The Song and the Silence — A Strong Account of Looking for Roots and Belonging — by Yvette Johnson

Yvette Johnson has written a brave and vivid account of her own personal struggles growing up as the African-American daughter of a professional football player and a fierce mother.  In The Song and the Silence —  A Story about Family, Race, and What Was Revealed in a Small Town in the Mississippi Delta While Searching for Booker Writght, Johnson analyzes her own substantial problems and conflicts.  She didn’t get what she wanted or thought she needed from her parents and found herself adrift.  She also struggles with mental illness.  But fortunately, curiosity and a great deal of personal strength prevail.  Johnson starts to dig into the remarkable story of her maternal grandfather, Booker Wright, who was the subject of a short but epic television documentary filmed in Greenwood, Mississippi, in the 1960’s.  Understanding what her grandfather’s world was like in the Jim Crow South leads Johnson to keep investigating.  Booker Wright may have been an icon, but he also led a very complicated personal life.  He did some fine things for the community and he spoke out bravely on television, but he also inspired alot of resentment within his community.

Johnson has written a great story in and of itself.  The writing is clear and compelling.  What makes this a great book is the author’s determination to keep working at unraveling the past and acquiring a better understanding of what happened and how the tragic effects have never completely gone away.  She forces herself to dig into the past, even when it tells her things she would rather not know.  She develops and shares a profound appreciation for just how horribly, horribly hard it was to grow up in the Jim Crow South and how those scars shaped people such as her emotionally remote mother.  This information is not obtained in one fell swoop.  Johnson’s patience in visiting repeatedly and lingering in Greenwood during some hot summer months yields a far greater understanding than a more sharply focused investigation might have done.

Determined not to settle for the hand she has been dealt, Johnson ends her book with some sound and encouraging recommendations for people struggling with mental illness.  I’m inevitably inspired by people who are candidly struggling with their own problems and still reaching back to help and inspire others.

I strongly recommend this book.  It goes beyond what I’d expected.

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Gweilo – A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood

Martin Booth has written a marvelous memoir about moving to Hong Kong and living there as a young boy in the early 1950’s.  Booth, an important British author, was moved to write Gweilo – A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004.  The result of this last literary effort is a warm, amazing tale where Booth’s mother proves to be a major heroine and Martin emerges as someone we would all like to know.

In 1952, Booth’s father was posted to Hong Kong as a civilian employee of the British Navy.  As is sometimes sadly the case, Booth Senior’s importance to the Empire was in inverse proportion to his self-importance, and he was content to leave Martin, his only child, in an English boarding school.  Fortunately Booth’s mother was having none of that and insisted on bringing their son with them to Hong Kong.   And so in 1952 Martin Booth left an impoverished England, still struggling with post-war privation, and travelled to Hong Kong where he and his family lived for three years.  Martin and his mother loved exotic Hong Kong for all the reasons his literally gin-swilling father detested it.  Indeed the Booth family can be seen as a microcosm of the struggle between the old guard determination to hang on to the vestiges of the British Empire and the contrasting determination of a new generation eager explore new things and embrace variety and change.  

Martin was clearly his mother’s child, and remained resentful of his father for all sort of reasons.  The unhappiness of his parents’ marriage provides a sad back drop to what is otherwise a thrilling story of what happens when a seven year old boy is given license to explore an exotic city.  Allowing a seven year old child free rein to explore a new city, let along Hong Kong, on his own is unimaginable today, but that is what Martin got to do.  While Martin and his mother certainly did some exploring together, Martin’s independent solo forays provide the most amazing and exciting adventures in the book.  Happily Martin emerged from these adventures unharmed.  He also developed a deep empathy, understanding and love for Hong Kong.  His freedom enabled him to poke around, ask questions and learn to speak some rudimentary Chinese.  Martin encountered horrific poverty and encountered dangerous snakes and some pretty shady people, but he had a blast and learned a lot.  Indeed,  I found Martin’s adventures in the 1950’s to be considerably more thrilling and informative than my own trip to Hong Kong this past August.  Among other things this book shows what Hong Kong has lost, both good and bad.  

Martin’s mother deserves a major shout out.  Her openness and spirit of adventure educated and inspired her son to explore the city and its neighborhoods on his own.  Martin Booth learned a lot from watching his mother.  Observing how she coped with difficulties gave him some useful tools when he met his own difficulties.  Today this remarkable woman would undoubtedly be charged with child neglect, but this was the 1950’s, when many of us recall a lot more childhood freedom to roam and fend for ourselves than his common today.  Still, Martin’s mother comes across as uniquely permissive when it comes to letting her young son explore Hong Kong on his own.

