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One of the definitions of the word irony is an incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result. What seems to be given can ultimately turn out radically different and such was the case in the life of the late Luther Ronzoni Vandross, Jr. (1951-2005), known simply to fans and friends as “Luther”. To the world, he was a household name and his classic Here and Now has been played at countless weddings across the country. His voice was unique with no singer coming to close to its richness and smoothness. When he died on July 1, 2005, many fans were in a state of shock and the idea that Luther Vandross was no longer among us seemed surreal. Sadly, it was true and his voice was silenced as he departed this life and now rest in peace, having left behind a legacy that will far exceed his time on earth. But how much did we really know about Luther and what was happening in his life behind the hit songs and glamorous stage appearances? Craig Seymour once wrote for VIBE magazine, and interviewed Luther becoming very familiar with the singer but even he was unable to completely penetrate the walls Vandross had erected around his personal life, taking many secrets with him to the grave. But what he has captured is presented here in this sharp biography that will surely suffice for Vandross’ fans.
Typically, we tend to view the lives of celebrities strictly based on what we see in magazines, on television and even on the internet. Gossip has a dark tendency to follow any celebrity extremely successful or controversial. And for male celebrities, the absence of a female counterpart fuels the rumor mill of possible homosexual tendencies. Vandross fought all of these throughout his life and while many have their suspicions, the rumors have always remained just that. Vandross was adamant about maintaining the privacy in his persona life but upon closer inspection there was far more than meets the eye. The son of a working class couple, born in New York City, rose through the music industry to become a titan. However, no one could have predicted such feats on the 20th day of April, 1951 when May Ida and Luther, Sr., welcomed him into the world. Vandross’ life is typical of that time until tragedy becomes a staple and his family found itself struggling to keep itself alive. Words cannot truly express the surprise and possible shock the reader will encounter with regards to the lives of those that compose the Vandross family. Their plight would form a cloud over Luther’s head for his entire life, reminding him of the preciousness of being alive another day. But before he made his own departure, he created a legacy and a reputation that will remain with us for years to come.
Those that knew him either loved him or disliked him for various reasons. Personally, he never professed to being perfect but like every great artist, life is far from simple. The blessing of a voice full of soul and the inability to find the very love he sang so passionately about, created a cruel irony that he was unable to escape from. As a singer, he crossed paths with nearly every giant in the industry, collaborating on projects with several artists including the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin (1942-2018). The relationships were not always cozy and Seymour does not shy away from Vandross’ conflicts with Franklin or those with Anita Baker and even the 90s all-female group En Vogue. But one thing they can all agree on is that there was only one Luther and no one can ever take his place.
For years, it had been rumored that Vandross was a closeted gay singer. While he never confirmed or denied any rumors, he only permitted knowledge of being in a relationship. With whom was never known to the public. And while Seymour does not have a full proof smoking gun coming from Vandross himself, there is a revelation by someone close to Luther that might prove to be the clue many people have been looking for. Personally, I could care less about Vandross’ love life. I have always enjoyed his music and felt that whomever he was romantically involved with is his personal business. But as an entertainer in the public life, it is a subject which was and is unavoidable. Luther handle it exceptionally well but I am sure that inside, it took a toll on his mental and emotional well-being. Fitting that the title of this book contains the word longing for that is exactly what Vandross was doing as he belted out love songs while coming to terms with his own quest for love and closure regarding the death of his father Luther, Sr. In death I can only hope that he found the peace that escaped him here on earth. And if we listen closely to his many songs which we will play over and over again, we can listen carefully for the messages contained within their lyrics. The is the life the late and great, Luther Vandross.
