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Book Review: Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States by Andrew Coe (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

August 17, 2013 3 comments

Light blue bakcground image with the picture of a white, Asian-style take-out container on it.  The title of the book "Chop Suey A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States" is printed on it in a mix of red and black letters.Summary:
American Chinese food is different from Chinese Chinese food.  This is a well-known fact.  Coe tells the history of how Chinese food came to America and changed and adapted to the cuisine we know today.  Along the way, some of the stories of Chinese immigrants to America and Chinese-Americans are told as well.

Review:
I love food, and I love history, so a book telling the history of a specific cuisine totally appealed to me.  Unfortunately, this book missed the mark for what could have been an enticing history of American style Chinese food.  Instead, it gets hung up in the early history of both Chinese food in China and Chinese food in America in the 1800s then hops, skips, and jumps over how it changed through the 1900s up to present.  While this information is interesting, it is not the history of American Chinese food it is presented as.

The main issue with the book is it spends almost 1/4 of its time exploring the history of Chinese food in China.  While I learned some interesting facts, such as that tofu was invented in the Han Dynasty (page 80), this information is not necessary to convey how Chinese food came to America and changed.  A much briefer introduction to where Chinese food was at before coming to America would have sufficed.  The best part of the book is when it discusses Chinese food in America in the 1800s and explores how US-born Americans’ embracing of Chinese food or not depended on many factors such as the current rates of xenophobia, job markets, and prices.  Viewing the history of the American west coast through the perspective of Chinese immigration and Chinese restaurants was truly fascinating.  One of the more fascinating things that I learned in this section was a detail of the history of the racist perception of Asian men as not masculine.  In that time period, when Chinese immigrants were competing with white Americans and Irish immigrants for railroad and other jobs, the backlash was that since Chinese men “didn’t need” to eat meat to work long hours they could afford to take a lower rate of pay.  Articles attacked the Chinese diet as a sign that Chinese men are less masculine since they “don’t need” meat the way white American and Irish-American men do.  One article title from this time period cited in the book is “Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion. Meat vs. Rice. American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism. Which Shall Survive?” by Samuel Gompers (page 141).  As a vegetarian, I found it fascinating that the sexist perception of a less meat-centric diet (the Chinese did indeed eat meat, just less than American men), has both such a far-reaching history and was used to fuel xenophobia and racism against immigrant workers.  It is clear to me after reading this that a large part of the work for vegetarians is to get rid of the faulty correlation between meat and masculinity.  I could see fixing this having other positive outcomes as well, such as fighting against misperceptions of the masculinity of other cultures.

Unfortunately, the wonderful details found in the chapters on the 1800s gradually cease to exist as the book moves up through time.  While the 1920s get some special attention, such as touching on the fact that Chinese restaurants survived Prohibition well because they had never served alcohol anyway (page 189), slowly these details fall away until we get nothing but the bare bones of how Chinese restaurants functioned and interacted with American history in the rest of the 20th century up to present.  There is even one rather aggravating long aside exploring President Nixon’s visit to China.  While his visit to China definitely gave a resurgence of interest in Chinese food in the US, it was again unnecessary to give such incredible details on Nixon’s visit.  It could have been simply stated, instead, that Nixon visited China, bringing Chinese food to the forefront of American thought again and giving a resurgence of interest in Chinese cuisine.  The book has a tendency to lollygag on topics that are not actually what the book is supposed to be about.  While these topics can be interesting and Coe explores them well, they are not what the book supposedly is about.  It would be better to present the book with a different title or edit the focus back to simply Chinese-American cuisine.

One other factor that made me enjoy the book less is that Coe shows a clear bias toward Chinese culture.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying Chinese culture, but Coe says some things that if he had said them in reverse would be considered completely unacceptable to say.  He frequently presents the Chinese people as more civilized, their way of doing things as more logical and simply better, and even scoffs at the level of advancement of European countries compared to China at one point (page 94).  Lack of bias and simply presenting the facts is the strength of historical nonfiction works.  It would have been nice to see that level of professionalism in this book, regardless of Coe’s personal views.

Overall then, while I learned some new facts about both Chinese-American cuisine and Chinese-American history, the book wanders significantly through Chinese history and Chinese cuisine as well.  Interesting, but not what the title implies the book is about.  Coe also shows some bias that should not be present in a history book.  These are easily skimmed over, however, and thankfully do not come up very often.  Recommended to those with an interest in both Chinese-American and Chinese history in addition to the history of American style Chinese cuisine, as all three are covered rather equally.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones (Audiobook narrated by ensemble)

November 6, 2012 Leave a comment

Fuzzy image of little girl jumping rope on a city sidewalk.Summary:
It’s 1979 in Atlanta, Georgia, and someone is kidnapping–and killing–black children.  How this terror haunts one fifth-grade classroom is told through three different perspectives. Tasha, whose parents are “living apart” for a while.  A painfully intelligent boy named Rodney who does not actually consider himself lucky to still have his father at home. And Octavia, better known as Sweet-Pea by her family and Watusi by her classmates.  She’s the darkest-skinned child in the classroom, and is ridiculed by them all, but she has a spirit that outshines everyone.

