Survival in the Killing Fields – Haing S. Ngor

ngorOn March 25, 1985, the 57th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles. During the ceremony, the category of best supporting actor was called, and the winner was Haing S. Ngor (1940-1996), a doctor born and raised in Cambodia, who had survived the Khmer Rouge dictatorship under the notorious Pol Pot (1925-1998). Ngor had starred as Cambodian journalist Dith Pran (1942-2008) in the 1984 film The Killing Fields starring Sam Waterston, John Malkovich, and Craig T. Nelson. The movie is tough to watch due to its sensitive subject matter but also an important work of art that captured a time in world history when a revolution nearly destroyed an entire nation permanently.

I was familiar with the Khmer Rouge before starting the book and I have seen the film more than once. I have also read Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father, a gripping account of life under the Khmer Rouge. Her story was adapted for the big screen and in 2017, Netflix released the film of the same name directed by Angelina Jolie. Though there are some modifications to the story in the film, it is follows the book fairly closely and shows how Cambodian society was turned upside down during the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge. Ngor is even more blunt in how life changed for Cambodians:

“The truth was that under the communists the country was much worse off than it had ever been during my lifetime. We had no electricity. No clocks or automobiles. No modern medicines. No schools. No religious worship. Very little food. And we lived in constant fear of the soldiers.”

The book begins with Ngor remembering his early life and fragile relationship with his father. A volatile temper and determination to resist anything he felt was unfair, resulted in Ngor going through a series of inconvenient situations, including one with his father that placed their relationship under great strain. However, he eventually graduates from medical school and begins to practice medicine. Life as a doctor is good and at home, his wife Huoy performs the traditional duties of a wife in Cambodian society. On April 17, 1975, their lives were changed permanently when Pol Pot and his revolutionaries seized control of Cambodia under the guise of rebuilding society. Millions of Cambodians had no idea what would come next as the extremists dismantled society piece by piece. To give the reader an idea of how extreme their ideloogy was, Ngor explains that:

“The Khmer Rouge wanted a complete change of society, from top to bottom. Gone was everything that had governed our lives in the old times. Lon Nol was gone, airlifted to America before the fall; Sihanouk was gone, his fate a mystery. The monks were gone.” 

Following the takeover, families were uprooted and forced to move, typically to distant parts of the country to engage in heavy manual labor. Famine, inhumane treatment, and lack of crucial resources gave rise to disease, hunger, and death in work camps across the country. Ngor himself suffered illness on more than one occasion as he explains in the book. Had it not been for his medical training which he kept secret for reasons also disclosed in the book, he surely would have perished. The aid of his wife Huoy was invaluable and she served as his guardian angel on more than one occasion. But her fate and that of those around them, are among the difficult moments in the book. And when not facing death from hunger or disease, workers were reminded through vicious and bloodthirsty guards that Angkar was  watching. This system of surveillance gave men and women incentive to spy on each other and tell what they saw, even if it meant death to those accused. Ngor becomes a first-hand witness to the brutal system of torture that Angkar notoriously used to break the spirit of those needing “reformation”.

As time progressed, cracks in the surface began to show and Ngor realizes that the regime is slowly falling apart. The Khmer Rouge’s idea of transforming society was a complete failure and in its attempt to flex its muscle, it had angered the North Vietnamese Government which soon made it a goal to deal with Cambodia. In April 1979, the Vietnamese invaded and put an end to the reign of the Khmer Rouge. But for Ngor and millions of his fellow citizens, the occupation by Vietnam did not end their ordeal overnight. Cambodia had been freed of one communist government only to be replaced by another. Those who were able realized the only option was to cross the border into Thailand. The journey was not easy and bandits along the way were just as ruthless as the Khmer Rouge if not worse at times. But in Thailand, the full weight of his ordeal comes crashing down when he reflects that:

“By 1979 Cambodia was utterly destroyed. Next door in Thailand were paved roads, beautiful temples and more rice than the people could eat. As a refugee, the more I saw of Thailand, the angrier I became. It was the anger of a man who finds out he has been lied to all his life.” 

After arriving in Thailand, Ngor slowly puts his life together and through a series of chance encounters, he befriends John Crowley of the Joint Volunteer Agency who paves the way for his next journey to the United States where he is joined by his adopted niece Sophia. His entry into America was rough at first but it is clear from the start that in comparison to the Cambodia he had left behind, America was a brand new and welcomed experience. And luck was on his side again when he was scouted and picked to star in the Killing Fields. His performance and win at the Oscars transformed Ngor into a celebrity but the experiences in Cambodia remained fresh in his mind and a heavy burden to bear. Ngor never ceased to labor on behalf of those still in Cambodia who never wanted to see another Khmer Rouge takeover. IN spite of his fame and success, Ngor remained haunted by what he saw and experienced. He reminds the reader that the Khmer Rouge destroyed nearly every part of Cambodian society. And I believe that this sombering statement bythe author sums up the experiences of those held under the iron grip of the Khmer Rouge:

“The Cambodian holocaust ripped through our lives, tossing us randomly, leaving none of us the way we were. You can blame who you want, the outside powers for interfering, or our own internal flaws like corruption and kum, but when the talking is over we still do not know why it had to happen. The country is still in ruins, millions have died and those of us who survived are not done with our grieving.”  

The book closes with more reflection by Ngor of Cambodia and his life in America. By this time, Sophia had moved out and the two had not spoken. In the epilogue, we learn more of their relationship and future interactions. Also, more information is provided about Ngor’s return to Cambodia, his business dealings and difficulties in life while living in Los Angeles. After finishing Ngor’s heartbreaking account of his life, readers will need to prepare for another difficult part in the book: Ngor’s final days.

On February 25, 1996, Ngor was returning home when he drove past three Asian street gang members. The trio was high on crack cocaine and saw him as their next target to score more cash. It is believed that after asking for his money and other valuables, the thieves also wanted a chain he wore which contained a locket holding a picture of his late wife Huoy. Ngor undoubtedly would have refused, and readers will understand why after finishing his story. Prosecutors stated that shots were fired and Ngor fell to the pavement gasping for air. He died on the scene at the age of fifty-five. It should be noted that the killers did not take Ngor’s car or money, leading people to believe that the killing was related to his past in Cambodia. It is difficult to say but there is one clue provided in the epilogue related to the political climate in Cambodia at the time that might explain who would have wanted him dead. We may never know the real motive for his death, but the shooter was sentenced to life in prison and his accomplices each received a sentence of twenty-five years to life.