The book ends when the family sails back to England after their three years in Hong Kong, but fortunately Booth got to return to Hong Kong a few years later.  I was so happy he got to return.

I loved this book.  It is a warm remembrance of a few years of childhood in exotic Hong Kong.

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.

The Clancys of Queens — A Beguiling Memoir

I loved everything about The Clancys of Queens, Tara Clancy’s warm and funny memoir of growing up in Brooklyn and Queens as the only child of a divorced Italian mother and Irish father.  As a child Tara seems to have spent more time figuring out how to stir things up than she did pondering her unusual family circumstances.  She doesn’t seem to have been a sad or particularly introspective child.  Instead, she happily careened around her family’s various homes and hangouts.   Presumably not everyone  appreciated some of her more daredevil efforts, but the book’s prevailing theme is of a group of adults who loved her, raised her, accepted her quirks and tried to help her find her way.  Oddly none of these otherwise caring people seems to have been particularly focused on her formal education.  Clancy clearly picked up a great deal just from hanging around adults, but she also enjoyed a great deal of freedom.  Only in her late teens did she stumble upon a copy of King Lear and get excited about literature and interested in higher education.  At that point, the same extended family that had paid little attention to her academics stepped up to the plate and helped her with college expenses.

This book is a wise, funny and non-mushy book.  I really recommend it.

How To Be A Heroine — In Which the Author Attempts to Make Sense of Her Life Through a Study of Famous Fictional Heroines

Samantha Ellis is a playwright, journalist and avid reader of novels featuring intriguing women protagonists. It is a fine book that discusses Anne of Green Gables, Pride and Predjudice, Gone with the WindValley of the Dolls, Franny and Zooey, and a host of other classics; and that is the feast we have been given here.  Ellis, the British born daughter of Iraqi Jewish refugees, populates her book, How to Be a Heroine – Or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much, with an energetic roster of literary heroines.  Some, like Elizabeth Bennet, are pretty much completely wonderful without being annoying about it.  Others, like Scarlett O’Hara, are pretty reprehensible but their boldness and determination still take your breath away.  Many are insecure and of course most of them have been dealt a bad hand in life.  Ellis does a masterful job of looking at all these girls and women and their stories as she describes her own efforts to break free of a confining family and learn to be bold.  Ellis’s views change as she grows and makes her own way.  Indeed her defense of Mrs. Bennet as an inherently practical woman has considerable merit, although I will always have a soft spot for Mr. Bennet.  In any event, Ellis increasingly loses patience with the “good girls” and is more inspired by the brave and the bold, even if they are self-centered and obnoxious and their behavior is outrageous.

This book made me wish I had read certain classics, such as Anne of Green Gables.  I don’t think I’ll read up on Scheherazade, but Ellis’s evaluation is intriguing.   Ellis’s discussion of all these powerfully drawn heroines also gave me pause in some cases — perhaps my initial readings were too glib.  It is definitely time to reread a few of these great books and to try at least a few of them for the first time.

Most importantly How to Be a Heroine reminded me how important it was for me to be able to read about  strong women and their stories.  They inspired me and caused me to think outside the confines of my own life.  Feminism didn’t just happen — millions of us were inspired by reading about strong girls and women who dared to be brave and rescue themselves.  Hopefully How to Be a Heroine will give you the same powerful memories of your own reading adventures and obsessions.

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.  

 

 

The Butler’s Child – An Autobiography of a Civil Rights Lawyer

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Lewis Steel is a veteran civil rights lawyer, who has written a very thoughtful memoir, The Butler’s Childs – An Autobiography.  Steel’s background as a trust fund kid, educated at Culver Military Academy and Harvard, is oddly juxtaposed with his career as a civil rights attorney, who has spent a lot of time losing cases.  The premise for the book is Steel’s acute awareness that as a child and a young man he was served by an African American butler and his wife.  Steel felt close to this couple, but realizes that he spent most of his time telling them about his life while learning precious little about theirs.  Now he’s aware of his previous lack of awareness.

Clearly Steel likes to feel like a renegade, and yet he knows that his family’s wealth (largely thanks to a grandmother who married on of the Warner Brothers) has made it possible for him to live in some very nice real estate, educate his children at private schools and not really need to earn a living.  Steel acknowledges this and occasionally blames some decisions like private schools and an even fancier apartment on his wife, but all in all his choices are made with a reasonable amount of awareness, and there seems to be a certain amount of guilt behind it.

