Doing Youth Participatory Action Research (Mirra, Garcia, Morrell)

There’s much to admire here. These people have done and are doing the work. Maybe it’s a question of audience. Who is this book for? If it’s meant to  convince teachers and administrators to take up their charge, I don’t know if this book will reach that audience. It’s a fairly academic text. It even looks unapproachable. I can’t imagine anyone picking it up at a conference and being able to use it to begin to develop a YPAR program. Who is this for, then? I fear that it’s circular – that this book, like the presentations the students make at impressive conferences, to reinforce the idea that research is done for the sake of people who attend conferences and then return to their universities to conduct. . . research. For all of the imagination and attention to logistical detail that the authors describe, their imagination seems to have certain, unfortunate boundaries. What, other than the perceptions people tend to have of students who look like them, do the students actually change? They seek to address, in the year that’s studied here, educational inequities, but what do they actually do to change things in that area? Has there been any research done to follow any of their participants to see if they continue to use the skills they learned from the program in college? To be change agents? Do they finish college? If the work is so dependent on grants, why don’t the students learn how to write grants? Why don’t they discuss what it means to be a grant-dependent program? For all of the discussion of disruption, why don’t they disrupt this?

I’m a YPAR convert. I am very excited to be part of a school (which has a University partner) that embraces this kind of work. But I don’t want to settle for conference presentations. Before students can be the change they see in the world, they need to see the change their work causes. And this change should include, but not be limited to the change they see in themselves. They can start by changing something in their own school, but we need to honor their work enough to let it influence our approach to education. Anything short of that seems, well, just academic.


Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (Leerhsen)

Every once in a while, I like to read a baseball biography, and  the prospect of this one intrigued me since I knew very little about Cobb aside from his reputation. And it is just this reputation that Leerhsen wants to address. His thesis is that Cobb’s reputation for violence is not deserved, and he couches this in the era he played. People were still learning what it meant to be a star, the role of baseball in the national consciousness was evolving, the relationship between players and fans was still being determined, Cobb’s mother murdered his father, and so on. Nevertheless, Cobb’s violence, regardless of time, place and circumstance, was just intense and often criminal. There can be no doubt about Cobb’s talent and innovation, and the move from Cobb-as-hero to Ruth-as-hero was kind of cool to consider, but Cobb’s sustained longevity was a product of the privilege of being a superstar. Granted, there were times that he used this for the benefit of others. He anticipated the protests of Curt Flood by pushing against the notion that players were property. Still, he was only able to get away with this because of his stardom.

Leerhsen writes like a fan, which is mostly fine. And, in an effort to be definitive (because he only has one shot at it and so rejects other efforts of other biographers – think Robert Wuhl in the movie), he writes a lot. Maybe we needed a few less game descriptions, but perhaps the book is like a baseball season. You can’t stay at the same level of intensity for the whole season. I definitely drifted through some sections.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes (Egan)

I haven’t finished the Jacobs book that inspired the title here, but I’ve read enough to get the idea, particularly the optimism. The optimism, frankly, surprised me. We seem to have made a complete mess of not just the Great Lakes, but all of the water sources. Egan’s narrative is clear here, though I admit I blurred some of the science like one does with the names of Russian characters. Egan raises some pretty essential questions: What are the lakes for? Who are they meant to serve – and I even mean this question at the animals or humans level? What’s going to shift in this country as the sources of water diminish and change? How much should we interfere with nature now that we’ve realized how much our previous (ab)uses have done? There seem to be so many competing interests and ideas that I don’t know how we move forward. And I don’t know what’s coming. But I certainly didn’t get the sense here that the answer is the “life” of Egan’s title.

Harambee City: The Congress of Racial Equality in Cleveland and the Rise of Black Power Populism (Frazier)

I admit that at first I balked at the $39.95 price, but it seemed like a good, specific way to learn something about Cleveland.  After three pages of the Preface – which is a masterpiece all by itself – I had forgotten completely about the price. In the Preface, she unfolds the arguments that are probably familiar to historians, some of which were familiar to me. Can you write an unbiased history? (Frazier’s mother was a member of CORE.) Can you write a true history? Is the history of facts and figures more valued (or privileged) than oral history? Is it because oral history is often the province of cultures who are not white? I wish Frazier would have taken a bit more time with gender here. I’d like to know if she thinks women who write history are held to a higher standard because it is generally a man’s world; it’s men writing and teaching about men. All that in the Preface.

