Archive for the ‘African American Literature’ Category

I read an essay by June Jordan on Martin Luther King recently, and I realized that I haven’t read a proper book by him. Of course, I have read words spoken by him and have seen others quote him, but I haven’t read a book by him. So I looked around and found this book and picked it up, and I’ve been reading it for the past few weeks. I finished reading it yesterday. I read it for ‘Black History Month‘.

A Testament of Hope‘ is a collection of Martin Luther King’s important essays, speeches, interviews, and excerpts from his books. It has something of everything and it seemed to be the best one-volume collection out there and is a beautiful introduction to his work. The first part of the book has essays by King in which he describes his philosophy of nonviolent protests. It has one of the most beautiful descriptions of the philosophy of nonviolent protests that I’ve ever read. He talks about the three words for love in Greek, eros, philia, and agape, and it made me smile, because it took me back in time, to my teenage years, when I first encountered these three words. King also talks about how Gandhi pioneered the use of nonviolent methods to fight against oppression. There is even an essay on his trip to India, which was insightful to read. Throughout this part of the book, King also talks about the struggle against segregation, the fight for integration, and how equality can be achieved by peaceful, nonviolent means. One of my favourite essays of his was ‘Letter from Birmingham City Jail‘.

The second part of the book has many of his famous speeches and sermons. I think all his famous speeches are there, including ‘I Have a Dream‘, ‘The Drum Major Instinct‘, and ‘I See the Promised Land‘. Martin Luther King was a powerful speaker, and all his speeches were inspiring. My favourites were ‘The American Dream‘, ‘The Drum Major Instinct‘, and ‘A Time to Break Silence‘, his famous protest and condemnation of the American government for its role in the Vietnam war. One of the things I was looking forward to, while reading his speeches and other parts of the book, was to find where his most famous lines made their first appearance. My most favourite quote of his, and probably the most famous lines he ever spoke, is ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice‘. I found it in many places, in his essays, speeches, book excerpts. It was lots of fun to spot it.

There were five interviews in the interviews section of the book, and my favourite out of them was the Playboy interview. Playboy is a magazine which is famous for its centrefold pictures, but Playboy also has a serious side, and it has featured wonderful interviews with important people. This interview was very detailed and insightful and beautiful.

The book section had excerpts from all his books. My favourite was ‘Stride Toward Freedom‘, which was about the Montgomery bus protests. ‘The Strength of Love‘ is a collection of sermons and there was one sermon in it called ‘A Knock at Midnight‘ which was incredibly beautiful.

One of the things I loved about Martin Luther King was that he didn’t shy away from difficult questions and didn’t try to sweep things below the carpet. He answered these questions precisely and clearly. In one of the interviews, he is asked about whether nonviolence will continue to be effective as in recent times protestors have started resorting to violence after being influenced by the Black Power movement. The reply he gives to that is one of the best defences of the nonviolent movement that I’ve read. In another interview, a Jewish Rabbi asks him about why some of the black leaders are anti-Semitic and whether the overall African-American community is anti-Semitic. The answer he gives to this tricky question (in cricket parlance, it was a total bouncer or a googly) is one of the best parts of the book. As we say in cricket, Well played, MLK! 😊

I loved ‘A Testament of Hope‘. It is one of the most important books I’ve read in my life, and definitely one of my favourite books of the year. It was 700 pages of pure inspiration which gave me goosebumps all the time. I read it from the first page to the last, like a regular book, but I feel now that it is a book which is best read a few pages at a time, one essay at a time, with time spent after that in thinking and contemplation. I think that is the best way to get the maximum pleasure and learning out of the book. The book has a beautiful introduction by the editor James Melvin Washington, which talks about Martin Luther King and his life, and puts this book in context.

