RFK: His Words For Our Times – Robert F. Kennedy, C. Richard Allen and Edwin O. Guthman

20210724_203834In 1968, the race for the next President of the United States intensified as sitting President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) issued a public statement that he did not want, nor would he accept the nomination for his party’s candidate for the oval office.  The announcement stunned the nation and took the election in a much different direction.  The late David Halberstam (1934-2007) had been following the campaign of former Attorney General and then Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968)(D-NY).  As he observed Kennedy’s evolution into a powerhouse figure, he noted that “Robert Kennedy was in many ways the most interesting figure in American politics, not only because he was a Kennedy, not only because so much of his education had taken place in the public eye—it could be traced by putting together film clips of this decade—but primarily because he was a transitional figure in a transitional year.”  Kennedy was riding a wave of popularity and had resurrected the image of Camelot that was assigned to the presidency of his older brother John F. Kennedy (1917-1963). But Bobby, as he was known, was not Jack and had seen many things that his brother did not live to experience.  His eyes had been opened to the growing gap between wealthy and poor, black, and white, and right and left. He sought to bridge those gaps and had a vision to change America. Sadly, he too was cut down by an assassin’s bullet on June 5, 1968.   His death marked the end to what Halberstam had called his unfinished odyssey. 

Each time I read about Kennedy, I find myself discovering more of his statements, speeches, and ideas.  And what is deeply intriguing is that he was the icon of liberals across America but early in his political career he undoubtedly aligned more with conservatives.  That changed with the arrival of the civil rights movement and the gritty violence that played out on the streets of America as the country moved closer to the brink of anarchy.   Kennedy was highly observant as the chief of the Justice Department and later as a senator from my home state.  Editors C. Richard Allen and Edwin O. Guthman have compiled selected speeches and comments by him and memories by those who knew him into this book that provides the platform for Kennedy to speak to us in his own words.  And if we pay close attention, we can see that there is a wealth of thought-provoking words by the fallen figure. 

John F. Kennedy is regarded as one of the most gifted orators in history.  Even today I still listen to his speeches in particular his address at American University on June 10, 1963, which is referred to historically as the “peace speech”.  His inaugural address in January 1961 is perhaps the greatest in American history.  And directive to Americans that they “ask not what your country can do for-ask what you can do for your country” are still profound over half a century later.  Though he did not possess the charm of his older sibling, Robert Kennedy was a profound speaker in his own right and the speeches he gave show his preciseness for words and the direct approach to matters which became his trademark. He minced no words and did not hesitate to act when needed.  Some referred to him as “ruthless Bobby” but statements by those who knew him and the anecdotes in this book show that he was also extremely compassionate.   Further, he was also guided by the ancient Greek author Aeschylus’ words “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world“.  Kennedy believed in America and never wavered in his goal to see society change so that all Americans regardless of race could live in peace and prosper.   The speeches he gave on the plight of black Americans and the apartheid system in South America are what needed to be said.  Frankly, he had no fear in going to places where other politicians did not dare to go.  In all fairness, Lyndon Johnson had made his own visit to Appalachia and instituted policies to help the poor through his “Great Society” platform, but Kennedy was willing to take it one step further and there is no doubt that he would have used the powers of the presidency to focus on America’s disenfranchised citizens.

I purchased the paperback but do think for anyone who wants to take notes, the Kindle version is a much better option.  Of course, the speeches included here can be found elsewhere but I found this book to be the right collection of material for anyone who wants to get an idea of where Kennedy came from and where he intended to go.   And as we move forward, we can always come back to his words here as a reference guide so that we do not continue to make the mistakes of the past.  Kennedy is long gone physically but he lives on in spirit as an integral part of the American experience.

“Freedom means not only the opportunity to know but the will to know. That will can make for understanding and tolerance, and to ultimately friendship and peace.” – Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) 

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0062834142
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0062834140

The Promise & The Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy – David Margolick

dreamOn January 6, 2021, I and millions of people in America and abroad watched the events at the U.S. Capitol in which thousands of individuals breached security and entered the historic building in the belief that the 2020 Presidential Election had been stolen from Donald J. Trump.  As I watched the video footage, a sense of gloom came over me due to the realization that the pillars of our vision of democracy were under siege. Personally, I have no political affiliation and regardless of which party we belong to, none of them are above reproach when our government is threatened from within or abroad.  By evening, the dust had settled over Washington and officials began to piece together the chain of events that left several dead, dozens injured, and hundreds detained or the target of criminal investigation.  Messages from family members and friends started to arrive on my phone with nearly if I had seen the events in Washington, D.C.   The insurrection forced many of us to confront unsettling realities and acknowledge that threats exist all around us.  Further, the day also showed how far America has strayed from the principles it professes to believe in. 

When I find myself attempting to understand the present or the future, I instinctively turn to the past for the answers.  History is an invaluable tool if applied correctly.  Amazon must have sensed that I was in need for another lesson when this book by author David Margolick showed up in my list of recommendations.  I have previously written about both men on the cover, former U.S. Attorney General and Senator Robert F. Kennedy (19125-1968)(D-NY) and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  (1929-1968).  Their deaths occurred roughly two months apart in 1968 and some have said more than once that America never recovered.  The nation was forced to live with the endless questions of what if they both had lived.  Each man had a sense of duty to change America for present and future generations.  And though they had met in person on few occasions, they were connected in the civils right movement and in death.  The violent decade of the 1960s claimed many victims and their murders brought an end to what the author calls the promise and the dream.  But there is far more to their story than some may realize.  Publicly they did not present an image of harmony but behind closed doors they were critically important to each other.  The private side of their relationship is explored here in this remarkable account of two human beings who had achieved nearly deity status as America grappled with social and political change. 

I would like to point out that there are no smoking guns in the book regarding the assassinations of each.  The crimes are discussed but briefly and constrained to small sections in the much larger story.   Readers who are interested in the assassination will find William Pepper’s “Orders to Kill: The Truth Behind the Murder of Martin Luther King” and “The Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy: Crime, Conspiracy and Cover-Up” by Tim Tate and Brad Johnson to be very good. The author’s focus here is on the relationship beween Kennedy and King which went through several phases due in part to the administrations of John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973).  The Kennedys had been criticize for not taking a stronger stance in defense of civil rights.  Margolick re-examines the issue and in the process, we see Bobby’s role in a much clearer lense.  The story is well-known, but I believe that Margolick presents the narrative in a thorough format which reveals that the Kennedys did act and had John Kennedy survived Dallas,  U.S. forces most likely wiould have withdrawn from Vietnam and civil rights legislation would have been the focus in 1964.  Johnson did turn Kennedy’s dream into a reality in July 1964, but America still had a long way to go.  In fact, Bobby wisely observed that:  

“You could pass a law to permit a Negro to eat at Howard Johnson’s restaurant or stay at the Hilton Hotel,” Kennedy said. “But you can’t pass a law that gives him enough money to permit him to eat at that restaurant or stay at that hotel.”