Review:
The Atlanta child murders of 1979 to 1980 were a real thing that overshadowed the author’s own childhood.  Jones clearly remembers what it was to be in fifth grade and relates those emotions with raw detail, but she also brings along an educated adult’s understanding of race and race relations in the American south.  This all combines to create a powerful story that sweeps the reader away to another place and time while simultaneously leaving them with greater understanding.

The book is divided into three sections. Each child’s tale is told through a different narrative method.  Tasha’s uses third person.  Rodney’s second person, where the reader is told “you are” in an attempt to put the reader closer into Rodney’s shoes.  Finally, Octavia’s is told in first person.  Tasha’s story covers the first part of the school year, Rodney’s the second, and Octavia’s goes through January.  It’s an interesting narrative choice that ultimately works.  The reader sees three different reactions to the child murders and race relations at three different points in the crisis, in addition to the children’s observations of other people’s reactions.  It provides a multi-layered perspective that clearly demonstrates the complexity of all points the story touches upon: crime, race relations, broken families, class issues, and even just the process of growing up.

I appreciate the narrative complexity that Jones chose, but I do feel the story told suffers a bit.  I identified so much more strongly with Octavia than either of the other two children because her voice and personality were able to shine through so much more clearly.  Of course, it’s possible that this is the whole point. In fact, it does feel a bit like the whole book is just building up to Octavia’s story.  But although I had a similar level of attachment to Tasha, I simply didn’t feel that way for Rodney.  Part of that could have been the narrator chosen for Rodney. His voice was rather flat and dull without the nuance of the other two narrators.  But I don’t think that the second person narrative tense helped much.  Thankfully, Rodney’s portion of the book was quick, and the other two sections more than made up for it.

Speaking of the other two narrators, I feel bad that I was unable to find any of the ensemble’s names.  The women who narrated Tasha and Octavia did a phenomenal job. They captured both the age and the dialect of the children without once slipping into a tone that could be perceived of as false or mocking.  They truly embodied the little girls, and I felt I got something extra from listening to the audiobook, which is precisely how it should feel.  It’s unfortunate that the narrator for Rodney failed to do the same thing, providing a rather lackluster, mediocre performance.

The social justice commentary enmeshed in the book is brilliant.  One cannot possibly read this book and not see how racism and entrenched classism negatively impacts children and families.  Even at ten, these children get it that the media and police care less about them getting kidnapped that they would if they were white.  Even at ten the children have already learned racism so well that they ostracize the darkest child in their class.  (This book made me very interested in reading more about racism within the black community).  Most powerful to me, though, particularly after reading the books in The Real Help Reading Project, is how subtly Jones demonstrates the difficult choices parents and other adults must make to provide what is best for their children and how that is exacerbated by inequality.  I’d be more clear, but that would give away the ending of the book.  Suffice to say it’s a powerful message presented in a subtle manner through a little girl with whom it is impossible not to establish a connection.

Overall this is an engaging, thought-provoking piece of historical fiction.  It brings the reader directly into a classroom of fifth graders to see how not just a kidnapping and killing spree but also enmeshed racism and sexism impact the present and future of children.  Recommended to fans of historical and literary fiction.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Fire Baptized by Kenya Wright (Series, #1)

August 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Woman covered in fire against a black bacground.Summary:
The humans won the supe-human war, and now all supernaturals are confined to caged cities whose bars are made up of every metal that is harmful to supes. They also all have a brand on their forehead letting everyone now immediately what type of supernatural they are–crescent moon for shifter, full moon for vampire, wings for fairy, X for mixbreed, which is what Lanore just happens to be. Lanore is hoping to be the first mixie to graduate from the caged city’s university, and she also works on the side with another mixie, Zulu, to run a mixie civil rights group. The purebloods by and large hate mixies. As if her life wasn’t already complicated enough, one night Lanore witnesses a murder, and the murderer turns out to be a serial killer. Now Lanore is on his list.

Review:
I am so glad I accepted this review copy.  The branding of supes and caged cities was enough to show me that this is a unique urban fantasy series, but I wasn’t aware that it’s also a heavily African-American culture influenced series, and that just makes it even more unique and fun.

It’s not new to parallel supe civil rights issues with those of minorities, but they often flounder.  Wright’s book depicts the complexities eloquently.  Making a group within the supes that the supes hate makes it more closely parallel the real world.  The addition of the brands on the foreheads also makes the supernatural race immediately identifiable just as race is in the real world by skin color.  The caged cities are also a great analogy of inner city life and how much of a trap it can feel like.  The fact that Lanore accidentally witnesses a murder on her way home from school is something that can and does happen in the real world.