The images that were published in Jet magazine of Emmett Till’s (1941-1955) mutilated corpse still cause readers and viewers on the internet to recoil in shock. With their graphic detail and macabre detail, the pictures of Till’s face become burned into the memory of anyone who has seen them. The story of Till’s murder at fourteen years of age because of allegedly “whistling or cat-calling a white woman” is a dark reminder of the ugly history of racism that prevailed in American culture. Today such a crime is unimaginable, but in 1955 it was not only very real but also encouraged by rabid racists with a vendetta against people of color. In January, 2017, Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman at the center of the Till story, allegedly admitted that her claims were false. Regardless, the mere thought of such an act was more than enough to get a Black American lynched at that time and Till became one more victim on a long list of senseless murders carried out by maniacs emboldened by racist ideology. Till’s murder was creepy, appalling and downright shocking but another part of the story which is just as dark is the execution of his father Louis Till (1922-1944) by the Unites States Army in Civitavecchia, Italy, after being convicted of being part of the rape of two Italian women, one of whom was murdered during the crime. Till never gave any statements about his innocence nor did he confirm his guilt but the army had what it needed and he fell victim to the hangman’s noose taking any facts with him to his grave. After his death, details of the execution were withheld from his widow Mamie but were revealed ten years later. His final resting place is at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in Fère-en-Tardenois, France.
The thought that both father and son were executed because of perceived slights against white women is chilling and it is impossible to escape the aspect of race. Two young Black men accused of having committed crimes against white females could not and would not be permitted to survive. Their deaths are reminder of the misguided belief of the pursuit and dominance over white females by black males. Sadly, it is a misconception that still exist to this day. But what exactly did happen in Civitavecchia? Undoubtedly a crime did take place and most likely by the hands of U.S. servicemen. But there is always the requirement of conclusive evidence and in this case, there is much we do not know. But author John Edgar Wideman decided to take another look at Till’s case, even requesting and receiving a copy of the military’s case file by way of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In the book he does not include the entire file and moves between excerpts of it and his own story which is recounts as he writes about Till. The style of writing might confuse some readers but I believe Wideman presented it that way because of the parallels between his life and Emmett’s. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Wideman is presenting to the reader an idea of the struggle of many Black American families during a time of fierce racial prejudice. But the focus of the book is on Louis Till and it is here that I think it falls just short of hitting its mark.
Wideman’s personal story is highly interesting and he does a great job of showing the plight of Black families in America during his and Emmett Till’s childhood. But I think that more of the Louis Till file should have been presented. He concludes that he could not save Till from either prison or the hangman but from the portions of the file that he does include in the book, it is clear that reasonable doubt exist as to whether Till actually did the crime. And this is where the book should have reached its pinnacle. But this does not happen and the book’s slightly abrupt ending makes the reader yearn for more or some sort of closure. Sadly it never comes. And we are left to wonder about what actions, if any, Till did take on that night. In Wideman’s defense, the Army’s file had no index and was disorganized. I would not be surprised if some portions of it were removed or lost over the passage of time, making a definite conclusion beyond the reach of anyone today. None of figures involved with the case are alive preventing us from having the benefit of spoken words from those that were there. We are left to rely on the case file and our own beliefs. But I think one area where Wideman may have succeeded is igniting interest in Louis Till’s case in those that have read this book. I believe that there is more the Till’s case than we currently know and some day, another independent investigator may uncover the truth about his conviction and execution.
The book is a good read and just enough to get an idea of what did happen to Louis Till. But I believe it could have been much more effective with the inclusion of more of the file and some sort of definite conclusion even if it were the author’s belief. I do not know if Wideman will publish another book on the file but time will tell. For those looking to know more about Till’s sad and tragic life, this is a good resource to have.
When Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) died on March 5, 1953, the Soviet Union embarked on a change of course under its new leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971). While the majority of government policy remained in effect, a “thawing” took place where the old ways of Stalin were slowly repealed. However, many secrets remained buried as the Politburo sought to maintain its public facade of a progression under communist ideology. Among those secrets was the deadly famine that engulfed the Ukraine between the years of 1932-1933. In history courses, the famine is not discussed and it remained a hidden secret to the west for decades after it ended. The death count stands at a minimum of three million people. The true number may never be known. But what is certain is that the famine was no accident and the product of disastrous and delusional planning from Moscow.
Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author, dives into the tragedy of the Ukraine famine head first with an accurate and riveting account of how and why the famine developed. But before the reader can understand the famine, it is first necessary to understand the complicated history between Russian and the Ukraine. It is a history of violence, distrust and the animosity was on full display in 2014 when Russian military units invaded the small nation. Russia, has never relented in its quest to reclaim the Ukraine, once part of the U.S.S.R. The history of Ukraine in the story at hand begins with the Russian Revolution of 1917. The new found political spirit did not end in Russia but crossed the border into the Ukraine as Ukrainian Bolsheviks launched their own cultural revolution. The culture, language, laws and traditions of the Ukraine were blacklisted and criminalized as the Bolsheviks sought to erase all traces of the Ukrainian way of life. Their seizure of the country set the stage for the deadly path of destruction the Soviet government would later embark on.
