Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching — A Young Black Man’s Education

Mychal Denzel Smith, a contributing writer for The Nation, among other things, has written an important book.  Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching — A Young Black Man’s Education held my attention and driving home its central point.  We live in a racist society, and no amount of rationalization or picking apart the facts of a particular incident can deny that black people are getting killed by the police at an alarming rate, and that this fact is symptomatic of our racist society.  

Smith was in his late 20’s when he wrote his short, intense book.   He covers a lot of ground, ranging from the central fact of systemic racism to more unusual themes.  He discusses the difficulties black women have endured in a movement that has frequently focused only on the plight and challenges faced by black men.  This is something Smith comes to see, just as he begins to appreciate the plight of gay black people.  Smith is candid about his experience and points to times when he may have rushed to conclusions or when he faltered in his own life.  Smith struggled with depression, and he is candid about his reluctance to seek help and about the value of the help he finally received.  Ultimately, Smith projects a remarkable and well-placed confidence in himself and his options.  

This book is also a remarkable account of an undergraduate education.  Fortunately, his family didn’t give him much choice about attending college.  It was assumed he would go and do well.  Like a lot of teenage boys I know, Smith doesn’t seem to have given a whole lot of thought to where he would go to school, and he wasn’t a driven student, for the most part.  Fortunately, his time at Hampton opened his eyes to a lot of things.  The fact that he wasn’t studying for a particular career gave him freedom and the opportunity to experience a number of things.  He gratefully notes how at least one teacher had an enormous impact on him, and his adventures and misadventures in running the school paper gave him a practical political education.  It is always a good thing to stop and reflect upon the advantages of a liberal arts education and of not having a fixed game plan at an early age.

Nothing undercuts Smith’s anger and bleak assessment of racism.  That is the crucial underpinning of this book.  He doesn’t try to provide a fix.  His willingness to look back and assess himself and others and to adjust his thinking about certain “norms” make this a very illuminating book. Mychal Denzel Smith advances the conversation on race in America.  His own willingness to assess and reassess his own assumptions and positions over time set a fine example for the rest of us.  I am so glad I read this book.  It was often an uncomfortable read, but it kept offering new ways of looking at issues and events.  Throughout there was the constant drum beat that until the police killings of black people stop, we have little hope of moving ahead.  Given that underlying premise, Smith opens a dynamic conversation.

Leon Stein’s Epic Book about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is a Timely Reminder of How Poor Women Suffer When Rich Male Employers Make Their Own Rules

Leon Stein wrote The Triangle Fire in 1962.  Stein, who died in 1990 was the editor of Justice, the official publication of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.  

The Triangle Fire recounts the horrific story of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, when 123 young women and 23 men died in a New York sweatshop that had locked doors and utterly inadequate escape routes.  This is a very timely book.  This kind of tragedy is what happens when employers of defenseless and desperate poor women ignore fire laws (which weren’t all that great anyway) and lock their employees into their workplace, just to maintain complete control and perhaps make a few more dollars.  While industrial accidents are scarcely unknown in this country, they happen regularly and often on a much larger scale in third world countries where so many of our clothes, electronics and other consumer goods are made.  (William Greider’s excellent introduction to The Triangle Fire does an excellent job of recounting some of these more recent tragedies.)

 Stronger unions, better fire laws and arguably better fire enforcement all ensued after the Triangle Fire, but the fire didn’t need to happen and all those workers certainly didn’t need to die.  Ironically, Stein writes that because of the way the owners were permitted to overinsure their buildings, they may well have profited from the fire.  The sad fact remains that 146 immigrant women, mostly Jewish and Italians, were killed  — many of them by jumping out the windows of the sweatshop to avoid being burned to death.

This book is a strong reminder that workers need protection from their bosses, who cannot be relied upon to put safety first.  Safety regulations, effective enforcement and constant vigilance are required to prevent industrial tragedies.  Unfortunately the strong anti-government, anti-regulatory fervor that has gripped Washington doesn’t bode well for protecting our workers, and this country’s current leadership has given no indication whatsoever that it cares about the safety of American workers, much less the safety of third world workers who make so many of our products.  To the contrary, the focus seems to be on freeing the rich of all those nasty curbs on their freedom to get richer on the backs of everyone else.

This is a relatively short and very clear book.  I recommend it because it tells an important story about one of this country’s most disastrous industrial tragedies and because it reminds us how vulnerable this country’s workers still are.