Martin Luther King was a soft-spoken, gentle preacher who suddenly emerged as a civil rights leader in 1955 during the Montgomery bus protests. He was 26 years old at that time and he was virtually unknown. In the space of a little more than a year, he emerged as a national and international icon and as a leader who fought for the rights of the oppressed through peaceful means. Fame, awards, and glory followed, including the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was the youngest to win. He didn’t rest on his laurels and continued his crusade and fought for the rights of his people, gently and nonviolently. He died when he was 39, when a mad man shot him, when he was planning a new nonviolent crusade the next day. He was still so young, with a rich future ahead. It is amazing to contemplate on the unbelievable things that he accomplished in this short span of 13 years. It also feels sad to contemplate on what he might have accomplished if he had lived a long life. Out of the three great nonviolent crusaders of the 20th century who fought against oppression and for the rights of their people – Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela – two were assassinated by mad men. I don’t know why people hate gentle souls who favour peace over war, and love over hate. Only Nelson Mandela survived as he managed to come out of prison and see off the apartheid era and take his country to a new age.

It is hard to believe that once upon a time a gentle soul like Martin Luther King walked on this earth, spread the message of peace and love while fighting for the oppressed, and accomplished great things. We are in his debt.

It is hard to choose a few favourite passages from a book like this, because the whole book was so beautiful and inspiring. As John Updike once said, “Just as the impossibly ideal map would be the same size as the territory mapped, the ideal review would quote the book in its entirety, without comment.” This is that kind of book. But I can’t inflict it on you and quote the whole book to you. So I’m just sharing some of my favourite passages here. Hope they’ll inspire you to read the book.

Three Kinds of Love

“Now when the students talk about love, certainly they are not talking about emotional bosh, they are not talking about merely sentimental outpouring; they’re talking something much deeper, and I always have to stop and try to define the meaning of love in this context. The Greek language comes to our aid in trying to deal with this. There are three words in the Greek language for love; one is the word eros. This is a beautiful type of love, it is an aesthetic love. Plato talks about it a great deal in his Dialogue, the yearning of the soul for the realm of the divine. It has come to us to be a sort romantic love, and so in a sense we have read about it and experienced it. We’ve read about it in all the beauties of literature. I guess in a sense Edgar Allen Poe was talking about eros when he talked about his beautiful Annabelle Lee, with the love surrounded by the halo of eternity. In a sense Shakespeare was talking about eros when he said “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove; O’no! It is an ever fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken, it is the star to every wandering bark.” (You know, I remember that because I used to quote it to this little lady when we were courting; that’s eros.) The Greek language talks about philia which was another level of love. It is an intimate affection between personal friends, it is a reciprocal love. On this level you love because you are loved. It is friendship.

Then the Greek language comes with another word which is called the agape. Agape is more than romantic love, agape is more than friendship. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive, good will to all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. Theologians would say that it is the love of God operating in the human heart. So that when one rises to love on this level, he loves men not because he likes them, not because their ways appeal him, but he loves every man because God loves him. And he rises to the point of loving the person who does an evil deed while hating the deed that the person does. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said “love your enemies.” I’m very happy that he didn’t say like your enemies, because it is pretty difficult to like some people. Like is sentimental, and it is pretty difficult to like someone bombing your home; it is pretty difficult to like somebody threatening your children; it is difficult to like congressmen who spend all of their time trying to defeat civil rights. But Jesus says love them, and love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemp- tive, creative, good will for all men. And it is this idea, it is this whole ethic of love which is the idea standing at the basis of the student movement.”

On Being Maladjusted

“There are certain technical words which tend to become stereotypes and cliches after a certain period of time. Psychologists have a word which is probably used more frequently than any other word in modern psychology. It is the word “maladjusted.” In a sense all of us must live the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But there are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to the viciousness of mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to the inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence.

It may be that the salvation of the world lies in the hands of the maladjusted. The challenge to us is to be maladjusted – as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day, could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, “Let judgment run down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”; as maladjusted as Lincoln, who had the who had the vision to see that this nation cannot survive half slave half free; as maladjusted as Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery could cry out in words lifted to cosmic proportions. “All men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit Happiness”; as maladjusted as Jesus who could say to the men and women of his generation, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.”

The world is in desperate need of such maladjustment. Through such courageous maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom justice.”

Human Progress

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. The Darwinian theory of evolution is valid in the biological realm, but when a Hubert Spencer seeks to apply it to the whole of society there is very little evidence for it. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals. Without hard work, time itself becomes ally of the primitive forces of irrational emotionalism social stagnation.”

Just and Unjust Laws

“Much has been made of the willingness of these devotees of nonviolent social action to break the law. Paradoxically, although they have embraced Thoreau’s and Gandhi’s civil disobedience on a scale dwarfing any past experience in American history, they do respect law. They feel a moral responsibility to obey just laws. But they recognize that there are also unjust laws.