This quote is important for several reasons. The first is that many had been focused on the civil rights act and rightfully so but having the legal right to something and access to it are two different things.  The second is that it showed Kennedy realized that more than legislation would be required to change the plight of Black Americans in the United States.   In all fairness, Kennedy had undergone his own transformation as the gritty reality of life in America’s ghettos hit home.  His personal journey is one of the highlights in the book and it is not hard to see why he attained such a large following.  To many Black Americans, he was a candidate who understood or “got it”.   Curiously, Martin Luther King, Jr. never gave official statements endorsing Robert Kennedy or his brother and stayed largely out of politics and elections. But he did seek an audience with politicians whom he knew were crucial to changing America.  Both presidents and Bobby have their encounters with King in the book and the differences in the interactions King has with all three are interesting.   But each encounter is overshadowed by the wiretaps placed on King by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) under the grip of J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972).  As an official of the Justice Department, Hoover’s boss was Kennedy himself who knew of and gave consent to the taps on some occasions.  The saga is revisited and reveals the dirty tricks the bureau was willing to employ to bring down King whom Hoover considered to be a “communist”.  The former director’s paranoia knew no bounds and his massive accumulation of secrets on those in powers safeguarded his thirst for power and intention to remain the head of the FBI which he did until his death in 1972.  The FBI never did prove that King was a “communist” but surely did try. 

As John Kennedy moves through his presidency, he is confronted not just with the threat of nuclear war but of unrest at home. But it was not until things exploded in the deep South that his administration began to realize the powder keg they needed to diffuse.  Civil rights activists were determined to integrate the South and eradicate Jim Crow. But first, blood would have to be spilled even if it made the Kennedy Administration uneasy.  Those tragic events are revisited and may be upsetting to some readers.   The visual recording of violent scenes by the media had thrust the reality of racial discrimination into the homes of millions of Americans.  In Washington, the president and his administration knew it had to act because if it did not, things would soon go from bad to deadly.   The attorney general was not about to let that happen.   And when action was needed, Kennedy stepped to the plate and his role in several key events are cemented in American history.  Of course, activists were still leery of the new administration but on person had this to say:

“You can fault the Kennedys in many ways on civil rights, but there are three things for which you must give them credit: their talk, their appointments, and Bobby Kennedy,” the head of the Americans for Democratic Action and one of the liberal stalwarts of mid-twentieth-century politics, Joseph Rauh, was to say.

Eventually, the story progresses to the trip to Dallas where John Kennedy met his tragic fate.  Bobby’s life is turned upside down and he exist in a sort of limbo for a significant period of time.  In the wake of his brother’s death, Kennedy realized that he had gone from one of the most powerful figures in Washington to someone who would soon be an outsider as the Johnson Administration took over.  However, he soon found himself again and eventually becomes a senator representing my beloved State of New York.   Watching the events play out is King who is the observer of all things and on occasion makes himself heard in Washington.  John Kennedy’s death had opened both King and Bobby’s eyes to the fact that they too would meet an early demise.  Their fatalism is conveyed in the book and I felt a chill as I read how each had essentially predicted his own violent death.  It was not lost on either that America had become engulfed in a climate of hate and that threat that still exist today.  But when asked about their premonitions of early deaths and the threats to their lives, each accepts both as conditions that apply.  Kennedy gives an even more blunt assessment of it with this statement: 

“I’ve got to present myself to the people as intimately as possible and get rid of some of these old bugaboos about me — let them know that I’m a human being.” But what would it do to the country, he asked, to lose another person of his stature? “That wouldn’t be good, but I can’t help that,” Kennedy replied. “If they want to get me, they’re going to get me — whether it’s in a crowd or whether I’m alone. I play Russian roulette every morning when I get up.”

And as for King, he was even more bleak: 

Befitting someone under constant threat, King talked about death incessantly and matter-of-factly. (The producer Abby Mann, who was to do his life story, asked him in 1966 how the film would end. “It ends with me getting killed,” King replied. “He was smiling, but he wasn’t joking,” Mann recalled.)

Despite the constant threat of death, each moved forward in their determination to bring true change to American society.  Kennedy continues to evolve and moves closer to where King is already at.  It is almost as if Martin was waiting for him.  Throughout the book we are witnesses to the transformation of the future candidate who eventually becomes the visionary that many had hoped for and wanted several years earlier. But as it is sometimes said, we do not choose the time, the time chooses us.  As I read through the book, I appreciated the author’s telling of the story in which we see the dance the two do around each other although they know their fates are intertwined. Further, Margolick does offer clues that the two spoke at great length privately but gave the impression publicly that they were cordial at best.  And in a tragic irony, following Bobby’s death, the widows of all three slain figures (JFK, RFK and MLK) have a meeting that their husbands may have wanted to have on a regular basis.  In death, many were united in ways they did not wish for. 

After finishing the book, I developed even more respect for Robert F. Kennedy and have deeper affection and grief for the loss of him and Martin Luther King, Jr.  The promise and the dream they were, and their deaths are some of the darkest moments in American history.  But on a positive note, the change that each desired continues to happen although there is still more work to be done.  As we look to the future we can return to the past and revisit the words and actions of these two legendary figures.   The key test will be for each of us to ask ourselves what type of country we want to live in.  In the book, we revisit a night when Kennedy had returned home from a trip to a poverty stricken location. He entered the house in a somber mood and as his daughter explained: 

“He said, ‘I’ve just come in and seen a family live in a room smaller than our dining room, with their tummies distended and sores all over them because they don’t have enough to eat and they don’t have healthcare,’” Kennedy’s eldest daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, later recalled. “‘Do you know how lucky you are? Do you know how lucky you are? Do something for this country.’” 

Kennedy had seen the face of poverty; a face Dr. King knew all too well having made his own journey across America.   What stood out to me in the book is although the two had infrequent contact, they were remarkably similar in many ways.   Quite frankly, they would have made a great team at whatever they did.   Sadly, any discussions they did have off the record are now lost to history.  But it is clear from their statements and writings that there did in fact exist affection and respect between the two. And I will always feel that one of Kennedy’s greatest speeches was his unscripted remarks in Indianapolis after Dr. King was shot and killed on April 4, 1968.  For Martin, his speech at the Washington Monument is part of the American Experience and remains one of the best oratorical deliveries in history. 