In the future when I watch The Killing Fields again, I will now have a deeper appreciation for Ngor’s performance. I wish I had known more about him upon viewing the film for the first time. However, my lack of knowledge regarding his personal life does not detract from the viewing experience. The film is haunting as it should be to show viewers the danger of poisonous rhetoric. Voltaire had it right when he wrote that “any one who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices“. Haing S. Ngor was witness to one of history’s greatest crimes and lived to tell the tale of Cambodia’s darkest days. And even today, this book can server as reminder of the dangers that come with extremism and importance of addressing extreme ideology before it is too late.

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B019NFEM42

My Bondage and My Freedom – Frederick Douglass

Douglass The history of America is dark at times, and those moments have been omitted or neglected for many years. However, they are crucial to understanding how and why the United States developed into the nation that it is today. As an American, I am constantly seeking to understand my own country and clarify the myths that have propagated with regards to its past. I am learning uncomfortable truths, but they have not diminished the love that I have for America. In the history of this country, the name of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) remains a reminder of the institution of slavery that degraded human beings, served as the backbone of an economic system, and led America towards a civil war. Douglass was born into the slave system and became a free man as an adult. This is his story of his time in bondage, freedom from oppression and evolution into a public speaker.

The story begins with Douglass’s early years at the home of his grandparents. He had not understood that he was born into slavery and had no concept of it. But that soon changed when he was taken to meet his siblings whom he had never met. They reside on a plantation owned by former Maryland Governor Edward Lloyd (1779-1834). And it was here that Douglass came to know the horrors of the slave system for the first time. His observation about the lack of connection to his siblings reveals a devastating effect of slavery. Douglass points out that:

“The practice of separating children from their mother, and hiring the latter out at distances too great to admit of their meeting, except at long intervals, is a marked feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system. But it is in harmony with the grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with the brute. It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution.” 

The family is the backbone for our journey through life and Douglass understood the tragedy that developed from its destruction. His words are tough to read at times and the cruelty he endures did not always come at the hands of slaveowners or overseers. In fact, the actions of his Aunt Katy are equally deplorable and the two of them never established a close bond. Douglass’ mother does enter the story but briefly and for reasons the reader will find disgust in. However, her life and role are also an example of slavery’s goal in breaking down the will and spirit of those caught in its grip. There is, however, something that Douglass points out which is interesting about slavery itself. During his time in bondage, he observed the lives of blacks and whites, and this statement regarding what he saw is interesting:

“I knew of blacks who were not slaves; I knew of whites who were not slaveholders; and I knew of persons who were nearly white, who were slaves. Color, therefore, was a very unsatisfactory basis for slavery.”

Racism was undeniably a contributing factor for enslavement, but revenue was the driving factor. The system of slavery did not see individuals, but property to be used until it was no longer useful.  The effects upon human chattel were disregarded by those in power. But slaves were not content with remaining in bondage, and it was not long before rebellions erupted across slave-owning territories. The names of John Brown (1800-1859), Denmark Vesey (1767-1822) and Nathaniel “Nat” Turner (1800-1831) stand out among the scores of men and women determined to destroy the system of slavery. Their actions were not lost on Douglass who keenly observed that rebellions would increase as the enslaved sought their natural born right to be free. As Douglass ages, he becomes more aware of the changing sentiment in America and the undercurrent of emotions by those in bondage and their allies in the abolitionist movement. As Douglass states himself:

“The insurrection of Nathaniel Turner had been quelled, but the alarm and terror had not subsided. The cholera was on its way, and the thought was present, that God was angry with the white people because of their slaveholding wickedness, and, therefore, his judgments were abroad in the land.”

I warn readers that his experiences on Lloyd’s plantation are not for the faint at heart. The degradation he endures should spark the fire of anger in anyone who reads this book. I found myself becoming emotional as I read his words and I cannot imagine the humiliation inflicted upon him and others who lived on the plantation. And what is interesting is that the plantation was not located in the deep south but in the State of Maryland. And his life became even more difficult when he was given to Capt. Thomas Auld, a former Army Commander during the War of 1812. Auld quickly becomes the darkest figure in the book and his cruelty towards Douglass is abhorrent. He was determined to break Douglass down and nearly succeeded completely as readers will learn in the book. However, the relationship between Douglass and Auld’s wife Lucretia offsets the darker moments. During his time with Auld, Douglass grows into a strapping young man and becomes determined to escape slavery at all costs. He first refuses to be beaten and after learning to read, began to understand how slavery functions at its core and why illiteracy is a necessary component to keep slaves in line. Once he learns the truth, his path to freedom comes into full focus. However, Douglass never fully reveals how he escaped from Maryland, likely to protect those who had assisted him. He does discuss how he became a free man once in the North but is also careful in that regard.

Following his escape from Maryland, he arrives in New York City but for a short amount of time before moving on to New Bedford, Massachusetts. And although slavery had been abolished in Massachusetts in 1781, Douglass soon learns that prejudice is not solely a product of the South. As he explains, he had his fair share of humiliation in the North as well. However, he was now free and despite the treatment by whites, he continued to evolve and mature. And his spirit becomes unbreakable. He also learns that he has the gift of oration and soon explores that talent to its fullest extent. Today he is regarded as one of the most popular voices of his time but regrettably, none of us will ever have the pleasure of hearing him speak in person. The story takes yet another turn when he is invited to visit several countries in Europe. It is this part of the book in which Douglass learns important truths about America while away from its shores. And what he explains to the reader are supported by the statements from jazz musician Miles Davis (1926-1991), whose experiences in France had opened his eyes to the dysfunction in America. Upon his return to the United States, Douglass was seasoned and armed with a better understanding of the world and the changes needed at home. He devoted the rest of his life the abolitionist movement and in 1877, he was confirmed as United States Marshal for the District of Columbia after being selected by President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893). In later years, he attempted a run for president and held several posts in the U.S. Government. On February 20, 1895, Douglass died at the age of seventy-seven at his home in Washington, D.C. His wife Helen Pitts Douglass (1838-1903) lived several more years until her own death at the age of sixty-five.