From a purely moral point of view, an unjust law is one which is out of harmony with the moral law of the universe. More concretely, an unjust law is one in which the minority is compelled to observe a code that is not binding on the majority. An unjust law is one in which people are required to obey a code that they had no part in making because they were denied the right to vote.

In disobeying such unjust laws, the students do so peacefully, openly and nonviolently. Most important, they willingly accept the penalty,  whatever it is, for in this way the public comes to reexamine the law in question and will thus decide whether it uplifts or degrades man.

This distinguishes their positon on civil disobedience from the “uncivil disobedience” of the segregationist. In face of laws they consider unjust, the racists seek to defy, evade and circumvent the law, and they are unwilling to accept the penalty. The end result of their defiance is anarchy and disrespect for the law. The students, the other hand, believe that he who openly disobeys a law, a law conscience tells him is unjust, and then willingly accepts the penalty, gives evidence thereby that he so respects that law that he belongs in jail until it is changed. Their appeal is to the conscience.”

Civilization and Culture

“We have allowed our civilization to outdistance our culture. Professor MacIver follows the German sociologist, Alfred Weber, in pointing out the distinction between culture and civilization. Civilization refers what we use; culture refers to what we are. Civilization is that complex of devices, instrumentalities, mechanisms and techniques by means of which we live. Culture is that realm of ends expressed in art, literature, religion and morals for which at best we live.

The great problem confronting us today is that we have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance ends for which we live. We have allowed our civilization to outrun our culture, and so we are in danger now of ending up with guided missiles in the hands of misguided men. This is what the poet Thoreau meant when he said, “Improved means to an unimproved end.” If we are to survive today and realize the dream of our mission and the dream of the world, we must bridge the gulf and somehow keep the means by which we live abreast with the ends for which we live.”

“Where Do We Go From Here”

“Now, in order to answer the question, “Where do we go from here?” which is our theme, we must first honestly recognize where we are now. When the Constitution was written, a strange formula to determine taxes and representation declared that the African-American was sixty percent of a person. Today another curious formula seems to declare that he is fifty percent of person. Of the good things in life, the African-American has approximately one half those of whites. Of the bad things in life, he has twice those of whites. Thus half of all African-Americans live in substandard housing. And African-Americans have half the income of whites. When we view the negative experiences of life, the African-American has a double share. There are twice as many unemployed. The rate of infant mortality among African-Americans is double that of whites and there are twice as many African-Americans dying in Vietnam as whites in proportion to their size in the population…This is where we are.”

Roget’s Thesaurus

“Even semantics have conspired to make that which is black seem ugly and degrading. In Roget’s Thesaurus there are 120 synonyms for blackness and at least sixty of them are offensive, as for example, blot, soot, grim, devil and foul. And there are some 134 synonyms for whiteness and all are favorable, expressed in such words as purity, cleanliness, chastity and innocence. A white lie is better than a black lie.  The most degenerate member of a family is a “black sheep.” Ossie Davis has suggested that maybe the English language should be reconstructed so that teachers will not be forced teach the black child sixty ways to despise himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of inferiority, and the white child 134 ways to adore himself, and thereby perpetuating his false sense of superiority.”

The Bootstrap Philosophy

“Now there is another myth that still gets around; it is a kind of overreliance on the bootstrap philosophy. There are those who still feel that if the African-American is to rise out of poverty, if the African-American is to rise out of slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself. And so they say the African-American must lift himself by his own bootstraps.

They never stop to realize that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. The people who say this never stop to realize that the nation made the black man’s color a stigma; but beyond this they never stop to realize the debt that they owe a people who were kept in slavery 244 years.

In 1863 the African-American was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln. But he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. It was something like keeping a person in prison for a number years and suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And you just go up to him and say, “Now you are free,” but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back or to get on his feet again in life.

Every court of jurisprudence would rise up against this and yet this is the very thing that our nation did to the black man. It simply said, “You’re free,” and left him there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man – through an act Congress it was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest – which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.

