she was of Puerto Rican descent. She loved her Salsa music, Puerto Rican cuisine and her beloved Motown music which she played all the time in the office. When I think of her I can truly say that the good times far outweigh the bad.
Sometimes we never know why people come into our lives until they are gone. When I look back on our friendship, she helped me grow in many ways and was always a voice of reason when I had questions about many things in life. She could be tough at times but she was always genuine. And when she loved you as a person, you certainly knew it from the big smile and hug that she greeted you with.
During our last conversation, before she hung up, she said to me “I have to go, I’m at the new job, but we’ll catch up soon”. We never got the chance to make that happen. But I do have many great memories of Christmas parties, bowling, office lunches and tons of laughs as we passed the time at the office. She made sure I knew all of her immediate family, some of whom are also deceased. Some of our friends are in our lives every day and others may drift away but when we see each other, it is as if nothing has happened. No matter how much time had passed since we last saw each other, we were still close as ever and there was nothing I would not do if she needed it. And I knew that I could count on her for the same. Tonight, as I think of her and how she affected many lives, I can take some solace in the fact that she is no longer in pain and may she truly sleep in peace. Godspeed Miriam, Godspeed.
To my subscribers, cherish those around you while you can because while death is certain, life is not. Hug each other, talk to each other and understand each other. Love is tough and it forces us to become vulnerable. But it is that vulnerability that teaches us what true love and friendship really is. And to have a friend, you first have to be a friend. We do not know when our friends will leave us, but until they do, enjoy each moment and be sure to let them know that you are there for them but most importantly that yes, you do love them. For whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee (Selected from the writings of John Donne (1572-1631)).
In loving memory of Miriam Irina Burgos (1958-2019). Vaya con dios amiga.
The cover of this book is bound to cause many to do a double take. The crossing out of the word black is far from subtle, but anyone who is familiar with the late Richard Claxton “Dick” Gregory (1932-2017), will know that subtlety was not in his character. He was known as a star comedian for many years but he was also a civil rights activist, nutrition guru, social critic, writer and occasional actor. His death marked the passing of a icon whose sharp wit and frankness earned him the respect of his peers and people across the nation. Published after his death, this book takes a look at the official history of African Americans that Americans have been told for more than a century. Gregory makes it clear early in the book that American History and Black History are one in the same. It is a valid point and for African Americans, the United States is the only home that many have ever known. The history that has been taught in classrooms across America continues to be re-examined in the pursuit of the truth by historians and independent researchers. The gift of the internet has allowed truth-seekers to reach audiences of monumental sizes as we step back in time to learn what really did happen with regards to pivotal events that shaped the modern day United States.
Gregory starts early in the book, beginning after America becomes a newly formed nation and step by step, he provides us with an outline of the events that took place to clarify what has been written in error. Admittedly, Gregory has been viewed as a conspiracy theorist and in some parts of the book, a few statements give credence to that. Sadly, we do not have the ability to ask him to elaborate on those statements. I did find a few comments to be in need of further verification. But the overall message of the book remains strong and Gregory presents an abundance of valid points. For those who have accepted the history presented in school textbooks, Gregory might come off as out of his mind. But if we pay careful attention to his words, he does speak a lot of truth but in a way where we can analyze things on our own and do further research. In his defense, he never claims to be the end all source for historical information. However, he was a prominent fixture in the civil rights movement and friends with an endless number of historical figures who were directly involved in the movement. He provides plenty of anecdotes about many stars such as Marvin Gaye (1939-1984), Michael Jackson (1958-2000) and Malcolm X (1925-1965).
The pace of the book is fast but steady and Gregory makes sure not to spend too much time on one subject. He discusses each topic just long enough to provided the reader with a clear picture of past events. And while I do feel that it would have been great if he had gone into more detail, that would have required a much larger book. His focus here, is plant enough seeds of doubt so that we continue to do research on our own and learn the truth about history. Gregory was brilliant both as a comedian and social critic. Part of what made him such a memorable figure was his ability to shock his audience. He pulls no punches here and makes it clear that he intends to clarify the many lies that have been told for too long.
Some of us will read this book and come away with the belief that Gregory is more of a conspiracy theorist than many thought. He does make some statements that could be conspiracy theory oriented but he never strays too far off course or makes statements that are beyond outlandish. But I stress again that this book is not the final word on historical events. The book is a good start for those who have long questioned what they have been taught. Black Americans will question their own history in a country that has a dark past with racial discrimination. Black actors, athletes, musicians, activists and authors struggled with the system of Jim Crow and acceptance in mainstream American society. But as Gregory shows us, they all had tremendous courage and he uses their stories to prove his point that Black Americans are not helpless, but strong people whose history has been ignored for far too long. As a Black American, Gregory caused me to re-examined things that I learned years ago in my own search for truth. I did learn a few things I did not know before and for other things, I have more topics to research in-depth. I never had the opportunity to meet Dick Gregory but I had seen him in interviews on several occasions. He is no longer with us but his voice remains as prominent and relevant as ever. And this posthumous release is a further testament to his colorful and influence intellect that provokes thought and reflection. Good read.