I cannot overstate the importance of this work and why it is such a critical read. His story was the exception and not the normal course of action for thousands of enslaved people. He also revealed the contrast between the northern and southern parts of America, paying close attention to the prejudice against people of color across the nation. Frankly, life for Black people was short, humiliating and void of hope at times. However, Douglass and others like him, refused to live out their lives in bondage and were determined to gain their freedom even if it meant death. He is and always will be an icon for those who are oppressed and yearning for freedom.

The soul that is within me no man can degrade.” – Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

A People’s History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom – David Williams

Williams

I may have stated this before, but I absolutely love history. However, I have come to realize that there is much about my own country that I still need to learn. Of all the subjects that remains often misunderstood and debated is the American Civil War.  There is the common belief that the war about ending slavery but to others it was a case of “Northern aggression”. The truth is that there were multiple reasons for the war and not solely because of one above the others. But I do believe that Major Gen. Smedley Butler (1881-1940) was correct when he said, “war is a racket”. The realization that conflict has a monetary value unsettles the mind and spirit. The truth is rarely pleasant but always required to set the record straight. Author David Williams does just that in this remarkable account of the conflict that tore America apart. It can be argued that the Civil War is still affecting American society. I agree to an extent but for us to understand how and why, a full understanding of America and the war is needed. We can start at the beginning with the issue of slavery which is labeled as the major reason for the war. The image of the Confederacy and “Deep South” was one of abundant slave owners and plantations across the region. But as a I learned here, that was not always the case. In fact, what Williams shows is that the South was nowhere near as coherent as one might think. Nor was the number of slave owner and plantations in existence as one might suspect. As I read the book, I was quite surprised to learn of the reality behind the slave owning South and how it affected morale and pride during the war. 

Slavery was a critical issue the country faced as tensions continued to rise. Abolitionist were determined to see it fall and rebellions such as the one led by John Brown (1800-1859) caused pro-slavery parties in the South to take notice. The election of Abraham Lincoln installed fear in the hearts of Southerners, some of whom were certain that he would “take their slaves away”.  Washington was aware of abolitionists efforts but what was the real role of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1965)? Apologists have long sought to absolve Lincoln for many things that do not portray him in the most positive light. What can be seen in the book is that Lincoln’s actions and beliefs did not always fall in line with the iconized version presented in history books. In fact, Frederick Douglass was more explicit in his view of the President following Lincoln’s re-election: 

Though they had succeeded in keeping McClellan out of the White House, Radicals were not enthusiastic about giving Lincoln a second term. “When there was any shadow of a hope,” wrote Frederick Douglass, “that a man of a more decided anti-slavery conviction and policy could be elected, I was not for Mr. Lincoln.”

There is far more to Lincoln’s role revealed in the book and readers may be surprised. His plan for free Blacks will certainly cause readers to pause. However, his role in the conflict can neither be overstated or understated. He was a crucial part of the Union effort that ended in victory. And his actions, regardless of true motives, did help end the system of human slavery in the United States.  

Once the war begins, the course of battle is anything but predictable. However, the author reveals interesting facts about the Confederacy and its ability to achieve victory. When President Barack Obama won his second term, there was calls for “secession” by those unable to accept his re-election. To any rational individual, it was clear that would not happen. But what did happen when Southern States left the Union after Lincoln’s re-election? And what was the final straw that pushed them over the edge? The answers to those questions can be found within and the author also discusses another motive for secession that businesspeople in the North recognized and refused to accept. It soon becomes clear in the book, that slavery is only one of many reasons for the South declaring its independence.

One of the best parts of the book is the discussion about life in the Confederacy. I strongly recommend readers look at Janet Elizabeth Croon’s “The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham 1860-1865″, which is an excellent read about life in a Southern family that supports the Confederate effort. Far from the united South we may have been led to believe, there was much taking place in the Confederacy that was far from encouraging. And as the author points out: 

By 1864, President Davis publicly lamented that two-thirds of Confederate soldiers were absent, most of them without leave

In the North, things were also not as unified, and the image of the “liberal” North is directly challenged by William’s work. Frankly, though the North was free territory, racial harmony was a myth and social conditions could be just as bad as the South. Blacks were free but still lived like slaves. Interestingly, even before Union victory, members in Congress began to think of how Blacks could be enfranchised. Their efforts and those of the Radical Republicans are highlighted to show the missed opportunities that presented themselves to a country at a crossroads and in need of change. Lincoln’s actions and those of his successor Andrew Johnson (1908-1875), left much to be desired. 

Surprisingly, what is left out of discussions about the Civil War are the true feelings of Southerners who have been painted with the broad brush of being “sympathizers” to the Confederacy’s mission. The truth is far more complicated and fare less glamorous. In fact, life for poor whites in the Confederacy was not much better and the dark reality is brought to life in the story told here. Desertion was a major problem but there were other factors at play that made the desirability of serving under Davis’ army plummet.  Further, battlefield conditions, life as a solider and death for any number of reasons made it clear that war is hell, and no one should take part. To drive home this point, I refer to this section in the book by the author who relays that” 

“In The Impending Crisis of the South, published in 1857, Helper argued vigorously that the “lords of the lash are not only absolute masters of the blacks . . . but they are also the oracles and arbiters of all non-slaveholding whites, whose freedom is merely nominal.”

As the war raged on, casualties began to rise from injuries and other conditions that brought death and destruction. Over six-hundred thousand men died in the American Civil War and the manners in which they perished were often barbaric and tragic. The author thoroughly examines the unsettling aspect of the soldier’s experience which included injuries in combat, inadequate clothing and supplies, famine, infections, viruses, and the lack of advanced medical knowledge. In short, life in the 1800s was rough and even rougher if you were an enlistee fighting in a savage conflict deemed to be a “rich man’s war”. Williams’ book should remove any notion of a valiant effort. On both sides, brutality was common, and desertion remained an issue throughout the war.  And the induction of both slaves and Native Americans into the war was not because those in power had a “change of heart”. The real reasons are far more sobering. The Native American experience has been discussed by other authors and their removal from their lands remains one of the darkest aspects of America’s creation. The experience of the Indian tribes is also discussed here in relation to the war and readers will shake their heads in disgusts and disbelief. 

