Category Archives: Historical Account
The cover of this book is bound to cause many to do a double take. The crossing out of the word black is far from subtle, but anyone who is familiar with the late Richard Claxton “Dick” Gregory (1932-2017), will know that subtlety was not in his character. He was known as a star comedian for many years but he was also a civil rights activist, nutrition guru, social critic, writer and occasional actor. His death marked the passing of a icon whose sharp wit and frankness earned him the respect of his peers and people across the nation. Published after his death, this book takes a look at the official history of African Americans that Americans have been told for more than a century. Gregory makes it clear early in the book that American History and Black History are one in the same. It is a valid point and for African Americans, the United States is the only home that many have ever known. The history that has been taught in classrooms across America continues to be re-examined in the pursuit of the truth by historians and independent researchers. The gift of the internet has allowed truth-seekers to reach audiences of monumental sizes as we step back in time to learn what really did happen with regards to pivotal events that shaped the modern day United States.
Gregory starts early in the book, beginning after America becomes a newly formed nation and step by step, he provides us with an outline of the events that took place to clarify what has been written in error. Admittedly, Gregory has been viewed as a conspiracy theorist and in some parts of the book, a few statements give credence to that. Sadly, we do not have the ability to ask him to elaborate on those statements. I did find a few comments to be in need of further verification. But the overall message of the book remains strong and Gregory presents an abundance of valid points. For those who have accepted the history presented in school textbooks, Gregory might come off as out of his mind. But if we pay careful attention to his words, he does speak a lot of truth but in a way where we can analyze things on our own and do further research. In his defense, he never claims to be the end all source for historical information. However, he was a prominent fixture in the civil rights movement and friends with an endless number of historical figures who were directly involved in the movement. He provides plenty of anecdotes about many stars such as Marvin Gaye (1939-1984), Michael Jackson (1958-2000) and Malcolm X (1925-1965).
The pace of the book is fast but steady and Gregory makes sure not to spend too much time on one subject. He discusses each topic just long enough to provided the reader with a clear picture of past events. And while I do feel that it would have been great if he had gone into more detail, that would have required a much larger book. His focus here, is plant enough seeds of doubt so that we continue to do research on our own and learn the truth about history. Gregory was brilliant both as a comedian and social critic. Part of what made him such a memorable figure was his ability to shock his audience. He pulls no punches here and makes it clear that he intends to clarify the many lies that have been told for too long.
Some of us will read this book and come away with the belief that Gregory is more of a conspiracy theorist than many thought. He does make some statements that could be conspiracy theory oriented but he never strays too far off course or makes statements that are beyond outlandish. But I stress again that this book is not the final word on historical events. The book is a good start for those who have long questioned what they have been taught. Black Americans will question their own history in a country that has a dark past with racial discrimination. Black actors, athletes, musicians, activists and authors struggled with the system of Jim Crow and acceptance in mainstream American society. But as Gregory shows us, they all had tremendous courage and he uses their stories to prove his point that Black Americans are not helpless, but strong people whose history has been ignored for far too long. As a Black American, Gregory caused me to re-examined things that I learned years ago in my own search for truth. I did learn a few things I did not know before and for other things, I have more topics to research in-depth. I never had the opportunity to meet Dick Gregory but I had seen him in interviews on several occasions. He is no longer with us but his voice remains as prominent and relevant as ever. And this posthumous release is a further testament to his colorful and influence intellect that provokes thought and reflection. Good read.
In American folklore, there are two families whose names are recognized as being part of what is arguably the longest running feud to have ever taken place in the United States. The Hatfields and the McCoys have become ingrained in the American experience and the alleged feud between the two families has been re-told through films, documentaries, websites and books. In 2012, the History Channel released a multi-part miniseries about the feud starring Kevin Costner as William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield (1839-1921) and the late Bill Paxton (1955-2017) as Randolph “Ran’l” McCoy (1825-1914). The series is highly rated but just how accurate was it? And were the Tug Valley in West Virginia and Pike County in Kentucky, really that deadly in the late 1800s? Thomas E. Dotson is a descendant of both families and here he rescues history and sets the record straight about what really did happen between the years of 1882 and 1888. And what he reveals will undoubtedly change the way you view the “feud” between the two famous families.
Dotson takes a different approach here and instead of re-telling the story, he examines other sources of information that have been published or released that have contributed to the often repeated “official” story about the conflict. There is no official narrative here, the purpose of the book is correct information that is simply inaccurate. Urban legends and published works have led many of us to believe that the conflict began over the issue of a stolen hog from Randolph McCoy and that as a result, blood was shed in large numbers, turning the Tug Valley into a shooting gallery. Admittedly, the story is sensational and its seductiveness has allowed many to fall victim to misinformatio. However, through hindsight, Dotson’s work allows us to go back in time and take another look at the “deadly” conflict.
The amount of research that went into this book is nothing short of staggering. Dotson means business here and has had enough of the lies and omissions that have persisted for more than one hundred years. I have seen the reviews of some readers on Amazon, who complained that the author did not tell the story as it happened. However, Dotson does tell the story, just not in the conventional format. By going back and breaking down the myths, the story is re-told, one section at a time. And by halfway through the book, a clear picture of the origin of the tensions between the two families is clearly evident. The death of Ellison Hatfield on August 1, 1882 in Pike County, Kentucky, is widely accepted as the beginning of the conflict. But as Dotson shows us, the seeds of discord were sown many years before, going all the way back to the Civil War. Further, the tensions between the two were only a part of a much larger battle being waged between many high-powered figures over land, money and the settling of old grudges.