The amount of history contained in this book is both staggering and beautifully re-told by Margolick.  I absolutely loved how the narrative flowed without any lag or drifting into any particular direction. The story is streamlined, and as we move through time in the 1960s we can see its brutality and sources of hope.  I understand even more why my dad has always said that the 1960s “scared the hell out of him”.   Many figures met their ends during the 1960s but the list of names is too long to include here.  Heroes and icons were cut down before their time due to fears of unity, revolution and progress.  America will need to look at itself in the mirror as we move forward and combat the threats of unfounded radical ideology and misinformation.   Threats to our democracy must be challenged and eliminated.  The pillars upon which we place our faith in the system of government that has been adopted around the world must be protected not only for our time but future generations.  And maybe we can once again have a dream and a promise.  Highly recommended. 

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B07R6VMYHP

Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties – Richard N. Goodwin

GoodwinOn more than one occasion my father has commented that the 1960s was the scariest decade of his life.  The threat of Nuclear War, increasing tensions in Southeast Asia and the growing Civil Rights Movement captivated American society and the world.  During one conversation he turned and said to me “at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we didn’t know if we would live to see tomorrow or die in a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union”.  The assassinations of several activists and politicians spread fear across the nation and to many, it seemed as if America was on the verge of total anarchy.  Richard N. Goodwin (1931-2018) worked in the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) and helped draft some of the most memorable speeches given by the iconic figures.  In 1988 he completed this memoir which was re-published in 2014, of the decade he spent in politics with two presidents and two presidential candidates.  And the result is a spellbinding account of a critical time in American history during which the country underwent profound heartache and change.

Goodwin’s account is in part an autobiography in which he revisits his upbringing as part of a Jewish family in the City of Boston and State of Maryland.   His exposure to racism came early as anti-Semitism reared its ugly head in the Old-Line State.  In stark contrast to his comfortable existence in Boston, Maryland would help shape Goodwin’s views that would remain with him throughout his life.  Age and opportunity is on his side and he is blessed with the fortune of working for former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965).  The experience further sharpened Goodwin’s legal and writing skills which later became highly valued and sought after.   As 1960 approached, President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) focused on the remainder of his term and the upcoming election that would determine his successor.  All eyes were on the two candidates engaged in battle for the White House: John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994).   The Vice-President at the time, Nixon,  represented all that Goodwin opposed and he had come to like and admire Kennedy who won the election with one of the slimmest margins in history.  The young Irish-Catholic president soon embarked on a mission to change America and usher in “the New Frontier”.   Goodwin became a clutch player and Kennedy’s point man on Latin American affairs.  Some readers will recall that it was Goodwin who met and conversed with famed revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna (1928-1967).  Excerpts of their discussion are transcribed, and the dialogue is interesting for it shows the missed opportunity by Washington to understand the Cuban point of view.   As the story progresses, the two develop a mutual respect and upon learning of Guevara’s death years later, the author laments:

“And I like to think that I would have done what little I could to prevent Guevara’s execution. We were both trapped in the contending forces of a world we had not made; passionate adversaries in the struggle to control the future. Yet I liked the man. He had humor and courage, intellectual gifts and an unmistakable tenderness of spirit. I understood that he also contained ruthlessness, self-defeating stubbornness, and a hatred strong enough to cripple the possibilities of practical action. It is the paradox of the revolutionary that such divergent feelings must coexist in the same man.” 

Cuba proved to be the biggest test of Kennedy’s career in 1961 and again in 1962.  Goodwin takes us behind the scenes to witness the key events from another angle and observe the inner workings of the administration as it grappled with one crisis after another.  His proximity to Kennedy allowed him to make some keen observations about the president and behind the cool public image was was another side to John F. Kennedy.  I can only say that Bobby was not the only Kennedy with a temper.  The actions and reactions by Kennedy shed light on the frustrations of running an administration that struggled to stay in cohesion.  After each debacle Kennedy did shuffle around his cabinet and had become wise to game being played by figures loyal to the establishment.  And Goodwin does not hold back regarding his issues with speechwriter Ted Sorenson (1928-2010).   However, there is no gossip here but only what Goodwin witnessed and knew for certain.  And it is because of this streamlined focus that the story moves forward as fluidly as it does.  Over time, the Kennedy Administration began to fire on all cylinders and the seasoned president began to tighten his grip over Washington.  But with every story about Kennedy’s time in office, there is always the elephant in the room and his trip to Dallas soon approaches.  Goodwin was not with Kennedy that day and can only revisit how he learned of the assassination and the events that took place later that day in Washington.  There is no smoking gun about the crime or conspiracy theories about what happened that day.  Kennedy’s death affected Goodwin deeply and he grieved with millions of Americans.  John F. Kennedy was dead but far from forgotten.  Although his time in office was short he had set into motion a chain of events.  Goodwin is far more eloquent than I and this statement explain’s Kennedy’s importance:

“John Kennedy was not the sixties. But he fueled the smoldering embers, and, for a brief while, was the exemplar who led others to discover their own strength and resurgent energy; their own passion, love, and capacity for hate.”

America had begun the process to give John Kennedy a proper send-off while adjusting to a new leader in the White House. In just a few years, Lyndon B. Johnson would change America in ways no one thought possible. Goodwin had left Washington but soon receives a call from Johnson himself who uses his trademark influence to coerce Goodwin into joining the team.  He accepts and begins to draft statements that Johnson would use to increase his popularity and push legislation through the Senate. The passage of the Civil Rights Bill was a monumental feat but like a master puppeteer, Johnson knew which strings to pull to accomplish the unthinkable.  On July 2, 1964, the bill became reality as Johnson signed it into law and a year later he signed the Voting Rights Act.  Further, he also begun to initiate programs that were part of his vision for American that he famously labeled the “Great Society”.  But a little country in Southeast Asia would change all of that and seal his fate in 1968.  Goodwin was a firsthand witness to the rise and fall of Johnson and sums up the tragic figure he becomes as follows:

“For in the single year of 1965 — exactly one hundred years after Appomattox — Lyndon Johnson reached the height of his leadership and set in motion the process of decline.” 

In 1954, the French military suffered a humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam and soon withdrew their forces from Indochina.  The staggering amount of U.S. financial aid was not enough to turn the tide against the North Vietnamese Army and the movement spearheaded by Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) known affectionately as “Uncle Ho”. Followin the Geneva Accords, the country was divided into a Communist North Vietnam and Democratic South Vietnam.  Washington continued to eye Hanoi with suspicion and tensions regrettably began to simmer.  Things came to a head in August 1964 as U.S. patrol ships traveling through the Gulf of Tonkin encountered North Vietnamese patrol boats. The events of August 2 and August 4 are still subject to examination, but Johnson used them as a pretext for Congressional approval to escalate the growing war in Vietnam.  Initially, public support is behind Johnson and the fear of the “Domino Theory” combined with misleading intelligence reports resulted in increasing numbers of U.S. troops arriving in Vietnam.  But as we see in the book, the truth about Vietnam could not be hidden forever and became increasingly clear and more disturbing as the war dragged on.  On an interesting note, there were many figures who strongly opposed the war, including Kennedy himself who was highly aware of the dangers of a war.  Goodwin revisits this earlier statement by Kennedy who was still senator at the time and several years away from the throne in Washington:

“No amount of American military assistance in Indochina,” said Senator John Kennedy in April of 1954, “can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere, ‘an enemy of the people’ which has the sympathy and covert support of the people.”