What I noticed as I read through the book was how much of a premonition the famine was for later communist governments that made the same mistakes. Stalin’s policy of collectivization, embraced by both Chairman Mao and Fidel Castro, was an utter failure just as it was in the latter mentioned regimes. Moscow’s refusal to change the policy, even in the face of reports coming back from the field, is horrific and ultimately mind-boggling. Malnutrition, distrust, resentment and crime evolved out of the doomed policy and reduced the people of Ukraine to a mass of bodies pushed to the extreme. Millions did not survive and for those who did, they carried the mental and emotional scars from a famine that could have been handled if not for a ruler dogged by paranoia and drunk on power.
Applebaum tells the story the way it should be told with the reasons and methods used to rid the Ukraine of those intellectuals who had the potential to lead it in a new direction. The smear campaigns and murders approved by the OGPU, predecessor to the KGB and FSB, removed anyone who Moscow believed to be a threat to its supreme rule. The common people, often referred to as the kulaks, suffered immensely and trust between neighbors and acquaintances became rarer than a solid meal. Like puppets on strings, Moscow played with the lives of millions of Ukrainians, doomed by their culture and religion as antisemitism and anti-Ukraine sentiments prevailed.
Today there are many sources of information about the famine that was once firmly hidden behind strategically placed propaganda. But not everyone was fooled. In fact, Nazi Germany was firmly aware of it as it invaded Ukrainian territory during World War II. The German occupation is a topic for another book as Applebaum mentions but it highlights the despair and hopelessness that Ukrainians found their selves subjugated to. Following the war, things were far from improving and it would not be until the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev that the truth began to come to light. His policy of glasnost, helped repeal the curtain of secrecy in the Soviet archives. The door became slightly ajar but authors such as Anne Applebaum have now kicked it wide open with the full story of one of the world’s deadliest famines. This book is key to understanding the tragedy and the tense relationship between Russia and the Ukraine.
Assault On The Liberty: The True Story Of The Israeli Attack On An American Intelligence Ship- James M. Ennes, Jr.
On June 8, 1967, the USS Liberty was on a reconnaissance mission in the Mediterranean Sea near Sinai, Egypt. The morning started off normally until members of the ship’s crew noticed Israeli fighter jets circling above. The process was repeated several times more before a full-scale attacked was launched upon the unsuspecting ship. Thirty-four men perished in the attacks. Nearly all of the survivors were severely wounded with injuries that could only be described as horrific. The attack caused international outrage as the American and Israeli governments acted to contain the fallout from the nefarious attack. The official statement was that the attack was a grave error committed by Israeli forces upon a ship that allegedly had no clear markings identifying it as a United States Naval vessel. Members of the crew disputed this and some have made their voices heard in an attempt to tell what they know about that day tragic day in June, 1967. James M. Ennes, Jr., was a member of the crew and survived the attacked with a severely broken leg and other mental and physical injuries. He was one of the lucky ones and never wavered in his conviction to tell the truth about what he remembers from that day. Here he tells us the story from his recollections on record for the reader to digest and form an informed opinion.
The book was published in 1979, roughly about twelve years following the attack. Mysteries of that day still remain but it is here that we have a more accurate picture of what really did happen and a possible explanation as for why it happened. Ennes states that there are some aspects of the incident that will probably remain unknown for a long time. But what he does reveal about the incident is shocking and confusing. Perhaps the biggest question is why would Israeli fighter planes attack a U.S. vessel clearly marked and not on a combat mission?
The story begins before the Liberty arrives near the coast of Egypt. Orders were dispatched for the Liberty to change its position but were never received by the ship due to poor communication channels. If the orders had been received, then maybe this book would not exist. Ennes’ memories are very candid and show some what life is like for men on the seas, far away from home and surrounded by water on all side. The anecdotes at the beginning of the book are entertaining and slowly we are introduced to the characters in the story. Their mission appears to be moving along slowly until June 8, when all hell broke loose. It is at this point in the book, where we reach Defcon 1 and the fallout is horrifying. Readers with sensitive stomachs may find the latter part of the book highly uncomfortable to read. The descriptions of the injuries sustained by survivors and the deaths of other crew members are told in detail giving a graphic picture of the carnage that ensued. And what is even more appalling is the lack of support from Washington and the conflicting orders given to military personnel that sought to provide assistance to the critically injured ship and its crew.