Surely, some secrets of the conflict have been lost over time as those who were alive at the time have long been deceased. But their heirs and official records that have survived, give us a clearer picture of the mindset of both families during the time and refute myths about the events that were supposed to have taken place. Dotson rectifies those long held beliefs, dissecting them like an expert surgeon. For more than a century, the alleged theft of a hog has been the referred to as the start of the troubles. But what Dotson shows is that there was far more to the story than any of us could have imagined. To the Hatfields and the McCoys that are now deceased, any notion of a feud probably would have been seen as ridiculous. To be sure, the families did have their tensions but a feud in the sense that we think of might have seemed bizarre to them.
As I read the book, I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at the surreal amount of misinformation that has been propagated many forms of media. Hollywood has always been known to take certain liberties with stories and Costner, while a great actor, was not responsible for every part of the production. However, I do believe that with the story of the Hatfield and the McCoys, the truth has been sacrificed for too many years while those responsible have profited greatly. And the full story of what did happen has remained hidden until now. Dotson is proud of his heritage and does an incredible job of presenting the truth while completely demolishing any perceptions that people from the Tug Valley are hillbillies obsessed with violence and illiterate. In fact, as can be seen in the book, it was the exact opposite in many places and the full story reveals a long running chest match that eventually did see a checkmate take place.
Perhaps one day, a film will be made that tells the story of the Hatfields and McCoys as it did happen, removing the fanfare and eliminating the tendencies of storytellers to embellish their accounts to be more appealing. But until then, we can rely on this phenomenal compendium that tells the truth about what may be the greatest “non-feud” in history.
Recently, I have become fascinated with the troubles in Northern Ireland, a culmination of long-simmering tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Ulster Province. The conflict is among the longest running in the world and has claimed the lives of thousands. In each of the books that I have read, I kept coming across the name Bobby Sands (1954-1981). I knew he was one of several prisoners at the Long Kesh correctional facility who died following a hunger strike in protest of the conditions at the jail and the policies of London. However, I did not know much about his life. I became focused on him and eagerly searched online for whatever I could find. Amazon delivered yet again with this definitive biography of Sands’ life by author Dennis O’Hearn that is nothing short of riveting.
Here in the United States, Sands’ name is largely unknown but across Ireland and other parts of the world, he is remembered as a champion of resistance and an inspiration to others who have waged their own battles for freedom including the late Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). Mandel used Sands’ hunger strike as an example for strike of his own which proved to be highly successful. However, Sands also had his detractors and many of them still view him with disgust, particularly in the six Protestant dominated counties in Ulster Province. And similar to other famous figures, there are endless stories about his life, some true and others most likely fiction. Hearns sets the record straight here giving the best account of the life of one of the IRA’s most legendary leaders.
From the start, the book earned my undivided attention and at times I could not put it down. Curiously, the Sands’ story begins like many other kids in Northern Ireland. He was born several miles from Belfast and his childhood was a happy one by all accounts. He lived in a modest house with his parents and three siblings. His friends were a mix of Catholic and Protestant. But that would soon change as the battle between Republicans and Loyalists escalated and the induction of the British military further fueled tensions. As Hearns shows, these events began to shape the mindset of the growing Sands and the events of Bloody Sunday, were the spark that fully ignited the raging conflict.
The author’s writing style flows very easily and the pace of the book moves just right. Hearns follows Sands’ early life, showing his slow progression from the average young kid, to a young man learning about religion and complexities of life for Irish Catholics and finally to the wise and seasoned IRA member that launched the most famous and moving hunger strike in Irish history. I think Hearns showcases clearly, how and why many young men and women joined the IRA, knowing full well that jail and death were the most likely outcomes. To Americans, Sands might seem out of his mind. But that is far from the case and Hearns gives him a platform to spread his ideas. Sands’ writing samples are included in the book, giving him a voice in this incredible biography. Even if you do not agree with what Sands did, it will hard not to admire his dedication to his beliefs, his charisma, intelligence and willingness to sacrifice himself.
His incarceration at Long Kesh is without a doubt the crux of the book. As Hearns tells this part of Sands’ life, we step inside the walls of the prison and the different sections in which Sands and other IRA members were confined. The ugly and vindictive atmosphere that developed at Long Kesh is on full display and some readers will be repulsed at the actions of some guards and conditions in which Sands and the others lived. But the struggle inside the prison by no means was one sided. Sands and the others do their share of antagonizing the guards whom they affectionately refer to as “screws”. A daily war of attrition developed as each side sought to find out just how far they could push the other. And to say that some aspects were barbaric would be an understatement.
Prison time was an accepted part of life for the men and women of the IRA. Death came as well to those who were either unlucky or extraordinarily brave. The men at Long Kesh believed their fight was political and they decided they would not be confined within its walls without being appropriately labeled as political prisoners. London vehemently refused to agree to any such notion and thus, the stage was set for the battle between the IRA and the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013). As this point in the book, the suspense heightens as the IRA becomes more defiant and the guards become more determined to break them into submission. It was an environment that would have driven most to insanity. But for Bobby Sands, this was the proving ground in which he could show his commitment to his cause. His studies of the works of Che Guevara, Franz Fanon and others became the backbone of his resistance and carried him through to the final moments of the second of two hunger strikes carried out by IRA prisoners. Hearns covers both in solid detail to give the reader an inside look into the battle behind-the-scenes battles within the IRA with regards to the impending doom by the hunger strikers.
