Ballots and Bullets: Black Power Politics and Urban Guerrilla Warfare in 1968 Cleveland (Robenalt)

Perhaps I just don’t understand what an historian is supposed to do. Robenalt tells a story here, but there’s no particular narrative drive. Despite apparent access to a remarkable range of sources, Robenalt adds little by way of analysis or even a framework to the events he recounts here. For long stretches, the book reads like the kind of summary (extended quotations with few contributions from the author) that we are taught to avoid in high school. Sporadically, Robenalt’s diction makes his bias clear, but that diction comes off more as name calling than insightful.

The man has clearly done his homework. If you’re reading for information, this book will serve you pretty well. If you’re reading for analysis or insight or perspective, well, not so much.


Tunnel to Hell (MacGregor and Dumm)

This graphic account of the 1916 Lake Erie tunnel disasters is a compelling way to tell an important and all-too-familiar story. Politicians, pressed for time and money, prey on the desperate circumstances of non-white populations (which at this time not only meant African-Americans, but also Irish, etc.) to undertake a dangerous job that reflects the kind of short-term thinking that made the dangerous job necessary in the first place. It is a prime environmental example of kicking the proverbial can down the road that we’re paying for today. Rather than cleaning up the polluted water on the surface, a decision is made to use lives viewed as expendable (i.e., largely immigrants) to dig tunnels under Lake Erie to provide water for Cleveland’s growing population. Thanks to the greed and selfishness of some (which is not just limited to politicians), the effort ends in 20 deaths. A hero does emerge – Garret Morgan. He pushes past racism and uses one of his inventions, a gas mask, to find the remaining survivors and to retrieve the casualties. As is often the case – and I appreciated that MacGregor and Dumm included this element, and not just as a superficial epilogue – the battle then became one about whose version of the story would get told, both in court and in public. MacGregor and Dumm both do solid work here, but when the disaster starts to unfold, the words and images together make this an incredibly gripping story which is impressive when the reader already knows the ending. I wasn’t sure how the topic would align with a graphic novel approach, but the two creators weave together so many strands of the plot, so many characters, and so many political issues in such a tight and complementary manner that any doubts I had about the format choice quickly evaporated. This is a story of that time and a story of our time, one we need to read and see because we still haven’t learned from it.

American Hunger (Wright)

I didn’t know until recently that there was a sequel, or continuation, of Black Boy. It mainly focuses on his conflicts with the Communist Party, which is interesting when you consider the presentation of communism in Native Son. It seems like he was working on it around this time. Wright is commenting on his life more than living it, so this one lacks the unique power that makes Black Boy so compelling. I didn’t find much insight here. His comments about his interactions with the Communist Party are predictable. The limited day-to-day stuff, especially about his experience working in life insurance, is more compelling. It’s only 135 pages, so it seems like Wright may not have had much enthusiasm for the project. I think it’s necessary to read, though not necessarily enlightening.

Breaking the Maya Code (Coe)

While I can’t say that I followed (or always read) all of the specifics about the glyphs and system debates among the academics who were attempting to decipher what Coe calls the Maya code, I was able to follow the arguments and their implications in broad strokes. It is the liveliness and fair-mindedness of Coe’s voice together with his ability to evoke the characters in this quest that made this book readable and intriguing. I also appreciated that he did not try to wrap the effort to break the code in some more noble cause, though I’m quite certain he could say why it did and does matter. His book is about an academic pursuit, so it’s all that more impressive for its ability to engage someone not in the field.

Jungle of Stone (Carlsen)

Subtitle: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya

The subtitle, it now seems to me, tells you everything that is great about the book (roughly, the first 400 pages) and everything that is disappointing about it (the last 60 pages). When Carlsen focuses on Stephens and Catherwood and their re-discovery of the Mayan civilization, his account is compelling in the same way that Stephens’ original accounts apparently were. The tenacity and resilience that the two men show as they follow leads, navigate and escape revolutions, and deal with the weather, rough terrain, mosquitoes and malaria (before the two were linked) and the generally destructive passage of time is just amazing. And Carlsen’s words, though he clearly admires the two men, are honest. There is criticism for the way they, especially Stephens, exploit the locals and loot some of what they find. That said, to his credit, Stephens is more open-minded than his contemporaries when it comes to considering whether the Mayan civilization is the product of indigenous minds or more traditional outside influences, such as the Egyptians.

I understand Carlsen’s instinct to find closure for this story, but once Stephens and Catherwood leave Central America, the book loses its (and the word choice is deliberate here because of its historical significance) ‘steam.’ Carlsen indulges in his own history of the Mayan civilization and then concluded the biographies of his two protagonists.

Perhaps Carlsen wanted to put all of his research in one place, but the book’s subtitle suggests that he had too many agendas, and the last 60 pages diminish the momentum of his powerful narrative.

Along the Streets of Bronzeville: Black Chicago’s Literary Landscape (Schlabach)

Although I last lived there over 20 years ago, Chicago, and particularly the South Side where I went to college, has fascinated me since I first came to know it. This book (a published dissertation, really) promised to appeal to both my love for Chicago and my love for literature, with its promised focus on the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wright.

In the end, the book / dissertation is okay for many reasons that despite their elaborate bindings, few people outside of the author’s family ever actually read dissertations. It’s repetitive, self-referential and features too much jargon. There’s no heart here, no passion. It’s an informative book, but not really a meaningful one. There’s some nice focused attention on both Brooks’ life and her work. The section on Policy (what I knew as Numbers) is well-constructed, but even the author seems to realize that she has to strain to connect this with the literary landscape.

So, it was good background reading and made me want to read more of Brooks’ work, so those are both positives.

I was surprised that Schlabach, a white author, made no mention of herself in relation to her subject. This oversight shadowed the whole book.

The Communist Manifesto (Marx & Engels)

Based on my annotations, I found myself engaged and thought I understood some things for roughly the first 1/4 of the book. After that, I found this difficult to follow, in part because there are so many short-hand allusions to historical events with which I am unfamiliar. I think I understood the terms of the manifesto. So many of them have become adopted (misused?) by other thinkers.

There is a great deal of power to the ideas they present here, but the attempts at applying them (such as they’ve manifested themselves in historical examples I do understand – at least a little bit) made me want to read the sequel to this, if you will. How would Marx & Engels respond to those who have tried to execute (deliberate word choice) their ideas?

I’m glad I read this, or at least tried to. But as several people suggested (and the suggestion seems especially appropriate given the content), it’s probably best read as part of a discussion group. It was hard to grapple with it on my own.