As we make our way through the book and the attack is over, the period of recuperation and investigation comes into focus. This is the point in the book where shock turns into anger. Nearly all of the major political figures involved are deceased and unable to answer questions we may have. But what did happen as Ennes shows us, is that a cover-up was initiated at the highest levels of government for reasons which eluded the crew. Citations for bravery and reparations by the Israeli government followed but the manner in which they occurred will stun even the most hardened readers. The lives of the surviving crew members were changed forever and few have been able to fully tell their stories without repercussions from military brass and the White House. Even today, fifty years later, secrets remain about the motives behind the attack. We may never know all of the details of the attack but we do have a place to start here. Ennes deserves an additional acknowledgment for being able to distinguish between the actions of the Israeli government and people of the Jewish faith. Having survived an attack of such nature, it would have been fairly easy for him to cast all Jews as perpetrators of an unthinkable crime. But Ennes avoids the pitfall and makes it clear that the attack was carried about by Jewish people but by individuals with motives of their own.
Towards the end of the book, Ennes touches on the possible motive behind the attack. And while there is no conclusive evidence that his belief is correct, it is a highly plausible explanation. In time his words may prove to be true but for now, we are still saddled with a number of unanswered questions surrounding the attack. But with this story of tragedy and perseverance, we are closer to fully understanding the events of that day.
The name Idi Amin remains among the most infamous our world has ever known. Following the overthrow that removed Milton Obote (1925-2005) from power, the late despot ruled Uganda with relentless brutality as he enriched himself at the peril of hundreds of thousands of Ugandans. In January, 1979, the Ugandan National Liberation Army forced him into exile with the help of the Tanzania People’s Defense Force and former Libyan dictator Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi (1942-2011). Amin spent the last years of his life in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he died on August 16, 2003. Today, nearly fifteen years after his death, he is still reviled by those who remember a dark period in the history of Uganda.
Henry Kyemba (1939-) served under Amin in several high positions including Minister of Health. On a trip to Europe, he defected from Ugandan and was reunited with both of his wives and his children thereafter. He first wrote this book in 1977, shortly after he made his life changing escape from Amin’s domain. Twenty years later, the book was republished with a foreword by Godfrey Lule (Godfrey Binaisa, 1929-2010). This is Kyemba’s account his time serving under Amin and the nightmare that ensued. And what is contained in the pages of this book is a story that is not for the faint at heart and a critical inside look into the reign of the man who dubbed himself “The Last King of Scotland”. And for those familiar with Amin, the story is still fascinating and at times just mind numbing as Kyemba reveals the insanity that engulfed a doomed regime.
Kyemba begins this story by teaching us about Uganda’s history and the division of tribes that remains in place today. The names and places come together like a puzzle giving us a large image of the country. At first it may be challenging to follow along but as the story moves along, the reader will be able to remember the most important. He continues by introducing us to his life and his role under the administration under Milton Obote who is removed from power early in the story. From that point on, it is all Amin and the madness that came with him. Kyemba’s escape is the “happy ending” that can serve to uplift the spirit, but in reality, his heart and the hearts of others who escape Uganda bleed for the thousands who were brutally murdered.
The book is at times, tough to read and Kyemba does not sugar coat anything. Violence, racism and incompetence combined to for a cesspool from which many would never recover. Kyemba also discusses the major events that highlighted Amin’s rule including the death of his wife Kay, whose gruesome demise was documented in the film The Last King of Scotland starring Forest Whitaker, the death of Dora Bloch following the hijacking of Air France Flight 139 from Tel Aviv and the expulsion of Indians and Asians from Ugandan soil. In each case, Amin’s delusions and failure to grasp the situation, marked yet another tragic point in an already bizarre story. In one of the most touching moments in the book, Kyemba remarks on Bloch’s death and how it has stayed with him.