As a sub-story to the events at Long Kesh, the author focuses on the turmoil in Sand’s personal life outside of the IRA. Marriage and fatherhood enter the story and the effect the movement had on his personal life will cause many to wonder if it was truly worth it. Sands would surely say yes but I am sure that if he could have gone back and done things differently, there is a good chance that he might have changed course. But by the time he had reached this point in his life, his fate was sealed and destiny was waiting. At the time of his death, he was only 27 years of age and joined a long list of other famous figures who died at age 27. In death, he became a martyr and his image can still be found on murals in Northern Ireland. To Republicans, he is a hero who fought against British Rule and to Loyalists, a criminal who caused his own demise. But to some of his enemies, as Hearns shows, he was still worthy of respect and the interactions with guards in various parts of the book are confirmation of this. I think that all can agree that he was one of a kind and remains a legend of the IRA. His hunger strike changed public opinion of the IRA and their cause for a united Irish Republic. Future generations of IRA members and Republicans will surely look to him as one of their greatest figures whose memory shall continue to live on. This is the life and death of Robert Gerard Sands.
Several years ago, I visited Dublin to finally see Ireland for myself. And while I admit that I was not swayed by the Irish breakfast, there were many other things about Dublin that made up for the first morning and I left Dublin with a sense of warmth and humbleness. During my visit, I stopped by the General Post Office (“GPO”) to send out a few postcards. As I stood on line with other tourists, I marveled at the beauty of the building. After some time, I and the other customers departed and went our separate ways. But I do not believe that many of us on line that day, recalled or were aware of the historical significance of the post office. On April 24, 1916, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (“IRB”), staged an uprising across Dublin to force an end to the rule of the British Crown (“the Crown”) across Ireland. The GPO was one of many occupied buildings but is recognized as “ground zero” for the various seizures that occurred. The events of that day have become known as the Easter Rising and contained within the pages of this book, is the story from start to finish by author Tim Pat Coogan.
Recently I have covered a couple of books on “the troubles” in Northern Ireland’s Ulster Province. Each makes reference to the 1916 uprising but are primarily focused on the Irish Republican Army (“IRA”). I knew that at some point I would need to examine the Easter Rising and this book did not disappoint. It came as a recommendation on Amazon and I purchased it rather quickly. Having finished the book, I can firmly state that Coogan created an invaluable tool to learn the truth about the long and violent struggle by Republicans for a united Ireland.
Reviews on Amazon.com are generally positive with the only drawback being that the book is geared towards readers with a good amount of knowledge of Ireland’s history. I do concur that the book is not an easy read but I do believe that readers who choose to explore this book already have a strong interest in the subject matter and will be somewhat familiar with the events at the GPO. Regardless of the reader’s knowledge, it is an enjoyable read. Coogan sets the right pace from early on and the book picks up speed as we move closer to the deadly climax.
While the book is focused on the uprising, there is far more to the story than meets the eye. In fact, not only do we learn about Coogan’s life growing up in Ireland, we also learn about the social conditions for most Irish men and women. Life in Ireland was hard, famine was real and being Catholic was a cardinal sin. London had meddled in Irish affairs for several hundred years and calls for a United Ireland grew exponentially. Protestant rule was enforced through gerrymandering and outright discrimination. For Republicans, there was only thing to do and that was to force the Crown out of Ireland. To some, it was the only hope of an Ireland in which poverty was gone, religion did not divide society and the whole country was united as one.
Through Coogan’s work, I have come to learn the names of the Republican martyrs who whose legacies live on. The names of Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) and James Connolly (1868-1916), among others, are now etched into my memory. The uprising proved to be their downfall but in death they have become revered as the fathers of the Irish Republic. Coogan provides samples of Pearse’s written correspondence to family members and short speeches he gave prior to this death, giving the reader a better idea as to who he was and his ultimate goal for Ireland. To the Crown, the IRB was a group of agitators whose actions were insubordinate, treasonous and outright disrespectful. And to some Irish, particularly those of the Protestant faith, it was further confirmation that they were vindicated in their distrust and rejection of Catholics. London took the position that the rebellion had to be resolved and Britain retaliated sharply. Ironically, the crackdown by the Crown had many unintended effects that changed the course of Irish history. Readers will find this part of the book highly interesting.
Coogan created what is with without a doubt, a definitive account of the Easter Rising. There are many characters involved and certainly a lot of information to process. But I think that readers who have the patience and interest to make it through the book will find that it is well worth the effort. The troubles in Northern Ireland could reignite at any time and the war between the Republicans and the Crown could once again become full scale. Inevitably, foreign nations will intervene and try to broker peace. But in order for peace to prevail, all involved must understand what is truly at stake and why each side has the strong convictions that they do. For those that live outside of Ireland, it may be necessary to first go back and learn the truth about the Crown’s presence in Ireland and the birth of the effort of Republicans to see it come to an end.
The conflict in Northern Ireland between pro-British Protestants and Republic Catholics, is the longest running feud to date. The planned exit by England from the European Union has resulted in suspense and apprehension throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. The Irish have undoubtedly been watching closely as any movement by England will have a ripple effect that will eventually reach their shores. Belfast remains a major tourist attraction in the north, similar to its southern counterpart Dublin, and receives millions of visitors each year. History buffs may recall that Belfast is the city in which Harland and Wolff built the world-famous RMS Titanic for the White Star Line. But behind the fame of the doomed ocean liner, lies a dark side that has taken more lives than anyone could have ever imagined. Belfast and Londonberry (“Derry”) have served as the battlegrounds for the deadly war between Nationalists and Republicans forces. Across Ulster province, six of the nine counties are protected by the British Crown (“the Crown”) and unofficially by the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defense Association. The Irish Republican Army (“IRA”) stands firm as the opposition force founded to defend the minority Catholic population from what they believe to be the refusal of the Crown to let Ireland become a united country. Kevin Toolis is a journalist and screenwriter born in Edinburgh, Scotland to Irish parents. In this eye-opening and chilling book, he travels back to the country of his ancestors, seeking to understand what drives the men and women of the IRA.
