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.
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.
Gloria Steinem’s new memoir, My Life on the Road, is just a gift. This is a person I would so like to know. Steinem has always projected a cool and confident mystique — she is thoughtful, rational and stratgic. Yet it is clear from her stories that she had a very challenging, impoverished and unsettled childhood. While her parents’ cross-country wandering may have been the source of Steinem’s love of travel, it is also true that they provided her with precious little security and nothing came easy for her. Certainly there was nothing inevitable about Steinem’s success.
This book is a collection of life stories and travel writing. It moves gracefully among autobiographical stories and an eclectic mix of travel encounters and gives a good sense of how Steinem evolved into a feminist organizer. She is an eager and avid traveler and comes across as a low-maintenance companion. Steinem doesn’t just see new places — she relishes new experiences and new people. All sorts of people come up do her and share their own stories, and she loves it. She chides herself for sometimes making unfounded assumptions about people and relishes the surprises people present to her.
This is by no means a self-help book, but it is certainly inspirational. I hope I will think of Steinem the next time I am confronted with travel snafus or have the opportunity to meet new people. Say yes to the trip, and never assume. More importantly, it is always the right thing to try to help people, to do whatever needs to be down and to be kind.
It would be nice if the women’s movement had succeeded, such that this book could be an anachronism. Sadly, it remains terribly relevant. The struggle continues, and we all need to try harder to advance equal rights for all women.
Michael D’Antonio has written a profoundly depressing and comprehensive history of the Catholic Church’s failure to recognize and prevent the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests. Mortal Sins — Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal, was published in 2014, over a year before the release of the recent movie Spotlight, which focuses on Boston’s clerical abuse scandals over many years. Spotlight is an excellent movie and does a tremendous job of showing how difficult it was to uncover the vast scope of the problem and to recognize the church hierarchy’s willful obstruction and tacit perpetuation of the problem.
While Spotlight was focused on the particularly sordid Boston experience and coverage provided by the Boston Globe, Mortal Sins follows the scandal trail all over the country and ultimately around the globe. Mortal Sins also gets into the nitty gritty of the legal actions that compelled the Catholic Church to accept responsibility for what had happened and to begin to take steps to prevent future atrocities. As a lawyer who had some acquaintance with this issue years ago, I found the legal discussions particularly interesting. While it would be nice to think that the church decided to do the right thing because that was its ethical obligation, in reality the church was often reluctant to do anything other than sweep the problem under the rug until it faced horrific public exposure and crippling financial losses. It is a good question whether the church would have taken any action at all, but for the financial ruin it faced. But for the legal actions, it is unclear when if ever the church would have stepped up to the plate on this issue.
How and why the abuse happened, as well as the campaign to stop it, makes for a compelling story. Fortunately Mortal Sins also focuses on the damage done to the individual victims. The pain, betrayal and hopelessness they endured should always be the centerpiece of this saga. Some victims were emotionally wrecked for life, while others seemed better able to move on with their lives. Many children never told anyone or, if they did try to tell, were punished for it. Even when children’s parents believed them and confronted the church hierarchy, they were frequently given the utterly false promise that the abusive priest would be kept away from children.
D’Antonio doesn’t shy away from looking at the structure of the priesthood and the types of candidates it attracted. While acknowledging that other religions have faced abuse issues, D’Antonio’s position is that the structure of the priesthood made it particularly attractive to troubled priests and that the church was programmed to look the other way, rather than fix the problem. Anytime you get in a situation where the primary focus is on helping and shielding the perpetrators to the detriment of their victims, you know something is rotten.
I highly recommend this book. While steps have been taken to stop sexual abuse of children by priests, this problem has not gone away. And, as Spotlight brutally reminded us, we all have a responsibility to confront the problem and protect our children.
Chad Broughton’s Boom, Bust, Exodus — The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities, is one of the more depressing books I have read recently, but it is a very insightful, useful book. Broughten records the sad saga when a Maytag refridgerator plant in Galesburg, Illinois, is shut down and moved to Mexico. Spoiler alert: no one you care about really wins here. I always like to know what people are thinking as they encounter adversity, and the author does a thoughtful and consistent job of interviewing and sticking with an interesting assortment of players. He tracks the union workers in Galesburg, Illinois, by showing what they had in their glory days and then the ominous signs and then finally the closing of their Maytag refrigerator factory. So many of them are completely unprepared to do anything else. They are used to earning $ 15 plus an hour when their factory is closed in 2004. They have a lot of notice that isn’t all that helpful when most of them barely have a high school degree and are dismayed and highly insecure about returning to school. Even with relatively generous unemployment and education benefits, it is a very tough road. Since Maytag was the biggest show in town, none of these people have easy places to seek other work. The economic jolt is severe since they had bought their houses and organized their lives around their stable Maytag income and benefits. Virtually none of the people who are followed recoup their Maytag earning power, but some of them pursue degrees and many of them seem to end up relatively content. The author notes that the women workers were generally better at returning to school and to reinventing themselves. While that point isn’t especially developed, it is sadly encouraging to see a male author spend so much time interviewing and following both female and male workers.
Not surprisingly the only person who seems to have truly profited from this mess is the last executive standing. He is portrayed as driving the company into the ground and then making off with a $ 20 million golden parachute when the company is sold. He is last seen living in a gated community and actively supporting LIbertarian candidates. One of his neighbors calls him “a capitalist evangelist.”
What happened to the refrigerator manufacturing after it was transferred to Mexico is terribly depressing. It is fair to say that the American worker’s loss wasn’t necessarily the Mexican worker’s gain. The author follows Mexican workers who struggle on very little income as they take on very arduous, yet basically unskilled, manufacturing jobs. Worker safety concerns are fairly non-existent; the pay is awful; and the jobs are transitory at best. The supposedly lower cost of living provides no safety net for these workers. It is still too expensive to live.
For me the most interesting part of the book was to track a rich assortment of individuals through their personal economic and social upheavals. The author asked the questions that needed to be asked and apparently established a continuing rapport with his subjects.
In its conclusion the book addresses many ideas that would benefit from further development, perhaps in another book. In this book they served as a way to begin to make sense of all the individual stories that had been told. In that context, the author’s concluding comments were valuable, particularly as they demanded that the reader ponder large issues, such as what’s going on in Mexico, how might American manufacturing be transformed and made more profitable and, fundamentally, the high cost of inequality.