An extraordinary amount of courage was required to write a book of this nature. For Kyemba, Uganda will always be home and his memories will be with him for the rest of his days. For those of us who did not live under Amin, books like this give us an idea of what life was like under a regime that stood on the verge of spiraling out of control nearly every day. Amin escaped justice dying in his older years in Saudi Arabia. For thousands of Ugandans, his ability to avoid punishment and answer for his crimes is one of the true tragedies in the nation’s history. Dictators live in a world removed from reality with their power having blinded them to the reality of their situation. Amin was no different and in fact stood out for his relentless brutality and lack of comprehension of even the most basic government concepts. Kyemba’s story is similar to other survivors of murderous regimes but I assure even the most hardened readers will be moved. If you are curious about the notorious Idi Amin and his regime, this book will show you a side that needs to be shown.
Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy-David O. Stewart
The American Civil War remains a key turning point in United States history. The nation nearly tore itself apart as the Union and Confederacy engaged in deadly conflict over several issues including States’ rights, secession, and the system of slavery. Prior to its conclusion, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) met his tragic end on April 15, 1965, falling victim to assassin John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Andrew Johnson, then Vice-President and Democrat, succeeded Lincoln as the 17th President of the Unite States of America. He would only serve in office through 1869 when Lincoln’s term would have ended, but in that short period, his administration would be the center of one of the most critical trials in United States history.
David O. Stewart takes a look back in this well-researched and well-presented investigative account of the trial of Andrew Johnson, who faced impeachment by the Radical Republicans led by U.S. House of Representative Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868). From start to finish the book is spellbinding and Stewart writes in a style that never bores the reader while presenting the material in an easy to read and streamlined format. And as a result of his work, we now have one of the finest books on the attempted impeachment of a President who nearly pushed the nation into a second Civil War.
The book begins after Lincoln has passed and Johnson has become the next Commander-In-Chief. And nearly instantly, the dark side of Johnson is put on full display as he commits the first of several acts that will turn the Radical Republicans against him and dictate the course of history for the deep south for decades to come. It is not enough to say that Johnson was unfit for office. Stewart realizes this and details the nefarious policies which Johnson advocated. In time they would come to be viewed as the end of the legacy of Lincoln and an insult to those who truly believe that all men are created equal. Further, we come to learn about the personal side of Johnson or lack of it. Generally viewed as cold and rarely in good spirits, Johnson comes off as vindictive and in some cases delusional and out of his mind. Actions such as circumventing Congress to deal directly with southern states, vetoing the Reconstruction Acts and Civil rights bill of Lyman Trumbull (1813-1896), are just several of many that earned Johnson the wrath of many Americans. But his attempted removal of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (1814-1869) was the straw that broke the camel’s back and resulted in the Radical Republicans commencing impeachment proceedings against the despised President.
The impeachment trial is one of the best parts of the book. Johnson came extremely close to impeachment from office, saved only by one vote. Stewart revisits the trial and the events leading up to the trial as each Senator mulls over which way he will vote in deciding Johnson’s fate. For some of them, we see why they voted in the way that they did and for others, the question remains, did they really feel that way or were the allegations of bribery true? It may seem shocking to some to even think that bribery occurred. And while Stewart does not convict anyone with his words, he examines the evidence available reaching a quite startling conclusion.
Today it would be fair to say that the Civil War still haunts America. In the south, it is sometimes referred to as the war of “Northern aggression”. The tearing down of Confederate monuments and the tragedy in Charlottesville remind us of the struggle we continue to deal with in confronting the war that divided our nation. Reconstruction can been seen as a missed opportunity in American history. Millions of freed slaves and White Americans had their lives changed permanently by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Confederacy’s defeat. Congress realizing the opportunity before it, attempted to seize the opportunity but was confronted by a President deeply prejudiced and intent on maintaining the social structure of the south. His efforts would eventually come to pass in the system of Jim Crow that took decades and a Civil Rights Movement to finally defeat. We can only guess what would have happened if Johnson had not only complied but encouraged Congress to pass more legislation to move the nation forward after a brutal conflict and protected the lives of newly freed and disenfranchised Americans.