After I finished the book, I had a moment of silence wherein I allowed myself to digest everything I had read. I had learned of things never presented to me before in any classroom that I can recall. American history is often difficult to accept because the image of America is designed to lift one’s spirits. And while there are aspects of life in the United States that are wonderful, our nation’s history contains dark moments. And it is imperative that we learn the truth so that they never again take place. This book is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the truth regarding the American Civil War. Highly recommended. 

History is the sum total of things that could have been avoided” -Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967) 

ASIN: ‎B007OWQN7Q

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History – S.C. Gwynne

QuanahIf you have had the chance to view a map of North American Indian tribes prior to the formation of the United States, you may have been just as surprised as I was to see how many were in existence. The story of North America’s early inhabitants known simply as Native Americans, is deeply complex and ultimately tragic.  In 2016, 20th Century Fox released Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant in which Leonardo DiCaprio assumed the role of real-life fur trapper and trader Hugh Glass (1783-1833). The film is hauntingly beautiful with a musical score that adds the right touch of emotion and suspense.  Parts of the story are fictionalized but it is largely based on true events.  The movie accurately portrayed life in North America in the early 1800s as the United States was continuing to expand well into Native American territories.  The violence on screen is shocking but also an accurate depiction of the savageness in the battles that did occur.  What is not shown in the film are the wars that had been taking place between tribes.  The absence of widespread hegemony between tribes meant that territory was of the utmost importance and the threat of attack from enemies was constant.  Some tribes were known to be more dangerous than others and none were as deadly and feared as the Comanches.  Their large numbers and presence across large portions of land in the western half of North America made them a threat to anyone who ventured into parts unknown.  In this spellbinding book, author S.C. Gwynne tells the incredible story of the Comanche Indians’ rise and fall, and the life story of their last big chief, Quanah Parker (1845-1911). 

Before I proceed, I must warn readers that the book is not for the faint at heart.  It is an unfiltered look into North America’s violent past and shatters any illusions about white settlers being welcomed with open arms by natives eager to accept the white man’s way of life.  In fact, it was quite the opposite.  The Comanches had no intention of living the “white way” and were content with their lives.   And anyone who threatened that way of life or intruded upon it was fair game.  The Comanches commenced raids upon white settlements and against other tribes, pillaging, and plundering.  Readers sensitive to descriptions of violence will find some parts of the story difficult to accept.  In 1836, the Parker family found themselves victims of the Comanches and during a raid, a nine-year-old girl named Cynthia Ann Parker (1827-1871) was kidnapped with her brother John Richard Parker (1830-1915) and integrated into the Comanche tribe.  And as Gwynne explains, this act ignited a four-decade war between whites and the Comanches.  And during those forty years, there was bloodshed, heartbreak and a Civil War that changed American history.  The Comanches could not have known at the time that the young girl would have more of an impact on the future of their tribe than anyone knew.  Gwynne drives home the point with this explanation: 

“The kidnapping of a blue-eyed, nine-year-old Cynthia Ann in 1836 marked the start of the white man’s forty-year war with the Comanches, in which Quanah would play a leading role. In one sense, the Parkers are the beginning and end of the Comanches in U.S. history.” 

As a primer to the main story, Gwynne provides thorough explanations regarding other tribes important to the story and the involvement of Mexico.  The image of life that comes into focus is of one that was short and brutally hard.  The introduction of diseases to native tribes decimated populations. Today, smallpox and cholera are well understood and prevented but in the early 1800s they were deadly killers.  And those unfamiliar to these viruses almost always faced a certain death.   As I read the book, I found myself speechless at times due to the descriptions of daily life.  From one day to the next, nothing was guaranteed and the threat of violence from other tribes and bandits was always on the mind of many.  And it is imperative to recall that at the time Parker was taken in May 1836, there were only twenty-four states in the Union.  Territory west and north was unorganized and further south, the land was part of Mexico.  Comanches fiercely roamed these territories and even made raids into what is now the State of Texas.  And it is here that the story heats up as the Parker family is torn apart during the Fort Parker Massacre.  Some readers might wonder if Washington should have expected such an attack.  The truth is that there was much Washington did not know and  Texas had been placed in a precarious position as Gwynne explains in this passage: 

“Texas was thus left alone, broke and militarily punchless, for ten years to confront two implacable enemies: Mexico on the south, and the Comanche nation on the west and north. The fledgling country would never know peace. Mexican incursions persisted; the city of San Antonio was captured twice by large Mexican armies in 1842.” 

The harsh reality is that Washington had no clear answer for the Indians and things in Texas were about to take a deadlier turn.  The tragedy of the Parkers deeply concerned Texans and Washington but they were not the only settlers that suffered. Gwynne includes accounts of other settlers who met dark fates as they ventured into unknown territory. Raiding, pillaging, rape and scalping were the tools of the trade and the Comanches did not hesitate to use them.  Because of the horrific acts of sexual violence, parents might want to use discretion should they decide to purchase this book for minors.  What I learned about the Comanche raids on the settles and other tribes, is interesting for it shows the acrimony that existed between the natives, and it also explains why the U.S. Government had no choice but to find a way to turn the tide in the conflict with the Indians.  

Following the massacre, the book is essentially two stories in one.  The mission to find Cynthia and John Parker comes into focus but finding them would not be easy.  And it is not until the entry of former Texas Governor Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross (1838-1898) into the story that major success occurs.   Finding the Parkers was a priority but dealing with the Comanches and other Indians became priority number one.  In the process, thousands of men died at the hands of the Comanches.  Troops and even the Texas Rangers had never faced a similar enemy and were at times lost in their approach.  To drive home the point about the power behind the Comanches, Gwynne sums up their dominance and states that:

” Comanches fought entirely on horseback and in a way no soldier or citizen in North America had ever seen.”  