Baseball has long held the title of America’s pastime. The NBA and NFL have respectable followings of their own. However there is also the world of sports entertainment that has been made famous by the phenomenon of professional wrestling. My father has always called it “rassling” and when I walked around the house doing my best impersonations of the stars of what was then called the World Wrestling Federation (“WWF”), he always shook his head in laughter. In spite of the wisdom he possessed about the spectacle I was obsessed with, not once did he ever try to dissuade me from watching the heroes that I came to believe in. And when he and my uncle took my brother and I to Madison Square Garden to see Hulk Hogan live in person, it was if we had been transported to wrestling heaven. As I aged, my view of wrestling changed and so did the characters I found to be standouts. Among them, was Bret Hart, known as the Hitman and leader of the Hart Foundation, the heel group that had an enormous following of fans. When he retired not long after suffering a devastating concussion in the ring, I and many fans looked back on the many matches he took part in with sadness knowing he would never set foot in the ring again. I always wondered what really went on behind the scenes and when I saw that he had written this autobiography, I knew that I had to read it. And I am happy to report that the book did not let me down and it is one of the best books about the wrestling industry that I have ever read.
Those of us who are wrestling fans accept some of the truths about it, mainly that it is entertainment. But every wrestler will tell you in person that there are some parts of the industry that are very real and lives are affected. The life of a pro-wrestler is a crazy one, based on traveling over three hundred days per year, nagging injuries, backstage politics, fame, success and attempts at maintaining a “home life” while mostly away from home. The fans rarely see the sacrifices the stars make to bring joy and excitement to the millions of wrestling fans around the world. And when the show is over, some stars ride off into the sunset while others struggle to survive after stepping out of the squared circle. For Bret Hart, it is a mix of both but in ways that no one could have expected when he first started out in what he calls the cartoon world of wrestling.
As to be expected, the story begins in Canada at the Hart family home where patriarch Stu Hart (1915-2003) and Helen Hart (1924-2001) raised Bret and his eleven siblings. He takes us back in time behind closed doors to witness that daily events in the Hart household. From the beginning, he makes it clear that the Hart siblings have some serious dysfunctional relationships. Their father is a wrestling promoter and the family struggled with the highs and lows of the business. Hart is open about the times of poverty the family endured and the other times when money flowed in. Some of the Hart children sought to make their own careers but the family was a wrestling dynasty and before long, Bret himself laced up the boots and began a career that was nothing short of extraordinary.
The book is captivating from the start and Hart has no shortage of anecdotes about growing up in a large family under a man feared by anyone who dared to get close enough to Stu’s dungeon. The story flows very well and we begin to see Hart’s life taking shape. The story takes the biggest turn when Vince McMahon, Jr. enters the story. It is at this point that life is never the same from Bret or professional wrestling. McMahon realized early on that in order to pull ahead, regional wrestling promotions would have to fold and to achieve this, he purchased a number of them, guaranteeing an iron grip on the East Coast. Bret soon faced the decision that many wrestlers of his time had to make and decided to take a chance and go to work for the WWF. The book picks up speed here and the things we learn about backstage production will more than satisfy wrestling buffs. All of the big names are in the book but sadly many of them are no longer with us. But through Bret’s stories, we can revisit the era ruled by stars such as Andre The Giant (1946-1993), Bobby Heenan (1944-2017), Adrian Adonis (1953-1988) and Chief Wahoo McDaniel (1938-2002). Throughout the book, Hart never loses focus even in the midst of so many larger than life characters. In the land of the giants, he rises to the top and eventually becomes the WWF champion. His ascension was by no means easy and his relationship with Vince is examined in detail. Hart pulls no punches and thoroughly explains his view of the Montreal Screwjob, his brother Owen’s death and how McMahon handled each situation. Those two moments in the book might change the way many view the minds behind the business. Wrestling fans will be familiar with both events but it is worth reading what Hart has to say.
The successes in the ring are offset by the events in his personal life which he discusses frankly. Professional wrestling is filled with many demons and Hart was not immune, Performance enhancing drugs, pain killers, infidelity, alcohol and acts of aggression are the devil’s brew that can dismantle the life of even the strongest of the strong. Hart discusses each one and in the process reveals the many struggles that can serve as the downfall of a wrestling star. The stories are sad and in some cases tragic. One that stands out in the book is that of Tom Billington (1958-2018) known by fans as the Dynamite Kid. His story is one of the most tragic that I have come across from the crazy world of wrestling. There is more to his life that Hart could not cover but Billington’s story can easily be found on the internet. Hart was one of the lucky ones and as friends died, he lived and counted his blessings. But two events happened that forced him out of the ring and changed his life in ways he could have never imagined.
