…is right here.
There’s a long tradition of Socialist Worker movie reviews generating major debates, so I am eagerly awaiting responses.
…is right here.
There’s a long tradition of Socialist Worker movie reviews generating major debates, so I am eagerly awaiting responses.
My workout ground to a dead halt tonight when I noticed that the TV above me was covering Trayvon Martin and I watched, riveted, while mainstream news said things like, “This is a new movement.”
That’s what it feels like, even being here in Wisconsin where there isn’t yet a response despite our own local murder of a Black boy for doing what teenagers do (what I did); despite the latest vicious racism, like semester-clockwork, from our frats; despite everything. It feels like something was let out of the bottle with Troy Davis and Occupy, or maybe like something finally crawled its way out, and it’s not going back even if it hasn’t yet taken stock of itself, even if it hasn’t figured out yet what it is.
I can’t stop thinking about the picture from the CNN slideshow of three men of color on a New York City bus urgently photographing the Million Hoodie March blocking their bus’s progress. It feels like a line is being drawn, between cops and prosecutors and reporters and racists laying bare that they don’t care in the slightest about Black boys’ lives, and people shouting that we care. When I look at that picture of the bus, it feels like maybe this is the first time they ever saw someone shouting that they care. It feels tangible how much they care back. It feels like one of those moments when options change.
I hope, I hope this is a new movement. Because we really need this one.
What I think is interesting in this case of censoring school board mistaken identity is that at least this particular article seems to think it’s natural that, if the same Bill Martin who wrote BROWN BEAR… had also written a book for adults called ETHICAL MARXISM, then it would be just fine to keep his well-loved (I haven’t read it) kids’ book out of the curriculum.
Whereas historically, as we now know from Julia Mickenberg, during McCarthyism, children’s publishing (because it was so trivialized) was one of the few places that blacklisted authors could still find work. Which is one reason why it became a relatively progressive industry, with, for example, books about racism and slavery — albeit ones that might strike us as dated or inadequate now — in the early ’60s, while the Civil Rights Movement was still in a pretty early stage of its spread North.
When I say relatively progressive, of course, we know to take that with a grain of salt. (By the way, a post by Editorial Anonymous — which makes a great second point about how having ignorantly non-racist intentions does not constitute a Get Out of Accusations of Racism Free card — is sparking an interesting discussion about the obligations of authors, and when pragmatic professionalism becomes opportunist careerism.)
But back to that Dallas News article… the other thing I find hilarious about it is that the author mentions that one of the school board members orchestrating the censorship of BROWN BEAR… is just plain mad that there are so many books being approved for the curriculum. This is mentioned almost as though it partially excuses his idiocy — see, it wasn’t about this book; he doesn’t want teachers to be able to choose any book for their classrooms!
Mildred Taylor’s ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY has always been a favorite – I’ve read it, and its 2 sequels, over and over. But I only just recently learned that there is a prequel, THE LAND, that has been sitting there, unread by me, all along. No longer.
THE LAND is excellent in all the ways that ROLL OF THUNDER and LET THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN are excellent (I think THE ROAD TO MEMPHIS is very good, but not quite on par with the prior two). Great, complex characters, engrossing story, and most impressively, a really deep exploration of slavery, racism, and how people, black and white, deal with injustice in a realistic way (which Elizabeth wrote an excellent post about a while back). THE LAND is the story of Cassie Logan’s grandfather Paul Edward. Its set during Reconstruction, and Paul Edward is the son of a man and one of his former slaves. The exploration of his relationships with his father and his white brothers is pretty impressive in that it manages to very realistically humanize the white characters without in any way excusing their racism, or ignoring the reality of their place in the post-slavery power structure, and the power imbalances in their relationships with black people. As in Taylor’s other books, the way the characters, white and black, respond to and live within their racist society, is varied, nuanced, and believable.
What struck me most, though, was that reading THE LAND felt like finally hearing the full story of something you kind of know about and have often heard in bits and pieces, but now are getting all the gaps filled in, all the bits of information you just sort of know put in order and strung together. Which is an incredible testament to the world Mildred Taylor built in this series of books – its common to talk about world-building in fantasy books, where authors have to construct a full and consistent reality, but I think its a different kind of impressive to so fully construct a “real” world, one which is historically accurate, but has characters and places rich enough in detail, with personal histories so full, that reading more about them feels like hearing your grandma tell stories about when she was growing up, where a lot of it you didn’t really know, but it all sort of feels familiar anyway. I can’t recall another book where I felt that sensation of familiarity so strongly.
And actually, reading Taylor’s books again set me off on a civil rights history kick in my reading – and so I will mention, although its, you know, not on the topic of this blog, that LETTERS FROM MISSISSIPPI, edited by Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez, is one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time and I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in civil rights history.