I believe that anyone interested in this book probably has a fair amount of knowledge regarding the IRA and “the troubles” as they are known by the Irish. Toolis does not simply relay their well-known attacks but instead seeks to understand the mindset and conviction of those who have taken the pledge to see the Crown removed from Irish soil. He interviewed many high-ranking members, some of whom are now deceased such as Martin McGuinnness (1950-2017), families of fallen IRA members and even those on the other side of the conflict. And what he has come away with will shock readers who live outside of Ireland and are not of Irish ancestry. To outsiders, the conflict seems surreal and the deaths of so many beyond needless. It is a conflict that has no restrictions on violence and the ideology that fuels both sides is as strong as any found throughout the world. However, as I read the book, I did find myself aghast at the ease in which so many accepted jail and death as part of the plan. As the author shows, to nearly all of the figures, taking up the IRA flag is seen as an act of honor, even if it means certain death and/or prison time. It is a thought process that neither I nor many readers outside of the United Kingdom will be able to associate with. But for those that remain in Northern Ireland, the troubles have never gone away.
The author provides a clear and thorough explanation for the origins of the conflict and the imposition of the Crown more than 400 years ago when Oliver Cromwell led the Crown in the War of Three Kingdoms, setting the stage for British rule. As the book moves along, we are introduced to the IRA through polarizing and deadly figures. The uprising of 1916 by Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) marked a new era in the Republic of Ireland. His life and last moments are revisited here, showing the reader the level of conviction behind the Republican cause. The IRA has been home to a large number of larger-than-life characters including the late Bobby Sands (1954-1981), whose hunger strike and death at HM Prison Maze, Long Kesh earned the IRA a major publicity coup against the administration of Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013). Sands’ legacy and spirit are alive and well as a martyr in the cause for a united republic. Toolis moves through IRA circles with bravado and fear, knowing full well just how dangerous the interviewees were. But his journalist background, allowed him to continue his research as he descended deeper into the IRA’s soul.
The book is far more than just a collection of missions carried out by the IRA. Here we learn the names and personal stories of several figures who became popular and infamous in IRA lore. Some were heroes, others informers and the rest, tragically became casualties of war. Regardless of their roles, each has their own story to tell about their life in Ireland and whey they feel that the Crown should no longer remain in power in the north. One thing that did stand out is that in nearly every story, a common theme is terrible poverty and discrimination as a result of the majority Protestant rule. In fact, not one person in the book that Toolis interviewed, came from a family of extreme wealth. The opposite was more often than not true, and their prospects in life were grim. But the IRA and the dream of a united Ireland, was enough to lure many into committing acts intended to drive the British away once and for all. Frankie Ryan, Mairéad Farrell (1957-1988), Sean Savage (1965-1988), Daniel McCann(1957-1988), Joseph MacManus and Patricia Black (1972-1991) are just some of the names listed in the long register of IRA members who died tragically on behalf of the IRA. Their goal to force the Crown to leave Ireland has not materialized but the IRA continues to stick to its core mission.
At first glance, it is easy to write off the voices in this book as delusional militants whose numbers were never any match for the Crown of the British military. The six counties in Ulster province are still under the Crown but the IRA is recognized world-wide as the Catholic voice across the north. As I read the stories of the figures being interviewed, I continued to ask myself if there was any possibility that they could have taken a different path in life. For some, it almost seems that they were destined to join the IRA. In fact, as a few explain, it is what they grew up with and a part of life that became accepted. But those of us looking from the outside in may ask is the heartache and death truly worth it? Those part of the IRA will undoubtedly say yes it is. Even those that have been forced to bury siblings and even children, remain committed to the IRA’s cause: a British-free and unified Republic of Ireland.
Those who decide to read the book through pure fascination with the violence and gore that occurs will miss the point of the book. What Toolis has done is to allow us to see how and why young men and women who could have led ordinary and long lives, made the decision to join a cause that many of them knew from the beginning would result in prison and death. Their rationale for answering the call to arms and joining the IRA will provoke a range of reaction in readers. Some of us will be empathetic while others may dismiss them as nothing more than rebel hearts. But regardless of our own personal opinions, these are their stories and the reasons behind their decisions and actions. We do not have to agree with them but we can make the effort to understand their position. Furthermore, we are forced to ask ourselves what we would do in their place.
The British side of the question is not left out and the Crown does make an impact in the story through counter-intelligence missions spearheaded by MI5 and the Special Air Service (“SAS”), police action through the Royal Ulster Constabulary and informers within the IRA’s ranks. Deadly games of espionage, double-agents and collateral damage, turned Northern Ireland and even London in battlegrounds to force change to 10 Downing Street’s foreign policy toward its Irish neighbors.
Today there is a form of peace in Ireland but the Provisional IRA, which split for the traditional IRA in 1969, continues to operate. Time will tell if peace will continue or if the troubles will once again be re-ignited. As Britain struggles to find a suitable exit from the European Union, many eyes are on Ireland and the fears abound of the possible deadly impact of London’s final decision. There may indeed come a day when the Crown is finally removed from Irish soil and the dream of a united Irish Republic becomes reality. Protestants will have to make life changing decisions and for some that might include the use of violence. We can only hope that cooler heads prevail and a British exit from Ireland will be done in an orderly and peaceful fashion. But until that day comes, the IRA remains a force to be reckoned with and a voice for an oppressed minority seeking to change social conditions that have caused thousands of deaths. They are supported throughout Ireland and even here in the United States. But if peace will have a chance of prevailing through a long term solution, we must first understand those that have served and died in their commitment to the IRA. Some of those incredible and heartbreaking stories are captured here by Kevin Toolis in this breathtaking journey into the heart of the IRA.
When I first learned of the country called Burkina Faso, I felt a sense of shock at how little of it I had heard not only in school but through the media. The landlocked African nation was never mentioned in the history books that I had read and even today it remains a minor player on the world stage. But between the years of 1983 and 1987, events transpired there that were both remarkable and tragic. Had success prevailed, the world would know Burkina Faso today as the pioneer of progressiveness in modern day Africa driven by the ideas of its late leader Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara (1949-1983).