But not only did it give the land, it built land-grant colleges to teach them how to farm. Not only that, it provided county agents to further their expertise in farming; not only that, as the years unfolded it provided low interest rates so that they could mechanize their farms. And to this day thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every year not to farm. And these are so often the very people who tell African-Americans that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

On the Vietnam War

“And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think if them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution until some attempt is made to know them and to hear their broken cries.

They must see the Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation and before the Communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people weren’t ready for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned international atmosphere for so long.

For nine years following 1945 we vigorously supported the French in their abortive attempt to recolonize Vietnam. After the French were defeated, it looked as if independence and land reform would come through the Geneva Agreements. But instead there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators, Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly rooted out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords, and refused even to discuss reunification with the North. The peasants watched as all this was presided over by U.S. influence and then by increasing numbers of U.S. troops, who came help quell the insurgency that Diem’s methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown, they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictatorships seemed to offer no real change, especially in terms of their need for land and peace.

The only change came from America, as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support. All the while, the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us – not their fellow Vietnamese – the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know that they must move or be destroyed by our bombs, and they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops, and they wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American fire power to one Viet-Cong inflicted injury. They wander into the towns and see thousands of children homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

What do the peasants think, as we ally ourselves with the landlords, and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?

We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions : the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in crushing one of the nation’s only non-Communist revolutionary political forces, the United Buddhist church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. What liberators!

Now there is little left to build on – save bitterness. And soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call fortified hamlets. The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these; could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them, and raise the questions they cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers.”

Have you read ‘A Testament of Hope‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Martin Luther King quote?

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I wanted to read Wayétu Moore’s novel ‘She Would be King‘, but when I discovered that she has written a memoir, I wanted to read that first. I read this for ‘Black History Month‘ and for ‘Read Indies’.

‘Read Indies’ is an annual event hosted by Kaggsy (from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Lizzy (from Lizzy’s Literary Life), which promotes independent publishers and runs through the whole of February. ‘The Dragons, The Giant, The Women’ is published by ONE, which is an imprint of Pushkin Press.

The Dragons, The Giant, The Women‘ starts with the story happening in Liberia. It is narrated by the five-year old Wayétu Moore. We discover that her mom is in America and she and her sisters are living with her dad. Civil war breaks out in Liberia, and Wayétu Moore and her family have to flee their home. What happens to them is told in the rest of the book.

The book is divided into multiple parts. The first part, which is the longest part of the book, is narrated in the voice of the five-year old Wayétu Moore. That voice is beautiful, charming and authentic. I loved it. That was my favourite part of the book. Then the story shifts to the present say, and it is narrated by thirty-something Wayétu Moore. Then at some point, the story moves back to the past and continues from where it left off at the end of the first part and we hear the story through the voice of Wayétu Moore’s mom. And then the story is continued by today’s Wayétu Moore while she describes the events of the past, and the pages fly by and the tension increases, as the last part reads like a thriller.

I loved the first part of the book. It was my favourite. I also loved the last two parts which carried on the story which was told in the first part. The part in between was different – the voice was different, the themes were different. It talked about Wayétu Moore’s life in America as an African immigrant and the discrimination she suffers. What that part talked about is important, but it didn’t hang well with the rest of the book. It felt like Wayétu Moore decided to write another book in the middle of the first book. Maybe this middle part deserved a book of its own.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Dragons, The Giant, The Women‘. ‘Enjoyed’ is probably not the right word, as the story describes war and suffering. Liberia is a complex country with a complex history, and I learnt some of it through Moore’s book. It is so unbelievable that all this happened. When I read these lines on the last page of the book –

“My Ol’ Ma says the best stories do not always end happily, but happiness will find its way in there somehow. She says that some will bend many times like the fisher’s wire. Some make the children laugh. Some make even the Ol’ Pas cry. Some the griots will take a long time to tell, but like plums left in the sun for too long, they too are sweet to taste.

Suffering is a part of everyone’s story. As long as my Ol’ Ma is here, and I am here, as long as I become an Ol’ Ma myself and my children’s children become Ol’ Mas and Ol’ Pas, there will be rainy seasons and dry seasons too long to bear, where troubles pile up like coal to burn you to dust. But just like suffering makes its bed in these seasons, so does happiness, however brief, however fleeting.