I’ve been reading EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT BEING A GIRL I LEARNED FROM JUDY BLUME, edited by Jennifer O’Connell (who writes for adults in that name and young adults as Jenny O’Connell). Which, so far, has been kind of disappointing. Many of the essays — despite some notable exceptions — are almost astonishingly poorly written (considering they’re all written by professional novelists — though not, I suppose, essayists), and most are oddly didactic as well.
In that last vein, the most peculiar that I’ve read so far has got to be Jennifer Coburn’s meditation on “White Guilt,” ostensibly about Blume’s IGGY’S HOUSE. After a plot summary of that book, most of the essay consists of Coburn assuring us many, many, many times that her efforts to prove herself the most enlightened and anti-racist white person ever were misguided and condescending… and actually, I do respect her willingness to recount some of her more unfortunate activities in this regard.
It’s possible I would have judged the essay as a whole more charitably had it not explained early on that Coburn’s New York City upbringing suffered no lack of diversity; after all, as a sixteen-year-old she once shared a cab with a “Middle Eastern dignitary.” …Seriously. It’s the kind of statement that you feel must be intended as irony or satire, except surrounded as it is by more normally earnest statements about the ethnic mix at her schools, I think it’s… not.
The essay as a whole mostly just made me sad: here’s someone who’s obviously quite horrified by racism; we’re in a country where 1 in 15 Black men are in prison or jail and where the Black middle class is perhaps being obliterated, and the (published!) preoccupations of an anti-racist are… this?
One thing I am enjoying about EVERYTHING I LEARNED, though, is seeing some variety in what in Blume’s work spoke to folks. There’s a particular example that struck me, which, now that I’ve puzzled over Coburn’s essay for a lot longer than I expected, will have to be taken up in my next post…
A month or so ago I won an advanced copy of Michael Hemphill’s and Sam Riddleburger’s STONEWALL HINKLEMAN AND THE BATTLE OF BULL RUN from 100 Scope Notes.
The premise of this book for the 5th-8th grade set is that 12-year-old Stonewall, who’s less than enamored of his parents’ Civil War reenactment obsession, gets sent back in time to make sure the war turns out more or less the way it actually did — despite the interference of a time-traveling neo-Confederate. (No, really.)
So it’s basically a fun way to explain to kids what happened at Bull Run. And it is a fun, and well-done, book in a lot of ways — particularly, in Stonewall’s voice and his sardonic commentary on the reenactments.
The problem, though? It’s fundamentally trying to eat its cake and garner congratulations for its abstinence from dessert, too.
What I mean is, Hemphill and Riddleburger make a big point of putting their book on the side of the Union army’s ultimate victory. Well, uh, that’s good. And actually, the most interesting part of the book is probably the slave boy character. The authors have Stonewall try to interact with him like any other 12-year-old, and the slave, whose name is Jacob, just patronizes him like he does every other white person around, which is, of course, how he survives. I’m really glad they didn’t go for some lame feel-good development where Jacob comes to understand that Stonewall isn’t like all the other white people who are casually determining his future.
But. The book’s real hero is… Stonewall Jackson. A Stonewall Jackson who has magically lived through the intervening centuries and turned into a hippie who sees how wrong he was… so we also see what a great guy he was, even though he was really wrong on this one little issue of slavery that was the defining question of his time, and killed a ton of people defending it and other details like that.
And I’m all, come on.
Because I think what Hemphill and Riddleburger (Virginia residents both) are really trying to do is attach themselves to some piece of Confederate nostalgia for Southern “heritage” while disclaiming its racist implications. And I just don’t think they can do that. I’m certainly not saying they’re racists… I’m just saying they’re liberals who are against racism but also seem to want to avoid pissing off some frankly racist parts of the book market and get their book taught in Southern classrooms. Which is, though not just as evil, at least a little bit as annoying.
So I’m nearing the end of THE SWEET FAR THING, the final installment in Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle series, and there’s a lot I’m going to say about this book next week after I finish it, even though I think it’s going to be kind of exactly what I already said about the first two books, but with new examples.
But here’s one thing I’m going to say now: Do the damn Gypsies have to be magical in everything? I mean, seriously.
Season two of BUFFY rocks my world, now and forever, but it was bad enough that they built the whole show around an ancient Gypsy curse. But after they already did that, it’s even lamer for Bray to do it, in my opinion.
And at least in Buffy, some of the Roma, when they went from being plot devices to actual characters in season two, were real people with conflicting desires, better or worse motivations, etc. The Roma in Bray’s book tend to be wise and mysteriously all-knowing about evil and how to fight it. We never learn (at least, not yet, at over 700 pages into the third book) why they know so much about the magic that is hidden from almost everyone else, maybe because it just seems so obviously in-character that they would. They are Gypsies, after all!