The other element that I really enjoyed is how Wright brings the African-American religion of Santeria into the mix.  She provides multiple perspectives on the religion naturally through the different characters.  Lanore doesn’t believe in any religion. MeShack, her ex-boyfriend and roommate, does, and it helps him in his life.  And of course the serial killer also believes in Santeria but is going about it the wrong way, as Lanore eventually learns.  The book naturally teaches the reader a few things about Santeria, which is often maligned and misunderstood in America.  But it does it within the course of the story without ever feeling preachy.

The sex scenes (we all know we partially read urban fantasy for those) were hot and incorporated shifter abilities without ever tipping too far into creepy beastiality land.  They were so well-written, I actually found myself blushing a bit to be reading them on the bus (and hoped no one would peak over my shoulder at that moment).

The plot itself is strong through most of the book.  The serial killer is genuinely scary, and Lanore doesn’t suddenly morph into some superhero overnight. She maintains her everywoman quality throughout.  I wasn’t totally happy with the climax.  I didn’t dislike it, but I also think the rest of the book was so well-done that I was expecting something a bit more earth-shattering.

There are two things in the book that knocked it down from loved it to really liked it for me.  They both have to do with Zulu.  Zulu is a white guy, but his beast form is a black dude with silver wings. I am really not sure what Wright is trying to say with this characterization and plot point.  It wasn’t clear when it first happens, and I was still baffled by the choice by the end of the book.  In a book that so clearly talks about race, with an author so attuned to the issues innate in race relations, it is clear that this was a conscious choice on her part.  But I am still unclear as to why.  Hopefully the rest of the books in the series will clear this up for me.  My other issue is with how possessive Zulu is of Lanore. He essentially tells her that she’s his whether she likes it or not, and she goes along with it. Why must this theme come up over and over again in urban fantasy and paranormal romance? A man can have supernatural powers and not use them as an excuse to be an abusive douche. I’m just saying. But. This is part of a series, so perhaps these two issues will be addressed in the next book.  But for right now, I’m kinda sad that Lanore chose Zulu.

Overall, this is a unique piece of urban fantasy.  The tables are turned on the supes with them in caged cities, and the creative use of forehead brands and the existence of mixed-breed supernaturals are used intelligently as a commentary on race relations in the United States.  I highly recommend it to urban fantasy fans and am eagerly anticipating reading the next entry in the series myself.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Mini Movie Reviews #2

August 9, 2012 10 comments

Chris Rock standing in front of a row of women at a hair salon.Good Hair
USA
2009
PG13
Documentary
Public Library
5 out of 5 stars

This is one documentary you need to believe the hype about.  Chris Rock decided to make it after his daughter (not even five years old yet) asked him why she doesn’t have good hair.  This documentary then looks at the world and culture of African-American hair.  It covers everything from perms to weaves to hair shows.  Chris Rock interviews famous and not famous people alike with a certain charm and intelligence that gets them to really open up.  I think the scene that best demonstrates the feel of the whole movie is when Chris Rock is interviewing a white male scientist about sodium hydroxide, which is the perm that African-Americans use to straighten their hair.  The scientist has just shown Chris how quickly sodium hydroxide eats through raw chicken, and Chris says, “You know black people put that on their hair.”  Horrified, the scientist says, “Really?! Why would they do that?!” Chris says, “To look like white people.” Epic. Silence. The documentary is smart, because it doesn’t run around blaming white people for this whole culture among African-Americans against natural hair.  It kind of blames everybody, and it does it in a witty, intelligent manner.

A werewolf face and a woman who looks dead.The Wolf Man
USA
1941
PG
Horror
Netflix
4 out of 5 stars

Another from the 100 Horror Movies To See Before You Die list I’ve been working my way through.  A wayward son of a British aristocrat comes home to hopefully reestablish himself in the little town.  He starts to pursue an engaged gal, but while doing so, gets bit by a wolf.  Naturally, he turns into a werewolf.  I think what’s the creepiest about this film is how the main character goes about pursuing the engaged girl.  He starts off by watching her through a window and then hitting on her in her father’s shop in possibly the creepiest manner ever.  She resists….at first.  But then doesn’t.  The whole film sort of feels like a judgment on both him for being a creeper and the engaged girl for being seduced by the bad boy instead of sticking with her nice, stable man.  Kind of a nice change of pace from more modern films, eh?  The special effects aren’t as good as some others from this same time period that I’ve watched, but they’re still fairly decent.  It’s a fun change of pace if you enjoy shapeshifters.  Also the “British accents” are pretty much nonexistent.

