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An African American and Latinx History of the United States, by Paul Oritz.

January 16, 2018

Happiness
An African American and Latinx History of the United States,
by Paul Oritz.  Beacon Press, January 2018.

4 stars

An exemplary history of the little known thread of internationalism informing the activism of people of color in the United States since the revolutions here and in Haiti in the 1700s.

Paul Oritz teaches in the history department of the University of Florida where he specializes in African American and Latinx history and the history of social movements.  His Ph.D. is from Duke, where he edited and collected oral histories for the award-winning, Remembering Jim Crow.  He also served in the U.S. military in Central America where he became disillusioned by our nation’s policies.

In his biographical note at the University of Florida, Oritz refers to this book as titled ‘Our Separate Struggles Are Really One.’  Certainly that title aptly captures its main thesis.  Hidden away in newspapers and convention speeches is an ongoing message that oppressed people need to unite and fight for each other if they hope to be free.  By researching seldom read sources, Oritz has added a new perspective on American history, one that few of us in the history profession knew about.  His findings will probably be attacked by those who continue to want to whitewash our history, but he is simply adding another thread to our story, one that helped me, for one, better understand some the quirks of our foreign policy.

Oritz’s new book is part of an ongoing series being published by Beacon Press entitled “ReVisioning  American History.”  The series is committed to broadening our understanding of who we are by exploring little known parts of our past.  Other books in the series include volumes on indigenous and disability history and the history of queers.  I applaud Beacon and historians like Oritz for these contributions to an expanded version of who we are as citizens of the United States, even when they reveal that our nation has exhibited less than perfect behavior in the past.

I strongly recommend this book for the classroom and for others interested in an expanded version of American history.

Beacon Press merits congratulations for publishing three excellent books of African American history this spring that will be welcome by teachers, scholars, and the general public.  All three can help us regain a more accurate vision of the actual character of the Civil Rights Movement at a time when that vision is being sentimentalized and “white washed.”  I will be reviewing all three this week so you can check out the others.

A More Beautiful and Terrible History, Jeanne Theoharis.

An African American and Latinx History of the United States, by Paul Oritz.

History Teaches Us to Resist, by Mary Francis Berry.

A More Beautiful and Terrible History, Jeanne Theoharis.

January 14, 2018

A More Beautiful and Terrible HistoryA More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History,  Jeanne Theoharis.  Beacon Press, 2018.

5 stars

A powerful account of the Civil Rights Movement in all its “terrible beauty” and an analysis of how that history is already being watered down and misused.

Jeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College. She has published on Civil Rights, race, and social welfare.  Her book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, was especially well received.  In it she introduced some the themes which shape her latest book.

Theoharis is concerned about how recent politicians and pundits are nostalgically comparing the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s with similar movements today as if the former protests were better because they were quieter and less disruptive.  She displays abundant evident that this view is simply not true.  Taking her title from the words of James Baldwin, she reminds us of the anger and disruptive force of earlier years, often telling stories that we have conveniently forgotten or never understood.  In the process, she reveals the common threads of then and now and encourages readers to speak out despite allies who would silence them.

Early chapters in the book address the way in which long ongoing activism lay behind the activism of the 1950s and 1960s.  If white people had known the history of their own towns and regions, they would not have been “surprised” when protesters appeared.   Theoharis fleshes out the actions of Rosa Parks and others in Montgomery long before the Boycott.  She also describes how even Martin Luther King angered whites and some blacks who feared  what might be lost in the response to open opposition.zi

As Theoharis explains race relations in Northern and Western cities always were distorted as opponents used different words to keep the Civil Rights Movement confined to the South.  She focuses on Los Angeles, Boston, and Detroit, where the protest of blacks had long gone ignored until they burst out in violence. She also devotes chapters highlighting the young people in the movement and women’s roles.  Instead of repeating the emerging stories of rural women organizers, she reveals the roles of women in the 1963 March on Washington and the exclusion of them by the black male leaders.

I recommend this book to all readers.  In telling her stories, Theoharis opened my eyes to events I had never known about, even though I have researched and taught African American History. It is simply an enjoyable taste of history at its most truthful and beautiful.  Once she pointed it out, I immediately saw the numerous ways in which we are minimizing the power of the Movement.

Beacon Press merits congratulations for publishing three excellent books of African American history this spring that will be welcome by teachers, scholars, and the general public.  All three can help us regain a more accurate vision of the actual character of the Civil Rights Movement at a time when that vision is being sentimentalized and “white washed.”  I will be reviewing all three this week so you can check out the others.

A More Beautiful and Terrible History, Jeanne Theoharis.

An African American and Latinx History of the United States, by Paul Oritz.