There’s a funny scene in Sherman Alexie’s RESERVATION BLUES where he has these two Indian guys make fun of a condescending tourist they meet in a rest stop bathroom by pretending to be magically at one with nature. Who’s the Roma’s Sherman Alexie?
Paula Fox’s THE SLAVE DANCER is, to my mind, a surprisingly challenging and psychologically sophisticated book for younger readers.
The main character is a white boy, Jessie, kidnapped from New Orleans in 1840 and put on a slave ship. While not free himself, he is not treated like the Black slaves that are the ship’s cargo; rather, his job is to play the flute as they, chained, are made to “dance” in shifts: a grotesque display meant, by enforcing brief moments of exercise and air, to keep a few more of them alive despite the inhumane conditions of their passage.
At first, the account of Jessie’s struggle to survive on the ship is dominated by his attempt to navigate among the distinct personalities of the ship’s various crew: they are, respectively, coarse and mean, personable, mercenary, and deeply pious. Some seem immediate antagonists; others, friends and protectors to Jessie. But as the book progresses, those differences recede into a portrait of the immense emotional sickness of each and every crew member. Despite their differences in affect, all are utterly compromised by their acceptance of their own role in the slave trade.
A Newbery and Hans Christensen Anderson Award winner after its 1973 publication, THE SLAVE DANCER is thus both critically acclaimed, and — from what I gather from fairly vague accounts online — controversial among anti-racists.
The criticisms, apparently, center around the slaves being portrayed in an unflattering light, rather than as more active agents for their own liberation. I think these criticisms are misguided, and — after all appropriate spoiler alert!s — here’s why.
It’s true that Jessie is the book’s main actor, and that what we see of the slaves through his eyes, especially while still on the ship, center around the appalling conditions they are in. But I disagree that this means the slaves are presented as child-like or as less than full characters. Jessie’s own shot at liberating himself ultimately depends on his casting his lot with one of the Black slave boys, named Ras, against the whole crew of white men that has participated in enslaving them both.
In this sense, the controversy over THE SLAVE DANCER surprises me because the book seems to conform to a very standard children’s book model: a child protagonist interacts with someone who experiences an oppression (often racism, sometimes class oppression) that the protagonist doesn’t; through ultimately rejecting that oppression — often overcoming their own prejudice in the process — the child comes to recognize ways that their own life is constricted as well. Seriously, is (for example) Avi’s THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE much different from this? So why all the criticism of THE SLAVE DANCER?
That’s not just a rhetorical question, by the way; I want to hear the argument, because I don’t get it.
And not getting it is frustrating to me, because in the abstract, I’m sympathetic to this type of criticism. There’s nothing I find more inspirational than stories of the most seemingly unlikely resistance; this is true in life and in literature. Nothing has moved me as much in recent years as resistance among prisoners in the U.S., and in the world’s largest open-air prison, Gaza. Meanwhile, I feel like I’ve told everyone I know that M.T. Anderson’s THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION is the best book I’ve read in years; what I haven’t always said (because no one can stand to hear me talk about my love of M.T. Anderson any more) is that my favorite parts, by far, of the second volume were the stories of the assorted runaways the hero Octavian met. In tiny details, Anderson showed the immense ingenuity and personality of his slave characters. They were not just fictional characters; they were bit parts, most of them, but I believed in them utterly.
So I’ll be the first to say that we need more stories of slave revolts — and, by the way, to draw attention to the historical role of self-conscious, organized lefties in making space in the field of children’s literature for the slave revolt stories that we do have. (Julia Mickenberg is the main academic who’s exhaustively documented this history; I wrote about it briefly in a magazine article.)
But I also feel that there has to be room for stories like Jessie’s: stories that develop a small piece of what oppression looks like, even if they start from what it looks like from the outside. And stories that dramatize the connection between all those who are made unfree, even when the inequality in their servitude seems, at first glance, to make all the difference in the world. THE SLAVE DANCER starts there, but it ultimately draws its line between free and not free, between who is on the right and the wrong side, in a different place.
Inaugurating our latest regular series: BOOK vs. BOOK. It’s a death match between somehow-related examples of young people’s fiction… because Lord knows, no one would ever read more than one book.
The books: Sherman Alexie, THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN; Mildred D. Taylor, ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY
SPOILER ALERTS for some key scenes in both books.
These are not books, at first glance, that one might think to compare. And yet if you happen to read them side-by-side (as I did a year and a half ago, when doing the research for this article), the similarities are surprising.
ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY is a classic, published in 1976 and winning the following year’s Newbery, set amid a Black community in Great Depression Mississippi. Nine-year-old Cassie’s family struggles to keep their land — their only hope of being able to determine their own future against every twist of unjust fate.
THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, on the other hand, is a contemporary novel, told in text and comics, about the repercussions of Junior (a.k.a. Arnold Spirit Jr.)’s decision to leave his crappy school on “the rez” in favor of the well-funded white school nearby.
Both books open on the first day of school, with our respective protagonists’ excitement turning to disillusionment and anger when they realize, via the pathetic state of their textbooks, just how little their education is actually valued by anyone with any power. Both Cassie and Junior rebel by rejecting their books, and in neither case does it go exactly as planned.
We get the picture: the world is stacked against them, but these kids are fighters. But they may pay a price for that that they can’t quite imagine — yet.
More strikingly, these books also share some fundamental similarities in the scene I found most powerful in each. With a lot of buildup so we understand just what is being risked with this choice, Taylor and Alexie have their protagonists each choose to stand up to more powerful white kids, whose outward friendliness is heavily spiked with racism and condescension.
And then Taylor and Alexie give us the same painful twist: after all that courage in standing up for their own dignity and self-respect, Cassie and Junior are met with bafflement. It’s not that the white kids are angry; it’s not that they fight back and punish our heroes; rather, they just don’t get it at all. Junior and Cassie’s defiant stands deflate into irrelevance in the face of their would-be antagonists’ genuine inability to understand why they are so angry.
Both scenes are so well done, it’s hurting me just writing about it. I think these books’d be worth reading for this alone, but as it happens, they’ve each got a lot more to offer.
THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY has an irreverence I love, with hilarious observations and exactly the kind of obsession with, and half-angst-half-pride about, masturbation that we expect from a teenage boy.
I like that Alexie doesn’t shy away from showing the really destructive elements of reservation culture — its alcoholism; crushing and unromanticized poverty; a misplaced toughness borne of oppression and the absence of any imaginable future — without ever disrespecting his characters and their humanity. Also, as I recently mentioned, I was quite struck by some small references to how homophobia distorts Junior’s friendship with his also-straight best friend. There’s a lot here that moved me, and made me think.
Unfortunately, there’s a point in the book, about two-thirds of the way through, when I started to find it really tough going. Alexie kind of piles on the tragedy, with (I said SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!) the deaths of two emotionally central characters in a row. The book is described as “semi-autobiographical,” and I suspect that this is one of those autobiographical parts, because it’s the kind of thing that actually happens in life but doesn’t really work in fiction.
Which, actually, is interesting; I’ve long remembered a Joss Whedon interview where he described his philosophy of writing as “put the characters in the worst situation you can imagine, and then make it worse.” Which I think is just brilliant (and exactly why BUFFY’s season two plot arc is so phenomenal, but I’ll save those discussions), so here you would think Alexie is just following that advice and I would love it, but I don’t.
This suggests to me that the real plotting secret is something more specific, like maybe that the escalation of badness has to be of a qualitatively different kind; at a certain point, DIARY begins to feel, unfortunately, like an undifferentiated mass of depression. And this might also be personal taste, because I’ve found some other books with really depressed narrators, like Laurie Halse Anderson’s also-wonderful TWISTED, to be hard to wade through as well.
But anyway, that’s my one caveat about Alexie’s really amazing book, his first for young adults, and I truly hope not his last.
ROLL OF THUNDER, meanwhile, manages something I’ve seen in only the best political books (Katherine Paterson’s LYDDIE is one of the few I’d put up on this same pedestal): a real exploration, in plausible and human terms, of the tradeoffs involved in some strategy for facing oppression — with absolutely no abstraction, just the logical development of choices made by characters I care about.
What Taylor does (and maybe this is closer to what Whedon meant?) is put her characters in what seem like truly impossible circumstances, and then really examine the consequences of their reactions. She does this, somehow, without descending into either nihilism or easy answers.
How this plays out is that everyone in and around Cassie Logan’s family has their own plan, more or less explicitly, for trying to make it; it goes the worst for the one who goes the farthest to ingratiate himself to the white power structure, but no one gets by without scars. The Logan family, and especially Cassie, have to learn to make compromises they hate in order to survive. But they also have to learn that sometimes you have to stand up for yourself, your dignity, your family and your life, or none of that was worth protecting.
It’s the way Taylor believably navigates that particular set of contradictions that makes the book incredible; I can’t think of any other that really manages this as well.
Advantage: THUNDER. But since it actually is possible to read more than one book, do yourself a favor and read them both, and savor it. In fact, I may just read them again.