As 1965 progresses, Lyndon Johnson’s fall from grace begins to accelerate.  Goodwin recalls the series of events that transpire as Vietnam becomes a dark cloud over Washington and the Civil Rights Movement gains momentum.  Although the book is not a biography of Johnson, Goodwin captures the multiple sides of of him perfectly.  And what we see is man self-destructing one step at at time due to a war he cannot end and a country turning against him.  Paranoia soon takes hold and his final descent into madness begins.  Everyone becomes a suspect and unworthy of his confidence and trust. Goodwin would also become the target of his wrath and be accused of being one of those “Kennedy people”.  A sad reality is that throughout his presidency, Johnson struggled with Kennedy’s legacy and never ceased to believe that “they” were out to get him along with the “liberals”.  The revelations by Goodwin are simply mind-boggling and as I read the story, I believe that had Johnson not stepped down, it is possible that a commission might have been formed to study his behavior.  He was clearly losing touch with reality and perhaps the entrance of Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy (1925-1968) into the 1968 election saved Johnson from himself.

After departing from Johnson’s administration and publicly voicing opposition to the war, Goodwin became public enemy number in Johnson’s eyes.  The continuing war and domestic turmoil became too much for Goodwin to accept and he begins to work for presidential candidate and Senator Eugene McCarthy (1916-2005) who sought to capture the Democratic nomination for president.  Upon his arrival at the McCarthy campaign headquarters, he soon finds that there is much work to be done. But Goodwin is a seasoned professional and soon helps to transform the campaign into a well-oiled machine. However, the looming threat of a Kennedy campaign is never far away and after the New Hampshire primary, Bobby formally announces his candidacy.  Goodwin is now placed in a difficult position and must make a decision between McCarthy and Kennedy, with whom he had become remarkably close friends. The saga and its aftermath are thoroughly explained by the author whose observations about politics are some of the sharpest I have ever seen.  And Goodwin was correct in his belief that McCarthy was a great candidate, but Bobby was presidential.  As Kenedy’s campaign kicks off, the author witnesses a transformation of the Senator from New York.  Bobby was reinventing himself and challenging any notion that he was not fit for president. In one gripping scene, Goodwin recalls this experience that shows the passion for America that served as the basis for Kennedy’s actions:

“Kennedy asked, “How many of you left school or good jobs to work in the McCarthy campaign?” Almost every hand went up. “How many of you are going to stick with it to the end, even if it goes all the way to November?” Again, nearly all the hands were raised. “I know some of you might not like me,” Kennedy continued, “think I just jumped in to take your victory away. Well, that’s not quite the way I see it. But it doesn’t matter what you think of me. I want you to know that you make me proud to be an American. You’ve done a wonderful thing. I’m only sorry we couldn’t have done it together.” With that Kennedy got up to leave, and, as we began to start down the street, he turned and waved. Every person on the steps waved back.” 

Readers who are interested in Kenney’s campaign will thoroughly enjoy David Halberstam’s (1937-2007) The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert F. Kennedy which shows the incredible change in the candidate as the race for Washington heated up.  Like Jack Kennedy, we know that Bobby’s tragic destiny awaits, and I steeled myself as it approached.  Kennedy is riding the wave of popularity and arrives in Los Angeles determined to win California.  He won the state but was shot and mortally wounded after his acceptance speech. Doctors performed emergency surgery but the wounds to Kennedy had proved to be too devastating and ruled out any chance of survival. Goodwin goes in to see his friend for the last time and his description of Kennedy’s final moments in the hospital bring the story to a melancholy conclusion.

When I finally put the book down, I felt as if I had just taken a ride for the ages.  This is an incredible story about pivotal moments in America’s story that continue to play themselves out.  Many years have passed since Robert and John Kennedy were murdered but their messages and the issues they fought for and against are still with us. However, the past is always prologue and I do believe America can and will make great strides.  Goodwin was also a believer in America and in looking back at that decade of the 1960s, he provides the following quote that confirms his optimism:

“We cannot, of course, go back to the sixties. Nor should we try. The world is different now. Yet, two decades have passed since that infinitely horrifying day in Los Angeles which closes this book. And a new generation is emerging. They can pick up the discarded instruments and resume the great experiment which is America. There is no question of capacity, only of will.”  – Richard N. Goodwin 

ASIN : B00L8FBEWO

The Water is Wide: A Memoir – Pat Conroy

conroyWhile reviewing my list of books to read, I did a double take as I read the title of this memoir by Pat Conroy.  I had added it for a reason yet at the time, I could not recall why.  But I put that aside and decided that there is no time like the present and it might be a hidden gem.  It turns out that I was right in my assessment.   However, I was not prepared for the incredible story within by Pat Conroy (1945-2016) that sheds light on the lives of those who have been forgotten even in the most powerful nation on earth.   I knew that the story centered around education but of course, teaching is never as simple as writing on a blackboard.  In fact, what is revealed in the book should remove all doubt that teaching is by any means as easy task. Some of us are naturally gifted to handle a classroom full of students, each with their own peculiar personality.  In many ways, the teacher is conductor working the orchestra to fine tune all the instruments and produce a symphony that is pleasing to the ears. Conroy is the conductor here and what he accomplished on Yamacraw Island, South Carolina, will leave you sad, angry, and happy at the same time. 

As I started reading the book, I asked myself where on earth is Yamacraw Island?  The name is fictitious, but the land mass is known as Daufuskie Island which is located off the southeastern coast of South Carolina, close to Savannah, Georgia.  It is only accessible by ferry or barge and has a population of less than one thousand people at any given time.  The island has a rich history and is part of the region once home to the Gullah, African Americans who resided on the island and the nearby islands in South Carolina and Georgia.  I had to take a break and look up the Gullah people as I did not know much about them. But Conroy points readers in the right direction: 

“The island blacks of South Carolina are famous among linguists for their Gullah dialect. Experts have studied this patois for years and they have written several books on the subject. It is a combination of an African dialect and English; some even claim that remnants of Elizabethan English survive among the Gullah people.” 

