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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded – Ronald Kessler

Kessler-sinsoffatherWhen we think of political dynasties in America, perhaps no other name has had as big of an impact as the Kennedys.  They are both admired and loathed but their importance to  the American experience cannot be understated. The patriarch, Joseph (“Joe”) P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1969) was once one of the wealthiest men in America.  Yet for all of his financial success, controversy followed him and his family for years after his death.  The family’s success undoubtedly reached its highest peak with second son John F. (“Jack”) Kennedy (1917-1963) was elected in 1960 as the next President of the United States.  For Joe, it was a dream come true and reaffirmed his mantra that “Kennedys don’t lose”.  To most of the public, the Kennedys seemed like figures out of a story book and the media’s creation of the term “Camelot” that was given to the Kennedy White House, further enhanced the family’s mythical status.  The image presented to the public gave the impression of a fairytale marriage that any single person would envy.  Today, we know through the benefit of hindsight that the truth is far less glamarous and behind the scenes, there were dark storm clouds gathering as infidelity, old man Joe’s influence and one foreign crisis after another made life as the first family strenuous to say the least.  Rumors have persisted over the years that Joe Kennedy provided the money for all of his sons’ political campaigns and that the money he provided was used in several places to swing the election to his son Jack.  And while there has never been documented evidence of such, statements have been made by many individuals that action were taken to give Kennedy the election.  All knowledge of what really did happen went with Joe Kennedy to the grave and I doubt that even his sons knew the whole story.  He was a master at compartmentalization and for years, remained chameleon like figure.  Ronald Kessler decided to take another at Kennedy’s life and what he found has been compiled into this book that peels back the layers that have shrouded the Kennedy family is mystique for several decades.

I should point out that the book is not about the Kennedy presidency nor is it focused on Jack’s assassination in Dallas, Texas. In fact, the murder receives only a small section in the story.  Joe Kennedy is the center of the story and the author takes us deep inside his world in a time before Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) started a second world war. the stock market was less regulated, Hollywood was for the taking and the 1919 National Prohibition Act (Volstead Act) turned bootleggers into millionaires.  Joe’s numerous ventures both legal and illegal are discussed in the book and show that he was not above defying the law in order to reap hugh profits.  After providing background information on the Kennedy and Fitzgerald families, Kessler shifts gears and the story picks up pace as Joe begins to implement his vision for financial success and political fame.  Kennedy had always portrayed himself as the Irishman who overcame bias and adversity to rise high in American society.  It is a moving story but there were many things he left out and Kessler leaves no stone unturned.  The real Joe Kennedy is revealed here and what we learn may prove to be more than some readers have bargained for.  If you hold the Kennedy family in high regard, then this book might cause you to re-evaluate your views of them while inducing feelings of bewilderment, sympathy and in some cases, pity.

There is no question that Kennedy was shrewd and domineering businessman, never afraid to throw his weight around.  And those abilities would bring him into the circle of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) whose relationship with Joe takes up a significant portion of the book.  Historians know very well the story of the “appeasement at Munich” where Czechoslovakia was carved up on a silver platter for Adolft Hitler by former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) with the full support of U.S. Ambassador Kennedy.  But when Hitler decided to invade neighboring Poland on September 1, 1939, it became hauntingly clear that the appeasement was a distraction from Germany’s master plan.  Kennedy’s view that England would lose the war by 1940 caused consternation and outrage in Britain and Washington.  And it would put a deep strain to develop in the relationship between Kennedy and Roosevelt. Drawing upon written correspondence and statements by those with knowledge, the book reveals the high level of contempt in which Kennedy was held by many in government. Roosevelt himself does not spare Kennedy his wrath and it is an interesting look behind the scenes as the German army rolled across Europe.  Some readers might be puzzled by Kennedy’s behavior.  One possible explanation can be found in Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts’ The Day the Bubble Burst: A Social History of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which discusses the link between Nazi Germany and American bankers and investors.   I personally wondered why Roosevelt tolerated Kennedy as long as he did.  There is a good explanation for that as well which is provided within the story, further highlighting the fact that politics is a ruthless business.   As the war rages on, Kennedy eventually moves back to the United States and like a piece of chessboard, he is moved from one position to another but never attains a position within the White House. He would live vicariously through Jack who’s victory over Richard Nixon (1913-1994) was the moment Joe had been waiting for.