What’s the Matter with Kansas — Thomas Frank’s 2004 Book is All too Timely

Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas is a very prescient piece of political writing.  Frank grew up in Kansas and looks back in bedwilderment at how the state has lurched to the right in defiance of the economic interests of its citizens.  In particular Frank is mystified by the conservative voting habits of Kansas working class whites, who keep voting for rich Republicans making lots of promises they never keep as they just keep lowering taxes for the rich.  The poor workers just keep getting poorer with less government support, and they keep voting for the most conservative candidates they can find.  Some of this can be attributed to carefully executed anti-abortion and other socially conservative strategies, but it is still hard to suss out why people would keep voting against their own self-interest.  It is kind of a reverse Roosevelt.

What’s the Matter with Kansas is entertaining and even funny, but it is also confounding.   Frank underscores how radical Kansas was years ago, which makes its current passion for to-the-right-of-Attila-the-Hun conservatism seem so bizarre.  I checked:  Kansas hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

So in his 2004 book, Frank sagely diagnoses the average white Kansan’s complete disaffection with the Democratic Party.  Since this book was written,the Republican Party has continued to follow disastrous economic policies that have led to recession and increased unemployment.  Obama’s national success in 2008 and 2012 may have masked the phenomenon to some extent, but the 2016 election has shown that Kansas’ self-destructive voting habits have been adopted enthusiastically by the Rust Belt.

This begs the question, what should the Democrats have done or what should they do to convince working class Kansans that their best shot at improving their lot in life lies with the Democratic Party.  Unfortunately, while Frank is very good at diagnosing the problem and its permutations, he is less successful at suggesting how Democrats or even centrists might pry these voters away from the far right.  Embracing anti-abortion and social conservatism might sway a few voters, but it would also eviscerate the Democratic party.  This is a massive problem that the Democratic Party needs to try to solve.  Logic suggests that it should be easy to solve, but Frank’s excellent book suggests that there is nothing simple about Kansas politics.

Dwight Eisenhower’s Surprising Civil Rights Record

I’ve always been a fan of Dwight Eisenhower, primarily because of his deft and resilient military leadership during World War II and his careful Cold War leadership during his presidency.   The major flaw in Eisenhower’s career has generally been seen as his lackluster support of civil rights.  In A Matter of Justice:  Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, David Nichols challenges this traditional view and presents Eisenhower as both a reluctant and determined champion of civil rights.  (Please note that Nichols’ book was published in 2007, and I don’t pretend to have followed all the scholarship since.)  The Eisenhower who emerges in this book about his civil rights record is the same leader who ordered that the horror of the German concentration camps and their victims be photographed when they were liberated because he knew that some day people would try to deny their existence.  

By temperament Eisenhower was not the cheerleader type, and he opted do do much of his civil rights work under the radar when he could.  He wasn’t particularly happy with the glare of publicly that characterized civil rights in the 1950’s.  Still, even before he became president he was on record as supporting an integrated military and took steps in that direction at a time when the rest of the military leadership was not so inclined.  Once he became president, Eisenhower steadily directed the integration of the military.  True, he didn’t do it overnight, but he steadily pressed until it was accomplished over a period of about two years.

Another Eisenhower success was to get rid of the Jim Crow practices in Washington, DC.  This wasn’t a particularly popular move with a lot of southern politicians, but here again Eisenhower didn’t let up until it was accomplished.  It is too bad he isn’t around today to put the kabosh on newly energized racist behavior in our nation’s capital and elsewhere.

Much has been written about Eisenhower’s at best ambivalent feelings about the Supreme Court’s landmark school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education.  At the end of the day Eisenhower sent in federal troops to enforce that ruling in Little Rock, Arkansas.  He was always undeniably unhappy about the prospect of sending troops into American communities and he greatly feared that the southern reaction to integration would be to close schoools.  Sadly his fears were  justified.  Here as in other civil rights areas, Eisenhower preferred to work behind the scenes, but he did the right thing when it came to the show down in Little Rock.

Perhaps one of the least appreciated aspects of Eisenhower’s presidential legacy was his refusal to appoint segregationist federal judges.  Earl Warren and many distinguished lower court judges ensured that Brown and its progeny were upheld and enforced.  This judicial legacy was crucial, and it proved to be very unfortunate that John F. Kennedy failed to continue Eisenhower’s stringent policy.  One of the book’s more interesting themes is the complicated and not particularly friendly Warren/Eisenhower relationship after Warren’t appointment.   I was also fascinated to learn that Eisenhower, a non-lawyer, actively reviewed and commented on his Civil Rights briefs filed by his administration and that he was keenly aware of linguistic nuances.  He understood the strategic importance of legal briefs and opinions.