History Teaches Us to Resist, by Mary Francis Berry.

 

Dark Matters, by Susan Hawthorne.

January 9, 2018

Dark Matters

Dark Matters, by Susan Hawthorne. Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press, 2017.

FAVORITE

5 STARS

A deeply moving novel about a woman who is imprisoned and tortured, and her niece who tries to read her writings after her death.

Susan Hawthorne (1951-    ) is an Australian woman, well-known for her wide-ranging writings, achievements, and interests.  Her twenty books include award-winning fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.  She has a PhD in Political Science and Women’s Studies and has written about the environment, war, violence, and the publishing industry, often bringing to such subjects an unusual feminist perspective.  Her books move easily back and forth across genres, subjects, and languages in ways grounded in the breadth of her interests and knowledge.  In addition to her individual writing projects, she and Renate Klein created the radical feminist press Spinifex, twenty-five years ago.  With Spinifex, Hawthorne continues to make available books by and about women with innovative styles and radical critiques of taboo subjects. Spinifex is my favorite press for obtaining books by and about a wide variety of women regardless of their race, class, nationality or sexual orientation.

In Dark Matters, Hawthorne writes of torture from the perspective of a woman who is tortured, never knowing what she had done to merit such treatment, or if her lesbian partner was killed in the sudden attack on them.  After her death, a niece who never knew her well tries to organize and digest her aunt’s scattered writing.  In the process, the two women seem to blur into each other until I wasn’t sure which was which, and that seemed as it should be.

Hawthorne uses a swirling, modern style of writing in which fragments of the past and present are interwoven in a seemingly random account.  The imprisoned woman’s numbered journal entries are the major hint of a traditional chronology, and readers can see how the ongoing torture changes her.  Hawthorne handles the style well, balancing innovation with order.  Readers may be confused (as the characters themselves are confused), but Hawthorne never quite loses them.

The beauty of the language of the book provides a necessary distance for facing the horrors about which Hawthorne writes.  Given the topic, this book could have been much more depressing, or voyeuristic.  Readers are confronted with the “dark matters,” but only through words on the page, reminding us that the world we live in is not always benign.  Sometimes we need to be reminded of this to avoid glib optimism or the assumption that we are alone if we suffer.  Hawthorne’s insight and skill keep the story from being overwhelming for most readers.

This is a wonderful book that I heartily recommend.  However, a few readers with their own experiences with trauma may want to skip this one.

 

Books by Susan Hawthorne that I have read and reviewed:

Limen     https://wp.me/p24OK2-N8

Lupa and Lamb  https://wp.me/p24OK2-1ej

Bibliodiversity   https://wp.me/p24OK2-1ej

Looking up Hawthorne for this review, I found all her other books and decided to read some more of them.

Blacks in the Adirondacks: A History, by Sally E. Svenson.

January 3, 2018

Blacks in the Adirondacks
Blacks in the Adirondacks: A History
by  Sally E. Svenson.  Syracuse University Press, November 2017.  With an Afterword by Alice Paden Green.

A meticulously researched account of African Americans in a mountainous region of New York from colonial times to the present.

Sally Svenson is a white author who noticed the scattered references to blacks in the old newspapers on microfilm that she was researching for another project.  She began collecting those references and realized that they were an indication of an untold story of the Adirondack’s history.   An independent scholar, she has also published Adirondack Churches: A History of Design and Building and Lily, Duchess of Marlborough (1854 – 1909): A Portrait with Husbands.

By focusing on African Americans, Svenson has uncovered a rarely examined thread in the history of a particular locality.  Projects like hers provide the particular stories that are needed by historians writing on a larger scale.  Her notes reveal that she has obviously spent long hours tracking down short references in an immense number of sources.   Her account is particularly rich for the period, 1850-1950.

The book ends with an insightfulAfterward: Autobiographical Reflections” by Alice Paden Green, a long-time black resident of the region.  In it she provides a moving personal account of the more recent years. Green has also created her own foundation to assist writers of color.

While this is a book of obvious value, it could have been even better if Svenson had placed her project more in the context of new, best work in African American History.   She is not the only historian to research blacks in locations where they are a significant minority, and more attention to the national picture would strengthen her work.

I recommend Blacks in the Adirondacks primarily to historians of upstate New York or of African American history.

Scissors, Paper, Stone, by Martha Davis.

December 27, 2017

Scissors, Paper, StoneScissors, Paper, Stone, by Martha Davis.  Red Hen Press, 2018.

Forthcoming.

4 stars

A sensitive story of three women: a Korean daughter, her white adopting mother, and her best white childhood friend, are pulled together and torn apart by different understandings of race and lesbian identity.