I have often heard of the Kennedy curse and tragedy did follow the family constantly.  The deaths of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s (1890-1995) children affect both deeply and the mantra of “Kennedys don’t cry” comes off more as a slogan than a way of life.  In spite of Joe’s antics throughout the book, there did exist a very personal side to him that was often unseen and rarely revealed.  The memories provided by his former mistress Janet DesRosiers shows him in his most humble state and also provokes more questions about the marriage between Joe and Rose which comes off as more than unorthodox.  What we learn about their union sheds light on the difference between liberal and puritanical views.  Stories of the Kennedy men and their love lives is nothing new and in the case of Joe, he certainly had his fun.  But while reading the book, I asked myself if he would have behaved in the same manner had his marriage to Rose taken a different course? We can only speculate but what is clear is that “love” is not always what we think it is and many secrets always exist behind closed doors. On occasion in the book, statements by their children regarding their childhood provide a very sobering picture of life at home and there are very few positive comments about their mother Rose, who is more like a visiting relative than full-time mother.  They do however, show the utmost respect and admiration dad Joe who emerges as the glue that holds the family together.

Far from being “Camelot”, the family was more like an episode of reality television gone wrong. However, there is no question that the Kennedy possessed enormous ambition and it propelled them to high places.  For them, losing was not an option.  And John F. Kennedy remains one of America’s most beloved presidents.  Aside from Joe, the author does discuss incidents that arise in the lives of the children, most of which are highly serious.  Ted (1932-2009) as the family called him, has a series of incidents that severely injured or took the life of someone in his company.  Yet his accidents are only a few in a long series of events in the Kennedy family that involved tragedy due to recklessness or substance abuse. And no story about the family is complete without a discussion regarding the missing sister, Rosemary (1918-2005) who outlived all but one of her brothers.  Her story is perhaps one of the most tear-jerking parts of the story and I warn readers who are sensitive or may know someone labeled as having a mental disability that this part of the book might be difficult.  But, the discussion presented by Kessler points out some things about Rosemary’s intellect that show just how primitive the mental health field in the 1940s. Today, I believe that had she been born in another era, she would have lived a far different and close to normal life. But sadly, she was born in a time where most doctors did not understand what her condition actually was and resorted to drastic measures that changed her life permanently and served as a major source of regret throughout Rose’s life.

To say that the story by Kessler is unbelievable would be an understatement. This is a raw and unfiltered look at the life of Joe Kennedy and his family whose name is a crucial part in the our nation’s past. Some readers may be surprised at what Kessler reveals and others may feel indifference.  As time moves forward, the  Kennedys will be remembered at best, a dynasty from another era that continues to fade into the distance.  Admittedly, I was aware of a good number of the facts revealed by the author and had no illusions about how fierce and ruthelss Joe Kennedy could be.  I believe it is for that reason that I was never shocked while reading the story.  However, I did learn more about the the level of dysfunction that existed within the home and how unusual family ties were.  For further reading, I do recommend that readers consider Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot  , in which the author explores many alleged family secrets. The book is controversial but overall very well written and I do believe Hersh was right about some things but not about everything. However, it is still a good read and completely breaks down the myth of “Camelot”. I have no doubt that there are many family secrets that remain carefully guarded.  In the end, no family or individual is perfect and this story is proof of that.  Further, we can have all the material items we want in life and still suffer from loneliness.  Joe comes to understand this quite well and his unguarded moments show that even those of us with a strong facade are at times highly vulnerable on the inside.  Regardless of your opinion of him, Joe Kennedy remains firmly entrenched in American history as the founder of a dynasty that once captivated an entire world.  And if you decide to read this book, be aware that there is far more to the man you may have ever imagined.