After doing some research, I came back to the book with a better understanding of the environment awaiting Conroy as he begins his teaching assignment on the island.  Readers interested in the Gullah culture will find that this article contains a wealth of information.  After arriving for his assignment with the blessing of Dr. Piedmont, Conroy is given a baptism by fire and soon learns that life of Yamacraw is unlike his comfortable existence in Beaufort and other parts of the South. Further, it will challenge his idea of blacks, largely formed by his middle-class background.  The author is brutally honest and even discusses his own prejudice against blacks that had been cultivated in his youth.  His transformation throughout the book is remarkable and it is fair to say that the kids of Yamacraw left their mark on him. Conroy also leaves his mark on the island which becomes evident as Piedmont seeks his departure from the school.  The people in the book grew on me as well but there are many disturbing issues that come to the surface in the story as Conroy learns that he is really one of the very few people who cares about the island and its inhabitants. 

The book is set in the 1960s and in the South, bringing the issue of race to the forefront.  Race is everywhere in the story as one might expect and even those who try to appear as upstanding citizens are not free of bias that is shockingly horrific at times. The casual use of racial epithets and deranged ideas of communist hippies invading the island might make some readers recoil in disbelief and anger.  Conroy feels the rage increasing within and after one unsettling experience, he remarks: 

“Christ must do a lot of puking when he reflects upon the good works done in his name.” 

As a Black American, I was not surprised at the attitudes in the book and even today there are people who strongly feel that way.  But Conroy and others critical to the story, go above and beyond to change the lives of those students in any way possible.  And although he stayed on the island just a couple of years, what he accomplishes is more than had been done previously even though the school is part of the larger Beaufort public school district.  His work was not easy and on more than one occasion he crosses swords with Mrs. Brown who earns the wrath of the students.  But surprisingly, some of the biggest challenges come from the natives themselves and not the administration in Beaufort.  The author soon learns that he is embarking on difficult journey to break through a wall surrounding a culture that those outside of Yamacraw would never understand.  Superstition, illiteracy, and the fear of whites make his job increasingly difficult as he implements an unorthodox program to help the students learn basic arithmetic, geography, reading and writing.  The most basic skills a student should have are lacking and Conroy is in disbelief at how far behind the kids really are. All throughout the story, the backwardness of the island becomes hauntingly clear and changes his perception of the entire school system:

“Something was dawning on me then, an idea that seemed monstrous and unspeakable. I was beginning to think that the schools in Beaufort were glutted with black kids who did not know where to search for their behinds, who were so appallingly ignorant that their minds rotted in their skulls, and that the schools merely served as daytime detention camps for thousands of children who would never extract anything from a book, except a page to blow their noses or wipe their butts.”

The story is impossible to read without experiencing a range of emotions. But there are some beautiful moments such as their trip off the island for Halloween and the second excursion for a fair. The children absolutely love the experience and Conroy had opened their eyes to the world outside of Yamacraw.  And the main characters among the children are charismatic in their own right.   Mary is one of Conroy’s favorites next to Saul who is always interacting with the teacher whom they call “Mr. Conrack”.  They are beautiful souls who have been failed by those closest to them and a school system that had no intention on improving their education which was virtually non-existent.   When I finished the book, I wished that Conroy had written an epilogue that would have explained what did happen to the kids on the island. Some may have never moved away from it while others may have made the decision to see the rest of America and the world.  If they have read this book, the memories of “Mr. Conrack” and his efforts to give them an education must surely bring back a flood of memories, some of which are quite painful.  But if there is any solace to be found, it is that Conroy has put on the record, just how bad the education system in America was for many blacks living in areas that were neglected horribly. 

The New York Times listed the book as a best-seller, and it is not hard to see why. It truly is an incredible story even if it seems unreal at times.  However, Conroy reveals that in the United States, the “American Dream” is a myth for those whom society has forgotten about.  And the account here can serve as an example of educational policies that are dismal failures.  If you are looking for a good book about American society that explores a social issue which still rears its head, this is must-read. 

ASIN : B003XKN65U

Conversations with Lorraine Hansberry (Literary Conversations Series) – Mollie Godfrey

LorraineIt truly is amazing that a person can learn so much about the future by examining the past. In America, there are parts of our nation’s history that people find difficult to control.  Race is at the top of the list and continues to find itself the topic of discussions as the country grapples with instances of systematic discrimination and overt acts by individuals.  However, America is also a very great nation that has the courage to critically examine itself.  The problems we have are not new but instead, more attention is now being paid to them.  And I honestly believe that to remedy those issues, we must continue to look at the past for it provides many valuable lessons from which we can learn.  I picked up this book because 1) I have been a fan of Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) for many years and 2) I knew that the book would contain a wealth of highly intellectual discussions about American society that have relevance, even today.   And I can say unquestionably that this short book is a good look at Hansberry’s brilliant mind that was able to dissect America in ways that sets the stage for meaningful dialogue and change.  

The title may give the impression that it is a one-on-one session with Hansberry but in fact, it is a collection of interviews and articles she wrote during the height of her fame.  Some interviews were recorded for television and the audio for the discussion with Studs Turkel (1912-2008) in particular, can be found on YouTube.  Further, she is sometimes a participant in group discussions that include a range of voices such as James Baldwin (1924-1987) and Langston Hughes (1902-1967).  When they are all together, you can feel the energy in the text and each speaker shines in their assessment of being a Negro author and the social climate in America.   Baldwin shines bright as always and his words are hauntingly accurate of the America he loved and sought to change during his lifetime.  Those who are in the process of writing themselves will absolutely love the group discussion.  But the focus here is on Lorraine and she is given her own platform so to speak to share her thoughts which are numerous and enlightening.  What I found to be highly appealing is her ability to reveal herself in a way that instantly makes you feel as if you know her well.  While I read through the book, I picked up a few things that I was not aware of before that added to the Hansberry story which truly is remarkable.  And considering that she is now recognized as a great playwright, this quote might surprise some readers: 

“I was not a particularly bright student. I had some popularity, and a premature desire, probably irritating, to be accepted in my circle on my terms. My dormitory years, which numbered only two at the University of Wisconsin, were spent in heated discussion on everything from politics to the nature of art, and I was typically impatient at people who couldn’t see the truth- as I saw it. It must have been a horror”

There are a couple of discussions where her role is quite minor.  Whether they should have been included or not is not for me to say but I did find myself hoping that Hansberry would have more to say.   But, putting that aside, I was more than satisfied with the statements and written words that came from Hansberry herself.  If I had to find a crux in the book, it would definitely be her play A Raisin in the Sun, which is still one of the longest running plays in Broadway history.  And in 2014, I had the honor of seeing Denzel Washington live as he took on the role of Walter Lee Younger. He was truly remarkable and captured the essence of Walter just as Sidney Poitier did many years ago.  Here, she explains the back story to the play and her intentions when creating what became a masterpiece.  And make no mistake, getting the play to Broadway was a feat.  And surprisingly, it almost did not happen.  In fact, what eventually came to be did so because of encouragement to become a dramatist by her former husband Robert B. Nemiroff (1929-1991), who preserved her works after her death.  As Lorraine speaks, it can be seen just how simple of a person she was at times.  She never comes across as superficial, egotistical or unrelatable.  In fact, as she speaks, you cannot help but to like her even more.  Physically she stood roughly five feet tall but, in this book, she is certainly larger than life.  And when it comes to the Civil Rights Movement, she is spot on in her observations and honestly believed in peace.  The constant struggle for civil rights was exhausting and this quote sums up the frustration and sense of depression that many found within it: 

“The most shocking aspect of the whole thing”, Miss Hansberry concluded, ” is the waist of our youth – when they should be in school, or working, or just having fun, instead of having to ride Freedom buses, be subject to police brutality, go to jail, to get rights that should be unquestioned.”  