There are many stories of war to tell. You will hear them all. But remember among those who were lost, some made it through. Among the dragons there will always be heroes. Even there. Even then. And of those tales ending in defeat, tales of death and orphans wandering among the ruined, some ended the other way too.”

– when I read this, I cried.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“The restlessness made a home on my shoulders, tormenting me as the day went on. This was the other side of love. Love gone is painful, and I existed in that grief…But love almost gone — the lurking threat of loss — that was a daily torture, death realized every morning.”

“An Ol’ Ma, a grand-aunt maybe, told us that all of our dead and missing were resting peacefully in wandering clouds, and when it rains and you listen closely you can hear the things they forgot to tell you before leaving.”

“We had been together for two years, all of which were long distance. Long-distance relationships begin beautifully, end suddenly, sometimes by accident, and thereafter smoke rises not because all is burned to ashes but because there is always something left in the pipe…The Ol’ Mas did not tell us that you could not throw away love once it was finished. That it would remain on us like blackened scars, under neath blouses and in those places only we could see. That we would reach a point where it, once solid, would melt in our hands and we would never fully wash off its residue; and that some love, the truest love, also the most dangerous, could disfigure our core.”

“I thought of Mam in that moment. She had taught me many things, and at times, especially during those teenage years of promising her I would move far away to New York as soon as I got my diploma, she was more than I deserved. She taught me how to cook, how to write, my posture, how to care for a home, how to love God, how to read. She taught me politeness, creativity, how to write a letter, especially to those who had offended me. How to pray, how to fold clothes, how to love my sisters, how to love my brothers, how to love myself. She taught me about women—how to be one, how to know them, how to befriend them, how to give advice and love them, and how some would betray me because they saw kindness as weakness, and at the first sign of such brutality I should walk away, for such women did not even love themselves. That not all who chose to be around me liked me. That some knew too well how to pretend, and they would raise daughters with these doctrines, so I should remember her words and the words of my Ol’ Mas to raise mine. And some would raise sons they did not want to let go of, and would handle them like marionettes, and I should be careful never to sit in the audience of such a show for too long.

But there were things I went into the world not knowing. We did not talk about what to do when a boy was unkind, in words or actions, breaking my heart. I was lousy in the ways of healing. Mam had one true love and she married him. She had one true love in a country of women like her, whose sun took turns resting on their deep, dark skin. My true loves in our new country, by either inheritance or indoctrination, were taught that black women were the least among them. Loving me was an act of resistance, though many did not know it. And Mam could not understand this feeling, the heaviness of it, to be loved as resistance, as an exception to a rule. To fight to be seen in love, to stay in love throughout the resistance. This was my new country.”

Have you read ‘The Dragons, The Giant, The Women‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Jason Reynolds sometime back and I decided to read this book of his, ‘Long Way Down‘.

Will is talking to his friend Tony when they get caught in the middle of a gangfight. When the smoke clears, Will discovers that his big brother Shawn has been shot dead. In Will’s world, there are three rules. Or The Rules. They are 1. Don’t cry 2. Don’t snitch 3. Take revenge. So Will decides to follow the Rules. He feels he knows who killed his brother. So the next day morning, he takes his brother’s gun with him and decides to kill his brother’s murderer. He gets into the lift which goes down. On the next floor someone gets in. This new guy stands behind Will and keeps staring at him. Will gets uncomfortable and asks this guy whether they know each other. And this new guy smiles. And Will suddenly recognizes this guy. And his whole world turns upside down and amazing, unexpected things happen after that.

Long Way Down‘ is a novel written in verse. I thought it will be challenging to read because of the format, but the poetry flows smoothly and the pages move fast. The story is gripping and we can’t wait to find out what happens next. Jason Reynolds has written it in free verse which seems to be the format favoured by poets today, but occasionally he experiments on the way the poem appears on the page, in the style of e.e.cummings, and it is fascinating and beautiful. I’ve shared one of my favourite pages below, which has this style. Hope you like it.

The ending of the story is surprising, and not at all what I expected. One take on it could be that it is open-ended, but the other take which seems to suggest something totally unexpected and makes us go back to the book for clues, that looks more fascinating. I can’t tell you more. If you read the book, I’d love to discuss the ending with you.

I loved ‘Long Way Down‘. So happy I got to read my first Jason Reynolds book. Hoping to read more.