Steel has had a long legal career, mostly as a civil rights attorney with significant criminal defense experience, and he has been kicked in the teeth by judges and prosecutors across the country.  Famously, he was one of Rubin “Hurricane Carter’s” attorneys and stuck with Carter and his co-defendant through an unbelievable saga of prosecutorial malfeasance and willful judicial blindness.  As an attorney, I enjoyed Steel’s legal war stories, even as the numbing sameness of courts and communities’ willingness to overlook and perpetuate discrimination continued with few checks for decades.  Another whole book would be required to assess how much progress has actually been made, and Steel doesn’t really go there.  This isn’t a criticism – his legal career has evolved and he is looking back.  Referencing the recent police homicides that led to the Black Lives Matter movement, Steel is far from sanguine about any progress that may have been made.

Steel’s heart and advocacy were in the right place, but to hear him tell it he didn’t rein in his emotions and openly challenged judges.  Steel was a character, and his war stories are highly entertaining.  Nonetheless, it will always be debatable whether clients are best served in particular cases by aggressive, confrontational attorneys.  The fact remains that Steel was in the trenches and he had to make on-the-spot decisions about how to try his cases and create the record he would surely need for an appeal.  Of course it is also true that calling out judges for their biases must have been emotionally satisfying and cathartic for Steel.  As an NAACP attorney, he was involved in many generally unsuccessful, school desegregation cases, often in the North.  One has to admire his stubborn determination to see these cases through, even as he is initially terrified by the neighborhoods he frequents and his met by judicial indifference at best.

This book is well worth reading for many reasons, including the history of civil rights litigation and the circumstances that led to a privileged young man to join the civil rights movement and work for little or nothing as a civil rights attorney.  Why he chose that path doesn’t seem entirely clear even to Steel, but he obviously likes his life.  One theme that does come through is that Steel, who is Jewish, has faced discrimination in his own life and is one of those fortunate people who doesn’t feel the need to conform.  He is remarkably confident in his beliefs and comfortable doing what he feels he needs to do.  For the most part, he doesn’t seem to be looking for approval from anyone other than perhaps his wife and his colleagues in the trenches.  Steel’s willingness to own up to certain occasions when his behavior was lacking gives this book some badly needed balance.  It is so reassuring to have someone say, “I failed to act; I hurt someone I love; there is no excuse for it; I should have behaved differently.”

Steel doesn’t shy away from issues of privilege and race and his own failures.  He is very aware that he is an economically secure white man who will cannot understand what it means to be African American.  He acknowledges that it is absurd for him to live such a comfortable and secure existence, just because he was born wealthy and white.  He knows that he isn’t always living the courage of his convictions —  he works to integrate public schools across the country even as his children attend the best private schools and he lives in a large apartment in a predominately white neighborhood.   While Steel chooses to live and raise his family as he does, his efforts to understand and examine the irony of his circumstances is intriguing.  Fortunately his self-examination and arguably hypocritical lifestyle do not result in inertia.  It’s almost like yoga:  Steel observes his circumstances and how he is feeling at the moment, and then moves on to do what he needs to do.   In Lewis Steel’s case, that means a lifetime in the legal trenches as he tries to protect and enforce the rights of clients who have borne the brunt of all manner of discrimination and injustice.  In truth, someone probably had to lose all those early cases to pave the way for future progress, and Steel took on that task.  His was an historic crusade.

 

 

The Seven Sisters in the late ’50’s

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It is both comforting and realistic to have a college memoir written by someone who wasn’t all together comfortable with college.  In Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East, Susan Allen Toth writes about her days at Smith.  Toth, then called Susan Allen, left Ames, Iowa, to attend Smith College in 1957.  She achieved great academic success there, but she didn’t always love it.  Smith wasn’t warm and fuzzy, and Toth was on a scholarship at a time when Smith apparently housed all the scholarship kids together.  (That wasn’t necessarily unusual at the time.)

Toth wasn’t particularly comfortable at Smith.  Upon arrival she was miserably homesick and, as a poor scholarship student, painfully aware that her clothes weren’t up to snuff.  She felt heavy pressure to be happy and love it, which is a tall order for many college freshmen.  She had enjoyed great academic success in order to get admitted to Smith, and at times she seemed almost overwhelmed by her own expectations of success.  She had got what she wanted when she was admitted to Smith, but actually being there wasn’t all that amazing.