America now finds itself at a crossroad as we grapple with a political climate that borders on surreal at times. But regardless of what happens, America will survive as it always has. But while we continue to maintain the nation that we have, it is imperative that we do not forget the dark legacy of Andrew Johnson and remember why it is imperative to have a President that is able to unify us all and serve each and every citizen of the United States of America. Stewart’s book is an excellent place to start in understanding the rise and fall of Andrew Johnson.
The title alone is enough to grab a person’s attention. Because of the subject matter, it was bound to stir controversy for it touches a topic that remains taboo thirty-seven years after its publication. And with the events this past week regarding the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, the contents of this book are as important now as they were then. Before you attempt to read this book, it is critical to understand the difference between Judaism and what is referred to as Zionism. There is a fundamental difference between the two that is often forgotten as charges of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias are leveled against those who dare to speak out. However, what I have learned from this book, is critical to understanding how our world functions and why peace is seemingly an impossible objective to accomplish in the Middle East.
For those who are of the Jewish faith, before reading this book, you must understand that you will learn many things that are not pleasant. And the temptation to feel or believe that the author is an anti-Semite might rise to the surface. But I caution you that any notion of Paul Findley (1921-) being anti-Semitic is far from the truth. In fact, Findley was U.S. Representative from Illinois from 1960-1982 and supported Israel at many times during his career. I firmly believe it is underestimated by many Americans, how much power and influence the Israeli lobby holds over the U.S. Government. Foreign policy and aid is highly scrutinized by the lobby and anything deemed to detrimental to the existence of Israel is quickly condemned and crushed, even at the expense of possible peace with its Arab neighbors.
I can only imagine how much pressure Findley had to endure to see this book all the way through. He discloses the difficulty in finding a publisher for a subject which many were reluctant to touch out of fear of severe backlash. In staying the course and braving the opposition, he has compiled the book that should be read by every American concerned with the past and future of the United States. You might ask yourself, is I agree with the material in the book, does it make me anti-Semitic? No it does not. Personally, I have Jewish friends and even dated a woman of the Jewish faith. I was never taught hate growing up and my parents invited everyone into their home regardless of creed, ethnicity and even sexual orientation. However my parents did teach us to examine all sides of an issue and make a decision based off of what is known and not by what is assumed. And it is for that reason that I believe this book is a critical read.
The book is not only an account of Findley’s difficulty in taking a strong stance on the Israeli lobby, but other politicians throughout history who have taken on the machine. Some of the names will be familiar to readers such as Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) and William J. Fulbright (1905-1995). Other names will be known only by few but their stories are as important as the rest in understanding the costs associated with speaking the truth about U.S. foreign policy regarding Israel. Careers were destroyed and lives ruined by those with a vested interest in maintaining a power hold over legislation and the media. The stories are too high in number to reveal here but I can say is that you might be surprised at how many people have had their lives ruined by the Israeli lobby for even questioning U.S. foreign aid to Israel of the occupation of the Gaza strip. Others have had their lives ruined for even meeting Arab officials from the PLO including Yassar Arafat (1929-2004) himself.
Findley has provided a staggering amount of information which is bound to confuse and in some cases anger the reader. But it is imperative that the reader recognizes that difference between the Israeli lobby and ordinary Jews in America who do not support what Israel does but are obligated to remain in silence and show unwavering support. As with any story, there are multiple sides and what sometimes seems to be black and white, will be revealed to have many shades of grey. The truth is rarely pleasant and in some cases upsetting. But if that is what the reader seeks, then books such as this are a necessity. The courage exemplified by Findley and others who have dared to speak out has give us the knowledge we need to make informed decisions before we lend our support to movements and causes.
As the book approached its end and I continued to digest everything that Findley had disclosed, I was haunted by the thought that there may never be true peace between Israel and Palestine. But if that is the ultimate goal then the first step is re-examine U.S. foreign policy. And doing so does not make anyone anti-Israel or anti-Semitic but an advocate of genuine and long-lasting peace. Furthermore, we are forced to remember that Judaism is one of the world’s oldest religions, observed by millions of great men and women and unrelated to many of things we learn through Findley’s words.