Martha K. Davis lives in San Diego where she is a writer and a teacher.  Her essays and short stories have appeared in several lesbian journals.

In this novel, Davis tells the story of Min, adopted as an infant in the 1960s by Catherine and Jonathan, despite the complicated disapproval of Catherine’s family. Davis traces Min through childhood, loved in her family but with only one close friend, Laura. Catherine truly believes that “ignoring her race could make her white,” an assumption that comes to alienate Min. When the girls are in their early 20s, Min has defined herself as a lesbian and the three women must renegotiate their relations to each other around sexual choices and race.

Davis does a fine job of addressing the complexities of lesbian life.  She writes about women’s relationships with each other within the lesbian community and between lesbians and non-lesbians. She does so with a certain subtlety that can help readers grasp what often goes unnoticed. She shows a real talent for dealing sympathetically with all sides of conflict.  The variety among lesbians is clearly revealed as well as how racism divides individuals. My only complaint is that I was bored with all the long explicitly sexual sections.

I strongly recommend this book, especially for those of us who are not lesbians and want to understand other women’s lives.

The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, by Robert Jensen.

December 20, 2017

End of PatriarchyThe End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, by Robert Jensen.  Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2017.

5 stars

A clear, concise argument supporting radical feminists’ demand that we must end institutionalized male dominance if we hope to achieve a just society.

Robert Jensen is a Journalism Professor at the University of Texas who has published widely about a variety of Progressive causes.  He is a widely respected scholar/activist who has been on the forefront of rethinking social issues for the past two decades.

Jensen is properly aware of his own privileged position and of the problem of men addressing feminist issues. He says repeatedly that he is not speaking for women or lecturing to them.  Instead he feels that his privilege gives him a responsibility to be part of a conversation that he considers vital for all of us.  He is refreshingly humble and does not take sides on unanswerable questions like nature vs. nurture.  He does, however, take positions on some of the issues being debated among feminists.

In Jensen’s vocabulary, “radical” does not mean an appeal to violence or the rejection of all men.  Quite simply, for him radical means deep social change, cutting out the roots of the problem—especially the problem of dominant/subordinate behavior patterns.  For him, as for many 60s radicals, the opposite is “liberal” by which he means prioritizing gains of individual women into the existing dominate groups.  His emphasis on the need for social rather than individual change or opportunity, shapes his stance on the contemporary debates he discusses.

As a social scientist, Jensen sees male domination rising in the prehistoric period, perhaps with the emergence of agriculture. Before that, he envisions people working “with” rather than “for” each other.  Critically he claims that the desire for domination is not something basic to humans but something that humans created and can change.  While any evidence for the prehistoric period is scarce, he is far from alone in taking this viewpoint.

Moving away from theoretical issues, Jensen discusses rape and rape culture, prostitution and sex work, and transgender issues.  In each case he seeks to be supportive of victims while asking us to consider long-term structural, rather than only personal problems. His discussion of transgender options moved into important new territory for me. Within the context of validating transgender individuals, he does not support “a liberal, individual, medicalized approach to the problem of patriarchy’s rigid, repressive, and reactionary gender norms.”  As part of a more just society, he would prefer more open, flexible gender options in which all can make peace with their own bodies without medical assistance.

I was impressed with Jensen’s approach to radical feminism.  I was familiar with much of what he had to say, and I like how he summarized complex issues.  I wish all the women and men with whom I discuss feminist issues would read this small book.  I am glad to recommend it to a wide range of men and women who are interested in the cutting edge of feminist theory today.

Food Allergies, by Scott H. Sicherer.

December 14, 2017

Food AlergiesFood Allergies: A Complete Guide for Eating when Your Life Depends on It,  Scott H. Sicherer.  John Hopkins Press, 2017. Second Edition

4 stars

Another volume in the John Hopkins Health series providing people with basic information on health problems; here the focus is food allergies and how to handle them.

Given the current medical establishment,  many of us do not get enough information about diagnosis to understand what is needed for us to live with our problems.  Johns Hopkins Press is publishing a useful series to help us out.  Specialists in various ailments provide detailed answers to questions we may have.

This book is a second, expanded and updated volume containing a wealth of information about allergies.   Scott H. Sicherer, a specialist on the topic, provides us with a scientific explanation of how allergies behave in our bodies. In doing so he defines medical jargon and differentiates between a true allergy and other physical responses.  He goes through five frequent allergies discussing where their triggers appear and how to avoid them.  He even discusses topics like fitting an allergy regime into everyday life.

The book is structured around questions and answers, and I believe it would be useful, particularly for those recently diagnosed with allergies.