Category Archives: Biographies
On February 13, 1961, United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965) placed a call to President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and informed him that Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961), the first Prime Minister of the Independent Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been murdered a month earlier. The moment that Kennedy took the call was captured by a photographer and the image shows him with his hand covering his face in shock. The picture truly does speak a thousand words and Kennedy’s dismay resonated with millions of people around the world.
To a growing following, Lumumba represented hope for a new course to be charted by the continent of Africa. The Congo would lead the way and help other African nations achieve independence and change the world. As the leader of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), he stood at the front of the growing movement for independence which occurred on June 30, 1960. Nearly immediately after his historic election as Prime Minister, his enemies began plotting his elimination. Brussels became increasingly alarmed as its grip over the Congo became weaker with each day that passed. And before long, the decision to remove Lumumba became a priority for Belgium and other nations afraid of the rising Congolese star. In less than one year, he was dead and all hopes for a new Congo were shattered beyond repair. There are some people in the Congo who have never moved on from his murder. To this day, Lumumba remains a martyr in the African struggle for liberation from imperialism.
The first question to be answered is why was the Congo such a desirable location? Leo Zeilig has the answer to that question and many others. He explores the Congo’s past and in particular the actions of Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) and Dunlop Rubber. Their actions set the stage for the brutal Belgian occupation that ruled the Congo with an iron grip. Racism was a founding principle and enforced through strict segregation. It was into this world that Lumumba was born on July 2, 1925 in Onalua, located in the territory of Katako-Kombe. From the beginning, his life was anything but ordinary.
Zeilig did a masterful job at presenting Lumumba’s story so that we can see his development into an adolescent and then young man, forced to navigate a racist society whose goal was to reap enormous profits at the expense of Congolese men and women, often viewed by their occupiers as “savages”. Lumumba’s path to politics took many turns along the way and his personal life nearly rivaled his political life in intrigue. Zeilig pulls no punches, revealing any facades and clarifying any myths that might exist. Several wives, multiple children and a burning passion for knowledge were just some of the many sides to Lumumba’s life.
The book picks up speed after the election and granting of independence. Unsurprisingly, the Congo was plagued by tribal divisions which would later become problematic for any chance of unity. Those familiar with the events of that time will know very well the names of Joseph Kasa Vubu (1915-1969) and Moise Tshombe (1919-1969). Each would play a role in the removal of Lumumba and what is revealed will surely leave the reader in shock. Behind the facade of a coalition government, a deadly game of chess ensued, pitting critical figures against each other as the country slipped closer and closer to all out civil war in the wake of the Belgian exodus. Zeilig covers all angles and puts the pieces together as multiple nations soon join in the call for Lumumba’s removal. It is hard to put into the words how much of a threat he truly was to western powers. But Lumumba made several missteps along the way that helped open the door for the actions that resulted in his demise.
Suspense builds in the story and the effort to removal Lumumba kicks into high gear. The young leader is not unaware of opposing forces but believes he has the will of people behind him. One of the true ironies of his tragic story is that his fate was partly a result of the simmering Cold War between Washington and Moscow. His efforts at diplomacy are eerily similar to those of Ho Chih Minh and other revolutionary leaders who reached out to Washington and received no response. We can only ask what if questions today and ponder how things might have turned out different had President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) given Lumumba the courtesy of a meeting. The actions of Washington pushed many nations toward the Soviet Union, which welcomed the new allies as it attempted to expand its reach beyond the Soviet Republics. In hindsight, we can see with clarity the many errors made by all involved as they sought to outsmart each other in a game of cat and mouse that could have reached catastrophic levels.
The author builds the tension just right as the pending doom in Lumumba’s life steadily approaches. I could not help feel overcome by a feeling of dread as I read through the sections leading up to the assassination. The writing was on the wall and I felt myself wanting to tell Lumumba to move faster and leave even quicker. However, his fate came to pass on January 17, 1961 in the town of Elisabethville. Unbeknownst at the time, his savage death was a premonition of the future chaos that engulfed the continent and highlighted that moment as the day when the Congo was lost.
I had always wondered what happened to his children and Zeilig followed up with them as he researched this book. Their experience during and after his death, adds another level of tragedy to an already gripping story. They join the long list of victims who have suffered following the murder of the person who Zeilig rightfully calls Africa’s lost leader. Lumumba’s story is told beautifully by Zeilig and stands out as a firm biography. This is the life and death of the late Patrice Émery Lumumba.