During a routine match with superstar Bill Goldberg, Hart suffered a career ending concussion. I remember the match and it was clear that Hart had been seriously injured. However, no one watching that night knew just how serious the injury was but that would soon change. Hart recalls the profound changes in his life and the excruciating effects it inflicted up his body. His life became a daily struggle to do the most mundane tasks and when things seemed to be stable, he suffered another medical emergency that completely changed his future. For fans of the Hitman, this part of the book will be tough to get through. But I can say that throughout it all, he never stops being the Hitman and the story does have its shining moments. This autobiography is a treasure trove of information about the business and it is nothing short of seductive. I literally could not get enough of the stories about the older wrestling stars. They lived wild lives but also made their names as legends in the squared circle. Bret Hart is among those that have managed to survive but he carries with him many scars, both physically and mentally from his time in the business. This is his story, one of success, fame, love, heartbreak, tragedy and redemption. And I am sure that it will leave you at times speechless and at others, cheering Hart along in support. Wrestling fans will love this book.
Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 – Steve Coll
On the morning of February 26, 1993, Ramzi Yousef and a team of terrorist drove a bomb laden van into the basement of the World Trade Center complex in New York City. As I watched the news from across the river in Brooklyn that morning, I felt a sense of shock and vulnerability. America had been attacked. When Ramzi Yousef was captured and extradited to New York to stand trial, many New Yorkers breathed a sigh of relief. The Hon. Kevin Duffy sentenced Yousef to life with no parole plus an additional 240 years which he is currently serving at the ADX Florence Supermax facility in Fremont County, Colorado. Eight years later on September 11, 2001, America was attacked again when terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners, crashing two into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and the final aircraft outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The response from Washington was swift and a show of force nearly unparalleled in modern times. The mission to capture those responsible and root out terrorists, led to Afghanistan, a land-locked country in South-Central Asia. Images of U.S. troops and the enemy Taliban flashed across news screens as reports of successes in the mission to root out terror were triumphantly proclaimed. To many Americans, Afghanistan was another far away place across the world where people lived in ways that seemed to be from ancient times, going against “American ideals”. Today, Afghanistan is nearly completely forgotten by the American public. There has been no news about what America’s current role is and plans to withdraw American forces have been cast aside as yet another victim of the focus on what has become reality television politics. The story of Afghanistan and its importance to world history is often misunderstood and in some cases not even recognized. But there is far more that meets the eye and author Steve Coll explores this topic in this New York Times bestseller that tells the full story what did happen in Afghanistan between the Soviet Invasion and the deadly attacks on September 11, 2001.
If you asked a person on the street today why we are in Afghanistan, I firmly believe that many could not give a plausible answer. Washington has no official position on it. But what is striking is that for decades, U.S. foreign policy towards Afghanistan was either anti-soviet, anti-Taliban and in other cases, non-existent. Coll revisits each and examines the subject in detail so that we can understand how and why the U.S. attitude towards Afghanistan continued to shift. The book is primarily focused on the Soviet-Afghan war between 1979 and 1989. The conflict drew the attention and participation of multiple countries including Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Central Intelligence Agency served as the main force to funnel information back to Washington and the United States found itself supporting the Mujadhideen rebels against the Soviet backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The rebels’ cause earned them support from other young radicals including a very young Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011) who reappears later in the book as an arch-nemesis of the United States. The Soviet-Afghan war served as the last major conflict of the Cold War before the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, history took a very different course for many reason as the author shows. And slowly Afghanistan became a pawn in a much larger chess match between more powerful and sophisticated nations.
The figures that appear in the book are numerous and keeping track of all of them is a bit tedious. But each is critical to the story at hand including the late Senator from Texas, Charles Wilson (D) (1933-2010), Mullah Mohammed Omar (1960-2013) and former Pakistan Premier Benazir Bhutto (1957-2007). All of the figures are central to the complicated web woven in the Middle East as Sharia Law clashed with modernity and oil pipelines became the target of several governments. Coll connects all of the dots in a writing style that makes the story very easy to follow. The revelations in the book dis-spell many rumors and confirm others. The volatile nature of politics in the region is on full display as each leader walks a tightrope while in office. The rise of Sharia Law and anti-modernity beliefs began to turn the tide in the Middle East from welcomed support from the west to disdain for the western way of life. Radicalism is born and as Coll moves through the second half the book, we see how Islamic extremism gained its footing while Washington was asleep at the wheel.
Osama Bin Laden held a spot on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most wanted list for several years until his death. Even today, he is still considered one of the world’s deadliest terrorist although he did not carry out the acts himself. But as we see in the book, he was charismatic, dedicated and blessed with enormous wealth as a result of his father’s high successful and respected construction firm. He became a central figure in the new war against the west which would be waged by a new wave of committed soldiers with nothing to fear. Incredibly, while this was taking place, the response by Washington was bewildering. However, not everyone was oblivious to the sudden rise of Bin Laden and there were many officials who sounded the alarm as to what they saw as the next major threat to America. That threat manifested itself horrifically in September, 2001.
Undoubtedly, each reader will take something different away from the book. But I do believe that every reader will be confused to say the least as to what was really happening in Washington and lack of information provided to American citizens. As I read the book, I shook my head at times in disbelief. Today we can look back and ask what if Washington had stopped Bin Laden when it had the chance? Why did Washington fail to acknowledge the warning signs from the intelligence community? Some answers we may never fully know but through Steve Coll, we have plenty of explanations that will suffice for many. For those interested in learning the true story of the Soviet-Afghan war and America’s foreign policy in relation to the region, this book is a must read.