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple” – Oscar Wilde
October 10, 1967 – Argentine newspaper Clarin announces that Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928-1967) has died in Bolivia on October 9 after being capture with a group of guerrilla fighters attempting to spread revolutionary ideology throughout Latin America. In Buenos Aires, his family receives the news of his death and is completely devastated. Juan Martin, his younger brother, races to his father’s apartment where his mother and siblings have gathered as they attempt to piece together the last moments of Ernesto’s life. Che was secretly buried in an unmarked grave and his remains remained hidden for thirty years before author Jon Lee Anderson convinced a retired Bolivian general to reveal the grave’s location. His remains were returned to Havana on July 13, 1997 where he was buried with full military honors on October 17, 1997. In death, Che’s legacy grew exponentially and even today in 2017, he is the icon of revolution around the world. But after his death, what happened to his family and where did their lives take them? Juan Martin, at seventy-two years old, has decided to tell his story and reveal to us many facts about the Guevara family that have sometimes been overlooked by history.
Before reading this book, I was already familiar with Che’s story, having read Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara and several others relating to the campaigns in Cuba, the Congo and Bolivia. But I was always curious to know how Guevara’s fame affected the lives of his family. A couple of months ago, I watched an interview with Juan Martin from Buenos Aires that appeared on the news station France24. And it was then that I learned of his book in which he reminisces about his famous older brother. And what I found in the pages of this book is a story that should be read by those who admire Che and even those who loathe him. I would like to point out that the book is not a glorification of his brother. Without question, they shared a special bond and he remembers him with fondness but admittedly, he was fifteen when Che died and did not have the decades long relationship with him that his parents and older siblings did. Nevertheless, he shares many great details about their lives, shattering long-held myths about the Guevara and Lynch names.
In death, famous people sometimes become larger than life and their stories are retold but often misinterpreted and sometimes outright distorted. It is well-known that Che was very close to his mother, but as Juan Martin shows, Ernesto even tested her patience at times and his relationship with his father was not as great as some have been led to believe. They had many battles and never completely saw eye to eye on various issues but it in the end the elder Guevara supported his son and benefited from his legacy.
To understand Che’s life, it is necessary to trace the family’s origins several generations back. Juan Martin provides a short biography to clear the record about the family name. What I found interesting is that their family life was far from upper class and was highly nomadic. Money was usually and issues and several moves between Rosario, Misiones, Alta Gracia and Buenos Aires proved to be a challenge for the family of seven. But incredibly, they maintained strong family bonds that were desperately needed following Che’s death. The events in Cuba would change the family’s life forever in more ways than one. What is often misunderstood is that while Che had enormous success in Cuba, his accomplishments received little to no acknowledgement in Argentina. And having been there myself, I can attest to the fact that you will not find monuments or murals to him rampant throughout Buenos Aires. And following his death, the family would have to fear for their lives as a brutal dictatorship under Juan Peron locked the country in a vice grip and leftist organizations were persecuted beyond belief. And it is this part of the story where Juan Martin’s life takes on a life of its own.
Juan Martin Guevara spent eight years in incarceration for suspected leftist activity. His wife Viviana was incarcerated for an equal amount of time. In fact, most of Che’s immediately family were forced to leave Argentina as the government initiated a crackdown on anyone suspected of being communist. And during that time, the Guevara name was suspect to immediate suspicion. He along with millions of other Argentines lived through the tragedy of the “disappeared” in which an estimated 30,000 Argentines are believed to have been seized and murdered by nefarious elements within the government. The Falklands War followed in 1982 and the country reached its breaking point under the government of Carlos Menem (1930-) when the convertibility system imploded and the Corralito was imposed on Argentine citizens limiting the amount of money people were allowed to withdraw from their bank accounts. Today he is still going strong, having lived through appendicitis, hepatitis and even a heart attack while in prison. Sadly, his older sister Celia, who he describes as being just like Che in many ways, has steadfastly refused to discuss her famous older brother, never recovering from his death and according Juan Marin, completely unaware he had written this book. His children grew up in Cuba and now live in Europe and other parts of the world. Four of Che’s five children still reside in Cuba where his daughter Aleida and son Camilo carry on their father’s legacy. And Fidel, who died on November 25, 2016 makes his presence felt in the book providing many gestures of good will for the Guevara family as they made a new life in Cuba.