The “Movement” as it is sometimes called, forced America to look in the mirror and make amends for a long and brutal history.  Today in 2021, we are still confronting many dark aspects of our past, but the future truly is bright. America is changing again, and I always hope for the better. Hansberry, along with Baldwin, believed that in the future, America could be a place where anyone could live freely.  And although she did not live to see just how far society has come, I believe that if she were alive, she would be both optimistic and dismayed at some of the things we see taking place. As someone who experienced racial violence firsthand, she knew all too well of the dangers that come with extremism.  Throughout her life, she always believed that it was those dangers that caused her father’s demise.  When discussing her past, she is frank about his last days: 

“My father left the South as a young man, and then he went back there and got himself and education. He was a wonderful and very special kind of man. He died in 1945, at the age of fifty-one, of a cerebral hemorrhage, supposedly, but American racism helped kill him. He died in Mexico, where he was making preparations to move all of us out of the United States”

The family remained in the United States after his death and Lorraine soon found a home in New York City. And that move changed her life forever and resulted in the abundance of material she left behind.  Her tragic and untimely death at only age thirty-four, silenced one of the movement’s strongest voices. However, the movement will never end for any of us regardless of what we look like or where we come from.  The oppression of one human being by another is a constant blemish on mankind but it does not deter us from continuing to do right by each other and set examples for future generations. And no matter many years pass by, Lorraine’s voice will be as loud then as it is here and was many years ago.  

ISBN-10 : 1496829646
ISBN-13 : 978-1496829641

 

Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own – Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.

s-l640Within the past several years I have found myself becoming more and more familiar with the life and legacy of James Baldwin (1924-1987).  And I have come to realize that while he is widely appreciated as an author, he is at the same time, underrated as a voice of reason with regards to the country he called home.  Curiously, Baldwin spent many years of his life in Europe, finding solace and residency in France and Turkey.  However, his life outside of the United States allowed him to view America from the eyes of a foreigner.  That position gave him a unique opportunity to view America through the lens of a microscope where all of its social ills were readily visible.  In his time he was seen as a trouble maker and rabble rouser due to his outspokenness and sadly because of his sexual orientation.  But to focus on his frank dialogue and homosexuality would be misjudgment of his true genius.  Baldwin possessed an uncanny ability to dissect American society and highlight where the nation was going wrong.  Today America is at a crossroads with a looming presidential election in a nation fiercely divided and deeply polarized.   Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. takes another look at James Baldwin, who comes back to life as a voice of reason during which are certainly difficult times.

While the book is about Baldwin, it is not a biography of his life. Readers who are in search of a thorough account of his from start to finish might enjoy David Leeming’s David Leeming: A Biography,  which is an excellent read and a fitting biography.  Glaude takes a different approach to Baldwin’s legacy and although the book is shorter than I would have like, contained within is a thought provoking discussion of race in America.  A possible knee-jerk reaction might be to write Baldwin off as a race baiter who always complained about America.  However, Baldwin always made it clear that he loved his home country.  In fact, one of his more famous quotes is:

I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually

To be fair, Baldwin never said at any time that he held any hatred towards America. And even when he died in December, 1987 while in France, the United States was still his home. Glaude’s goal here is take a look at Baldwin’s thoughts and apply them to the current day social and political climate in America. If we pay close attention, we can see clearly that Baldwin was ahead of his time and warned America repeatedly of what we are seeing today. While reading the book, a section regarding Malcolm X (1925-1965) jumped out at me and caused me to sit in deep thought. Malcolm who was a close friend of Baldwin and is buried at the same cemetery remarked: “Malcolm X, in town by happenstance, dropped in to hear Jimmy hold forth. “Whenever I hear that this little brother is going to speak in any town where I am,” he said, “I always make a point of going to listen, because I learn something”. As far as I know, there were very few people for whom Malcolm X would put off all prior engagements to see at a speaker’s podium. The quote shows the influence Baldwin had over even the most prominent of civil rights figures.

As Glaude tells the story, he also relates his own movements as he researched the book which included a visit to the Deep South and even the ruins of what was Baldwin’s home in France. He also went as far to visit Baldwin’s grave at Ferncliff cemetery. Quite frankly, he left no stone unturned in his quest to understand Baldwin’s evolution as writer and social activist. When he died, James Baldwin left behind many lessons for us to learn from. Glaude has taken these lessons and applied them to his focus on Donald J. Trump and the polarization of America. The truth that he reveals is what we all need to hear but I am afraid that both supporters of Trump and his opponents may overlook the author’s points as the battle between the left and right continues to intensify in all of its ugliness.

The author sets the tone with a simple premise: America is built on a lie. That idea is driven home in a short few words: “the willingness of so many of our fellows to toss aside any semblance of commitment to democracy—to embrace cruel and hateful policies—exposes the idea of America as an outright lie“. However, exactly what that lie is shows how long many of us have been living in denial either intentionally or unwittingly. The idea is certainly disheartening to think about but if we digest Glaude’s words, we can see that he not only makes an excellent point but also that there is truth to his words. Further, his goal is not the destruction or repudiation of America but an honest attempt to allow us as a nation to see how we have reached this point and can “begin again”. Baldwin called it a New Jerusalem. Personally, I do not have a name for it but would simply say that we are in a position to make true change in this country but only if we pay attention to our complicated and sometimes violent past.

One of the beautiful parts of the book is that while we revisit Baldwin’s words, we also revisit crucial times in American history viewed through the late author’s eyes. Undoubtedly, these events helped shaped the thoughts and literary works that Baldwin composed during his life. Even while in France, America was never far from his mind and he would return on occasion to see what was becoming of the country that was his home. He had taken part in and supported the Civil Rights Movement only to see so many friends die early deaths. The elections of Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) and Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) reaffirmed Baldwin’s view that America was turning its back on true change. And with November right around the corner, Americans now face a similar situation. The question is where do we go from here?

