Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Kendi)

Put the American History textbooks away and use this instead. Initially, I was put off by the word ‘definitive.’ How could a person claim such a thing? But it didn’t take long for me to accept the word. In clear, efficient and persuasive prose, Kendi takes us through 400+ years of American History, years guided by an inversion of what we normally expect when it comes to racism. Kendi argues that the problem does not start with racism, but with self-interest. The self-interest yields racist policies. The policies engender racist ideas. And it is these ideas that generate the hate and ignorance we saw recently in Charlottesville. And the cycles goes on and on and on.

Kendi pretty much hits all of my college reading list and investigates both their words and actions (which are sometimes contradictory – see Thomas Jefferson) when it comes to racism, discrimination, segregation, assimilation, etc..  Since I already knew some of the pieces about King, including aspects of his work that are often underreported, I found the evolution of DuBois’ thinking and activity fascinating. It made me want to return to his work and find a good biography.

As I neared the end, I anticipated what Kendi might have to say about Obama and the current occupant of the White House. Kendi dips into Obama’s tenure, notably into his response to Rev. Wright. Obama, like pretty much all of the other historical actors in American History, comes out with a mixed report. Of those who get any kind of substantive treatment, I think only Zora Neale Hurston and Angela Davis seem to have spoken and acted in an anti-racist manner with any kind of consistency.

I am not one of those who insists that if you critique something that you are therefore responsible for providing suggestions or solutions. Kendi does present some ways to organize the country’s thinking near the end of the book, both for those who have power and those who don’t.

I also want to add that of all of the books that were celebrated as being able to explain how we ended up with our current occupant in the White House, this one does the finest job of explaining the historical patterns that got us here and why we shouldn’t be surprised by his victory. We’ve been here before and we’ll be here again  unless we adjust the way we proceed. When it comes to the prospects of country making these adjustments, Kendi is, however tentatively, more optimistic than me.

Ibram X. Kendi

Social Justice Institute – Cleveland


The Secret Agent (Conrad)

Usually, I write reviews pretty soon after I finish a book or, as you can probably see in a few of my reviews, the details start to fade. But the school year has started, and so I’ve been carrying this one in my backpack for a few days.

My only previous Conrad experiences were with Heart of Darkness, both as a high school student and at least once as a teacher. I started Lord Jim at least once and made no progress. So I was a little uncertain as I approached this book club selection.

It was really, really good. Even if I didn’t know that Conrad learned English when he was 40, I would still have been very impressed with his detailed and engaging characterizations of a secret agent and the network of people who intersect with him. He brings every one of the dozen or so characters to life.

And the tone is remarkably sly. There are no good people here, and there are certainly no heroes. There is one innocent person and what happens to him is heartbreaking.

Mostly, though, Conrad humanizes and complicates (which might be two words for the same thing) everyone involved. People are, in Conrad’s world, quite petty, however much that might cloak themselves in slogans. And that seems right to me.

The Empty Space (Brook)

As a long-time theatre fan, I have heard Peter Brook referenced innumerable times as one of the faces on the theatrical Mt. Rushmore. I just checked; he’s still alive. So when I saw this book, I thought I might gain some insight what makes him so revered. For much of it, though, he comes off as a grumpy old man in love with Shakespeare and little else. The book sparks whenever he talks about his specific approaches to directing. To his credit, he is aware of the contradictions in what he’s saying. His preference for the ‘rough’ style of theatre comes off as a bit romanticized and superficial. The claim that somehow better theatre is being done in bars than in theatres because it is in bars (and all that that involves) seems just silly to me.

The center of Brook’s theatrical universe is Brecht, and this book is the first time I’ve even begun to understand the notion of “alienation.” I’m more inclined to dig into one of Brook’s other favored playwrights, Samuel Beckett. I’ve always liked his work more than Brecht’s.