Upper Volta was the name chosen by the French as they colonized the land that would produce one its most aggressive antagonists. The colony became prized possession but growing calls for independence succeeded and on August 5, 1960, Upper Volta became an independent nation and was formally recognized internationally. However, Paris still played a direct role in the nation’s affairs and continued to keep a stronghold over the country for the next twenty-three years. On August 4, 1983, Sankara seized power in a coup and installed himself as the new ruler. The country was renamed Burkina Faso and Sankara launched a campaign of reforms that were far ahead of his time. Agricultural reforms, anti-corruption acts, women’s rights and energy conservation were just some of the endless programs and ideas he began to institute to transform Burkina Faso from a poor developing nation into one that was self-sufficient and financially secure to maintain its independence.
Ernest Harsch knew Sankara personally, having worked with him on more than one occasion. This book is a collection of his memories of Sankara and what he observed during Sankara’s time in office. The account is remarkable and at times, Sankara appears to be a figure out of place on a continent plagued by exploitation and corruption. His voice was strong, and his actions were feared abroad for he advocated for a unified Africa, emboldened to reject foreign loans with high interest rates and the meddling of more powerful nations.
He has been compared by some as the African version of Che Guevara. Similar to Guevara, he led a frugal lifestyle and implored close relatives not to accept any gifts. His belief in selflessness are eerily similar to Guevara but both men were incredibly intelligent figures who posed a threat to many due to their growing number of followers. Washington once feared Guevara could spread the Cuban Revolution across Latin America. It also feared that Sankara could spread the Burkina Faso revolution across Africa. The tension between Sankara and Washington are discussed by Harsch and highlight the seriousness with which many viewed Sankara’s powerful rhetoric.
Abroad, eyebrows started to raise at the actions of the new revolutionary near the Ivory Coast. Domestically, Sankara was surrounded by many enemies, some of whom he could never have foreseen. Harsch explores what was really taking place in Burkina Faso up until and at the time of Sankara’s death. The actions of Blaise Compaoré are discussed as well and his true role in the events of that day are still a bit of a mystery. He is no longer the leader of Burkina Faso, having resigned on October 31, 2014. Currently, Christophe Joseph Marie Dabiré sits as the prime minister. The nation has seen power change hands many times but none can escape the ghost of Sankara.
Africa’s size and complex network of nations have made it one of the most diverse places on earth. In fact, no other continent has the number of countries contained within as Africa does. There are 53 recognized countries across the continent with each having its clear distinctions as to language, culture and history. Sankara hoped to bring these countries together under the banner of a Pan-African organization. Had he succeeded, he would have accomplished the goal envisioned twenty-years earlier by Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961). Although he did not live long enough to realize this goal, he did provide an example of the possibilities that exist for all of Africa if its people can come together as one.
The only negative part of the book is that I wish it could have been at least twice as long as I feel that there is so much to Sankara’s story that is still largely unknown. However, Harsch has done a great service to the memory of his late friend in showing world how brilliant Sankara truly was. I sincerely hope that in years to come, Sankara’s legacy is exposed to more parts of the world. To aid in that effort, we can rely on this sound and endearing account of Sankara’s life and death.
The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR (The New Cold War History) – Chris Miller
On December 26, 1991, the world watched in shock as the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR) dissolved, splitting the once mighty Soviet Union into fifteen separate nations. I vividly remember watching the news broadcasts and seeing the flag of the Soviet Union lowered for the last time. It was the end of an era highlighted by the Cold War in which Washington and Moscow viewed each other as a threat to world peace. Paranoia, suspicion and espionage propelled the two to the brink of nuclear war on several occasions. In October, 1962, the world watched in gut-wrenching suspense as the Cuban Missile Crisis heated up and threatened to be the spark that ignited the next world war. President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) found their selves in a situation that could have resulted in the physical destruction of half the planet within a matter of minutes. Diplomacy eventually prevailed through the use of back door channels encouraged by the realization of figures in both governments that the looming showdown would produce no winners. Tensions between the two super powers cooled but never full subsided and as the dissolution of the USSR played out on television, Washington closely monitored the events while re-examining its global position as Russia emerged from the post-Soviet empire as the country to watch. Twenty-eight years later, the USSR is still recalled as one of the greatest powers in history. Its fall was earth shattering and left so many wondering, how and why did it happen?
Author Chris Miller is an Assistant Professor of International History at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. And here in this investigative report into the struggle to save the Soviet economy, he explores and explains why the USSR met its demise. The story is focused on the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev who is the head of an empire that is struggling financially. Failed Marxist policies and hard-liner policies have become anchors that are weighing the USSR down heavily. Its neighbor China, has found a solution that has allowed it to move away from the policies of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976) known as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Under a new leader, Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), China chartered a new course that allowed more economic freedom to ignite the nation’s struggling economy. While never fully leaving its Marxist ideology, China does in fact go through an economic rebirth and in the process becomes part of the “Asian Tigers”, joining Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. In the USSR many eyes were watching and Miller perfectly explains the resurgence of the Asian markets and how they have grown into the financial hubs they are today. But this story is about the USSR which found itself in a similar position as China and sought to emulate the success of its left-leaning ally.
As the author wades deeper in the scenes taking place in the Kremlin, we become witnesses to the struggle Gorbachev became engulfed in with his own government. Incredulously, he was not allowed to see the USSR’s budget nor was he privy to significant information held by the Soviet Army and the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB). The hold over the country by the military and intelligence apparatus is strikingly clear and highlights the uphill battle that Gorbachev was forced to fight as he struggled to save the economy.