The book itself is remarkable for its focus. It speaks to issues of non-profits. How do you define your purpose? How does your purpose evolve? What matters more – the means or the ends? How do you sustain your work? Are there strings attached to money from the Ford Foundation? The Nixon Administration? How do you work alongside other non-profits, especially when the personalities overlap? Should non-profits who work on racial issues allow whites to participate? Where should you focus your work? On structural long-term issues?  On short-term, more urgent situations? One of Frazier’s most effective examples here is the discussion of capitalism. People needed jobs so they could have money so they could participate in capitalism, but did this participation help bind them to capitalism even more tightly?

Then there is the question of vocabulary as it relates to goals. Who gets to define the terms? Take Frazier’s title. What is ‘Black Power Populism’? Who gets to define it?

And we have to remember that CORE and the other organizations were made up of human beings, with all of their flaws, quirks and other obligations. How do you manage conflicts? How do you prevent such conflicts from being too much of an obstacle to the organization’s goals?

And meanwhile, none of this is happening in a vacuum. Though she maintains her focus, Frazier does hint at what else is happening in the city, country, and world. It amazes me that anyone was able to accomplish anything, like getting Stokes elected.

Harambee City



The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story (Danticat)

I know it’s not the cheeriest of titles, but I would read anything Danticat wrote. This is part of Graywolf’s ‘The Art of’ series (edited by Charles Baxter). The books are meant to explore a particular and perhaps neglected aspect of creative writing.

While Danticat does reflect on how some writers have presented death (her comments on Beloved made me want to read it again), she ends up, I think, writing about her experiences with death, both after the earthquake in Haiti and in her own life. I am not sure that I walked away from this book with a greater knowledge of how to write about death, but more with the Miller-ian command that “attention must be paid.” Specific attention, that is. And Danticat is one of our finest observers.

Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News (Young)

I admit that I winced a bit when I saw the last two words of Young’s title. I worried that potential readers would dismiss the book as too much of the moment, as too much of a reaction to the current occupant of the White House. By the end, though, I saw the phrase ‘fake news’ not as an attention-getting ripped from the headlines phrase, but as an integral part of Young’s argument that we are in danger of becoming “as fictional as the world [we’ve] created” (341).

As Young, whose poetry skills are constantly and appropriately on display here, moves through examples like P.T. Barnum (and having just watched The Greatest Showman, this was an interesting companion piece) to  Stephen Glass, he develops the case that there is more to these examples than just people under pressure taking shortcuts to fame. He takes a careful look at what people steal, how they present it, and what this pattern reveals about our thoughts (and I mean both those of the Phonies – and the Holden Caufield piece is addressed here – and those of the audience) about race. I think Young would agree with Simon & Garfunkel that “after changes upon changes we are more or less the same” with respect to race.

Another interesting coincidence was to encounter a classic case of invention in The Washington Post (one I remember from growing up) around the same time that I watched The Post. Young gives Ben Bradlee credit for writing well about the experience.

Having enjoyed Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine and been befuddled by his subsequent admission that he invented quotations for Bob Dylan, I was sorry to see Young limit himself to taking potshots at Lehrer. I would have loved to see him unpack what happened there.

I admired Young’s writing throughout. And I appreciated his honesty about his decision to include a section on Rachel Dolezal. But he had his kind of revenge in how he chose to present his thoughts on her fraud. She merits only notes, not polished prose.

As I read, I couldn’t help thinking of one of my students. When asked on a form whom she admired, she wrote, “Beyonce.” That was all well and good. But when asked why, she wrote, “Because she’s famous.” This latter response is, I think, representative of what Young fears.

Death in the Haymarket (Green)

This book, the second one of Green’s that I’ve read (The Devil is Here in These Hills), is both exhaustive and exhausting. It seems like Green knows he has one shot at his topics, and so he doesn’t want to leave anything out. His books could use a bit more of a narrative drive.

As in The Devil, Green makes no effort to disguise the fact that he’s on the side of labor. He introduces us to the night of the Haymarket Riot, then steps back for a while to place it in context. Once the trial is over, he moves forward to the short and long-term consequences of the riot and the “deliberate amnesia” we have when it comes to thinking about it.

I wonder what Green, as well as the Haymarket 8, would make of the labor situation these days.