The author does not give Eisenhower an unvarnished civil rights report card.  Eisenhower reportedly said some things that indicated ambivalence about full integration and, most famously, advised the Black community to be “patient” at some point.  For the oppressed, “patience” is unacceptable.  These comments and Eisenhower’s failure to be a public cheerleader for civil rights  aren’t good.  Context is nonetheless relevant.  Eisenhower, who managed to get two watered-down Civil Rights Acts passed, battled the intensely political Lyndon Johnson and other, overtly racist, southern senators throughout his presidency.  Engaging in open battle over civil rights, while morally and ethically the right thing to do, wasn’t going to be an effective strategy in the 1950’s.

Finally, the context of Eisenhower’s civil rights performance has to be considered in the context of all the issues facing his presidency.  This was the era of the Bomb, when school children were being taught to hide under their desks to protect themselves.  Eisenhower necessarily spent a great deal of his presidency trying to control the arms race and deal with foreign aggression.  That would have been a full plate for many presidents, and presidential history is replete with presidents who good at foreign policy and failures at domestic policy and vice versa.  While one can always argue that Eisenhower could have done more, his civil rights achievements need to be understood, and this well-written book cautions that Eisenhower’s relative public reticence on the subject is belied by some very impressive accomplishments.

This book is well worth reading.  In addition to the author’s interesting take on Eisenhower’s civil rights record, it provides a fascinating look at the United States in the 1950’s.

  

Lady of Yaddo — The Remarkable Philanthropy of Katrina Trask

Katrina Trask and her husband Spencer Trask were visionary philanthropists at the turn of the century.  Lynn Esmay has written a lovely novel based on Katrina Trask’s diaries and presented as her memoir.  After suffering terrible family tragedies, the Trasks focused on leading meaningful lives and contributing to the welfare of others.  The couple supported all manner of philanthropy, particularly in the vicinity of Saratoga, New York.  The couple lived in both New York City and Saratoga, and seemed to know most of the notables of their day.  Katrina Trask was a published poet and playwright, but her biggest legacy was a colony for artists that she and her husband established at Yaddo, outside Saratoga.  To this day artists and writers enjoy residencies at Yaddo.  This novel tells a heart-warming tale of privileged people who lived elegant lives and yet worked hard and mindfully to create a lasting legacy of artistic nurturing and taking care of the needy.

To Tell the Truth Freely – The Life of Ida B. Wells — A Life Long Crusader Against Lynching

Ida B. Wells’s life is well-told in To Tell the Truth Freely – The Life of Ida B. Wells by Mia Bay.  Ida B. Wells is one of those African American leaders whose name is familiar, but I didn’t know enough about her.  Mia Bay’s excellent biography solves the that problem.  Much of it is based on Wells’ own unfinished autobiography.  This is a clear, focused book that fills a gap in civil rights history.

Wells was born a slave during the Civil War.  Her parents were sort of middle class by reconstruction standards, and they made sure Wells received an education.  Although she never received a college degree, Wells taught school for much of her early life.  Her relatively secure life was shattered when her parents both died and left her an orphan at 14 with a bunch of younger siblings.  Wells succeeded in keeping her family together and supported them by teaching school.  All that is remarkable enough, but then her life gets amazing.

From he beginning, Wells had a firm sense of who she was and her own personal liberties, so she didn’t hesitate to sue a railroad that refused to allow her to seat in the ladies section despite the first class ticket she had purchased.  The litigation was protracted and, although Wells prevailed at the trial court level, ultimately she lost on appeal.  It is really hard to imagine an African American woman having the nerve to sue a railroad for not treating her as she deserved in the late 1870’s.  Wells was tough and she was determined.

Wells was a writer and ultimately ran an African American newspaper in Memphis.  At the same time she found her lifelong cause – anti-lynching.  She called out lynching for what it was and never let go of the subject.  It wasn’t a particularly popular topic, but she pushed it relentlessly and actually helped save some potential victims.  Thanks to her anti-lynching activities she was run out of Memphis and her newspaper was burned out.  Along the way she became friends with Frederick Douglass and knew many of the other civil rights leaders of her day.   She and Booker T. Washington never got along — he was a sell-out in her view.  As the NAACP and other civil rights organizations were formed, Wells was frequently left behind.  She was female and she was not of the college educated African American elite of her day.  When others saw promise in enlisting white allies, Wells blazed on with her pamphlets and her lectures.  She never got the memo that she was supposed to sit down and shut up and let the men take the lead.    In that light, she was a precursor of Diane Nash, the amazing civil rights activist of the 1960’s who never got her due as the likes of Martin Luther King, Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson took center stage.  Unlike Nash, Wells refused to fade into the background.