Battles between whites and the natives increase in frequency and some notable figures appear whose names are cemented in American history such as Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson (1809-1868), Samuel Colt (1914-1862) and John Coffee Hays (1817-1883).  Carson and Hays learned first-hand that the United States was not prepared to do battle with the Indias.  Their opponents possessed skills and knowledge of the terrain that white settlers had not yet obtained.  However, Colt invents an equalizer in the form of a weapon that became synonymous with the wild west.  And as technology improves, the natives soon find themselves struggling for survival.  Further, the United States later employed a powerful asset named Ranald S. McKenzie (1840-1889) who has largely faded into history.  His story and later acquaintance with Quanah Parker are discussed here and provide an interesting back drop to the main story being told.  McKenzie became integral to the battle against the Comanches but never gained the fame and recognition one would expect.  His own tragic life story is revisited bringing home the horrors of war.  Cynthia Parker does reappear in the story and her life is equally as tragic and also surreal.  Her marriage to former Comanche Chief Pete Nacona (1820-1964) and their children was highly unusual and at the time that knowledge came to light, a majority of people could not believe it.  But this is her story which includes separation from her birth family and integration on the Comanche nation which she remained loyal to for the rest of her life.   Her son Quanah becomes the focus of the remaining parts of the book as he assumes the mantel over a tribe facing its own demise.  But Quanah is not a fool and makes a surprising decision that had an enormous impact on the Comanches.  His actions were not isolated but taken typically after all other options had been exhausted.  It could be said that his actions sealed the fate for the Comanches. 

It is easy to see the Comanches as bloodthirsty savages, but Gwynne is careful not to make that mistake.  In fact, he does make himself clear that multiple factors were at play that led to the Fort Parker Massacre and conflict with the American Government.  And there was horrific acts of violence committed by all asides.  Ignorance of the native tribes and territorial boundaries undoubtedly added to the tensions that simmered.  The Comanches wanted to live their way of life on land they believed was theirs. Their ancestors had lived on the land and they believed it was theirs for life. They were fine with their existence and did not desire to become “civilized”.  White settlers and government officials often made the mistake of seeing the natives as “savages’ that needed to convert to Christianity and the ways of  the white man. But what they did not understand is that the natives had no concept of that, nor did they want to.  The Comanches committed unspeakable acts upon many but as shocking as it for me as New Yorker in 2021 to understand, for them it was life as they knew it.  Violence played itself out over and over again across this continent and it was accepted by many and employed by others. It is unsettling but it is also part of the history that created the country I call home.  S.C. Gwynne has done an incredible job here and this book is excellent.  It may be hard to read at times, but this is the story of the Comanches that Americans should know. 

ASIN:‎ B003KN3MDG

Nicaragua, 1961-1990 Volume 1: The Downfall of the Somosa Dictatorship – David Francois

FrancoisIn June 1987, Lt. Col. Oliver North (Ret.) gave testimony in front of the Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition and the House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Sales with Iran.  The hearings had cast a dark cloud over Washington and the administration of President Ronald W. Reagan (1911-2004) doubled down on anything that could be conceived as illegal pursuant to United States law.  I can still recall the shock on my father’s face when the news of the scandal broke across media outlets.  The two of us watched the nightly news to learn more about a situation that had danger written all over it.  Those who remember the Iran-Contra affair most likely have images in their minds of North testifying in his military dress before Congress.  Details of the Reagan administration’s covert plans became unraveled but the full truth about the affair remained elusive for many years.  The sale of weapons to foreign nations did not surprise me at all and military hardware has always been big business.  But what did catch my attention was the atmosphere in Central America, a region that suffered extensively due to Washington’s support of dictatorships thirsty for blood and determined to crack down on all opposition. 

Over the years I have made the acquaintance of men and women who fled El Salvador at the height of the nation’s civil war. And the stories they have told me have remain firmly entrenched in my mind as examples of how much suffering occurred to innocent people who were forced to leave the only home they had ever known.  In Nicaragua, revolution and turmoil had taken place as the Sandinista National Liberation Front successfully forced the Somoza regime to flee into exile.  The victory by the Sandinistas caused anger and embarrassment in Washington which was determined not to let the leftist remove the puppet government it preferred.  However, the people of Nicaragua had other plans and wanted a new direction for their country.  This book is the story of how the Somoza dictatorship met its end in Nicaragua.  

The author provides a good explanation on the history of Nicaragua dating back to the era of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506).  As the story moves into the 1800s, affairs in Central American begin to heat up.  Foreign governments begin to take notice of the small Central American nation and intervened in the nation’s affairs.  I was quite amazed at how involved both the United States and Britain became in the country’s policies but soon realized it was a premonition of what would follow.   A revolution in 1912 resulted in the arrival of U.S. Marines in Nicaragua and the occupation lasted until 1933.  But the local population had no desire to live under Washington’s rule at any time and a young revolutionary named Augusto César Sandino (1895-1934) was intent on seeing his country liberated from imperialist domination.  Francois tells the story with the right amount of suspense and keeps the pace flowing at the right speed to move the book forward.   It soon becomes apparent that Sandino’s time is limited, and it is not long before Nicaragua is taken over by Anastasio Somoza García (1896-1956) who placed the country in a vice grip with the assistance of his sons Anastasio Somoza Debayle (1925-1980) and Luis Somoza Debayle (1922-1967).  And for nearly fifty years they ruled Nicaragua with an iron fist and made it their personal kingdom.  But as the author explains, the revolutionaries were far from done. In fact, the Somozas had only increased the determination of the opposition to remove the family from power. 

American readers might be surprised to learn of the enormous amount of assistance Somoza received from Washington.  The United States was aware of Somoza’s tyranny yet continued to supply arms and money to the regime.  The eye-opening details provided here are bound to cause anger and shock and will cause others to wonder if “freedom” was really part of American foreign policy.  Opposition forces were continuing to mount against Somoza, and it may be challenging to keep track of the the groups that were formed.  A table of the acronyms used by the groups is included at the beginning of the book by Francois and will be helpful during the story.  The group that emerges as the main opposition force is the Sandinista National Liberation (FSLN) formed by Carlos Fonseca (1936-1976), Tomás Borge (1930-2012) and Silvio Mayorga (1934-1967).   On the side of Somoza, the Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua (GN) steps up to the plate to do battle with the FSLN and the war that breaks out is nothing short of brutal.  At this point, the story heats up significantly and readers will not want to stop reading as the suspense continues to build.  Francois’ narration of the events resurrects the past with vivid detail. 

