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

Looking for Lorraine: The Radical and Radiant Life of Lorraine Hansberry – Imani Perry

20190115_234339This 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.

ISBN-10: 0807064491
ISBN-13: 978-0807064498

Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement – John Lewis with Michael D’Orso

john lewis

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.

ISBN-10: 9781476797717
ISBN-13: 978-1476797717

Living in the Era of Revolution: The Words of Malcolm X – Dynast Amir

malcolm 2In the United States, the month of February is dedicated to African-American history.  February 21 stands out during the month as the day that el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz better known as Malcolm X (1925-1965) was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York City.  On the radio, the eulogy given by the late Ossie Davis (1917-2005) is played taking us back to Malcolm’s final days on earth.   In 1992, Warner Brothers released Malcolm X, the biopic directed by Spike Lee and starring Oscar winner Denzel Washington in the lead role.  Washington lit up the screen, delivering a performance for the ages.  Davis’ eulogy accompanies the closing scenes and the credits are rightly finished to the sounds of Aretha Franklin’s rendition of ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free’ and Arrested Development’s ‘Revolution’.  The film has stood the test of time and is a fitting tribute to Malcolm X’s legacy.  Lee did an incredible job but there was no way he could have included all of Malcolm’s speeches and writings into the final product.  Malcolm was brilliant, not just as an orator but as a critical thinker who presented his arguments in an engaging and articulate manner.  And some of those words can be found in this book by Dynast Amir.

Amir has compiled several selected speeches and combined them will Malcolm’s best quotes on the America in which he lived.  The book is not Amir’s story or a biography of Malcolm.  There are other books that more than serve that purpose such as Alex Haley’s (1921-1992) ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’.  Here, this is Malcolm at full throttle, delivering his messages to those in attendance and the many followers of the Nation of Islam (NOI).  His words are sharp and he does not mince words.  Today, many of us would find his words to be extreme, but it is imperative to remember that the America his lived in is quite different from the one that exist today.  Further, he was reacting to the injustices that occurred regularly against Black Americans and others deemed to be a minority.   The truths are uncomfortable and he forces America to look at itself in the mirror.  Sadly, some of his words are still true to this day but if make it a point to remember them, we can continue to move forward as a nation.

Although I am not a follower of the Islamic faith, I have felt that some of their beliefs about the place in society of Black Americans were correct and no one who reads this book can ever say that Malcolm did not love his people.   I firmly believe that even readers who are not Black American or African can still find truth in his words.  But for those readers, some parts may be hard to get through.  The time period in which these selected speeches come from was the turbulent Civil Rights Movement in the deadly decade that was the 1960s.  In his words, you can feel his passion and anger for the deeply rooted discrimination and injustice in American society.

As a Black American, I understand Malcolm’s view and his words are pertinent to the importance of education for without it, we cannot go anywhere in this world just like he says.  Furthermore, we have an obligation human beings to treat others with dignity, compassion and respect.  However, there was one topic which I have never felt completely comfortable with but I do hot hold Malcolm personally responsible for the belief came directly from the teachings of the NOI.  That teaching is the of the story featuring the scientist named Yakub who is believed to have created the White race.  It would require too much space here to go into detail but the story itself suffers from lack of any credible evidence and could be interpreted as right-wing propaganda. Further, the NOI  has always claimed that W.D. Fard was t in 1934 is one of the several mysteries of the NOI that have never been fully explained.  It is also widely believed that the NOI was directly complicit in Malcolm’s murder.

For all of the stirring rhetoric, call to arms and critical evaluation of America, there are some bright spots in the book with the main one being his pilgrimage to Mecca.  Had he  not taken the trip to Mecca and engaged with Muslims of a different ethnicity,  his beliefs about Caucasian men and women may have never changed.  And at the time of his murder, he was at a turning point in his life as he continued to build the Muslim Mosque, Inc., an organization that could have potentially left the NOI in the shadows.  Sadly, fate intervened in a tragic way and Malcolm was silenced forever.

History will potentially remain divided on Malcolm’s legacy with his followers swearing allegiance and his detractors writing him off as a demagogue.   Regardless of what we may think of him,  we cannot deny his importance in history at the truth in his words.  If you want to learn more about what made Malcolm tick and why he had his beliefs, then read this book by any means necessary.

ASIN: B00MSXXCR0

The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues – Angela Y. Davis

87286100677870LFreedom is a term that is often used but not always understood.  The costs associated with it are often high and some of us have paid and will pay the ultimate price to obtain it.   Here in the United States, we like to think that we are free but the truth of the matter remains in question.  Perhaps we are still in a state of denial of about freedom’s true meaning and its role in the American way of life.  Angela Davis is one of the brightest voices to emerge from the Civil Rights Movement and has established herself a political activist, an author and professor whose many speeches and writings are some of the best society has ever seen.  While the book is not an autobiography, this is clearly Davis’ show and a collection of selected speeches in which she discusses topics that she rightly refers to as difficult dialogues.  But her ability to not only discuss these topics but provoke thought in the reader, is what makes this book so special.  And I can state with full conviction that I wished I had discovered this gem much earlier in life.