I had trouble with Brook’s obsession with Shakespeare, whom I love. Older, though, is not, by definition, better; it’s just older. I, for one, could do without ever seeing another Noel Coward play, even if Kevin Kline is in it.

While I agree with Brook’s desire that the design process evolve along with the directing process, I suspect it’s a privilege he earned, and not one that many theatres can afford.

I enjoyed being inside Brook’s head for an intense 140 pages. And I do have my own opinions about what makes good theatre. I think it will always survive, though I do think the desire to cultivate a new and diverse audience is, right now, at odds with the increasing ticket prices. I think there can be good theatre both in bars for five bucks and on Broadway for five hundred. I just want to get more people into both spaces.

We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (Chang)

I was suspicious of this small book. The slang title seemed contrived to me. So did the optimism.

I was wrong.

Even the cover is thought-provoking –

Are those hands up as in “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”? Or are they calming hands telling us, as two different people do in this book, that “we gon’ be alright”?

Of all of the essays in the collection, only two disappoint. Oddly, one is Chang’s most personal one “The In-Betweens,” however much he distances himself from it by using second person. It comes across as out of place. The other unsuccessful one is “Making Lemonade,” a cursory look at Beyonce’s film. What’s here is fine. One just gets the sense that Chang probably has more to say on this topic. Unfortunately, these two are the last in the collection. Together, they sort of kill the momentum that Chang has developed.

But the rest, notably, “Is Diversity for White People?” and “Hands Up” are incredibly pointed and powerful. They can easily keep company with Coates, Baldwin and the like. “Is Diversity for White People?” (subtitled On Fearmongering, Picture Taking, and Avoidance) rewards re-reading and conversation.

Am I as confident as Chang, particularly when it comes to the apparent success of social media? Probably not. But given the events these days, this one brought me the most hope, no, not hope, but assurance that I’ve felt in a while.

The City & The City (Mieville)

As with even the most tentatively sci-fi of novels, the architecture of this one was a bit confusing for me. But for about 2/3 of the novel, I enjoyed the confusion, the questions it raised about cities – the way we live in them, what we see and don’t see, how we create borders, etc.. Mieville’s understated insights and minimalist prose combined with a hard-boiled detective story made for a compelling narrative. And then, it seems, he had to find a way to end it, and we went catapulting and careening this way and that, with exposition spilling everywhere. Then I just wanted to finish it.

Derelict Paradise: Housing and Urban Development in Cleveland, Ohio (Kerr)

I told the wonderful staff at Mac’s Backs that I was interested in learning more about homelessness (there are two shelters near my new school), and I was handed this book. It is a stunning, thorough and driven account of the evolution of homelessness in the city. While I understand that World War II and even trends in social work were beyond the control of those in charge of the city, there is clear evidence here that the government, together with business leaders, simply and deliberately sought to eliminate the homeless from the city’s landscape, created more homelessness in previously black and working-class neighborhoods and legislated systems of abuse that remain in place today. Voinovich, for example, vowed to get ‘tough on crime’ and his brother was in the prison building business. Another Mayor pushed for more arrests to be made in a particular neighborhood to make it easier to push it into the hands of developers. There were signs of hope, like the Unemployed Council, with its Black Panther-like efforts at creating unity, but there were, like the Panthers, victims of the divide-and-conquer strategy.

A great and necessary book.

Lou Boudreau: My Hall of Fame Life on the Field and Behind the Mic (Boudreau with Schneider)

This was an entertaining look at the life of the Indians’ player-manager. It’s a bit lightweight at times, and Boudreau can be predictably crotchety and other times, but it is a slice of life look at the way baseball used to work from one of its stars. Along the way, we meet Bill Veeck, Larry Doby and a few other memorable names. We see the Tribe win the 1948 series and a few efforts by Boudreau to extend his career, especially as a manager. The ‘Behind the Mic’ part gets short shrift here. There are very stories here beyond his nervousness about the job and the sudden death of his first broadcasting partner.