Similar to other conflicts, Nicaragua’s war was not as cut and dry as one may have believed. In fact, the country essentially became a battleground between the right and left with Washington deeply concerned about Soviet and Chinese influence.  And as we see in the story, Beijing was fully aware of the events in Nicaragua and attempted to get into the mix.  Even Israel enters the story, and this part of the book is mind bending. Francois proves that there are many dark secrets to every conflict.  As the two sides are locked in a deadly battle, Somoza begins to lose popular support.  The initial descent of the Somoza regime into oblivion takes center stage and Francois takes us through the series of events that not only gave the Sandinistas the upper hand but also saw the disappearance of support from Washington.  At this part of the book, I had to step back for a minute and digest what I was reading.   The abrupt change in policy from Washington is a move we have seen in other places where death and destruction have taken place.  Somoza was once the darling of the U.S. policy in Central America but soon learns that when Washington no longer wants or needs your services, the cold from being hung out to dry can be chilling. 

The end for the regime finally came in July 1979 and for the administration of President James E. Carter, Jr., Somoza’s removal was long overdue. However, the new president had his hands full and the situation in nearby El Salvador was heating up.  In Nicaragua, the long road taken by the opposition had ended and the country faced a new and uncertain future.  Francois explains it best with this statement: 

“The date 19 July 1979 marked a turning point in the history of Nicaragua and the FSLN. Not only had a powerful dictatorship that reigned over the country for nearly 40 years, with the support of the US, ended, but the long and patient fight started by the Sandinistas in the early 1960s finally came to fruition.” 

The Carter administration continued its policy of reigning in dictators in Central America yet failed to completely achieve its goal.  In January 1981, a former actor and one-time Governor of California took office and his policy towards Central America and the “threat” of Soviet influence helped plunge Central America further into chaos.  Congress initially had no idea just how deadly things had become but it soon learned and what was revealed remains one the darkest moments in U.S. foreign policy.  And the key to understanding those events is the story here about the Somoza downfall that had ramifications which spread across Latin America. 

Readers who find this book to highly informative will appreciate Raymond Bonner’s Weakness and Deceit: America’s and El Salvador’s Dirty War and Malcolm Byrne’s Iran Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power.  Both are exceptional accounts of America’s involvement in Central American affairs.  Francois has a winner here and I am eagerly anticipating volume two.   

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B07RPBY857

The Six Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East – Guy Larson

larson

On May 14, 1948, Israel was formally declared an independent state with David Ben Gurion (1886-1973) being appointed as the first prime minister. Over the objection of both diplomats and officials in the military, the administration of President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) gave its support that same day. This historical event set in motion a chain of events that has resulted in a political and social divide across the Middle East that culminated with the Six-Day War in June 1967 in which Israeli armed forces launch strategic and coordinated attacks against several Arab nations. The conflict was brief but it changed the Middle East and heightened tensions between Israel and many of its Arab neighbors. Prior to the conflict tensions had been brewing between Israel and the Arab world with war hawks on both sides pushing for military action. But the questions remains, was the war preventable? And what exactly did happen to kick off the battle that last only six days? Author Guy Laron addresses those questions and many others in this spellbinding investigative account in the battle that broke the Middle East.

Though I continue to learn the history of the Middle East, I sometimes feel that there is much about the region lost to the west. American intervention in Middle Eastern affairs was at times sorely misguided as I learned in the book. The story of the war begins many years prior to 1967 and Laron assembles the pieces of the puzzle. And to dissuade readers from any idea that the war was a “total victory” he explains somberly that:

“The Six-Day War seemingly ended in one of the swiftest victories in modern history; in reality, the new post-1967 lines created new war zones, especially along the Suez Canal, where the warring sides were conducting a six-year trench warfare, which ended only with a bold assault by the Syrians and the Egyptians in 1973.”

Essentially, the conflict produced a domino effect that has never been resolved. The author provides a thorough and informative discussion on Middle Eastern history but only as far back as needed to set up the remainder of the book. And the country that takes center stage is the nation of Egypt under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970). This part of the story I found highly fascinating due to the discussion regarding Egypt’s relationship with the United States. Similar to Vietnam, decisions made in Washington could have changed history had another course of action been taken with regards to foreign policy. I felt a chill run down my spine as I learned of the deterioration in relations between Nasser and Washington. The refusal to support Egypt’s goal of becoming a major player on the world stage is regrettable and I believe it is a lost moment that quite possibly could have altered the course of history. Readers may find themselves staring in disbelief at the treatment Egypt received from its American ally. Nasser himself also felt the chill and realized that Egypt could not depend on Washington in the long run.

On the other side of the spectrum, the relationship between Washington and Israel is scrutinized allowing readers to learn of the actions behind the scene that help propel Israel towards the military campaign in 1967. Similar to Egypt, war hawks had been read for some time to launch an offensive against the Arab nations. Despite the pressure in place by hawks, the call for attack had been resisted by the fairly moderate Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (1895-1969) who was not overly anxious to ignite a major conflict in the Middle East. Further, Washington had refrained from giving its support while signaling it would not interfere. America was playing both sides while at the same time keeping its eye on the Soviet Union whose entry into world affairs was always a concern. Although the conflict was not an extension of the Cold War, its presence can be felt at times. And the picture that emerges in the book is one of multiple parties all playing their own games while a major conflict hangs in the balance.

Behind the scenes, the discussions between Washington and Israel were not as fluid as one may believe. In fact, more than once, the allocation of funds had been reduced and two presidents had threatened to severely reduce financial aid should war break out. As the mantle passes from Truman to Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969), the tone from Washington becomes sterner. Eisenhower had seen the effects of war up close was had no desire to take part in the ignition of a major conflict. His successor, John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) had even less desire and made it clear that Israel was to take part in the nuclear arms reduction plan his administration had set in place. This part of the book caught my attention because it is a part of the Kennedy presidency that receives very little attention. Prior to his death in November 1963, Kennedy had been applying pressure on Ben Gurion to open the Dimona nuclear facility for inspection. Israel had stalled forcing Kennedy to threaten to reduce financial aid in an attempt to get Tel Aviv to fall in line with his arms reductions plan. To illustrate just how heated the issue became, Laron explains that:

“Kennedy persisted and in mid-May 1963 sent Ben-Gurion his toughest letter yet, making clear that he would not budge and allow an Israeli nuclear bomb to jeopardize his administration’s campaign against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. A month after receiving that letter, Ben-Gurion stepped down as prime minister.”

After Kennedy’s death, the Dimona reactor never became an issue and the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) had his eyes and thoughts focused elsewhere, in particular the growing crisis in Vietnam. There are no conspiracy theories in the book about Kennedy’s murder but the issue of Dimona is a crucial part in understanding who would have benefited from Kennedy’s removal. I leave it to the reader to take it from there.