If you are contemplating reading this book, I believe that you already know who Davis is or have heard her name.  If you seek intelligent discussion regarding subjects that America still struggles with, then this is a book for you.  But beware, Davis is not here to make anyone feel comfortable.  In fact, her goal is open your eyes and get you to re-examine what you thought you knew about race, justice and social progress.   At no point does she shy away from the topics and moves full speed ahead as she discusses the prison industrial complex, poverty, LGBT rights, the election of Barack Obama and the dark history of segregation under the banner of Jim Crow.  She is a brilliant author who never attempts to lecture the reader but presents her points in a manner that is conducive to dialogue that actually provokes deep thought and constructive criticism.

I had hoped that she would have mentioned more about George Jackson (1941-1971), especially during the discussion on the prison system and the animal known as mass incarceration.   By their own words, she and Jackson were very close, up until the time of his death while incarcerated at San Quentin.  Looking back, I can see why she does not go into extensive detail for that would have required a separate book.  In fact, their story was the focus of her trial for conspiracy commit murder surrounding the death of Judge Harold Haley, taken prisoner by Jackson’s younger brother Jonathan in an effort to free the Soledad Brothers,  to which George belonged.  Both were shot and killed during a shootout with law enforcement.  Davis’ trial and acquittal are covered brilliantly in The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis by Bettina Aptheker.   The story of Jackson and Davis takes center stage therein as she fights for her life in a case that could have sent her to death row.

Towards the end of the book, there is a speech she gives about the election of Barack Obama.   His election as the 44th President of the United States was a monumental moment for America but she rightfully points out that the job of improving race relations and civil rights did not belong to him alone.  And in spite of the belief that we live in a post-racial society, common wisdom dictates otherwise and we all share a responsibility in the continuing advancement of civil rights.  I truly believe that anyone who believes in equality, the right of everyone to live their lives free and the advancement of society will find this book relevant not only to the past but even today as mass incarceration continues and America finds itself politically and socially divided.  However, I have hope for the future and if we return to books such as these, we can get back on track and work towards improving life for all Americans.  And as we do so, we can continue to examine the true meaning of freedom.

ISBN-10: 0872865800
ISBN-13: 978-0872865808

The Fire Next Time-James Baldwin

Fire next timeEvery year that I age, I have noticed that I have a growing appreciation for classic literature and the works of other authors that are no longer with us.  James Baldwin (1924-1987) is near the top of my list of authors whose books are critical to American history and the current day state of affairs in the United States.  The Harlem native who took his last breath in France, stands out as a commentator on race in America. His observations which he then put into words, were sharp, analytical and deeply profound. Baldwin lived what could only be described as an eventful but complicated life.   He was a Black American and homosexual in a time in which both were considered to be crimes of the highest nature. America had yet to see the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and homosexuality was still considered a crime against nature in many states. Baldwin was both and carried himself with an aura of confidence and intellect that has remained impressive many years after his death.  In this short but intriguing book, Baldwin comments on race in America based off of his experience and encounters with White Americans and even Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam.  He never joined the nation but his account of his meeting with Muhammad is one of the highlights of the book.   Racial discrimination is never an easy topic to discuss and many of us would prefer to discuss more pleasant issues.  But Baldwin was a master of taking a explosive topic and relaying it to the reader in a way that forces one to do deep soul-searching if they are not African-American and reevaluate their own existence if they are.

Too often, it is assumed that books about racial inequality are attacks against White Americans.  That is not Baldwin’s goal. In fact, Baldwin’s social circle was very diverse, consisting of White Americans, Black Americans, Europeans and Turkish individuals among others.  In fact, in the book there is a part in which he feels conflicted about his White friends and his own social situation in America.  His experience is not meant to demean or drive a wedge between friends but highlights the inner conflict that can engulf anyone. The key to appreciating Baldwin’s work is to remember that it was written in a time period that is much different from 2017.     Jim Crow, voter suppression, poverty and class based war made life deplorable for minorities and poor White Americans.    And before the courage of the Loving family, interracial marriage was illegal throughout the country.   Every great movement needs voices like Baldwin, to remind of us where we come from and what we need to do in order to move forward. It is a shame that today, his voice has been largely forgotten by a generation that has no connection of one of the greatest writers in American history.

I truly wish Baldwin had completed more books before his death.  His mind was uncanny and we are fortunate to have the works that he left behind.  This book is not just for Black or White Americans, but for anyone who wishes to examined and understand America’s unpleasant history with racial equality.   History is not always pleasant but the darkness in it, helps us  not to make the same mistakes again but to try a different path that works and exemplifies what progress truly is.  Baldwin does it again with another classic.

ISBN-10: 003055442X
ISBN-13: 978-0030554421