Pale, white-haired man sitting in a throne-like chair.The House Of Usher
USA
1960
Not Rated
Horror
Netflix
5 out of 5 stars

When this movie started, I thought it was going to be cheesy.  But I was very wrong.  It turns out that this is an adaptation of a Poe story, and it is completely frightening, even with outdated special effects.  Essentially, this guy wants to marry this girl, but her brother insists that the Ushers need to let the family die out.  He also claims the house itself is evil.  I won’t tell you what happens from there, but suffice to say the tension builds perfectly until you are on the edge of your seat for the climax.  Vincent Price plays the brother and let me tell you, he is a legend for a reason.  When I finished this one, I was actually nervous to go to bed. Which never happens to me.

PS There is a 2007 remake. Ignore it. Ignore it so hard.

Maccauley Culkin and Seth Green.Party Monster
USA
2003
R
Biography
Netflix
3 out of 5 stars

This is based on the true story of a murder during the 1980s ecstatic clubbing days (see what I did there?), which was written about in Disco Bloodbath by James St James.  (Btw, the memoir is almost impossible to find and hella expensive).  Anyway as for the movie. It’s very campy.  The absolute best part is seeing Macauley Culkin and Seth Green play two fabulous druggy gay men.  It’s campy but not over-the-top.  I mean, these clubbers really did act like this. They weren’t exaggerating.  But the plot is oddly told, jumping around perspectives and time and can be hard to keep up with.  Also the ultimate murder is told by a rat (a man in a giant rat suit).  So yeah.  It’s odd but fun.  Recommended to fans of Seth Green.

Dracula in sepia.Dracula
USA
1931
Unrated
Horror
Netflix
5 out of 5 stars

This movie really doesn’t need much explanation.  It’s a classic (chosen for preservation) for good reason.  I have read Dracula, and I was flabbergasted at how good the adaptation was.  Modern film adaptations could learn a thing or two from this production.  Bela Lugosi as Dracula is still deliciously creepy, instilling chills.  Two cool things to know.  One, originally there was an epilogue in which the audience is told vampires are indeed real that has been forever lost so the ending does feel a bit abrupt (because it’s not actually the ending).  Also, the entire movie was shot simultaneously on the same sets in Spanish (with Latin* actors).

Book Review: The Department of Magic by Rod Kierkegaard, Jr.

June 30, 2012 2 comments

Image of woman holding a cross-bow.Summary:
Di Angelo and Farah thought they were getting a typical, boring DC government job.  But it turns out they have been assigned to the Department of Magic, and whether they like it or not, their horogaunt boss is having them face down demons, shifters, and more in repeated robberies to gather the pieces of George Washington in the hopes to bring him back to life to fight off the ancient Mexican gods who were stirred out of slumber by all the talk of the ancient Mayan prophecy of the end of the world in 2012.

Review:
I have not hated a book this much since finishing Anne Rice’s The Wolf Gift in February (review).  On the plus side, this means you all get to enjoy an angry Amanda take-down style review.  On the minus side, I had to suffer through this horrible thing.  But this is what book reviewers do.  We suffer through things and tell you about them so you don’t have to.

This book has a triple-whammy of awful.  It has so many grammar and spelling mistakes that I can’t believe it ever made it through an editor (oh but it did!).  The plot is confusing and ill-paced.  Finally, and most importantly, it is so prejudiced I had to double-check that this wasn’t a pen-name for Ann Coulter.  Too often I’ve made these assertions in the past but been unable to truly show them to you since it was a library book or some such.  Enter: the kindle.  But first let me quickly explain the plot/structure/pacing issues.

So Farah and Di Angelo aka Rocky are hired by this mysterious department in the US government.  There is a lot that makes zero sense about the department.  First, it appears to only consist of Rocky, Farah, and their boss Crawley (a horogaunt).  Anyone who has worked in the US government *raises hand* knows that they do not underhire. They overhire.  So this just makes the author look like he knows nothing about government.

Throughout the book, Farah and Rocky have this problem of carrying out covert operations for the department and almost getting arrested and wanted for murder and blah blah blah.  Um, excuse me. This is the motherfuckin government.  If they want George Washington’s sword they “borrow” it.  If they can’t “borrow” it, they send in government agents and protect them from prosecution because, I reiterate, this is the motherfuckin government.  A department that supposedly exists to keep America aligned with the goddess America and protected from demons and vampires and what-have-you that no one else knows about would probably be a Big Deal on the inside. So this plot point makes no sense.

Then there’s the pacing issues.  The pacing goes up and down and up and down and the reader keeps prepping for a climax only to get none.  I think you see the analogy I am going for here. And it sucks.

Moving right along, let’s get to just a few of the more egregious grammar, spelling, and other writing I caught in this *laughs hysterically* edited book.

rung off. (location 385)

Americans hang up. No one in this book is British. The narrator is not British. This is stupid.

