I Am Not Your Negro (Baldwin)

Do I give Raoul Peck – the director of the film and the one who put the script together – authorial credit? What about the editor?

I’ve seen the film and thought it was very powerful. I am going to see it again soon, so I thought I’d read this in order to be able to examine it with new eyes.

And I use the word ‘eyes’ deliberately. It was only when I was reading the script that I realized the extent of the motif of seeing and being seen, witnessing, reality vs. fantasy, etc.. Now this may be because Peck was making a movie, but I do think the motif is central to much of what I know about Baldwin. He saw things in ways that were new to many (and still are) and was therefore threatening. He saw it as his job to look, to see, to witness. This made it hard for him to stay in one place. There was, of course, France, but he is constantly talking about being “on the road,” but not being able to stay.

In the spirit of this motif and the fact that it’s a movie, Peck has selected several excerpts that deal with movies, with a particular focus on the roles of John Wayne and Sidney Poitier. Wayne, he says, never really had to grow up. Poitier, he seems to be suggesting, was guilty of a kind of appeasement (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, etc.).

Though there are a few introductory remarks (Peck, the film editor – Alexandra Strauss), but I was hoping for more. Peck refers to a much longer script. I would have liked to have seen more – to read his reasoning behind what he chose to keep and what he chose to cut. I’d also like to read a few pages of Remember This House (Baldwin’s notes for a novel on Evers, Malcolm X & King) for myself.


Spain In Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (Hochschild)

Ever since I tried (probably ineffectively) to teach about the post-WWI rise of dictators, I have wondered why I didn’t know more about Franco. My mild interest became moderate when I learned more about Frederico Garcia Lorca. So when I discovered that Adam Hochschild (King Leopold’s Ghost) had taken it on, I thought this would be my opportunity.

It really struck me how the non-Spanish volunteers and even Hitler and Stalin realized that this was a kind of a dress rehearsal for World War II, but that FDR didn’t or chose not to. Thuogh he apparently later called his arms embargo “a grave mistake,” that doesn’t really change the outcome of the war, nor how Americans who fought in it were treated upon their return. Would Franco’s defeat have had a ripple effect on what Germany and Russia were doing? Japan? Speculative history always troubles, and Hochschild doesn’t spend much time on it (thankfully), but when he does, he seems dubious that anything would have changed.

Hochschild also asks a good question about a woefully unreported part of the war. Spain was trying to re-make itself at the same time as it was trying to fight off Franco. But that effort, smacking of communism (sometimes, rightly so) was not covered by the (celebrity) press. Did one effort hurt the other? Hochschild makes it clear that none of the anti-Franco groups – Republicans, communists, anarchists, etc. – were innocent of dubious tactics.

Lurking throughout this book is the presence of Hemingway – author, macho man, journalist. He can never be reduced to a bit part. And herein lies my one main objection to the writing. I don’t think Hochschild ever found the center. There are so many narratives here – all worthy – that there’s not really much momentum in any of them. But it’s not a major complaint. I will get to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia one of these days. (He’s in the book, too!)

LaRose (Erdrich)

I know it’s not a trendy thing to say, but I think I am more of a fan of Erdrich’s later work. The Round House is a masterpiece, and LaRose is very good. I was unmoved by Love Medicine, and though there is much to appreciate about The Master Butchers Singing Club, I didn’t connect with it either.

There is a small-town-ness about this book. Everyone knows everyone, and that is both good and bad. A stunning accident occurs in the first few pages of the novel, in a magnificently written section titled (not accidentally) “Two Houses,” which sends all involved reeling, both forward and backward in time, even the character (not coincidentally named) Romeo. The only true outsider, Father Travis, at least has that history in his head.

Initially, because they were not very regular, it was challenging to follow the back story of the people who carried the name LaRose before the current incarnation. But as events of the story unfolded, the clarity and necessity of these flashbacks increased.

Overall, I found the characters to be genuine and interesting, and there are many memorable moments (that I don’t want to spoil).

Erdrich biography

Erdrich’s excellent bookstore

Blindspot (Banaji and Greenwald)

Look, I’m no scientist, and I’m not a researcher, but these two make a credible case that we all have blindspots, often aren’t aware of them, act on them (even as babies), and even have them (also called “mindbugs” here) about ourselves. Thus far, there seem to be things we can do to combat them short-term, but nothing has, as of yet, proven durable.