It is said that old habits die a hard death and in the case of the USSR, this was painfully true. Miller shows the stubbornness of the old guard who clung to ideology in order to maintain the status quo even as the country slid closer to implosion. The arguments that are put forth against Gorbachev are at some points mind-boggling and mind-numbing. Little by little, Gorbachev becomes a man on his own whose radical ideas fly in the face of what the hard-liners believed to be true Marxism. Unwilling to waver from their commitment to the memories of Karl Marx (1880-1883) and Fredrich Engels (1820-1895), they oppose Gorbachev at nearly every turn and the USSR becomes an empire at war with itself. To the west much of this was hidden until the very last-minute, but to those inside the USSR, signs that all was not well had been growing for decades. But officials in high positions continued to cling to the hope that the economy could miraculously be revived. Realists knew otherwise but life in the Soviet Union did not permit dissension. And those who went against the system sometimes paid the ultimate price. One of the true ironies in the book is the parallel between Gorbachev and the father of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924).
At times the story is beyond shocking but the author’s clarity in explaining the mistakes consistently being made behind the scenes, is a concise step-by-step guide to show the inevitable fate that awaited Moscow. Gorbachev probably did not realize just how fierce opposition would be but when the failed coup took place in August, 1991, the realization that the left and right had lost their minds must have been crystal clear. The nation could not survive another period reminiscent of the era of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) and the meltdown at Chernobyl was still fresh in the memories of many. To the Soviet Republics, these were more examples of Moscow’s growing incompetence and the urgency for independence. The Soviet Republics would play their own part in the fall of the USSR but for the most part, Moscow continued to make many mistakes on its own. Tragically, the Soviet Union could have and should have saved itself, but failed to take action that would have spared it from certain doom.
Today, the Soviet Union is an afterthought for many of us and for the younger generation, a relic of a time that existed before they were born. But we should never forget the role the USSR played in the events that changed world history over the past one hundred years. It no longer exist, but the ghosts of the former Soviet Union continue to haunt many. An empire that should have continued to dominate half a continent collapsed under its own weight and for reasons that will surprise and shock many readers. This is a relevant and informative account of the final years of the once mighty Soviet Union.
In December, 1991, the unthinkable happened as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) dissolved into fifteen separate countries. Known informally as the Soviet Union, the USSR seemed at times indestructible to those viewing the union from abroad. But within dissension had been brewing for many years in the wake of the tyrannical reign of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). His successors embarked on a period of de-Stalinization that thrived under the administration of Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev (1894-1971). The Soviet Union remained a superpower and in direct competition with arch-rival the United States. It dissolution shocked the world and left the future of the former Soviet republics in limbo. In the aftermath of the monumental and historic collapse, the individual republics established their own rights to self-governance and in some cases, completely rejected Russian rule. Tensions between many of the nations continues to this day. Currently, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin serves as the President of Russia, and is as much of a controversial figure as many of his predecessors. His appointment by late President Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin (1931-2007) gave many Russians hope that a new direction was in store for the beloved country. Today, as we look back at the time that has passed since he was chosen to lead Russia, we can see a tortured nation still suffering from systematic oppression and what is rightly described in this book as totalitarianism.
In 2017, Gessen was hired by The New Yorker magazine as a stiff writer and she continues to be a leading voice for LGBT causes in her homeland of Russia. She hails from Moscow and is acutely aware of the persecution that she and many others face because of their sexual orientation. In Russia, the government embarked on a crusade against the LGBT community that began to flourish in the 1990s with the passing legislation against “homosexual propaganda”. The change in society which gave license to open discrimination of LGBT citizens is nothing short of barbaric. The murder of Vladislav Tornovoy marked a point of no return and although outrage at the crime was widespread, homophobia continued to increase. There are many ugly truths to be told and this phenomenal book that reveals the dark side behind the Iron Curtain, we can see first hand how Russia missed its opportunity to move away from the iron grip of Leninism and embrace democratic ideas. Some Russians undoubtedly wish to return to the Soviet days while younger Russians wish to move forward and transform Russia into a country of which they can be proud. To understand life in the Soviet Union and in new Russian society, Gessen interviewed several individuals, each with their own story to tell that will prove to be riveting to readers. Their names are Lyosha, Masha, Seryozha, and Zhanna and they each devoted a year of their time to tell Gessen about the Russia they know and in some cases, have left. Zhanna may be familiar to some readers as the daughter of Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov (1959-2015) who served as the First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia under Boris Yeltsin.
Gessen takes up deep inside their lives in post-Cold War Russia as Perestroika becomes of the official policy of Moscow. It is cited as one of the reasons of the fall of the USSR and a major factor in the resurgence of totalitarianism. The debate will continue for years but what is clearly apparent is that life in the Soviet Union was one of hardship, poverty and the loss of hope. These stories should remove any illusions readers may have of a high quality of life for the average Russian citizen. This is a sobering look at the daily struggles Russians face and the relentless abolition of individual liberties. Homosexuals became easy scapegoats and in the book, we follow Lyosha and his struggle to maintain a stable life in the midst of fierce homophobia supported and encouraged by official government policy. Masha and Zhanna would later become voices for the opposition while Seryozha would come to learn about the privileges attached to his family’s residence in “Czar Village”. Each faced their own struggles and their anecdotes reveal the dark transformation of Russian society as the departing Boris Yeltsin hands over the reigns to the former director of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB). Putin wasted no time as President of Russia and has placed the country in a vice grip, showing no signs of relinquishing his hold on power.