Have you read ‘Long Way Down’? Which is your favourite Jason Reynolds book?

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I stumbled upon Ann Petry’s books sometime back and decided to read her first book ‘The Street‘.

Lutie Johnson is a single mother. In the first scene in the story, she is looking for an apartment to rent. It is in a street which doesn’t seem to be nice, but that is the only place where she can afford to rent an apartment. She doesn’t like the Super of the apartment building, she doesn’t like her potential neighbours, the apartment building and the apartment she looks at are both dark without many windows and not good ventilation, but she takes it. We learn that Lutie used to have a husband and they were happy, but then he lost his job, and she found a job as a maid in a rich household, and she could visit home only once a month, and unfortunately, her husband cheated on her and this led to the breakup of her marriage. Since then, it has been hard for her. How Lutie navigates life as a single mom living in a poor neighbourhood, with weird and dangerous neighbours, when the street is everyday trying to get its hands on her and her kid, and whether she is able to triumph over the street and over her circumstances, forms the rest of the story.

The Street‘ is a powerful, moving book. Watching Lutie trying to protect herself and her kid from the street and from their neighbours and from their economic circumstances, and watching her work infinitely hard to achieve small gains, and seeing her efforts stymied by people who hold the reins of power in her little world is heartbreaking to read. When I reached the end of the book, I couldn’t stop crying.

I’ve seen heartbreaking movies during my teens in which a woman is trying to do her best to keep her head above water and is trying to progress in life in small ways and the system crushes her. I can see now where the inspiration for those movies came from. Ann Petry’s book was first published in 1946 and it was a bestseller when it came out. It was the first book by an African-American woman writer to sell more than a million copies. It is a pioneering book, because of the way it describes the life of a black woman who is a single mom who struggles in life and fights against the system. Ann Petry’s prose and the way she describes events is fresh and contemporary and it is hard to believe that the book was published in 1946.

One of the things I loved about the book was the way Ann Petry depicted the characters. None of them were black-and-white but were complex and fully fleshed out and flawed. Even one of the characters whom I regarded as a proper villain had a side which was unexpectedly childlike. The characters were just people who were thrown into difficult circumstances and each of them had a complex story and they were just struggling to survive and some of them were kind sometimes and not-so-kind at other times, while others were just plain ruthless because that was what was required to survive in the street. It was hard to love many of them, but it was hard to hate them too. Lutie, of course, towers above all of them, and she is one of the great heroines of 20th century literature. I loved her and cried when things didn’t go well for her. There were two other characters whom I found fascinating, Min and Mrs.Hedges. I loved Min and her small acts of rebellion and was happy when she won sometimes. Mrs.Hedges showed that even in these difficult circumstances one can be a kick-ass person, and can also be kind.

I loved ‘The Street‘. It was moving and heartbreaking, but I loved it. When I’m feeling brave, I’d like to read Ann Petry’s ‘The Narrows‘ next.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book. It is featured on the first page, and it is a premonition of the things to come and it is what pulled me into the book.

“There was a cold November wind blowing through 116th Street. It rattled the tops of garbage cans, sucked window shades out through the top of opened windows and set them flapping back against the windows; and it drove most of the people off the street in the block between Seventh and Eighth Avenues except for a few hurried pedestrians who bent double in an effort to offer the least possible exposed surface to its violent assault. It found every scrap of paper along the street—theater throwaways, announcements of dances and lodge meetings, the heavy waxed paper that loaves of bread had been wrapped in, the thinner waxed paper that had enclosed sandwiches, old envelopes, newspapers. Fingering its way along the curb, the wind set the bits of paper to dancing high in the air, so that a barrage of paper swirled into the faces of the people on the street…It did everything it could to discourage the people walking along the street. It found all the dirt and dust and grime on the sidewalk and lifted it up so that the dirt got into their noses, making it difficult to breathe; the dust got into their eyes and blinded them; and the grit stung their skins. It wrapped newspaper around their feet entangling them until the people cursed deep in their throats, stamped their feet, kicked at the paper. The wind blew it back again and again until they were forced to stoop and dislodge the paper with their hands. And then the wind grabbed their hats, pried their scarves from around their necks, stuck its fingers inside their coat collars, blew their coats away from their bodies. The wind lifted Lutie Johnson’s hair away from the back of her neck so that she felt suddenly naked and bald, for her hair had been resting softly and warmly against her skin. She shivered as the cold fingers of the wind touched the back of her neck, explored the sides of her head. It even blew her eyelashes away from her eyes so that her eyeballs were bathed in a rush of coldness and she had to blink in order to read the words on the sign swaying back and forth over her head.”