Legends never die, that is an absolute fact. Some legends never live past fifty years of age, often leaving their mortal coil through tragedy or illness. For Alexander Fu Sheng (1954-1983), a single car accident was the cause of his demise and in the early morning hours of July 7, 1983, he died at the young age of twenty-eight. He left behind grieving parents, siblings and his widow Jenny Tseng, an accomplished Hong Kong singer who has also performed abroad. At the time of his death, he had risen to become one of the most popular stars to come out of the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio. Before ceasing film production in late 1985, Shaw Brothers had released several hundred films which had been locked away until Celestial Pictures bought the rights to the films and digitally remastered the majority of the collection. As a long-term fan of the martial-arts film genre, I had amassed a large collection of films which included all of Fu Sheng’s movies. My favorite is the film that catapulted him to international stardom, The Chinatown Kid (1977). Terrence J. Brady gave this biography the perfect finishing touch by included the name of that film in the title of this book. His exhaustive efforts have resulted in the only known biography of the late film star.
If you have no idea who Fu Sheng was, I do recommend that you watch some of his films, a full list of which can be found here. It should be noted that the list does not contain The Mark of the Eagle which was being filmed at the time of his death. The project was shelved permanently. Readers familiar with Black Belt Theater will feel a sense of nostalgia as memories of Saturday afternoons filled with Shaw classics then distributed by the World Northal Corporation. It truly is an era that we will never again see. Today, CGI and fancy camerawork has replaced the old-school method of filming that relied heavily on coordination, training and relentless stamina. Many Shaw Brothers stars are still alive, well into their 60s, 70s and even 80s. The Shaw studio is long gone, but the magic they created will last a lifetime. Fu Sheng was part of that magic and Terrence J. Brady has finally put together the true story of his short and extraordinary life.
The book is without question a biography, but the author did a great job of providing a tremendous amount of back-story for the topics at hand. In fact, throughout the book, snippets of Chinese military and literary history are included showing the link between China’s past and what the filmmakers had intended to capture on-screen. Undoubtedly, Fu Sheng is the star of this story and Brady carefully retraces his steps from film extra to superstar. And along the way, he was surrounded by cinema greats who became mentors, friends and mourners. Their stories and their relationships with Fu Sheng show the very personal side to the individuals who helped create the films that I and scores of others have come to cherish dearly.
His widow Jenny is also a central part of the story and I firmly believe Brady lays to rest any rumors that have persisted about their lives together up until the time of Fu Sheng’s death. And following his demise, Jenny has a surprise of her own which I had never known of. Her revelation, whether it is true or not, adds to the tragedy of his life. But what is evidently clear, is the love they had for each other, which the late Chang Cheh (1923-2002) showcased in his most eccentric film Heaven & Hell (1980). The film has been written off as Cheh’s most bizarre work but personally, I found it to be highly entertaining. In the film, the couple performs a duet that complements the prior act perfectly. But there was more to their singing partnership than many might have known or remember. Brady covers that as well here and his research provides a steady stream of incredible information about the couple during their several year courtship and subsequent marriage. Of note, Tseng never remarried after Fu Sheng’s death.
Fans of the Shaw Brothers will absolutely love this book. It is an insider’s look into how the studio created its hit films and a good reference guide for a quick background information on some of the biggest names to work there. In this story, nearly all of the legends make an appearance including Ti Lung, David Chiang and the late Lau Kar Leung (1934-2013). A who’s who of stars is put on display and as I read the book, I could feel the Shaw Brothers studio come back to life again during what could only be described as a classic era in the Hong Kong film industry. In fact, this book has encouraged me to revisit the Shaw classics, some of which I haven’t watched in nearly two years I still have my entire collection which started in 1995 when my father took me up to 42nd Street. There, I purchased my own VHS English dubbed copy of the Five Masters of Death. The original Hong Kong title is The Five Shaolin Masters. Fu Sheng had a starring role in the film and it was in this movie that I first became a fan. It is just one of many great masterpieces he contributed to during his storied career.
This book truly is a blessing and I am forever grateful for Brady’s monumental effort. Fu Sheng is long gone, having died nearly thirty-six years ago, but his memory and legacy live on not only in Hong Kong but across the world. During his time at the Shaw Brothers studio, he rightfully earned the nickname of the Chinatown Kid.
Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison—Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out – Jason Rezaian
The United States and Iran share a long and storied past, defined in moments that changed world history. The removal of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, followed by the reinstatement of the Shah and the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979, set the stage for decades of tension between the two nations. And incredibly, it was under this tension that the administration of U.S. President Barack H. Obama engaged in talks that resulted in the The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, simply known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. The deal was both heralded as a landmark achievement and a kowtow of the worst kind. But what many Americans did not know, was that there was far more taking place behind the scenes, including the release of U.S. prisoners held in Iranian jails. Among those prisoners, was American born journalist Jason Rezaian, of The Washington Post. You may remember him from his appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s (1956-2018) hit show No Reservations. The episode was beautifully done and Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh, appear as voices of insight into Iranian culture. At the conclusion of the episode, there is a message on the screen that they both had been taken by Iranian intelligence. The episode is my second favorite, the first is Vietnam in which President Obama makes a surprise appearance and enjoys a meal with Bourdain in Ho Chih Minh City. On January 16, 2016, Rezaian was released was repatriated to the United States. Joining him were his Iranian born wife and his mother who never stopped fighting for her son’s release.
The book came to me as a recommendation from Amazon and I have to say, it was right on the money with this one. I easily recognized Rezaian and was curious to know exactly what did take place during his incarceration. The goods are all here and at times, I had to shake my head at the words and actions of his captors. The Twilight Zone atmosphere, as Rezaian once describes it, is periodically broken by his recollections of his early life and his family’s history. He explains his reasons for leaving America in his early thirties and moving to Iran, the place of his late father’s birth. At first, the book reads like a typical story of a young man who found a home away from home. He meets the love of his life, Yeganeh and the two begin to build their life together as a married couple. But on July 22, 2014, that all changed when they were arrested, blindfolded and transported to the Evin Prison in Tehran.
Authorities are convinced Rezaian is conduction “spionage”, as they call it and have labeled him a master spy who has come to spread revolution in Iran, through the import of “avocados”. At first I could not believe my eyes but the insanity only increases. Interrogators employ endless mind tricks in order to get Rezaian to “cooperate” and “admit” his wrongdoings, even without being able to say for certain what they were. They assure him that they are there to “help”. Rezaian’s sharp wit, adds a level of comedy to the story that lightens the mood and keeps the reader glued to the book, anticipating the next page. But the reality is that the charges were serious, in fact, deadly serious. More than once he is threatened with execution. The jury is still out whether the Iranians ever intended to actually commit such an act or if it was strictly a scare tactic that they knew would have backfired publicly and politically. Their attempts to interrogate him and their obsession with American films and politics, has the effect of turning the affair into a three-ring circus in which Rezaian is the only one with a sane mind. How he kept his sanity, sense or humor and composure, many of us will never truly know. Perhaps it is the human will to survive which at times can be stronger than most would expect. Rezaian admits that he nearly gave in on more than one occasion but the world was rooting for him and the support of his family, in particular his brother, help provide the inspiration he needed to remain stoic and defiant, until he once again walked the streets as a free man.
As to be expected, the Iran Nuclear Deal is a significant back story to the book and integral to his eventual release. As a prison inside Iran, Rezaian was given an insider’s view into Iranian society and the mood in Tehran as its leaders and Washington hammered out an agreement that had been reached with the hope that the two nations could begin open dialogue which could eventually end in peace that has eluded both for nearly forty years. Rezaian discusses the process and the difficulties of reaching an agreement which also included himself and other prisoners. But even he admits that at the time, he had no idea of how many people were at work, doing everything in their power to secure his release and several others. The ending of the book plays out as if Hollywood sent its best writers but this is not fiction. It was a show of diplomatic power at its finest and a story in which the good guy does win.
Sadly, hopes of peace between Iran and America faded with the announcement of President Donald J. Trump that the United States would withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal. On May 8, 2018, the withdrawal went into effect and only time will tell what will happen but I sincerely hope that peace does prevail. For Jason Rezaian, peace came in a different form and his freedom from the Evin Prison, has given him an even deeper perspective of where Iran continues to go wrong. He also explains the many areas in which non-Iranians fail in understanding how and why its society operates in the manner that it does. But make no mistake, this is his story and how he survived incarceration in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Those of us who have visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, can testify to its seduction of visitors with a passion for treasured art. The second floor is home to Campbell’s Soup Cans and Other Works, 1953–1967, a collection of thirty-two pieces by the late Andy Warhol (1928-1987). February 22 will mark thirty-two years since his untimely death at the age of fifty-eight. Art students and museum aficionados have long studied his work as the shining example of the Pop Art movement that swept across the United Kingdom and United States during the 1950s. Warhol undoubtedly became the poster child for the movement with his sleek frame, white wig, large frame glasses and black sweater. His personal life, carefully hidden from the public, became a mystery to those seeking to know just who is and who was the real Andy Warhol? Bob Colacello worked for Warhol on their publication Interview, for twelve years and in this intriguing account of their time together, he reveals the Andy Warhol he knew with all his quirks, ingenuity and fears in life.
