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A History of Black Women in the United States, by Daina Ramsey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross. 

January 25, 2020

A History of Black Women in the United States

A History of Black Women in the United States, by Daina Ramsey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross.  Beacon Press, 2020.  ReVisioning American History series.

5 star

An innovative account of African American women’s lives blending careful scholarship and imaginative speculation from the Spanish Conquest to the present.

Daine Ramsey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross are both respected traditional historians.  Both hold named chairs in highly regarded institutions. Both have received awards for their work. Both have published in academia.  Both have also appeared in the media and community where they have participated in projects that sought to expand understanding beyond traditional scholarly boundaries.  Kali Nicole Gross is Martin Luther King, jr. Professor of History at Rutgers University and National Publications Director for the Association of Black Women Historians.  Her degrees are from Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania.  She has also taught in housing projects and correctional institutions.  Daina Ramsey Berry is the Oliver H. Radkey Regents Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. She has published six books on slavery, participated in projects relating to teaching of history, and appeared in variety of media. Her degrees are from the University of California at Los Angeles.

Yet despite their credentials, this book is not a typical academic analysis or a textbook.  It will probably annoy some transitional historians.  It was written for a wide range of readers from high school and college students to the general readers.  Scholars, like myself, who have written and taught on the topic, will also find new information and a new conception of the varied lives of Black women in our past.

Berry and Gross have researched widely in both primary and secondary sources, looking for mention, often in passing, of Black women.  They provide the factual basis of what can be known about women who have largely assumed to be unworthy of attention by their contemporaries or by historians. The innovative structure of the book involves chronological chapters each introduced by the story of individuals and followed by the contexts of particular times and places.  Each chapter also discusses a variety of others who lived in that time period.  Here we see the sheer variety of classes, beliefs and ways that black women adapted to their situations.  Although better known women are included, they are not central to the book.

More unconventionally, when there are no factual details available, the authors speculate honestly and encourage readers to do the same.  They provide information about women’s time and circumstances and ask readers to imagine what women’s lives might have been like and what they might have felt.  Instead of sticking closely to the women’s biographies, they also provide facts about the historical context of their times and the conditions under which they lived.  This approach is particularly useful for the period before the American Revolution.  I won’t think about a Spanish Conquistador again without seeing a Black woman there to do his laundry.  This willingness to speculate can change how we think about Black women more generally and is one of the most radical aspects of this book.

While the “New Social History” of the late twentieth century brought new groups into the preview of historians, we saw them through statistics.  Berry and Gross introduce individuals and their voices.  Their book not only gives us facts; it also suggests new ways to think of black women and new questions to ask.

A History of Black Women appears in the Beacon Press series, ReVisioning American Series.  This is a series devoted to goals that mirror the authors’.  It publishes histories that include groups usually invisible in our past and to point that the disabled and transgendered have a history.  In addition, they provide historians the opportunity to explore new techniques for telling our national narrative which include such people.

Berry and Gross suggest a truly innovating way to do history.  I hope their book is widely read and discussed.  Even those not particularly interested in the topic should read the book and consider its example of a new way to think about doing history. And it also pushes us to create new ways of thinking about ourselves and our neighbors.

The Book of Longing, by Sue Kidd Monk. 

January 11, 2020

The Book of Longing
The Book of Longing, by Sue Kidd Monk.  Viking, 2020. 433 pages

Forthcoming, April 2020.

 5 stars

The provocative story of a Jewish woman and her search for her own destiny, including her marriage to a very humanized Jesus before he undertook his ministry.

Sue Kidd Monk is a popular writer, a writer who has openly expressed her own expanding religious quest. In her books, her women characters are drawn to deeper beliefs and to finding a destiny of their own. In her newest book, she pushes those themes back into Biblical times.  She was born in 1948 in Sylvester, Georgia, where she grew up.  She attended college at Texas Christian University, graduating with a nursing degree.  While pursuing her nursing profession, she began her own religious journey with the writings of Thomas Merton.  Her first books were written in the 1990s and focused on her own spiritual growth and her move beyond traditional Christianity.   In 2001, she published The Secret Life of Bees, the story of a young white girl nurtured and changed by older African American women.  It remains her best known work; although she has gone on to write additional novels, often featuring a woman’s journey.

The major character of The Book of Longing is Ana, the daughter of a prominent Jewish scribe who allowed her to read and write.  She was a rebellious, abrasive child, at war with the limitations that she faced as a woman, especially her parents’ attempts to marry her off or give her to the king. The first section of the book depicts her struggles against her confinement.  Her escape came when she met and married the twenty-year-old Jesus and went to Nazareth to live in his family. When he was called to preach, she went to Alexandra to escape her own arrest.  She continued her devotion for him, eventually finding a community where her writing was valued.