Wells lectured all over the country and in Britain.   She ultimately settled in Chicago where she married in her 30’s and had four children.  Supported by her family, she kept up her political activities in Chicago and nationally, even as she had to take time out to make a living.   As a last point, she also engaged in direct social services activity for her community in Chicago and stymied lynching in Illinois — she was no “mere” journalist and lecturer.

There is obviously much more to her story.  I recommend this book about a strong, focused woman who was insufficiently appreciated in her day or in the years since.

Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi – An Urgent Reminder of this Country’s Violent, Racist Past and a Call to Consider Its Continuing Impact

 

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Anne Moody’s 1968 memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi, is a tremendously important book, particularly now when some people deny that police violence against African Americans is a pervasive problem and when the Black Lives Matter movement has become a favorite target of the angry right.   This book is searing reminder that the tradition of state-sanctioned violence against people of color was a real thing that hasn’t just faded away.  To the contrary, it rears its ugly head again and again,  sometimes in the context of unduly violent and selective policing and sometimes in the context of racial barriers to voting, aka gerrymandering and voter ID requirements.  Of course this is an incomplete list, but  whether these events are viewed as isolated or systemic, their effect is profound.

In the context of Coming of Age in Mississippi, incidents of racial violence against people of color aren’t individual, unrelated events.  They are more properly viewed as a continuum that cost people their lives.  In Anne Moody’s Mississippi any African American who spoke up risked his or her life.  

 Coming of Age in Mississippi brilliantly captures the fear, the rage and the inexplicable courage of a young African American woman in Mississippi in the very early 1960’s.  Anne Moody didn’t come from an activist family.  Her family was extremely poor, her parents were separated, her mother kept having children and there was no thought of getting ahead or fighting injustice.  Moody bitterly resented her circumstances from the very beginning and she refused to accept them.

As a young child, she experienced the dangers young children faced when both parents were forced to work and there was no safe child care.  As a young girl, Moody took on whatever work she could find.  Her most painful job was working for an incredibly racist and threatening white woman, who denigrated Moody in every way possible and yet hired her to tutor her dim-witted son and his friends.  

There were lynchings in Moody’s town, and people were driven away if they didn’t kowtow to the status quo.  It was an ugly, dangerous environment.  To really think about what Anne Moody experienced every day as a child frames the discussion of why the Civil Rights Movement came to be and why there seems little reason to forget and move on when racism remains so pervasive and when racism seems to be attracting new defenders on a regular basis.

Anne Moody is so interesting, because she didn’t just accept her lot.  She refused.  She got out of town and ultimately was introduced to the Civil Rights Movement where she found her calling.  Moody was an heroic activist, but she was no saint.  She was really angry and her book tells us why.  It also provides an intense reminder of why racism was and is such a big deal, and why expecting people to “get over it” makes no sense.   When people and their forebears have lived through the horrors of the Jim Crow South, why would anyone expect them to just be grateful that things are a bit better now?  Why should anyone be content with things being a bit better?  As someone recently noted, why should anyone be expected to forgive and forget slavery when the South keeps celebrating its Civil Ware generals and their victories and while the Confederate Flag still hangs too many places?

Finally, the strength of Anne Moody’s account is that it is unfiltered.   She wrote her book in her twenties and only a few years after her lunch counter protests, her jailings and her voting registration drives.  She isn’t particularly reflective.  She just writes about what she is feeling and what she experienced.  She doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to understand why others were less bold.  She bitterly resents her family’s efforts to stop her, even as she acknowledges that reports of her activism got back to her home town and threatened her family’s security.  She is even angrier at the ministers who gave lots of noble speeches and sermons, even as they personally tried to avoid going to jail.  Moody, on the other hand, felt that going to jail was a necessary sacrifice and was quick to contrast brave school children who went to jail with the ministers who seemed happy to send them there, but didn’t want to go there themselves. 

Anne Moody might have been a tough person to know, but she was heroic.   This is a great book.  The subject is fascinating, and it really advances our understanding of what it meant to be an activist in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.  

 

 

Hubris – The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century

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Alistair Horne’s Hubris – The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century focuses on the dangers of over-confidence in the military arena.  He begins with a brilliant quote from the German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck:  “A generation that deals out a thrashing is usually followed by one that receives it.”