The book is not an autobiography and Colacello does not try to assess Warhol’s psyche. Further, this is Colacello’s story from start to finish but Warhol does play a critical role to the events that transpired in his life for obvious reasons. From the start, it is apparent that Andy is not the typical boss and writing for Interview will be no easy task. As Colacello explains, it was usually a test of wills with Andy believing everyone had a hidden story or “problem” and that Colacello should proposition them with the offer of a cover shot and even change his name to “Bob Cola” to sound more appealing. Their contrasting personalities and those of the other members of what Colacello refers to as the “factory”, created a magazine that grew into a serious contender and in the process, made Warhol’s name synonymous with modern pop art. His successes took him and his staff across several continents and through endless cities. Colacello was dutifully by his side along with a dedicated team of collaborators, each of whom would wage their own battles with Warhol over his eccentric behavior and domineering personality. They all recognized that within their boss was a visionary who straddled the fine line between genius and insanity.
Anyone who decides to read this book, probably has some inkling of who Andy Warhol was. His carefully crafted public facade, gave off an aura of chic that tabloids found irresistible. But behind the facade was a different person, and Colacello was there to witness those revealing moments when Andy let down his guard. The anecdotes from Colacello are amusing and in some cases puzzling as Andy’s behavior typically bordered on the surreal. Armed with his tape recorder which he called Sony and hindered by his social awkwardness, Andy sometimes became a square trying to fit into a circle. But yet, most could not resist being around him as his name grew in popularity. That fame resulted in a steady stream of film stars, foreign dignitaries and politicians giving Interview and Warhol the publicity they constantly needed. It was an unbelievable ride for the young artist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, born to immigrant parents from the small region of Ruthenia. Some of you may be wondering, where on earth is Ruthenia? It is located in the Carpathian Mountains, sitting between the meeting point of the borders of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Russia. Sadly, Warhol never addresses his family’s ancestry and often said that “I come from nowhere”. Perhaps it was just Andy being Andy or was a sign of a deeper inner struggle that manifested itself in his work. We will never know for sure as Andy took that and many other secrets with him to his grave.
Every story about a famous figure has the proverbial “elephant in the room”. For Andy, it was sexuality, a theme that was found in many of his works and which fueled his belief that everyone had a juicy sexual secret they were hiding. As Colacello reveals, Warhol was entranced by gossip and in particular, the sex lives of celebrities. But was this a defense mechanism to deflect from his own love life? Colacello provides great insight into Andy’s love life or lack of it. And even with his revelations, many questions still linger about what type of love life he actually had. Maybe that was Andy’s plan, to keep everyone guessing, on their toes and confused. But there are two people who appear in the story and Colacello explains their importance thoroughly and how they affected Andy’s personal life. One of them, Jed Johnson, tragically perished on TWA Flight 800 in 1996, which exploded shortly after takeoff from New York City’s JFK International Airport. The flight was bound for Paris and all 230 passengers perished in the accident. Johnson was with Andy the longest and their relationship provides some clues as to why Warhol behaved as he did.
Towards the latter part of the book, Colacello focuses on his increasing dissatisfaction working for Warhol and the impact upon the lives of his colleagues as a result of their boss’s behavior. Like a master manipulator, Warhol would push their buttons and then later soothe their egos, dangling them on strings in the process. Alcohol and drugs became coping mechanisms and flowed freely in their circle that consisted of Hollywood stars, music stars and the famous Studio 54, where Andy became a fixture. The image that appears as Colacello discusses working conditions at the factory, is one in which Andy keeps his subordinates in check, at odds and never in a position to amass too much influence in affairs. This system of dysfunction pushed many to brink and over time, nearly all left to escape from Andy’s off-handed and in some cases, callous treatment. However they remained loyal to him and his legacy, even when they no longer worked for him. Their commitment to Interview, the factory and Andy’s films, created a bond that could never be broken, not even with his death on February 22, 1987. Theirs is a story of a family with a broken parent that many of them tried to diagnose and piece back together. But Andy could never be the same after being shot several times on June 3, 1968. Valerie Solanas nearly ended his life that day but Andy survived and carried with him the scars from multiple surgeries and a life-long fear of being in public. His physical condition and paranoia of being attacked again, nearly crippled his social life, resulting in him needed a chaperone for nearly everything. More often than not, Colacello was assigned this task. However, the role he assumed gave him a very intimate look into the fractured life of his boss.