Initially I was bothered by Monk’s retelling of the stories of Jesus, Mary, Judas, and other individuals from the Christian narrative.  I wasn’t scandalized as much as annoyed.  I sensed that Monk was asking readers to view the Christian stories in a radically new manner, one in which Jesus is a man, in love and sexually involved with a woman.  His commitment to her was only challenged by God’s call.  Whenever I encountered the Biblical names, I was distracted by Monk’s challenging of my memory of the traditional story.  Gradually I became more and more caught up in Ana’s narrative and found the book very meaningful. That is my typical reaction to Monk’s novels.

Longing is more about Ana than about Jesus.  As she comes to interact with Jesus, Ana’s sense of own destiny grows.  She sees herself and Jesus as alike in their calls to be more than ordinary.  She is destined to write as he is destined to preach.  Like other wives, she is hurt when he is called to do greater work.  She does not, however, slip quietly into oblivion, but sees her writings honored.

Although some readers will be upset and accuse Monk of being irreligious, I recommend The Book of Longings as an imaginative alternative to the Biblical account.  One in which a woman follows her own quest for a purposeful and spiritual life. It can be read as a supplement rather than a rejection of the stories we have traditionally believed.

I recommend this book highly especially for readers not afraid of of expanding religious visions.

A Place for Us: A Novel, by Fatima Farheen Mirza.

January 3, 2020

A Place for Us
A Place for Us: A Novel, by Fatima Farheen Mirza. Hogarth/Random House, 2018.

5 stars

A moving account of a successful, devout Muslim American family coping with each other’s needs.

Fatima Farheen Mirza was born in California to parents of Indian descent.  She attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In this, her first novel, she deals with issues she herself confronted growing up in a similar family.

The story opens with the wedding of the eldest daughter and the alienated family son who returns for the celebration after years of absence.  With his presence, long term tensions surface.  Then Mirza goes back to describe the family’s earlier years and establishes how the individuals in the family grew and changed.  We see how each has a particular perspective on what is happening.  The parents have a good, if sometimes distant, relationship and shared expectations for their children.  The eldest daughter is strong, bright, and ambitious, at times the “son” of the family.  The second daughter is also successful, but somewhat less fully developed in the book.  The youngest child is a son, who from the start is a more needy and disruptive individual.  As he grows up, he struggles against his father, gets into drugs, and leaves home in anger. The Muslim community forms a context for the family conflicts.

Mirza says that her book is primarily a book about a family and how they deal with universal concerns about love and loss, and commitment to family and tradition.  Certainly the family could be from any ethnic background.  And yet they are Muslims and their faith permeates their lives.  They are economically and socially secure among other Muslims and, with one telling exception, they are marginally involved with non-Muslims.  Instead of the story of assimilation that structures many migrant stories, we get the texture of what it means to follow the rituals and practices of their faith despite their American success.  By the end, we see how that faith is basic to their identity and sense of being in the world.

The book is well-written and successful as a story which reflects problems faced by a variety of families in the United States today.  At another level, it exposes insight into Muslim Americans which few of us appreciate.  It is a story we need if we are ever to move beyond negative stereotypes and see Muslim Americans as essentially like ourselves.  Mirza subtly raises the question of the place of immigrant people in our society and how they can maintain their own traditions without threat to the rest of us.

I highly recommend this book.

The Latehomecomers: A Hmong Family Memoir, by Kao Kalia Yang.

December 26, 2019

The Latehomecomers
The Latehomecomers: A Hmong Family Memoir, by Kao Kalia Yang.  Coffeehouse Press, 2008.

5 stars

The poignant memoir of the author’s life and larger community from Laos and Thailand through her arrival in the United States when a small child, and her family’s settlement in Minnesota.

Kao Kalia Yang sets her memoir in the history of the Hmong people who had lived in the mountains of Laos only to be bombed out and forced to flee during the Vietnam War.  Yang herself was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, moving to the United States when she was six.  She and her extended family settled in Minnesota where she attended school.  Her degrees are from Carleton College and Columbia University.  She has written several children’s books and edited anthologies and been involved with work with other migrants.

