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.

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.

I Am Malala (Yousafzai with McCormick)

I think the idea of Young Readers Editions of certain books is great. In this case, the version for Young Readers might even be better. It’s not as dense and is definitely much more focused than the original version written with Christina Lamb. That story is much more political one; this version is, appropriately, the memoir of a remarkable teenager. Of course it’s hard to tell whether it’s Malala or Patricia McCormick here, but there is some stylistic flair in this version.

There can be no doubt. Malala is a remarkable person, an inspiration to us all. I look forward to watching and supporting her work in the years to come.

the Malala Fund

Streets: A Memoir of the Lower East Side (Spewack)

I picked up this memoir at The Tenement Museum in New York, a place well worth your time. And it’s titled correctly. The ‘streets’ are indeed one of the main characters. Desperate to escape cramped conditions, lives were lived in those streets. And it seems you moved often, so you could mark eras by the name of the street where you lived. Spewack’s details bring these streets to life, but she also evokes her own family, particularly her mother and one of her younger brothers. She also makes clear the impact that living at the whim of the charities had on her and her family. As her mother puts it, “It’s easy to talk away the lives of the poor.” And then, there is that heartbreaking ending.

White Man, Listen! (Wright)

This book was put together, the bookseller told me, in response to James Baldwin telling Wright to stop writing protest novels (Was Baldwin right when he criticized Wright for writing a protest novel?). I say that this book was “put together” rather than written because it’s four of Wright’s talks put together into this short book. Generally, they do flow together well. And I want to say ahead of time that I am a big fan of Black Boy and like Native Son a great deal, though it can be hard to wade through some of the speeches in the third section. But this book felt like a letdown. Perhaps Wright is out of his element here? He paints in such broad strokes here that it’s hard to find much here compelling or, in Wright’s terms, worth listening to. In addition to his almost obsessive use of generalizations, Wright’s arguments often come down to statements akin to, “You know in your heart that this is true.” The first section, “The Psychological Reactions of Oppressed People,” is the most worthwhile one. It provides a framework for Wright’s thinking, though he too often comes across as someone (to allude to a very popular musical) who thinks that he’s the smartest person in the room. Surprisingly, it is the third section, the one about literature, that is most disappointing. He skims over a series of poets and makes brief observations that he seems to think are true because he made them. And, in a kind of grouchy way, he criticizes his contemporaries (including Baldwin) for lacking the spirit of the writers he’s mentioned.

So, it’s a quick read, but more as an artifact, a piece in a continuing argument, than as anything that really resonates today. Baldwin’s work seems to be going through a renaissance now because his words continue to be urgent. But Wright’s speeches, somewhat like pieces of Native Son, seem dated. And his relentless comments against religion are irksome and ungenerous. Wright has an agenda here, and he imposes it against a backdrop of people that he, alone (he claims), can understand. If anything resonates today, it is his emphasis on the individual, a piece of what some might call neoliberalism these days.

The Argonauts (Nelson)

This book is difficult to describe or to even categorize. The back of the book calls it “Memoir / Criticism,” a combination I’ve not seen before. At times, it felt like I was walking into the middle of a conversation, but that is probably more of a reflection of a lack of experience and knowledge when it comes to the language and issues of gender and sexuality. I was definitely struck by Nelson’s observation that to use language, as she does, is to name and names, indeed words, no matter how many you use, are limiting. And when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality, it seems like writing on these issues is akin to trying to lasso the wind. This prompted Nelson’s title:

I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections whick will be forever new.”

I thought he passage was romantic. You read it as a possible retraction. In retrospect, I guess it was both.

I also appreciated the way Nelson questioned the priorities of the queer community when it comes to the military and marriage. She writes, “if we want to do more than claw our way into repressive structures, we have our work cut out for us.” It was not deliberate, but it felt relevant to read this on the same day the White House announced its absurd and vicious intention to ban transgender people from the military. If I am going to enter that conversation, I need to make sure I enter appropriately, and Nelson has opened the door for me a bit. I need to enter without limits and without limiting anyone else.

Much of the book also centers on Nelson’s experience with pregnancy and her “fluidly gendered partner,” Harry. Their attempts, eventually successful, to have a child are juxtaposed with the need for both of them to deal with their respective mothers, both of whom are dying. And for a time, Nelson has a stalker.

Even if I did not always understand the conversation here, I found Nelson’s writing electric. And funny (see above). I look forward to reading more.