The mystery of Andy Warhol will continue for years to come. I do not believe there is one simple explanation for his life. Colacello even states that although he was close to Andy, he’s not sure if they were really that close as personal friends. Andy carefully kept everyone at a guarded distance. He avoided hospitals and even funerals, including that of his own mother Julia. His lovers had separate lives and seemed to come and go as they pleased. Andy threw himself into his work, pressuring all that worked for him to make sacrifices that at times were unrealistic. We can only assume that his constant drive to work, accumulate gossip with Sony and his prevention of letting anyone become close to him, may have been his way of protecting himself. Before his death, he said to close friends that he did not want to go into the hospital because you do not come out. But as his gallbladder became inflamed to the point of possibly rupturing, he was faced with having no other choice but going into the one place that he dreaded. And tragically, his prediction came true. But there is far more to Andy’s life and death, covered beautifully by his former employee and star writer. And fittingly Colacello has given us a very-welcomed portrait of what he calls the holy terror. Warhol fans will love this book.
On September 1, 1939, the Second World War began as the German army invaded Poland as part of Adolf Hitler’s quest for world domination. Britain had warned Germany that any military action against Poland would result in England coming to the aid of its ally. Interestingly, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) did not want to go to war with England, preferring to accomplish the annexation of Poland through diplomatic methods after having successfully partitioned Czechoslovakia in what is infamously referred to as the “appeasement at Munich”. But if Hitler did not want to wage war against Britain, knowing their intention to save Poland, then why did he give approval to the invasion that plunged the world into a major conflict? The answer to that question lies in the story of his Foreign Minister and Nuremberg defendant, Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim von Ribbentrop (1893-1946).
In the annals of the Third Reich, perhaps no other figure is as glanced over as Joachim von Ribbentrop. Standing next to nefarious characters such as Hermann Goering (1893-1946), Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) and Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945), he is often an afterthought. Semi-illiterate but able to speak fluent English, he was one of the few officials in the Third Reich with extensive exposure to the culture of the west. And the time he spent in London early in his life, made him the right choice by Hitler for the position of Ambassador to Great Britain. By all accounts, no one found him to be enjoyable company but incredibly, he maintained a position close to Hitler’s ear with the Führer listening intently and in some cases implementing Ribbentrop’s suggestions. Their unusual relationship would have dire consequences in 1939 at Hitler set his sights on Poland. It is here in this phenomenal biography that we learn another part of the story behind the Poland invasion and Ribbentrop’s critical role in the events.
At first glance, it is easy to write of Ribbentrop as “non-essential” to the story of the Third Reich. And although he is mentioned in many books about the Nazi regime, his role is typically minor in the grand scheme of events. But make no mistake, his advice and misconceptions about foreign nations, played pivotal roles in the rise and fall of the Third SS Reich. Bloch has capture Ribbentrop’s life beautifully in this biography that tells the story of the former Foreign Minister for all to see. In comparison to the other figures of the Nazi regime, his personal life could be considered average. But his entry in the Nazi party and actions thereafter, helped changed the course of history. As I was reading the book, I could not help feeling mystified as to how a figure such as Ribbentrop maintained the confidence of Hitler as each blunder piled up. Admittedly, Hitler did not consult him on every foreign policy matter, apparently realizing his many shortcomings. But he did trust Ribbentrop enough on some of the most important decisions to be made, many of which changed the course of world history and produced a mark on the history of Germany which can never be erased.
Notwithstanding his restricted voice in Hitler’s government, he was an important figure in Hitler’s vision of a Anglo-German unification. In fact, Ribbentrop’s actions towards and with the British government are the crux of the book. Naturally, his positions as Ambassador and later Foreign Minister, resulted in his constant communication with the Ambassadors of England, Italy and Japan. However, his close position to the Führer did not earn him the envoy of others but rather their wrath. Hitler was known to pit subordinates against each other, using the divide and conquer technique. Their fights and attempts to sabotage each other take center stage in the book as they compete for Hitler’s approval, the elimination of enemies and advancement in rank. The story reveals a terrible cast of characters drunk on power and filled with venom for competitors and the Jews of Europe. Standing center among these characters was the sad Ribbentrop, the man often the butt of jokes and contempt, who was rarely seriously. Having finished the book, I am dumbfounded as to how Hitler’s administration functioned at all. The decisions they reached and methods used were simply surreal and Ribbentrop plays a direct part in many of them.
On October 14, 1946, Ribbentrop was the first to be executed after Goering committed suicide in his cell the night before. He left behind a widow and four children, all of whom are still alive today. Decades have passed since their father’s death and in the passage of time, their lives will also reach a conclusion. But they remain witnesses to a time in history in which the world was on the brink of complete anarchy as Adolf Hitler set out to dominate the planet. Next to him was his fanatically dedicated Foreign Minister. This is the definitive biography of the life and death of Joachim von Ribbentrop.
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 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.