The story picks up in pace under Johnson’s administration. Tel Aviv realized that the new president was not following Kennedy’s course on several major issues. One of them was the growing tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Indochina had begun to consume Johnson who was also pushing forward on the domestic front with his Great Society programs. However, his actions with regards to weapons hardware across the Middle East are equally as surprising as the events surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin. I could not believe what I was reading and wondered to myself what Washington’s endgame really was because it helped set the stage for what was to come in 1967. It soon becomes apparent that Israel has more freedom to carry out its own plans under Johnson’s watch. And the incident involving the USS Liberty still remains one of the more puzzling of that year. Laron does not go into the story extensively but does mention the attack. Egypt also fared differently under Johnson but certainly not in the way it would have desired. In fact, Laron explains that:

“As for Nasser, he seemed to have realized that the game was no longer worth the candle. Eisenhower and Kennedy had allowed Egypt to pay for US wheat with its own currency, which it could print at will. Johnson, however, insisted on Egypt paying in dollars, which it lacked due to its severe economic situation.”

Johnson was in no rush to nor had the desire to appease the Arab world. His main goal was the defeat of Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) and the North Vietnamese government. Tel Aviv is keenly aware of this and plans are set into motion for the ultimate offensive. But was the attack a surprise? Laron reveals a lot of interesting facts about Egyptian operations prior to the conflict that produce more questions than answers. Further, the most crippling part of the Egyptian defense network comes across as one of the simplest components that should have been addressed but was not. Had it been, the war might have ended differently or never have taken place. The glaring inadequacy reveals fundamentally different aspects between Israeli and Egyptian society that highlights the importance of military intelligence.

More than fifty years have passed since the Six-Day War but its effects are still being felt today across the Middle East. The Gaza Strip remains a hotbed for clashes and only time will tell if true peace and a solution will become a reality. Anyone seeking to understand the region will find this book to be invaluable. It is a step back in time during a decade when political upheaval was occurring around the globe. War and conflict were constant reminders of the savageness of man that would have to be addressed for future generations. However old wounds must be addressed and allowed to heal before humanity can truly move forward. This book is a definitive account of the Six-Day War and its profound effect on the Middle East. Highly recommended.

ASIN‏: B01NAZJWSK

The Water is Wide: A Memoir – Pat Conroy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASIN : B003XKN65U

Flashbacks: A Twenty-Year Diary of Article Writing – John A. Williams

JohnWhen I saw this book on sale, I felt a small sense of embarrassment because I did not know who John A. Williams (1925-2015) was.  While it is true that he would be considered “before my time”, voices from the past are often as important as those of today. And any person that spends twenty years writing articles must have a significant number of experiences to reflect on. I gave in to my curiosity and decided to make the purchase. I can honestly say that I received more than I bargained for and have a newfound appreciation the late journalist. To be clear, the book is not an autobiography but more of a recollection of his most vivid memories about his early life, breaking into journalism and the numerous larger than life figures he had the chance to interview and, in some cases, form friendships with.  Writers can tell you that composing an article is not always a simple as it seems and financially, it is not a way to get rich quick. In fact, the author removes all illusions of grandeur when he says:

“I’ve written all that time and if I’ve ever come to one single, positive conclusion it is that writing articles is no sane way for a man to make his living. Article Writing Highway is littered with wrecks, maimed and dead.”

Despite his gloomy summation of his trade, Williams wrote extensively, and his talents did pay the bills. But riches were never his goal and at no time in the book does he allude to fortune as his motive.   He explains how he got into journalism in a time when Black Americans were prohibited from entering and being served at many establishments across America.  Jim Crow was alive and strong and those fighting against it knew that it would die a slow death resisting all opposition to the very end.  Williams did not let that deter him and travels domestically and abroad from one assignment to the next.  And along the way, he observes things about America that even those who lived within its borders may not have seen.  Those memories are presented in an engaging format and Williams pulls no punches in his assessment of the land of the free.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to Williams’ writings about the lives of figures who have their places in history such as Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), Charles “Bird” Parker, Jr. (1920-1955) and Malcolm X (1925-1965). Readers familiar with all three will know their stories but the section on Parker is deeply moving and disturbing as the late musician’s short and tragic life comes into focus.  In just thirty-five years, Bird grew into the man who changed jazz forever and after his death, his former bandmate named Miles Davis (1926-1991) changed jazz again.  Williams did conduct interviews with some of the subjects and his discussions with artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988) and writer Chester Himes (1909-1984) offer a frank analysis on the situation in America at that time.  Some might argue that the same discussions are being held today.  I can say that the past truly is prologue.

Some readers may find the sections about his travels across America to be quite shocking. But it is imperative to remember that much of it took place before and around the passing of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964.  The landmark legislation had been passed but America did not change overnight.  As Williams drove from one state to the next, the threat of death is never far away, and he had some very hair-raising encounters while on the road. And the treatment he received at various establishments is nothing short of shameful.  Those parts of his story will cause some to wonder how that type of behavior had been normalized in a nation that prided itself on democracy, liberty, and freedom.  Williams was only one person, but his trials and tribulations were common to minorities who had come to realize that civil and equality could wait no more.

As I read the book, he reminded me of James Baldwin in the way he discusses America.  Baldwin had visibility due to his status as a published author and activist. Williams may not have had the same level of popularity, but his observations of daily life are right out of the Baldwin play book.  And like Baldwin, he loved America dearly despite his experiences in the military and later as a traveling journalist.  He remains optimistic for true change in America and the society we see today has come a long way.  There is still more work to be done but I am sure that if Williams were alive today, he would remind us that those much younger than he cannot imagine what life was like during his time.  This book is a cold and hard look at the real America and how life was for millions of its invisible citizens.

ASIN : B01AJ7Z0CQ

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

 

William L. Shirer: Twentieth Century Journey: The Start, 1904–1930; The Nightmare Years, 1930–1940; A Native’s Return, 1945–1988 – William L. Shirer

shirer Quite some time has passed since my last post, mainly due to work matters and my being fully invested in finishing the book that is the subject of this review.  Originally, I had planned on reading this three-part autobiography by William L. Shirer (1904-1993) one book at a time but Amazon also offers them combined and I decided to take the plunge.  Shirer  is by far, one of my favorite authors and there was no way I could pass this one up.  Some of you may be familiar with him and recall that he is best known for his time as a CBS correspondent stationed in Nazi Germany during Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) rise to power. Upon returning to the United States, he moved to radio full time and lived the rest of his years as an author of historical non-fiction that has stood the test of time. 