He could feel her hot breath, fetid as a zoo animal’s gorged on fresh meat. (location 752)

This is a bad analogy, as any high school student can tell you, because the vast majority of people don’t KNOW what a zoo animal’s breath smells like.  An analogy is supposed to help a reader connect an unknown thing to a known thing.

Kabbala (location 858)

This is not how you spell Kabbalah.

Then she pulled both of their caps off and bit him on the mouth. (location 1889)

No, this is not a scene between one of our heroes and a demon. This is supposed to be Farah romantically kissing Rocky. Was that the image you got from that? Didn’t think so.

The most terrifying form devils or demons can take.  No one has lived to describe them. (location 1889)

This comes from the federal book on beasts and demons that our heroes read and start every chapter with an excerpt from. Question. If no one has ever lived to describe these demons then a) how do you know they exist and b) how the hell are you describing them in this book?!

Her face was beautiful, appearing radiantly soft-cheeked and virginal in one instant, a rotting grinning skull, a death-mask in the next. (location 3922)

If you are writing a sentence comparing something from one instant to the next, you can’t compare three things! Two. Two is your limit.

Ok, but obviously I wouldn’t hate a book this hard for bad plot and some (ok a lot of) writing problems.  I’d give advice and encouragement. The hating on the book comes from the prejudice hitting me left and right. It was like running the obstacle course in Wipe-Out!  I can’t and won’t support or recommend a book to someone else as not for me but maybe for them when it’s this painfully prejudiced throughout.  Let’s begin, shall we?

Look, hon, you know you’ve got zero will-power.  Honestly you’re like a lesbian.  You go out with this guy a couple times, you’ll move in together on your third date.  I see him all day, every day.  I don’t want him underfoot when I come home too.  Plus he’s too poor for you. (location 741)

Oh look! Homophobia!  The sad part is you can tell that Kierkegaard thinks he’s being funny when he’s just flat-out offensive.  To top off this delightful bit of dialogue, we’ve got classism.  And I feel I should mention the man they are talking about is an Iraq War vet.  But he’s poor. And clearly that is what matters in dating.  Homophobia is not quite this blatant throughout the rest of the book, although we do have a *delightful* scene in which Bobbi (a girl) shows up to seduce Rocky, who she thinks is gay, since Farah spread a rumor that Rocky is gay to keep her fiancee from being upset that she’s working with a man. Yeah. That happened.

There is more blatant classism, though.

Baltimore is the blue-collar ugly step-sister of the white-collar Washington DC metropolitan area. (location 1250)

Noooo, comparing hardworking people with blue collar jobs to the ugly stepsisters in Cinderella is not offensive at all.

*sighs*

Also, pretty much every demon “disguises” themself as a homeless person. This means almost every homeless person our heroes run into is a demon. Seriously.

And what about women?

The reason I’m so into Nineteenth Century romantic literature, I guess, is because I love anything that reminds me of growing up with my mom and my sisters and gets me inside women’s heads. (location 1214)

Yes! Let’s just go ahead and say that Jane fucking Austen represents every woman’s head everywhere in the 21st century. That’s just awesome.

Speaking of women, I will say this. Farah is the more talented of the duo in climbing, which is nice.  However, she and every other woman are presented as shallow and obsessed with fashion.  Also, a baby is born, and Farah turns overnight into a doting mother-figure when she was a sorority-sister type girl mere hours before.  Meanwhile, the actual mother fails at parenting, and the only explanation for this utter lack of ability with babies is that she is a vampire.

I’m not sure what the precise word is for it….xenophobia perhaps?  But Kierkegaard makes it abundantly clear that only Protestants have the whole religion thing right.

White or “good” magic, he told her, already had a name.  It was called “prayer.” And even prayer, unless directly addressed to God the Creator, is in essence a Luciferian transaction, because it relies on the intercession of intermediaries, such as saints or boddhis, and inevitably involved some sort of quid pro quo. (location 1545)

Speaking of religion, no hateful book would be complete without some anti-semitism tossed in there, would it?

Freemasons–A Lucifer-worshipping conspiracy cult dedicated to Zionist one-world government, heirs of the Christ-murdering Pharisees and the Knights Templar. (location 1596)

Christ. Murdering. Pharisees. He actually went there. And not only are they the Christ killers but! They also secretly run the world through a Satan-worshipping secret organization!

I would have thrown the book across the room at this point, but it was on my kindle, and I love my kindle.

And finally. To round it all out. We’ve got some good, old-fashioned American racism.

First we have the black man who spoke entirely normally until this sentence:

You got any questions you need to axe me, you know where I live. (location 1193)

Then we have the Asian-American man who can’t pronounce his own name:

There they consecutively picked up a squat red-faced Asian named Robert, which he pronounced as “Robot,” and a noisy and vituperative older black man in a water-sodden daishiki named Walkie-Talkie. (location 3225)

Beyond these blatant examples there’s the fact that every person of color is either actually a demon in disguise or working for the seedy underground of some sort of organization.  The exception to this is Farah, who is Lebanese-American, but Kierkegaard takes extreme care to point out that she is NOT Muslim. She’s one of the Christian Lebanese-Americans.  She also basically acts just like a white sorority girl but with an exotic look!!