There were no major dramas to overcome, but there was a lot of hard work.  Massive amounts of studying and an almost total emphasis on academics are at the core of this thoughtful memoir.  The all-women environment was also key to Toth’s experience.    Lots of her classmates were dating and had serious boyfriends, but Toth kind of drifted in and out of it.  Romance wasn’t a vital component or measuring stick for her college experience.  Toth’s depiction of the dorm environment and the women around her ring very true.  There is very much a sense that this is how hard working, motivated women interact when there are no men around.

Toth’s book is written from a distance of about 15 years and after a PhD and a divorce.  She still doesn’t feel like a success, but she has gained perspective and an academic career.  Her reflections about her time at Smith should give lots of college students  some reassuring perspective that it is okay to feel insecure, pressured and not particularly happy as a college freshman.

I really liked this book, which had been sitting on my “to be read” shelf for years.

Harrowing Tale of the Cambodian Genocide as Told by a Child Survivor

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At times all of the mass murder and genocide across the globe can be numbing.  You know it is happening and you see the awful photos, but there is just so much of it that it can seem remote and, God forbid, routine.  Well, Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir of her childhood under the Khmer Rouge brings it home.  First  They Killed My Father – A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, tells a harrowing tale of exile, murder and overwhelming hunger as seen through the eyes of a privileged middle class five year old.

This child knows what she had and has absolutely no idea why she has been  abruptly pulled from her comfortable life in Phnom Penh and, together with her family, cast into a hostile rural environment. Ung survives, but as the title of her book suggests, not all of her family was so lucky.   The mindless beatings and killings all occur in a numbing environment of hunger and fear.  No one trusts anyone; the author and her siblings are told they must hide their Chinese ancestry and middle class roots.  It is actually pretty amazing that the kids were able to follow these life-saving directions.  They showed a lot of discipline and seemed to have entered into survival mode.

Fortunately, Ung managed to get out.  After tough times in a Thai refugee camp, she immigrated to the United States with one of her brothers.  She went on to an American high school and college and ended up writing at least two books and working with the Campaign for a Landmine Free World.

I Googled Ung to see what she has been up to since writing this book and learned that she has prompted some controversy within the Cambodian community.  In particular, some have questioned whether Ung could have called the details of her childhood trauma so specifically, given that she was so young, only five years old, when the nightmare began.  Given that she wasn’t in a position to write it all down, it seems entirely plausible that her youth and the passage of time may have affected some of the specifics of her recollections.  Of course the passage of time affects the recollections of many of us.

Such controversies do not blunt the impact of this book.  Ung’s story hits you right in the face and breaks your heart.  This is what genocide felt like to a young child.  She may not have focused on the politics  behind the Khmer Rouge’s absurd cruelty and meglomania, but she saw the lunacy behind the terror.  People turned on each other with unimaginable viciousness, and mass murder and loss were the result.  At some level the politics really didn’t matter.

 

 

 

Moving Memoir of Growing Up in Colonial Kenya During the Mau Mau Revolt

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In the House of the Interpreter is a beautiful coming of age memoir by Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, a famous Kenyan novelist, poet, playwright and critic.  Although the book describes only a brief period in the author’s life, it does an outstanding job of tracking his intellectual development and showing how he came to view himself in his evolving society.  The drama of the story is greatly enhanced by the fact that it is set during a violent, fascinating period, the mid 1950’s when the Mau Mau Revolt rocked the British Empire’s final days of colonial rule of Kenya.

Despite extreme poverty and an extremely volatile political environment, the teenaged author managed to leave his village and attend an African boarding school.  It was a tough school, run by an Englishman who saw his mission in life as serving Christ and educating African youth.  Fortuitously, the school provided Ngugi with a  remarkable haven from outside violence and profoundly affected and nourished his intellectual development.  An avid and determined scholar, even as a teenager, Ngugi actively and consciously engaged with others, both within and without the school’s community during this tremendously tumultuous time.

In piercing contrast, outside the school’s grounds, Kenya was in turmoil.  England was taking increasingly brutal measures to hold on to its colony in the face of the MauMau Revolt.  Though not himself overtly political,  Ngugi faced all sort of difficulties and repeated corruption just getting to and from school.  His brother, who was part of the Mau Mau forces was in hiding andresistance was ultimately imprisoned.  Ngugi’s own  efforts to stay away from the fray were unsuccessful, and he was swept up in the political mess.

I highly recommend this book, which does a remarkable job of charting a budding author’s awareness of his country’s struggle for independence even as he deals with his own struggles to get an education and survive.