At the onset, I did not fully appreciate the length of the material.  And to say that the e-book is a long would be an understatement.  But contained within is an incredible story by one of America’s greatest witnesses to history.  Up first is volume one called “The Start” and his story begins in the Midwest in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on February 04, 1904, shortly after the turn of the century.  America was a very different place and Shirer is a master storyteller who brings the distant past back to life, allowing us to re-live what it was like in a time before cars, planes and the modern technology we take for granted daily.  As Shirer tells his story, he reveals something about his family’s ancestry that would later be a source of irony in the book. To be more specific, Shirer explains: 

“The family name originally was Scheurer, a fairly common name in the German Black Forest region. Some time during the trek west it was Anglicized to Shirer. My grandfather attached no importance to the change, explaining to me once, when I asked him, that it was done mainly because the town officials and tradesmen mistakenly kept writing it the way they thought it sounded, and it was simpler to go along with them.” 

In a twist of fate, the author of German stock, would make his name famous by reporting on the atrocities of the Third Reich in his family’s fatherland.  But Germany was not his first destination as a foreign news correspondence. In fact, Germany was not even on his list of places to be stationed.  How and why he left the United States to work in Europe is fully explained and it is clear that from a young age, Shirer’s life was destined to be anything but ordinary.  It surely was a complex fate and Shirer sums up the turn of events in this passage: 

“I had come over to Europe for two months. As it turned out, I would remain there to live and work for two decades, experiencing and chronicling the remaining years of an uneasy peace, the decline of the democracies, the rise of the dictatorships, turmoil, upheaval, violence, savage repression, and finally war.” 

Shirer did return to the United States early in his career, but a meeting with Robert Rutherford “Colonel” McCormick (1880-1955) of the Chicago Tribune turned out to be more than he could ever expected and set him down the path that would take him back to Europe and finally Berlin, where he would witness the rise of Nazi Germany.  The first volume is a good and Shirer’s memories of his time in Europe wherein he convalesced with some of the greatest writers and stars are interesting.  Among the many stars who make an appearance are literary greats Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) and Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961).  Shirer is like a human recorder, observing everything and brining the past back to life through his words.  It becomes clear that Europe is a second home and a place more familiar to him than the United States.  And though he would eventually return home, the reader will begin to see that Europe is the place where the best is yet to come and his to Germany in the second volume called “The Nightmare Years”, is where we see the William Shirer that most of us will be familiar with.  

In the second volume, Berlin takes center stage as Hitler is ramping up the Germany war machine as part of his master plan to dominate Europe. But first, he moves to annex neighboring countries without the use of force and Shirer revisits each episode to explain how Hitler pulled off those feats and why no one moved to stop him.  It will make some readers wonder whether World War II could have been prevented as early as 1938. Hitler seized on the inaction of Britain and France, setting his sights on Poland. But this time, people did step in and the world went to war.  Shirer, who had left the Chicago Tribune in a weird series of events that is discussed in the book, was hired by legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) to become the CBS Correspondent in Berlin. This change of fate placed Shirer at the scene of the crimes so to speak as the Nazi regime plotted and schemed its way to become a looming threat across an entire continent. 

His interactions with the German officials are particularly amusing and reveal the façade presented to ordinary Germanys by the Nazis who had assured them that Germany did not want war with anyone.  Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) makes repeated appearances throughout the story and the full extent of his delusion is on display.  Shirer gives his analysis of Goebbels and the other characters in Hitler’s inner circle whose names are infamous in world history.  I believe Oscar Wilde had it right when he said “the world is a stage, but the play is badly cast”.  However, in Nazi Germany, the cast was not only but deadly to anyone deemed inferior or Jewish.  Shirer does not go into the issue of the concentration camps extensively and I believe to do so would have required a different book. But he does bring up the matter later on during the Nuremberg trials. This part of the story is focused on the rise, menace and fall of Nazi Germany but in a highly compressed format.  Also, Shirer and his family left Germany in 1940, five years before the Germany military surrendered to Allied forces. His return home and life after war are covered extensive in volume three titled “A Native’s Return”. 

Upon returning home, Shirer starts the process of becoming re-acclimated with his native land. I do not believe he ever imagined how his life would change as he re-settled in America.  He found a place on radio but his relationship with Murrow takes a strange turn and Shirer goes through the entire story of his departure from CBS. I have not heard Murrow’s side if he ever put it in writing or gave statements orally.  But, the influence of former CBS president William S. Paley (1901-1990) is clearly evident and cast a dark cloud over the events as they play out.  But Shirer does not stay down for long and moves through life facing adversity head on.  And one decision in 1954, changed his life and reputation forever. It was then that he decided to write his masterpiece, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, a book that remains among my favorites.  What I found surprising through Shirer’s words is that originally, no one wanted to publish the book.  It sounds mind-boggling today but I can understand that in 1954, a book over 1,000 pages was not an easy sell and still is not.  But in writing that book, Shirer created the definitive account of the Third SS Reich.  

Following the success of the book, Shirer embark on another project about the French defeat in World War II, a book which I have added to my list.  That book’s creation and reception are explained and shows the extent of knowledge Shirer possessed with regards to the war.  As the third volume progresses, he offers his continuing commentary on historical events in American history from Watergate to the Iran-Contra scandal.  And his frankly discusses his personal problems including the relationship with his wife Tess and his heart problems in later years.  Incredibly, Shirer never stops moving and even fulfils is dream of seeing Russia.  A good recap of that trip is also included in Shirer’s signature writing style.  As the third volume winds down, Shirer provides an overview of his life and those of his closest friends who all meet their own ending in various ways.  It truly is an incredible story of a journey through a century that changed our world.  As an American, he was placed in a unique position observe the world and as a final reflection, Shirer closes the three-part series with this quote that I personally can relate to for a number of reasons: 

“It was a complex fate, maybe, as Henry James said, to be an American and one, I realize, not especially admired by some in other countries and other cultures, who perceived us as “the ugly Americans.” Still, as I wrote in the last line of the general introduction, I am glad it was mine.” – William L. Shirer 

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