I admit that the book may cause some readers to feel ill at ease but that is exactly the point. Glaude does not want us to feel complacent. In fact, it is the opposite. The warning bells have been sounded and this book is an attempt to catch our attention so that we can see how history is once again attempting to repeat itself. Former President Barack Obama once said that what we see today did not start with Donald Trump. It certainly goes much deeper than that. The author lays much of it at the feet of Reagan, from whom Trump seems to have taken many of his tactics. Of course Reagan had more finesses and was less crass than Trump but equally effective at reaching his desired base of voters. And the “us versus them” mentality continues to erode at our social fabric. One of Glaude’s strongest statements is the following which we should all stop to consider:

In the end, Americans will have to decide whether or not this country will remain racist. To make that decision, we will have to avoid the trap of placing the burden of our national sins on the shoulders of Donald Trump. We need to look inward. Trump is us. Or better, Trump is you.”

I honestly believe that this book should be more widely read before this year’s election. Whether you are Republican, Democrat or even Independent, there are many lessons to be learned here. The goal here is not to shame anyone or “save white people” as Baldwin once said during the turbulent 1960s. Glaude believes as do I that it will take all of us to improve America and correct its ills. However, if we continue to deny its past then we can never correct course. Baldwin was keenly aware of this and for that reason he was constantly reminding America of where it was going wrong with the hope that it would take a new path towards his vision of a New Jerusalem. With his words we can be the change we wish to see in this country and understand how addressing our past can truly improve our future.

ASIN: B07RFVCB11

Seven Sisters and a Brother: Friendship, Resistance, and Untold Truths Behind Black Student Activism in the 1960s – Joyce Frisby Baynes, Harold S. Buchanan, Jannette O. Domingo, Marilyn J. Holifield, Aundrea White Kelly, Marilyn Allman Maye, Myra E. Rose, Bridget Van Gronigen Warren

7sistersI saw this book in my list of recommendations on Amazon and decided to take a closer look.  The cover caught my attention and after reading the full title, my interest peaked.  On January 9, 1969 a group of students belonging to the Swarthmore Afro-American Students Society (SASS), took over the admissions office at Swarthmore College.  In the months prior, a working paper regarding the recruitment and admission of black students had been released, resulting in immediately backlash from the university’s black students who felt their privacy had been violated and their experiences ignored.  The animosity between the students and Dean Hargadon continued to increase and the students felt they had no option  but to act.  Joyce Frisby Baynes, Harold S. Buchanan, Jannette O. Domingo, Marilyn J. Holifield, Aundrea White Kelly, Marilyn Allman Maye, Myra E. Rose and Bridget Van Gronigen Warren moved into the admissions office and over the next few days, their resistance changed the course of history for Swarthmore College.

The book’s focus is on the takeover as to be expected.  But in between chapters focused on the occupation of the admissions office, are the individual stories of those involved.  Each story is different but a common bond is that they were only part of a small number of black students who overcame the odds to earn their place at Swarthmore College. Yet, even for all of the intelligence and accomplishments, they still were required to stand up to college officials and voice their concerns over lack of cultural awareness and a dean who became the bane of their existence.  Each person takes a turn speaking the book, recounting their story of where they grew up, their lives at home and what made them choose a college in Pennsylvania where hardly any black people had been admitted before.  As I read their personal accounts, I could not help but to admire their will and determination to see that the college changed its ways.  From the beginning of the takeover, it was clear that they did not see failure as an option.

Nearly all of the stories contain incidents of racial discrimination, some subtle and other incidents quite overt.  Readers sensitive to racial incidents might be slightly uneasy and the memories that come to life.  The events remembered are disturbing and upsetting but in a testament to the spirits of those who speak, not one resorts to believing they are inferior. In fact, the incidents only strengthen their resolve to keep moving forward.  One story in particular struck me and it is this description which gives the reader an idea of what some of them had to endure just to get an education:

Farther south in Tallahassee, Florida, Marilyn Holifield faced a more aggressively hate-filled environment in her newly integrated high school. White students vilified her daily and called her “n***er.” But the child who loved growing roses with her father was well aware of her family’s legacy of resistance.”

Jim Crow died a slow death in the United States and its remnants remained scattered across parts of the deep south.   While federal law prohibits discrimination, it is imperative to remember that less than sixty years ago, people such as the students in this book could not eat the same lunch counters as their white counterparts.  Signs for “colored” permeated the south and in the stories at hand, show the reader the capacity for vindictiveness in the human mind.  But giving up isn’t an option and their successes in spite of the racism they endured are some of the brightest moments in the book.

All of the group members have gone on to have productive and admirable careers.  The takeover is long gone but today, other students, in particular black students can look back on their actions in 1969 as the turning point in the college’s recruiting policies.  The battles on college grounds during the Civil Rights Movement is often left out of discussions but the struggle for equality on campus was equally as critical as the battles off campus.  This book is a perfect example of the on-campus struggle and how a small group of young men and women challenged the system and succeeded. Good read.

ASIN: B07SR43L6T

Losing the Race: Self Sabotage in Black America – John McWhorter

20200104_225214The African-American experience is a reflection of America’s dark past and its bright future.  Jim-Crow, anti-miscegenation laws and other legal conditions, provided roadblocks to the social and economic advancement of black Americans and other minorities. However, over time, individuals once considered minorities have made great strides and achieved great success.  In spite of this, black America finds itself confronted with issues that cause many to wonder what is really holding black men, women and children back?  When I saw this book on Amazon, I thought to myself that whoever wrote this book is beyond brave and was undoubtedly subject to attacks from all angles by those who wish to refute his conclusions. Upon closer inspection, I saw that the book was written by a black American, John McWhorter, who is a professor in English and comparative literature at Columbia University.  He has also worked at the University of California, Berkeley.  His experiences while tenuring at UC, Berkeley are what form the backbone of this book.

McWhorter provides three conditions which are adversarial to the black Americans:  Victimology, Separatism and Anti-Intellectualism. He provides compelling arguments for each and I do believe that many black Americans who decided to read this book will find common ground on many of the ideas he presents.  There are those who will have a knee-jerk reaction and write off the book as the ravings of a deranged self-hating crackpot.  But to do so would unfortunately result in the point McWhorter being proved.

Victimology is presented as the idea that black Americans are eternal victims resulting from the brutal system of discrimination in America.  But as McWhorter explains, the America that existed in 1960 and prior, is different from the America today.   Furthermore, the victim role can be a curse in disguise.  Its permeation into “woke” discussions and the rhetoric of numerous public figures, has created a cycle of which the very people inside are sometimes unaware of. McWhorter hopes to end that cycle and  discusses why the idea of the eternal victim does nothing to help black Americans.  Sure, there are true victims among us, typically older black men and women born well before 1965.  The younger generation finds itself at an advantage that older generations could only dream of.

Separatism touches of the idea of a separate black existence, culture and consciousness.  But in the era of integration beyond anything Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) could have imagined at the time, does separatism do more harm than good?  And if equality truly is the end goal, does it benefit black Americans to maintain a separate existence based on “blackness”?  The author provides an in-depth analysis of the many pitfalls of separatism and why it needs to be abandoned so that black Americans can form the social connections necessary for advancement in society.