The book is readable for a non-scientist, but not entirely engaging. I think I accepted the argument before it even began. I have blindspots, some of which I don’t recognize, many of which I act on (including in the classroom which is what I’d like to address), and I have them about myself. I am, I am sure, an “uncomfortable egalitarian.” That makes me who the intended audience is for this book. Do people disagree with their conclusions?

The authors suggest that there may soon come a device that will alert us of our blindspots before we make a decision just as cars now come with similar features to help us avoid accidents. That prospect makes me nervous.

Project Implicit – Take a test! Find your blindspots!

Homegoing (Gyasi)

Ambitious, lyrical and teachable, this debut novel from Gyasi is little short of astonishing. It starts with Ghana in the 18th century and ends in the heyday of Harlem. It focuses on two half-sisters and the path that they (and their families) take. It is a story about how choices — the ones we make for ourselves and the ones made for us — have implications for us and our suceeding generations. Yes, all this in a neat 300 pages. Along the way, she shows a flair for the small description and the profound (if sometimes heavy-handed) insight.

The discussions of the nature of “home” and the issue of “coming” vs. “going” are worth the price of admission. The characters – though I needed regular glances at the family tree – are rich, and I generally regretted when Gyasi moved on to another generation.  The plots for each generation stand on their own and are so tightly woven with the past and future that I can’t imagine the planning that went into this novel. And, to her credit, Gyasi is equally adept at depicting male and female characters.

There is much to discuss, debate, research and write about here. In other words, I hope to use it in the classroom one day. And I look forward to whatever she does next.

Gyasi’s Facebook page

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America (Dyson)

“What,” I was asked once, ” is white culture?” (Roediger’s comment seems to be apt: Is there a white culture without domination?)

Those who know me know that I am rarely at a loss for words. This time, though. . .

After a pause longer than the conference leader wanted, I said, “I don’t know. I hope it’s not the Ku Klux Klan and the Confederate flag.”

Dyson has a better answer. Nothing. I mean, I know race is a social construct, but I admit I had never thought of it this way. There was a Rabbi’s sermon going around a while back that Jews should withdraw from being white and become Jewish again. That seemed too self-serving at the time. To renounce one’s membership in a group that had been so beneficial for so long just when that group was finally being scrutinized and criticized. So how do we abolish the white race without relieving it, us, of responsibility?

There is much to chew on in this book. For a while, I was kind of annoyed by Dyson’s tone. He kept saying that he was sure certain things were bothering we white readers. And largely, they didn’t. They were just eloquent though familiar arguments. Even a few I didn’t find convincing. His argument about the “n-word” (sorry if that’s wimpy; I’m just not going to write it or say it) seems too neat. A few things did emerge that ruffled me. This was the first extended moment:

When you stop believing that we are radical when we can be more conservative than you, that we are one color when we are a plethora of shades, and that we are related to each other and not you when you are related to us in more ways than you can count or may care to know.

The first point, if I understand it, confuses me, especially in the context of this book. It may a question of defining terms. What is “radical”? What is “conservative”? The “plethora of shades” piece is not one I recognize. At the very least, it seems reciprocal. And I think the lack of reciprocity in the third point, well, I get how whites need blacks and are related to (dependent?) on them, but that blacks are somehow independent (outside) of that relationship? I need more sentences here in order to be convinced.

And I am willing to listen. This is, after all, a sermon. Dyson wants to tell us, not to discuss with us. But I don’t think questioning or disagreeing is the same as not understanding. Certainly, there are any number of things I don’t have any kind of intellectual, historical or emotional access to (encounters with the police, for example), but Dyson, surprisingly defensive (and I think a bit off-target) about academia, is not preaching to the completely uninformed. With a few exceptions, he’s relying on ethos here. We are to trust him because he’s him. Well, that’s not always enough.

Dyson in Parma June 5th – free, but you have to register

Prodigal: New and Selected Poems, 1976 – 2014

The incomparable Dave Lucas introduced me to Linda Gregerson, and my general rule (and you should adopt it to) is if Dave recommends someone, you should follow through.  I generally don’t like ‘Greatest Hits’ collections, but this was the first one I found. And, as usual, Dave didn’t disappoint.

Gregerson’s language is pointed. It can seem gentle at first, but beware the razor beneath, particularly when it comes to writing about those who would do or have done harm to children.

I had to laugh when, in “Lately, I’ve taken to,” she seems to ask permission – “if // I may compare great things to / small” – because this is what she does so well.

I had a lot of favorites in here. “Indications That One’s Love Has Returned” probably tops the list.

If I could ask her one question, I’d ask her about her spacing. That’s one poet’s choice I rarely understand.

This is a collection of great and serious beauty and insight.