See? See? I just. *sighs*  The only people who might not be horribly offended by this book are the type of people I don’t really want to recommend books to anyway, except to be like “Here, read this book that might make you realize what a douchebag you are being, like say some classics of black literature or books on how hard it is to be gay in an evangelical family or maybe read about the real history of the Bible.”  You see my point.

The only people who would enjoy this book are people who have this same prejudiced world-view against basically everyone who isn’t a white, straight, Protestant, American male. So, I guess, if that’s you, have at it?  But it’s riddled with spelling, grammar, and plot problems, so you won’t enjoy it anyway. So hah.

1 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Reading Project Wrap-up: The Real Help–Helping Put “The Help” in Historical Context

February 28, 2012 8 comments

On September 3, 2011, myself and Amy of Amy Reads announced our intention to co-host a reading project devoted to reading the list of recommended reads put out by the Association of Black Women Historians in response to the incredible popularity of Kathryn Stockett’s book (and later, movie) The Help.  It’s hard to believe that we’ve already completed reading all 10 books.  I sort of feel like I took a mini class on the history of black women’s labor in the US, and I’m so glad I did.

Although I was a US History major (and also English) in undergrad, I tended to focus more on colonization, westward expansion, and World War II.  The Civil War was not a thing of mine, nor was the Great Migration or the Civil Rights movement.  It may sound silly, but when you’ve only got 8 to 10 courses, some of which are taken up by requirements, to cover all of US history, some things just don’t get covered, especially if you don’t already have an interest in them.  So, although I knew right away that something was WRONG with The Help, it was difficult for me to elaborate exactly what.  I knew it was wrong for a white woman to be putting words in black women’s mouths about a time period that is so recent and still stings.  I knew that having the main, white character come in and rescue the black help was wrong.  And I knew that putting such a rosy color on a time period that was anything BUT rosy was revisionist and distasteful.  But I didn’t know enough about black women’s history to say much beyond that.

Well, thanks to this project, I know so much more now.  I know enough to elaborate in more detail what is offensive about The Help.  But before we talk about that, I want to talk about some of the things that I learned.

In the first read, A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight, we followed the life of a fictional biracial (but seen as black) woman living first as a slave then as a freewoman.  In this book I learned all of the negative connotations associated with working within a white household due to slavery.  We saw how Moinette was seen as sexual competition by the white women while simultaneously being raped by the white men.  This helped establish the false stereotype of black women as seductresses that must be controlled and watched within the home.  We also saw how slave women were forced to wear rags whereas white ladies wore finery.  This is a difference that racist whites later attempted to replicate by forcing uniforms upon their live-in and live-out servants.  This was also the first instance in the project where we saw that although some semblance of friendship could come up between black and white women, they could never truly be friends while living in a racist, unequal society.

The first nonfiction book–Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women , Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present by Jacqueline Jones–covered the largest time period of any that we read, sweeping from slavery up through the Civil Rights era.  It was, frankly, daunting and one I wish in retrospect I could have read over a longer time period to let things sink in more.  Yet, through this book we saw the parallel line of black history in the background of mainstream history taught in schools.  In this book we learned how African-American culture developed to be different from white culture but certainly no less valid.  For instance, we saw how slavery and its methods established the matriarchy and forced the stereotype of the “strong black woman” upon all black women, whether they wanted to be independent and the matriarch or not.  This book was also the first instance where we saw the incredibly brave front-line roles black women played during the Civil Rights movement from protecting voting registration workers with rifles to braving hostile whites when entering segregated areas.  This book also gave me an understanding of why black feminists and black women sometimes disagree with white feminists and white women about women’s role in the home.  For so long black families were forced apart or the black wives and mothers were forced to work out of the home that the idea of being the lady of the house is appealing as an equal right.  Although modern feminists talk about women’s right to choose what kind of life they’re going to lead, I think it’s really important to realize that for black American women for a long time they had no choice but to work outside the home–the exact opposite of white American women.

Our second fiction book–The Book of Night Women by Marlon James–is one I’m honestly a bit baffled over its inclusion on the list.  It’s set in Jamaica and is entirely about a slave rebellion on that plantation.  Although I loved the book and got a lot of emotional depth out of it, I don’t feel as if it informed me much on the topic at hand.  It did demonstrate how it can be difficult or even impossible to find a way out of a corrupt system, which is a good reminder when studying the past and wondering why so-and-so didn’t do thus-and-such.  Hindsight is 20/20, and even when in possession of it, there’s still no clear way out.  This book, then, reminded us not to judge others’ choices too harshly.