Where this book truly excels, is the author’s clarity in explaining the failures of Moscow post-Stalin and the importance of neighboring Crimea and Ukraine. Both territories have become hotbed issues during Putin’s presidency and increased tensions between Moscow and Washington, with the latter establishing punishing sanctions. The promise of hope, which existed for a brief time in Russia, seems to be receding on a regular basis as the Kremlin extends its totalitarian grip as far as it possibly can. Many have fled Russia, making a home in other parts of Europe and Brighton Beach, a small enclave in my hometown of Brooklyn, New York. As the author points out, Seryozha stopped responding to her messages in 2015, but the others have each made the tough decision to leave the places they called home in search of a better life, free from the grip of Putin’s regime. Slander, political oppression and even assassination, are hallmarks of Putin’s tactics to stifle the voices of perceived enemies of the state. Large numbers of expats will not return to Russia as long as Vladimir Putin remains determined to keep the men and women of their homeland held firmly in subjugation. Gessen has dared to speak out, risking persecution that has plagued other brave voices that have done their best to expose the facade created to cover the realities of Russian society. Opposition of any kind is not tolerated and the descriptions in the book of the actions towards those who dared to speak out have the markings of the classic police state.
Many misconceptions about Russia exist, mainly due to incorrect reporting and propaganda released by the Kremlin. But as we can see through Gessen’s work, life in Russia is quite different from the image the has been projected by officials. Persecution, oppression and famine are just some of the daily factors that make life in Russia a hard one to live. Deception and mistrust have become widespread and are eerily similar to the climate of suspicion created the Third Reich. The Soviet Union is long gone and in spite of Putin’s agenda, it will never again rise to the heights that it reached during the Cold War. And as the younger generation of Russians continue to find ways to make their voices heard, Russia will be faced again with a moment of monumental change. But in order for it to move forward, the people will have to ask what kind of Russia do they want for future generations? Do they want a true democracy or do they wish to endure several decades of rule by Vladimir Putin? The voices in the book have made their positions clear. It remains to be seen if anyone truly listens. They know the Russia that you and I have only read about. The Russia they know is a cold place, mostly closed off from the outside world and a nation that can never shake the ghost of Joseph Stalin and his mentor Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924), known to the world as Vladimir Lenin. But if Russia chooses to listen, the message is loud and clear that the future is history.
On January 11, 2019, Netflix released ReMastered: Massacre at the Stadium, a look back at the violent coup in September, 1973 in which President Salvador Allende (1908-1973) was overthrown by the Chilean military. In his place, General Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006) assumed power and unleashed a reign of tyranny that lasted sixteen years and caused the deaths of thousands of Chileans. His reign came to an end when Patricio Aylwin (1918-2016) was elected as the next President of the Republic of Chile. Pinochet was arrested in October, 1998, by British intelligence and repatriated to Chile on March 3, 2000. He died on December 10, 2006, without having served a day in prison for the human rights violations that occurred during his time in office. Today he is largely recognized as one of Latin America’s most infamous tyrants. The story of his rise to power and fall are covered beautifully in Peter Kornbluh’s The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability . His ruthlessness knew no bounds that tragic September day, and the military engaged in a purge of all perceived enemies of the new regime. Among the endless number of victims was former activist, playwright and singer, Victor Lidio Jara Martínez (1932-1978), known to the world as Victor Jara.
Jara’s widow Joan, is now 92 and has never ceased in her efforts to promote Victor’s legacy and find justice for his murder. In the Netflix documentary, his brutal death and the successful lawsuit against former Chilean soldier Pablo Barrientos, take center stage in the mission to unravel Jara’s final moments at the stadium. The film is thought-provoking and I do believe there is more to his death that remains hidden. After I finished the film, I became determined to learn as much as I could about Jara and his importance in Chilean history. I found this book by Joan Jara, wherein she discusses the Victor she knew and her life in Chile, a place that became her home away from home. British by birth, life took her across the Atlantic and to Santiago, where she continued to perfect her craft as a performer. Soon she was divorced with a young daughter trying to find her purpose far away from the bustling city life in London. Soon, a young charismatic singer crossed her path and before long, the story of Victor and Joan Jara had begun.
The beauty in this book is that Joan allows us into their home, to learn about Victor’s private life and his rise from the poverty-stricken town of Lonquén to become one of Chile’s most vocal supporters of Allende’s government. She provides a short biography on Victor and herself, filled with anecdotes that show how the basis for their political beliefs. As she admits, at first she had no fondness for anything communist but after witnessing the poverty and inequality in Chile and other parts of Latin America, she became more accepting of communist ideology. These beliefs would have far-reaching and tragic implications up until the time she fled Chile with Manuela and Amanda, her daughter with Jara. Today, it seems unreal that someone should be physically assaulted or even murdered for political affiliation, but this was the atmosphere that existed in Chile under Allende’s administration. Joan captures the atmosphere, recalling tense situations in which anarchy could have prevailed at the drop of a hat. Her analysis is a prime example for anyone seeking to understand how and why the coup had formed.
Joan takes us through the development of their relationship, their new daughter and success in the theater, a place she and Victor have always called home. Life is good and the girls are growing up nicely, but there is an undercurrent of dissent among the right-wing faction, determined to end Allende’s rule by any means necessary. The involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Allende’s downfall is well-documented. And the further fracture of Chilean society is critically examined in A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet by Pamela A. Constable and Arturo Valenzuela. I found myself startled as I read the book, at the revelations that it was openly assumed by many Allende supporters that the CIA was actively working to bring down Allende. It seems as if it was the secret that was not no secret. Perhaps the events in Cuba, Guatemala and Vietnam had provided fuel for the suspicion. The political turmoil that later engulfed the nation had started to build nearly the day that Allende was sworn in. The right-wing extremists failed to get the two-thirds vote to remove him from office and it was clear to Allende’s detractors that his removal would only come through violence. Allende was not oblivious to his precarious situation and even gave an unofficial last address to the nation in the days leading up to the coup. Little by little, dissension grew and the stage was set for September 11, 1973.