Anti-Intellectualism is without a doubt the most controversial part of the book. But McWhorter does not shy away from it and confronts the subject head on.   His idea is frank and addresses the ingrained aversion to higher learning, which comes in the form of books, literature and other things considered to be for white people.  I have no doubt that some readers will either cringe or be filled with anger at McWhorter’s words, calling him a sell-out and possibly other unprintable names.  But if we pay close attention, he does not lay blame at the feet of black America for its anti-intellectual culture. He readily acknowledges that the creation of the culture is the result of legal and condoned oppression and discrimination.  The goal is to fix what was inherited and remove the obstacles that impede success for black Americans.

As always, there are exceptions to every situation. Here is no different and there are thousands if not millions of black Americans who do exceedingly well in education and in life.  And many of them love books and intellectualism.  McWhorter is fully aware of this and states such.  But unfortunately, they are often in the minority.  And that is the trend which must be reversed. Only then, can black America as a group, claim to be fully integrated in American society.  While addressing the education issue, McWhorter touches on affirmative action, one of the most debated practices in American academia.  It was implemented with the best intentions, to help correct what had been going wrong for so many years.  But more than 40 years later, is it still needed?  This book was published in 2001, but even today, questions remain about the effectiveness and contribution to true equality of affirmative action.  McWhorter’s confessions about his own advancement might surprise some readers.

In McWhorter’s defense, he does not ignore that racism still exist.  The cover of the book may convey the notion that black America is its own worst enemy but I can assure you that is not the case.  To highlight his full awareness that racism does play a role in our lives, he recalls random acts of discrimination he faced during his youth.   The point of his book is not to absolve white Americans of all guilt but instead to call attention to where black America has to work a little harder.  He is not shaming black America or putting it down.  His mission is to reverse trends that hold back rather than promote intellectualism and achievement for millions of black men and women. His words are tough and some truths are uncomfortable but I truly believe that if the message in the book is to be accepted and understood, there will be a brighter future in which black America can win the race.

ISBN-10: 0060935936
ISBN-13: 978-0060935931

To Die for the People – Huey P. Newton

HueyRecently, I had been revisiting material regarding pivotal moments in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.  My focus became trained on the Black Panther Party, led by the late Huey P. Newton (1942-1989) and Bobby Seale.  The Party has been viewed in both positive and negative lights depending on the view of the person assessing its rise and effect on American society.  Newton, who later earned a Ph.D., was a charismatic and gifted orator who in turn used those skills in the form of the written word.  His autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide‘, became a classic and is widely praised by those committed to revolution both in the United States and abroad.   The book was mainly an autobiography that follows Newton from his early life Louisiana to the City of Oakland, California, where he would make his name famous and infamous.   To Die for the People takes a different approach and contains no autobiography by Newton. Instead, what we find, is a collection of selected writings and speeches by Huey, showcasing his intellect as he tackles the issues of race, class, gender and even homosexuality as they relate to the movement to which he committed his life.

The book is shorter than Revolutionary Suicide but packs a punch on its own that is powerful yet dynamic enough to reach readers from all walks of life.  Early in the book,  the Party’s 10 Point Program is included as a reference. The program serves as the basis for what follows in Huey’s words that are frank and accurate.   Most of the writings come from the period of 1968 – 1971, when the Vietnam War was still raging and the Civil Rights Movement was still moving ahead in the midst of deadly political turmoil in the United States.  Hauntingly, we can still apply his words to events that take place even today.

Newton possessed a sharp analytical mind and here he breaks down many topics and assigns terms to the concepts to make them even clearer to the reader.  I thought the discussion regarding Revolutionary Nationalism and Reactionary Nationalism was highly interesting and profound in many ways.  Anyone who’s read Newtown or heard him speak, knows that he sometimes had a flair for dramatics.  However, here he is focused and determined.   There is no room for distractions, Huey is breaking things down one portion at a time.  And the he is done, it is very clear why the book is called To Die for the People.

The Party itself is also a focus of the book. Huey does not shy away from trying to understand where the Party went wrong and what is truly needed for revolution to be successful.   He touches on subjects that have proven to be an issue within the movement such as ego, different goals, religion and even the LGBT movement.  He rightly understood that unity could transcend cultural and class lines.  It could also transcend international borders.   For Huey, the revolution here was in direct relation to revolutions everywhere and this is explained under what he refers to as revolutionary intercommunalism. To Huey, the world had to undergo revolution in order to rid itself of the grip of what he feels is the largest empire on earth: The United States.

Some readers may be apprehensive about Newton’s feelings about the United States.  But I believe that in order to understand what he means, it is necessary to view it through a much different lens.  At no point in the book, does Newton say he harbors ill will towards his own country.  But what he is saying is that the actions of a select group of people have resulted in foreign policy that has helped to destabilize and nearly destroy nations worldwide.  His words were later confirmed when the CIA was forced to admit many dark secrets of covert assassinations programs and plans to move against many governments abroad.

I was curious to see what he had to say about the Party itself and he provides some insight into the falling out with Eldridge Cleaver (1935-1998) and the actions of Stokely Carmichael (1941-1998).  These sections highlight the unfortunate incidents that served to undermine the movement and the message of the Panthers.  Huey is quite frank and his accusation against Carmichael might surprise some readers.   There is no truth to them as far as I know but there are undoubtedly many secrets that are taken to the grave.  And sadly, neither Huey, Eldridge or Stokely are alive to discuss what really did happen.  Regardless, each played a critical role in the movement and Newton recognized this as both became affiliated with the Panthers.

As sort of a bonus, Huey’s review of the Melvin Van Peebles film ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song’, released in 1971.   The independent film touches on many social issues regarding Black Americans and is not the usual run of the mill production from its era.  Newton was impressed with the film and goes into detail about why he felt it was so important to Black America and his belief in the genius of Melvin Van Peebles.  If you have seen the film, you may agree with Newton or challenge some or all of his observations. Regardless, I think all can agree that the film will certainly never be forgotten by those who were part of the movement in a time where strong Black characters were needed across the country.

It has been over thirty years since Newton was gunned down on an Oakland street corner, but his wisdom, words and persona remain integral to any discussions of the Civil Rights Movement and the events in California during the 1960s.  I can only imagine what Huey would think today with regards to the current political climate and recent events across the globe.  I am sure that he would have much to say and write about where society is going wrong.   I do not know if he envisioned his premature death when he wrote but it does seem as if he knew his words would still be relevant nearly fifty years later.

ISBN-10: 0872865290
ISBN-13: 978-0872865297

Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies – Dick Gregory

GregoryThe 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.

ASIN: B07F13CFFH