Che will also be a controversial figure but with this book, Juan Martin has in fact shown more of the private side of Che and relayed the truth about what their family life was really like as they grew in Argentina. There are many parts of the book which are said and also shocking but necessary to understand the political climate that existed then and continues to plague Latin America. In the end, this is a fitting tribute from a younger brother to an older sibling, whom he misses dearly and idolized.
America continues to find itself in the midst of social and political upheaval. The era of Jim Crow and racial persecution are reminders of a not too distant past. The young generation of today will have their own causes to fight and believe in and some of them will resemble the monumental effort behind the push for racial equality that culminated with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. James Baldwin (1924-1987) served as an unofficial historian, transforming what he witnessed into the books he left us with that examine the ills of society and human nature. Race and sexuality have been the focus of several of his works based in part of his own ethnic makeup and homosexuality. In the classic Giovanni’s Room, he addressed the inner conflict faced by those who struggle with bisexuality. In this book, he once again touches on that topic and love in general while supplementing the main topics with the complicated and tragic concept of human nature.
The story begins in Harlem, New York as we are introduced to a musician named Rufus Scott. He has just met a recent transplant to New York City from Georgia named Leona. Sparks fly between the two and Rufus invites her to an after party at the apartment of a friend. It is there that they come intimate and that encounter sets into motion a chain of events that affects nearly every single character in the book. Rufus’ best friend in Vivaldo, a young Italian from Brooklyn. He is involved with an older woman named Jane, who has a drinking problem but somehow manages to function and continue painting. At first, Rufus and Leona are on the path to love but reality quickly sets in. You see, Rufus is a Black American and Leona, a white woman from the South. And this is before laws against interracial marriage were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Their trials and tribulations are heartbreaking and Rufus struggles with Leona and himself all the way to the end. Incredibly, the two of them only take up a third of book, the rest is devoted to Rufus’ friends and former flame, who all converge to add unexpected twist and turns to each other’s lives.
Readers beware, this book is not for the faint at heart. The language at times is crass and the speech blunt. But Baldwin did not write this for an afternoon special, this is an unfiltered look into the relationships between friends and lovers of both sexes. Rufus’ younger sister Ida, eventually falls for his friend Vivaldo and in some way, they become a reincarnation of Rufus and Leona with a few notable exceptions. Ida becomes part of the inner circle of Richard and Clarissa “Cass” Silenski, Steve Ellis, and Eric Jones, the wildcard of the group who will remind readers of the character David in Giovanni’s Room. Those familiar with Baldwin’s life will recall that he not only died in France but spent a considerable amount of time in his life there and in Istanbul, Turkey. Paris is a part of the book and the place in which we learn more about Eric Jones, the “prodigal son” who returns to the United States even more uncertain of his understanding of what love truly is. His partner in France, Yves, is scheduled to arrive in the United States a few weeks after he arrives but before he does, Eric impacts the story in a major way which will never be forgotten by any of the characters. Incredibly, despite all that happens in the book, the story still belongs to Rufus who none of us can forget for too long as we make it through the book. And I do believe that at some parts of the book are based off of Baldwin’s life experiences or at the least, the characters composites of people he did know.
Where the book truly shines is in its examination of infidelity and the struggle that plagued interracial couples. Monogamy proves to be difficult for the characters in the book but we are reminded that they are human beings and humans do fail and make mistakes. But if we look past the shocking revelations, we can see the characters making a valiant effort to show us how and why we sometimes do the things that we do. And for those readers who have a spouse of love interest of a different background, the story of Rufus and Leona followed by Ida and Vivaldo will touch you directly as you find yourself able to relate to some of the challenges they face. Times have certainly changed since Baldwin finished this classic in 1961, but what is paramount, is that it takes a large amount of courage, sacrifice and understanding when one is involved in an interracial relationship. But love can and does prevail, and Baldwin does a great job of showing us the complicated ways in which we are able to make it last. I have always understood that it is far easier to hate someone than it is to love them. Loving another person is truly one of the hardest things we ever have to in life. But the reward is both fulfilling and to those who are the recipients of our affection.
Baldwin truly shines here, and the book is one of his greats. This is New York City and the story of a group of friends, bonded by tragedy and nearly separated by love, sex and the demons that come with all parts of life. And when you have finished this incredible story, you will have more of an appreciation for one of the greatest writers America has ever produced.
Every 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.