ASIN : B006YC7AH4

The Best and the Brightest-David Halberstam with a New Introduction by the Author

20180619_235509I have often wondered why my uncle and many other veterans that I have met, were sent to Vietnam.   He and others never speak of the war, choosing instead to internalize their memories and feelings.  But from the few things about being Vietnam that my uncle has told me,  I cannot image what it was like to be fighting a war in a jungle 13,000 miles away from home. Today he is seventy-two years old and his memories of Vietnam are as sharp today as they were when he left the country to return home.  And there is a part of him that still remains in Vietnam, never to leave its soil.    He is one of five-hundred thousand Americans that served in a war that claimed fifty-eight thousand lives.

The reasons for America’s involvement in Indochina have been muddled and in some cases omitted from discussions.   Secrecy became the standard method of communication in more than one administration in Washington as the United States became deeper involved in a conflict with no end goal in sight.  Daniel Ellsberg gained fame and infamy when he revealed the top-secret Pentagon Papers to the country.   The New York Times later published a review of the documents and today it is available in the form of a book titled The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War.  The book is enlightening and contains a trove of information regarding how and why decisions were being made in the White House as control of the government passed through several presidents.  Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara (1916-2009) published his own memoir of the war, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.  The book has its fans and critics. McNamara has often been blamed for the war and the vitriol towards him was so strong that in later years he declined to talk about the conflict.   True, he was a participant in the events leading up to the war, but many other players had a hand in the game which became deadlier as time went on.  To understand their roles and the policies enacted, it is necessary to revisit the  complete history of U.S. foreign policy in Indochina.  David Halberstam (1934-2007), author of The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert F. Kennedy, conducted his own research into the war’s origins and the result was this New York Times bestseller that is nothing short of mind-boggling.

Halberstam admits that he knew Ellsberg and in fact, he reviewed the Pentagon Papers as he wrote the book.  In addition he conducted hundreds of interviews but was careful not to reveal any of their names.  When Ellsberg was indicted and had to stand trial, Halberstam was subpoenaed to give testimony, unaware then of how Ellsberg came into possession of the documents.  But what started out as a look at the life of  former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy (1919-1996), grew into this definitive account of the reasons for the Vietnam War.

The book follows a carefully guided timeline and the story of Vietnam begins in China before moving on to Korea and eventually Southeast Asia.  These parts are critical for they set the stage for foreign policy decisions in the years that followed and explain many of the mistakes that were made.  As President Eisenhower winds down his time in office, a new young Catholic Democrat gripped parts of the country as he declared himself the next person to occupy the White House.  By the time John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) took office, the road to Vietnam had already been paved.  It is at this point in the book where the pace picks up and never slows down.   The concept of the best and the brightest came to Halberstam as he thought of a phrase for Kennedy’s cabinet of intellectuals who were set on reshaping Washington in the image they believed was right to push the country forward.  One by one he introduces us to all of the characters that have a role in the story, tracing their origins and helping us to understand how they reached their positions in the government.  Some of them are as mysterious as the country’s then paranoia about communism taking over the world.  But as they come together, something still is not quite right and Vietnam becomes the issue that will not go away.  And for the thirty-three months Kennedy was in office, the American involvement would grow in Indochina but the nation had not yet entered a war.   The growing crisis however, had begun to cause a rift in the White House and the deception employed by those loyal to the military and war hawks is eye-raising and chilling.  I also believe that it helps explain Kennedy’s murder in November, 1963. We can only guess what would have happened if he had lived.  There are those who strongly believe we would have withdrawn from Vietnam. I believe that is what would have happened, probably sooner rather than later.  But Kennedy was gone and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, inherited the nightmare of Vietnam.