Yang opens her book with an account of the Hmong people, an ethnic group who had never had a homeland they could call their own.  They had lived in China until they were moved from there into the mountainous region of Laos.  Bombings and a determination to get rid of the Hmong lead them to escape to Thailand.  Yang describes her parents’ dangerous escape and life in a refugee camp where Kalia was born.  As Yang reports, life there was hard and extremely isolated.  Hope centered on going to the United States, even though almost nothing was known about that country.

For me, the most interesting and useful part of the book was that in which Yang tells about what she encountered as a naïve six-year-old arriving in an unknown land. She captures the innocence and awe of any bright child as well as the surprise at what most of us take for granted.  The same sense of vision of the unexpected pervades the book generally helping us see ourselves in a new light.

The later part of the book recounts Yang’s school years and the growth of her extended family community. Here she emphasizes the high expectations of the parents’ generation for younger ones.  Yang’s grandmother and the rituals of her death are also prominent.  In this section, Yang conveys how the Hmong in Minnesota finally create their own nebulous home they had previously not possessed.

I gladly recommend Latehomecomers.  I also recommend Yang’s more recent biography of her father, The Song Poet,a factory worker and a song poet in the Hmong tradition.

Afterlife, by Julia Alvarez. 

December 12, 2019

Afterlife
Afterlife, by Julia Alvarez.  Algonquin books of Chapel Hill, 2020.

Forthcoming.

4 stars

One of many popular books by an American woman from the Dominican Republic who writes about dealing with widowhood, her sisters, and undocumented immigrants’ next door.

Julia Alvarez was born in 1950 in New York, but spent her first ten years in her parents’ home country, the Dominican Republic.  As the dictatorship of that nation tightened, the family returned to the United States where Alvarez became immersed in the English language.  She attended college at Middlebury, a place where she later taught as a tenured professor and as a writer in residence.  In 1991 she published her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.  Few books by Latinas in the United States had appeared at that time, and it received great attention and praise.  Since then she has become a prolific writer, authoring novels, non-fiction, poetry, and children’s books.

In Afterlife, Alverez develops several plot-lines. The major story follows Antonia, whose husband dies suddenly just as she is retiring from her position as a college professor.  Alvarez follows her as she struggles with her husband’s death.  The writing is sensitive to details of Antonia’s daily life, but is never sentimental.  For me, the book offered a role model for a frequent aspect of women’s lives.  I applaud Alvarez’s treatment of this seldom addressed this topic.

Two other experiences complicate Antonia’s life, often leaving her with difficult choices. She is one of four sisters who have shared strong bonds all their lives. The eldest of them acts strangely and then disappears. The other sisters grow desperate and consider what options they have.  In addition, Antonia becomes involved with a young immigrant and his pregnant girlfriend while trying to find a viable path for them, other than taking them in her own life and home.  While these are minor stories, they allow us to see why Antonia gets overwhelmed.

I recommend Afterlife to help us understand how we can cope after the loss of a valuable partner.

How to Be Childless: A History and Philosophy of Life Without Children,  by Rachel Chrastil.

December 5, 2019

How to Be ChildlessHow to Be Childless: A History and Philosophy of Life Without Children,  by Rachel Chrastil.

A thought-provoking book about the prevalence of childlessness in our past and why it is a valid choice today.

Rachel Chrastil is a European History Professor at Xavier University.  Her undergraduate degree is from Indiana University and her Ph.D. is from Yale University.  She also is Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Science at Xavier.  She has written two books focusing on civilian experiences of war and the rise of humanitarianism.   Her overall approach to scholarship looks beyond simplistic dichotomies to the complexity of issues, weaving together the presence of both choice and external circumstances in decision-making.  Such an approach is particularly useful in considering a topic like childlessness.  Her new book clearly displays adherence to high academic standards.  At the same time it is written gracefully and is easily accessible to more general readers.

The first section of Chrastil’s book refutes the common assumption that singleness is a relatively recent phenomenon, a choice available only after World War II and the Pill.   She summarizes both statistical and textural evidence of often overlooked singleness in the European past.  Chrastil has read widely in primary sources describing how ordinary people lived in Europe since about 1600.  She quotes from these to give readers a sense of how single individuals supported themselves or blended into the households of others.  Statistical sources give further evidence of how childless adults have lived and worked in households of others or found means of self-support in the past.