The next nonfiction read was the memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody.  I’m personally partial to memoirs as a learning tool, because I think one of the best ways to learn about something is through the eyes of someone who lived it.  Anne Moody grew up in the south during Jim Crow and also became famous for a sit-in she participated in at Woolworth’s.  This read demonstrated two key things.  First, that black women were involved in the quest for civil rights without any need of poking or prodding from well-meaning white women.  Second, it demonstrated that the assertions made in the nonfiction earlier about the help were true.  Anne’s mother and herself both worked as domestic help, and Anne vividly recalls her mother working all hours of the day, even right after having a baby, bringing home the white family’s leftovers, and the way the help was trusted and simultaneously feared and distrusted by the people who employed them.  Moody’s memoir is an angry one, but she certainly had a right to be an angry woman.

Our next read was Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life by Alice Childress, which is an assembly of a serial written by Childress in the 1950s revolving entirely around the life of a domestic servant, Mildred.  Through these vignettes Childress addresses the tough situations domestic help encountered in the 1950s and sometimes plays out fantasies the help may have had such as telling off the employer, whereas in real life they might not be able to afford to do that.  I admit that while I was reading this collection, I wasn’t sure as to the value of it, but I found myself thinking back on it again and again throughout the rest of the project.  The book basically demonstrates the absurdity of employers calling the help a member of the family when the whole situation is steeped in inequality and racism.  This book is even more valuable since it was written by an educated black woman who had to periodically work in domestic service during the 1950s.

Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household by Thavolia Glymph was our next nonfiction read, and it narrows its focus in on relationships between black and white women in the south from right before the Civil War to right after.  This book clearly demonstrates why a simple loving friendship between the help and the children in the household she works in just would not be logically possible.  The book demonstrates with historical documents how much energy white women in the south used simply to attempt to maintain their false position as “better than” black women.  This book demonstrated the complex cultural and racial relationship between black and white women that could not simply be fixed by one well-meaning college-educated southerner.

We then read The Street by Ann Petry, which I discovered is considered a classic of black American literature.  This book demonstrates the life of a black woman who first works as a live-in but then winds up having to come home to move out with her son after discovering her husband’s affair.  She then does everything she can to avoid domestic work and keep her son safely on the straight and narrow.  Although very little of this book is set in a domestic help situation, the beginning of the book, as well, as Lutie’s ever-failing quest to care for her son demonstrates the adverse affect that a society dependent upon racially divided domestic help has on those at the bottom of the totem pole, not to mention the culture at large.  The book is not subtle, but it is an enjoyable read and clearly related to the topic.

To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War by Tera W. Hunter looked at the intersecting issues of racism, sexism, classism, and domestic labor by narrowing its focus in on the city of Atlanta and covering its history from all of these perspectives.  It is difficult, nay, impossible, to summarize everything I learned through this incredible book. Suffice to say, nothing we read made it clearer the nearly impossible obstacles faced by southern black women in domestic work or made Kathryn Stockett’s book so abundantly clearly ridiculous and naive.

Our final fiction read was Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely.  This was definitely the most mainstream entertaining book of the project.  It is kind of a cozy mystery in which the crime solver just so happens to be a feisty black domestic servant woman named Blanche.  Everything we learned so far about the complexities innate in the domestic help situation are abundantly clear in the story without being preachy.  I found myself wondering how this book did not become more popular when it was first released.  It is such a clever mystery novel.

Our final read was Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940 by Elizabeth Clark-Lewis,  which, as the title indicates, focused in on the differences between help that lives in the home and help that lives outside of the home, and why black women drastically prefer the latter.  This is a short read, but it clearly demonstrates the dehumanizing affect of both racism and domestic labor for those subjected to it.

So, given all of that, how would I characterize what is wrong with Kathryn Stockett’s The Help now?  I would say it drastically oversimplifies the serious, life-threatening, soul-stealing world of racism in the American south and also innate in the employer/servant dichotomy.  It places the reins of social change in the hands of a kind white woman who views the help like one of the family, when in reality it was through the courage and strength of black women that the civil rights movement had any chance at all.  And they certainly did not view themselves as a member of the family for whom they worked for disgustingly low wages.  It seeks to rewrite history in a way that will assuage white guilt (most likely foremost the white guilt of the author) and retroactively removes the very real civil rights agency demonstrated by black women in the south from them.  It is a racist book because it oversimplifies and dumbs down what is a complex and sad chapter in American history that everyone should clearly understand for what it was to prevent us from ever reliving it.

Now, I know not everyone has the time or the energy to read all of the books on this list.  So what are my recommendations?

If you want a popular-style, fun book to read instead of The Help, I recommend you pick up Blanche on the Lam.  It is also a whole series, so there’s lots of room for prolonged entertainment without the disgusting rewriting of history seen in The Help.