As Johnson settles in to being the new Commander-In-Chief,  Indochina becomes a thorn in his side and he becomes conflicted with the decisions he will eventually make.  This part of the book is the crux and the key to the final push by the military for a war.  Many of Kennedy’s cabinet members continued to stay and at first worked under Johnson.  But as time passed and the ugly truths about Vietnam came back from Saigon, they would fade out as Johnson led the nation down the path of escalation.  Halberstam is a masterful story-teller and the scenes he recreates from his research are spellbinding.  Nearly everyone in the book is now deceased but as I read the book I could not help but to scratch my head at their decisions and actions.   The warning signs of Vietnam loomed ominously large but tragically were ignored or discounted.   Washington suffered from a tragic twist of fate: although it had the best and the brightest in Washington, they still made mistakes that literally made little sense. And that is a central theme in the book. The war’s architects were all brilliant individuals with endless accolades yet they failed to understand what was considered to be a peasant nation far away from home. Many of them would suffer in one way or another.  For Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam eventually became the final nail in the coffin that sealed his chances at reelection.

During the reading of the book, I also noticed at how Halberstam explained the actions of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Vietcong.  In order to understand why Vietnam became a stalemate, it is not just necessary to understand the failures of Washington, but the strategy of Ho Chih Minh and the generals under him.  The small peasant nation took on a colossus and refused to give up. And the battles of  Vietnam changed warfare and showed the world what many believed to be impossible.  Arrogance and in some cases, racist beliefs laid at the base of some foreign policy decisions regarding the war.  History has a strange way of repeating itself and the repeated warnings from the French fell on deaf ears as American troops landed in a place many of them knew nothing about.  Looking back with hindsight, the critical failures are clearly evident and although Halberstam shows us how we became involved in Vietnam,  we are still baffled about why.  How could so many minds filled with so much knowledge make such rudimentary and baseless decisions?   The answers are here in this book in the form of official cables that withheld information, overzealous military advisors, an unstable South Vietnamese government, National Security Action Memos and the idea that the United States could solve any of the world’s problems.   This book is a must-read for those who are interested in the history of the Vietnam War.

ISBN-10: 0449908704
ISBN-13: 978-0449908709

Our Mary Jo-Georgetta Potoski and William Nelson

Mary JOn July 18, 1969,  Senator Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy (1932-2009) lost control of his vehicle while crossing the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts. In the passenger seat was a twenty-eight old former staff member of Robert F. Kennedy’s (1929-1968) presidential campaign and member of a group of women known as the “Boiler Room Girls”.  She was later identified as Mary Jo Kopechne.  In death she became a permanent part of the history of Chappaquiddick and a reminder of what happens when we are negligent in our actions.  Over time she has been largely forgotten, having been overshadowed by the lives of the Kennedy family.  And with regards to Chappaquiddick, she has been known as the “woman in Kennedy’s car”.  But the real Mary Jo Kopechne has an interesting story of her own that was cut short at only twenty-eight years of age.

Her cousin, Georgetta Potoski and her son William “Bill” Nelson, decided to tell Mary Jo’s story so that we finally have a complete picture of her short but dedicated life to the causes she believed in.   Interestingly the book is not just about Kopechne’s short life but those of her parents Joe and Gwen whose lives were never the same after her death.  The thousands of letters they received and kept after the tragedy help to shed light on just how many people their daughter had an impact on.  Some of the letters are included in the book.  The photos shown in the book compliment the story at hand and reveal a close-knit and happy family that believed in reaching one’s full potential and the importance of hard work.   The Eastern-European roots of the family’s progenitors remain intact and their story is similar to that of other immigrants who came to America to make a new life.

We all know how she perished but what is often left out is how she became acquainted with the Kennedys.  That part of the story is filled in here with even more information about her time with  Senator George Smathers before joining the Kennedy camp where she would remain up until her death.  There are many interesting facts that are revealed in particular how important she was to Robert F. Kennedy whom was known to all as simply “Bobby”.

Readers expecting to find anything about Chappaquiddick will be disappointed. In fact, the authors intentionally left it out of the book.  I understand their decision for the book is about Mary Jo and not about the incident or the investigation that followed.  To have included with have resulted in a completely different book.  This is Mary Jo’s story or more appropriately, the story of her life that remains unknown to most.   Her cousins have done a great to her memory by presenting this book which gives a permanent voice to the often forgotten victim of Chappaquiddick.

ASIN: B07466W8S8