Open contempt by opposing parties had reached toxic levels in the week leading up to the coup and the audacity exemplified by enemies is recounted here by Joan. Some of the behavior might shock some readers. The descriptions of the brutality inflicted upon political opponents is reprehensible and as a woman states in the book, the coup taught Chileans how to hate. Similar to the Netflix film, Joan discusses that day in detail and how she came to learn about Victor’s death, her retrieval of his remains and her actions in the wake of his untimely demise. The story is riveting and Victor’s death silenced a voice of hope in a country that later endured a tyranny that soon spread across the continent, making its mark in places such Argentina and Uruguay under the regimes of Juan Perón and Juan María Bordaberry. Today, the dictatorships are a dark reminder of the past and the perils of extremism.
In January, 2019, I visited Chile and it has found a place in my heart as a true gem. It is hard to put into the words, the feeling that comes over the body upon the arrival on Chilean soil. To many of its neighbors, Chile is the black sheep of Latin America. But similar to its neighbors, it too has suffered through and survived its own history of military rule under right-wing dictatorship. Victor Jara was one of many voices who spoke out and took action to transform society in the hope of correctly many of mankind’s mistakes. His belief in his actions made him a marked man but Jara refused to abandoned his position and stood by his beliefs until the end. Joan has kept her husband’s memory alive in both the Netflix documentary and his book about their time together and the man she simply knew as Victor and his life which truly is an unfinished song.
Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison—Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out – Jason Rezaian
The United States and Iran share a long and storied past, defined in moments that changed world history. The removal of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, followed by the reinstatement of the Shah and the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979, set the stage for decades of tension between the two nations. And incredibly, it was under this tension that the administration of U.S. President Barack H. Obama engaged in talks that resulted in the The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, simply known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. The deal was both heralded as a landmark achievement and a kowtow of the worst kind. But what many Americans did not know, was that there was far more taking place behind the scenes, including the release of U.S. prisoners held in Iranian jails. Among those prisoners, was American born journalist Jason Rezaian, of The Washington Post. You may remember him from his appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s (1956-2018) hit show No Reservations. The episode was beautifully done and Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh, appear as voices of insight into Iranian culture. At the conclusion of the episode, there is a message on the screen that they both had been taken by Iranian intelligence. The episode is my second favorite, the first is Vietnam in which President Obama makes a surprise appearance and enjoys a meal with Bourdain in Ho Chih Minh City. On January 16, 2016, Rezaian was released was repatriated to the United States. Joining him were his Iranian born wife and his mother who never stopped fighting for her son’s release.
The book came to me as a recommendation from Amazon and I have to say, it was right on the money with this one. I easily recognized Rezaian and was curious to know exactly what did take place during his incarceration. The goods are all here and at times, I had to shake my head at the words and actions of his captors. The Twilight Zone atmosphere, as Rezaian once describes it, is periodically broken by his recollections of his early life and his family’s history. He explains his reasons for leaving America in his early thirties and moving to Iran, the place of his late father’s birth. At first, the book reads like a typical story of a young man who found a home away from home. He meets the love of his life, Yeganeh and the two begin to build their life together as a married couple. But on July 22, 2014, that all changed when they were arrested, blindfolded and transported to the Evin Prison in Tehran.
Authorities are convinced Rezaian is conduction “spionage”, as they call it and have labeled him a master spy who has come to spread revolution in Iran, through the import of “avocados”. At first I could not believe my eyes but the insanity only increases. Interrogators employ endless mind tricks in order to get Rezaian to “cooperate” and “admit” his wrongdoings, even without being able to say for certain what they were. They assure him that they are there to “help”. Rezaian’s sharp wit, adds a level of comedy to the story that lightens the mood and keeps the reader glued to the book, anticipating the next page. But the reality is that the charges were serious, in fact, deadly serious. More than once he is threatened with execution. The jury is still out whether the Iranians ever intended to actually commit such an act or if it was strictly a scare tactic that they knew would have backfired publicly and politically. Their attempts to interrogate him and their obsession with American films and politics, has the effect of turning the affair into a three-ring circus in which Rezaian is the only one with a sane mind. How he kept his sanity, sense or humor and composure, many of us will never truly know. Perhaps it is the human will to survive which at times can be stronger than most would expect. Rezaian admits that he nearly gave in on more than one occasion but the world was rooting for him and the support of his family, in particular his brother, help provide the inspiration he needed to remain stoic and defiant, until he once again walked the streets as a free man.
As to be expected, the Iran Nuclear Deal is a significant back story to the book and integral to his eventual release. As a prison inside Iran, Rezaian was given an insider’s view into Iranian society and the mood in Tehran as its leaders and Washington hammered out an agreement that had been reached with the hope that the two nations could begin open dialogue which could eventually end in peace that has eluded both for nearly forty years. Rezaian discusses the process and the difficulties of reaching an agreement which also included himself and other prisoners. But even he admits that at the time, he had no idea of how many people were at work, doing everything in their power to secure his release and several others. The ending of the book plays out as if Hollywood sent its best writers but this is not fiction. It was a show of diplomatic power at its finest and a story in which the good guy does win.
Sadly, hopes of peace between Iran and America faded with the announcement of President Donald J. Trump that the United States would withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal. On May 8, 2018, the withdrawal went into effect and only time will tell what will happen but I sincerely hope that peace does prevail. For Jason Rezaian, peace came in a different form and his freedom from the Evin Prison, has given him an even deeper perspective of where Iran continues to go wrong. He also explains the many areas in which non-Iranians fail in understanding how and why its society operates in the manner that it does. But make no mistake, this is his story and how he survived incarceration in the Islamic Republic of Iran.