Have you read Ann Petry’s ‘The Street‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Melissa Valentine’s memoir ‘The Names of all the Flowers‘ recently, through Olga’s recommendation, and I just finished reading it.

When Melissa Valentine moves back to Oakland after being away for many years, she gets in touch with her childhood friend and they catch up. Then this friend’s brother and their cousin also join and Melissa looks at this friend’s brother and remembers her own brother, whom she calls Junior, whom she loved very much, who was shot dead by unknown assailants when he was nineteen. The rest of the book is about Melissa and her family, and especially her brother Junior, the good times and the bad, and how things happened which ended in this heartbreaking tragedy.

Melissa is biracial – her mom is black and her dad is white. Her mom’s side relatives treat her and her siblings as one of their own, and they even accept her dad as a part of the family, while her dad’s side relatives attempt to show affection, but it looks like condescension. This adds to the complexity of her and her family’s experiences, because frequently they are treated as outsiders, both by the black and the white community, and so things are doubly hard and challenging for them. It is especially hard for the kids, especially Melissa’s brothers, and her favourite brother Junior gets beaten up in school for not being black enough. The book starts with this complex background and gives a perceptive and sensitive depiction on what it means to be a black teenager in today’s America. Melissa’s love for her brother Junior shines through in every page, and Junior comes through as a complex character, someone who is happy and cheerful to start with, but whom the system and society harass and pigeonhole into a box, and when Junior tries protecting himself by any means possible, it all ends in tragedy. It is moving, poignant, heartbreaking. I cried after I finished reading the book.

I loved ‘The Names of all the Flowers‘. I can’t wait to find out what Melissa Valentine will come up with next. This book is published by the Feminist Press and they continue to rock – this is the third consecutive amazing book by them that I’ve read.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Dad is a poet in the way he believes in life, the growing of things, of children. But his poetry is the kind people don’t understand, maybe he doesn’t either, the way it grows out of control, the desire for life so great it escapes even him; he cannot control this life. He loves children, which are another kind of life. I have observed the way he admires babies. He holds them awkwardly, kind of like the way he dances, as if his joints do not easily bend, moving choppily to a rhythm only he can hear. Instead of the normal way of holding a baby—bringing it to your chest, rubbing its back, smelling its skin—instead of the cooing and pleasantries most people make in the presence of babies, he stares into the child’s eyes lovingly, with reverence, while holding its head in his sandpaper palm. I have seen him do this with my baby cousins in Alabama. I have felt the discomfort of the people around him, wondering what this white man is trying to transmit into the skull of this black child. It is usually a black child he holds up with this kind of reverence.”

“She warns us not to show our true colors, warns us regularly—before we go to the neighbors’, before we go to school, before we go to Grandma’s. What color is that? Sometimes it is the color of desire—don’t show hunger, don’t show need or want of any kind to outsiders. But often it is something else—the color of the city, the color of the cement, the color of the curse words that often slip from our mouths, the blackness of our bodies that mixes with the white to make us what the little Southern kids call bright. “Why are you so bright?” they ask in earnest, and I look at them bewildered, wondering with my literal city ears what brightness they see in me. Bright, but still very much not white. Is that the color Mom means? The not-white? Or is it another color? She would prefer we act like we don’t come from the city, like our feet were born dusty, like we came from roads, not streets. She would prefer we act full, satisfied. Junior doesn’t care; he always shows his truest colors.”

“I know by now that nice and good are myths. There is no good, no nice. And if there is, it is impermanent. There is proof all around me : a homeless summer and a burned-down house full of trash that was masquerading as good, as nice; a brother whose bad follows him wherever he goes, no matter how nice—there is no protection from black boyness. Good and nice are only illusory feelings, but, at least for a moment, I enjoy wrapping myself up in the illusion.”

Have you read ‘The Names of all the Flowers‘? What do you think about it?

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