While focusing on the fateful decisions made by various admirals and generals, Horne provides a useful history of warfare in the Twentieth Century.  This is no history of the Korean War or of the Russo-Japanese War, but I learned a lot about both from this very readable book.  Again and again Horne shows how prior victories gave outstanding tacticians unfounded confidence in their ability to keep winning.  At some point, they stopped reflecting and accounting for worst case scenarios and just got carried away by feelings of invincibilty.

Horne’s study of why wars unfolded as they did is well told.  Plainly there are a myriad of factors, but I’d much rather focus on individuals and their fateful decisions.  There were plenty of fundamentally evil players on the battlefields of the Twentieth Century, but Horne also shows how more thoughtful and nuanced individuals also got carried away and just kept pushing until they seized defeat from the jaws of victory, as one of my colleagues used to say.

I recommend this book for its focus on the folly of hubris and also because it provides a lucid tour of warfare in the Twentieth Century.

 

Plucked from Writing Book Reviews and Sent to the McCarthy Hearings

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In 1954, Mary McGrory was a single woman who had been writing spirited book reviews for a number of years.  After her boss at the Washington Evening Start ascertained that she wasn’t planning to get married any time soon, McGrory was suddenly transferred to the news desk at and sent off to cover the McCarthy Hearings.  What an amazing way to jump start a nearly fifty year career as one of the country’s most successful political columnists.  Somebody really needs to make a movie of about McGrory.  She was an epic character in an epic time.

In the meantime, John Norris has written an excellent biography of McGrory – Mary McGrory – The First Queen of Journalism.  While Nellie Bly enthusiasts may quibble about the “First Queen” designation, McGrory undoubtedly reigned as  queen of the Washington political reporting scene for half a century.  She could be imperious, selfish and demanding, but she wrote a heck of a column.  As a long-time columnist, she knew everyone and covered presidential campaigns from Adlai Stevenson through the George W Bush years.  The campaign stories alone are worth reading this book, particularly since McGrory started out at a time when reporters knew a lot of dirt about politicians, but didn’t necessarily spill it.  The stories of politicians trying to charm her or squirm out of answering deceptively mild yet go-for-the-jugular questions are priceless.

Although McGrory was an unabashed liberal and wrote highly opinionated columns, she did give politicians on both sides of the aisle a difficult time.  Bill Clinton was said to get apoplectic about her critical columns.  At the end of the day, McGrory was a very strong personality who was hard to pigeonhole.  She could be nice or she could be horrible to competitors.  The stories are hilarious, but they carry a serious bite.

I can’t help but wonder how McGrory would have reacted to the present school of journalism, where Fox is consistently conservative and constantly accused of skewing its news reporting accordingly and MSNBC often faces similar accusations from the other side.  In her day, unfazed by political neutrality niceties,  McGrory didn’t just express her political view point in her columns.  She took it a significant step further.  She could be a political activist and push people like Bobby Kennedy to run for office.  Despite the highly opinionated tone of her columns, McGrory’s column almost always appeared on news pages, rather than editorial pages, and she waged ferocious battles to keep it that way.  Issues  of journalistic ethics crop up throughout the book, but it seems that McGrory’s powerful personality held sway for her columns.

John Norris has done a skillful job of showing us McGrory, with all her fine points and her not-so-fine points.  Above all, I am just grateful that he has given us a highly readable record of a unique and powerful life.  I wasn’t familiar with McGrory’s story and am really grateful that now I know about her.  I strongly recommend this book.

 

The Immigrant Experience — Growing Up Asian American

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Growing up Asian American – Stories of Childhood, Adolescence and Coming of Age in America from the 1800s to the 1990s,  edited and with an introduction by Maria Hong, is a collection of 33 pieces, both fiction and non-fiction, about the Asian American immigrant experience in America.   The stories share many themes  —  concerns about parents’ expectations, awareness that parents don’t quite fit in or don’t quite get what is going on. and then the writers’ own concerns about how to get along.  A number of the writers feel considerable stress between their families’ insular worlds and their own experiences in American schools and communities.  There are also cringing moments when the writers and their families face discrimination, both blatant and (hopefully) unintended.  These stories don’t have many happy, cohesive families.  Instead, most of the writers come across as loners who have been thrust into an alien environment without the proper tools for survival.

This book is highly recommended.  The sheer volume (33) of the pieces underscores the fact that, regardless of immigration status or economic circumstances, it can be really tough to move to this country and that it can be uniquely traumatic for children.