Next Chrastil refutes the contemporary assumptions that failure to have children is selfish or misguided in today’s world.  Many individuals who do not have children are confronted by those who continue to assume that having children is a necessity of a fulfilling life.  Chrastil does not attack the traditional nuclear family; instead she insists that bearing children is not a universal good which must be achieved by everyone. Having a child is not always a private option even for those wanting children.  Economic and social factors can be determining factors beyond personal choice.  As she points out, society in the present and future needs people to make a variety of contributions.  While some may bear and raise their own children, those without their own offspring are necessary to produce a world that is a decent place for children of the future.  For example, on the issue of leaving a legacy, she considers how flourishing people act for many other people rather than simply their own children.  Those who are, as single, living lives in which they feel responsibility for society at large are leaving a positive legacy.  Chrastil insists we consider a larger range of what it means to live a full life, to flourish and contribute to society beyond physical reproduction.  As she explains,

Continuing our species takes a lot more than having babies. It requires solving the biggest problems facing our time, creating the art that brings beauty to our existence, the philosophy that guides our actions—including how we raise our children.

Chrastil enumerates some of reasons given for pushing everyone to have children and then refutes each of them.  When stated clearly, traditional expectations for having children are clearly problematic.  I support much of what she says, but for me, some of her statements raise questions worth exploring.

One of the arguments against childlessness that Chrastil challenges is the claim that we need to have children in order to have someone to provide for us in our old age.  I am twice as old as Chrastil and have a different perspective.  Rather than approaching this question as one of whether I should have children in order to have someone to provide for me in the future, I can’t help but approach it as a question of what support I can count on right now.  From that perspective, my concern with aging is primarily with the specific ways society fails to offer support. We do not live in a society where the status quo is sufficient, regardless of whether someone has children.  For many, Social Security is the only “safety net,” and in the United States conservatives continue to try to end its assistance.  In addition, care for parents is not simply about affording to pay someone else to care for them.  Communities where people care for each other are hard to find or create, especially in a world where most of us move frequently. Parents need connections and continuity as they age.  If children are willing, their love and attention can be a critical factor.

In addition, I liked Chrastil’s decision to research and write about childlessness for both men and women.  This is not a topic of choice which women make alone.  Obviously men are involved in whether or not children are born. Not only are individual men fathers; they also play major roles in the laws and structures that shape what it means to have a child.  The fierce attempt to prohibit women from having abortions in the United States is a critical factor in who has children and who doesn’t. And if we are to consider what it means to have virtuous and flourishing lives we need to consider all people, not only women and men, but those who are moving outside traditional gender roles.

Chrastil does not claim that we should give up nuclear families.  She simply advocates that not all people be pushed into them.  Treating the nuclear family as the only way of organizing society has meant privatizing social concerns like education and elder care.  The assumption is that the upper classes can ignore all those in society who are not blood kin.  In other cultures, and in our culture in the past, some of these concerns were addressed in extended families or communities.  Today, the nuclear family is breaking down and other styles of family are emerging—including childlessness. Perhaps Chrastil’s new book can contribute to tolerance of a variety of families and a larger conversation about the need for rethinking how we care for each other.

How to Be Childless is an important book which should be read and discussed by academic and general readers.

Disclaimer:  My daughter, who gave me this book for Mother’s Day, is a friend and colleague of Chrastil.

Shiner, by Amy Jo Burns. 

November 29, 2019

Shiner
Shiner, by Amy Jo Burns.  Riverhead/Penguin Books, 2020

Forthcoming May 2020.

4 stars

An unusual novel, set in the mountains of West Virginia about people who live there in isolation and pain –snake handlers, moonshiners, and silenced women.

Amy Jo Burns grew up a small town in western Pennsylvania. As child she lived in the center of the Rust Belt, when the region was caught in the center of decline and loss.  She left the area to study at and graduate from Cornell University. Currently she teaches creative writing and writes a regular column for Ploughshares.  Her first book was a memoir, Cinderland, published by Beacon, set in the rust belt, and related her own experience of being silenced about sexual harassment she had suffered.

In Shiner, Burns turns to another isolated and neglected region, the Appalachian Mountains. Her main character is Wren, the 15-year-old daughter of self-proclaimed preacher, famous for his ability to handle snakes.  With her parents Wren lives in almost total isolation from modern society, except for regular visits from her mother’s closest friend.  Despite her father’s intent to keep his wife and daughter away from outside contacts, tragedies intrude and force Wren to reconsider her place in the world.  In doing so, she faces new understanding of her parents and her mother’s best friend.

Burns’ novel is full of excitement and insight into the lives of people most of us ignore. Her portrayal of women silenced by men is poignant.  She is sensitive to difficult decisions individuals are forced into making.  At times, however, I wondered if Appalachians still live this way or if Burn has fallen into stereotyping them as so many previous authors have done. Yet I found the story compelling.

Shiner is a very good novel that I suggest for a variety of readers ready to move into unfamiliar territory.