If you are more interested in the civil rights movement and the involvement of domestic help in it, then I suggest you pick up the memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi.

If you like short stories and want to hear the voice of the real help from the 1950s, then I suggest you pick up Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life.

If you really enjoy a well-researched, well-documented piece of nonfiction in your life and want a much clearer understanding of race in the populous southern city of Atlanta, then definitely pick up To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War.

Finally, if you want a short nonfiction read that quickly covers some of the issues innate in racially based domestic help through the voices of the women who lived it, then you should pick up Living In, Living Out: African American Domestics in Washington, D.C., 1910-1940.

I am very grateful to the Association of Black Women Historians for taking the time to assemble and post this list.  I learned so much from reading through it and am now able to eloquently defend my stance on why it’s sad and wrong that The Help became such a popular read.  I encourage you all to follow your gut and question when something is popular that just doesn’t seem quite right to you.  Read up on the real history and find the little-known gems of fiction that are brave enough to confront the real issues.  The publishing industry will only change what it puts out and pushes on the public when we change our demands.  I can say that Amy and I already saw at least two of the books on the list go from unavailable on the Kindle to available in the time that we worked on this project.  We hope that this at least in a small part had to do with a new demand for the titles due to the release of the list from the ABWH or maybe even from ourselves talking about these lesser-known books on the blogosphere.

What I ask of each of you readers in conclusion is to choose just one book from the list to read.  Challenge yourself and try something that isn’t “popular.”  You’ll be surprised at what you discover and learn.

Movie Review: Skin (2008) South Africa

February 15, 2012 2 comments

Young black woman with an afro.Summary:
Based on a true story, Sandra Laing was born black to two white parents.  Something that is an interesting anomaly of unacknowledged or unknown ancestors, but unfortunately for Sandra it was oh so much more than that.  Sandra was born in South Africa during Apartheid, and her white Afrikaner parents were members of the National Party.  This film chronicles her fascinating life from a young girl hidden from the sun in the hopes that her skin would lighten as she grew older to a young runaway marriage to striking out on her own with her children.

Review:
I know movie reviews have been scarce around here.  That’s mostly because since I joined the gym my evening free time is spent either there or reading.  This weekend though I had a cold and a bit of a fuzzy head from a fever so I randomly chose an interesting looking movie from my Netflix recommendations.  I had no idea when I chose it that Sandra Laing’s story is a true one.  I didn’t realize this bit of information until the end credits.  I thought it was one of those “what if” scenarios and knowing that this actually happened makes the whole thing incredibly painful.

We know that innate parental unconditional love is a myth.  And if there was ever a true story that should unequivocally dispel this myth once and for all, it’s Sandra’s.  Is there anything more abusive, more unloving than raising your child in a culture that hates her and doing, really, nothing about it?  Although her parents did fight to have her classified as white and not colored (so they could keep custody of her, because apparently children had to be raised by parents of the same race during Apartheid), they did little else to protect her.  Indeed, by her teen years her father was pressuring her to behave for white boys who were being verbally cruel at best or attempting to rape her at worst on dates.  It’s little wonder Sandra ran off to be with a black man she met.  Your role as a parent should be to protect your child and prepare her to take care of herself in the real world and advocate for herself.  But Sandra’s parents’ racism clouded everything so much that the most they did was attempt to hide her.

Of course, the problem then became that Sandra was raised in a privileged background, and that’s all some of the black South Africans could see when they looked at her, including her own husband.  He says to her at one point, “You still think of yourself as white.”  I find it fascinating how people can become so wrapped up in their own problems resulting from inequality that they fail to see the pain inflicted by it on others, even others that they love.

The actress who plays the older Sandra does a great job showing her progression from a hopeful teen to a downtrodden factory worker at the end of Apartheid.  The trauma from a life where everyone judged her either on her own skin tone or that of her parents is abundantly evident on the actresses’ face.

That said, while the topic is incredibly important and the true life events heart-breaking, I don’t think the movie itself does the real story true justice.  The actors and actresses did a fine job with what they were given, but even basic googling shows that the story was cleaned up for a mainstream audience, which I think was a very poor decision on the part of the filmmakers.  Sandra’s life was actually more difficult than they even give her credit for.  For instance, she left home at only 15 (she seems much older in the film), her first husband already had a first wife, she actually had six children not two, etc….  (Essence, The Guardian, Women and Hollywood)

Personally, I view this movie as a gateway to the far more fascinating nitty gritty true story.  I’m adding the book by the journalist Judith Stone about her work with Sandra to attempt to figure out her past called When She Was White.  But.  If you don’t have the time to get into it in depth, the short biopic is definitely a better choice than say the latest romcom out of Hollywood.  It will push you to confront the tragedy of racism and the myth of parental love against all odds.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix Instant

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