9 That Add Heft to the Bookshelf
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Richard Prince's Book Notes™: For Holiday Giving
In this second of two columns¬†on recent nonfiction books by or about journalists of color, the emphasis is on history. Among them: a tour of civil rights landmarks, a little-known, multifaceted black journalist who in 1913 was fighting for capitalization of the word "Negro," a full-throated biography of the iconic Ida B. Wells-Barnett and the first African American woman cartoonist. There's also fun, as New York Times Metro reporter Jennifer 8. Lee explores the world of Chinese restaurants.
Tina A. Brown
Tina A. Brown, a former reporter at the Hartford (Conn.) Courant, has written "Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan" (TAB Brown Publishing, $15.95, paper).
"Linda emerged in the 1990s as an advocate who believed that people like her - those who lived day by day with the AIDS pandemic - were under-represented in the nation's public health prevention campaigns," according to the publicity material for this 265-page paperback, which is based on 12 years of interviews by Brown. "This book takes the reader down the path taken by Linda, a second-generation welfare recipient and a recovering heroin addict, over five harrowing decades in Hartford, Conn., one of America's poorest cities. Linda overcame unbearable trials and became a pioneering force in the AIDS community. She died in May 2006."
Brown took a buyout from the Courant in July and relocated two weeks ago to Savannah, Ga., where she says she is freelancing for the Savannah Morning News and hopes to create a non-traditional bed and breakfast for writers and journalists. Since the book's release early in the year, she told Journal-isms, "I've read to the homeless, those with HIV/AIDS, substance abusers, middle-age white suburban teachers and librarians, country club women and youngsters. My goal is to advance the conversation that we can stop the spread of HIV/AIDS by changing behaviors and forgiving those who hurt us."
Dominic Carter, host of "Inside City Hall" on NY1, the New York all-news cable station, wrote "No Momma's Boy: How I Let Go of My Past and Embraced the Future" (iuniverse, $23.95, paper).
"It's not just another journalist doing another book," Carter told Journal-isms, "but rather a journalist trying to raise awareness of issues of mental illness and child abuse to help a lot of Americans. I'm writing the book as a victim of child abuse and the abuse was at the hands of my own mentally ill mother."
He writes in his introduction, "I will never forget the first batch of my mother's mental records that I received in the mail after her death. Much of this book is based on those documents, along with five long years of research. Imagine reading that your mother wanted to kill you before you even learned how to recite the alphabet. I'm not sure a person can ever get over such a disclosure of mental madness. It's a mind-numbing shock."
Carter told New York magazine that he self-published after "there were suggestions of how to sensationalize it more, and I wasn't really interested in that."¬†
Charles E. Cobb Jr.
Charles E. Cobb Jr., senior writer for AllAfrica.com and a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists, has "On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail" (Algonquin, $18.95, paper).
Cobb takes advantage of his years in the 1960s as a field secretary for the Student National Coordinating Committee (SNCC) for this guide to sites of the civil rights movement. "Movement" is defined broadly, as Cobb weaves in rich anecdotes about sites that hold significance for the black struggle as far back as the Colonial era, the Civil War and Reconstruction. There are 400 in all, including churches, slave markets and black history centers.
As with many books, how readers relate to it depends on the perspective they bring. Gerry Canavan, writing¬†in IndyWeek, found one of "Road to Freedom's" more startling revelations to be how rapidly the physical history of the movement is "withering before our eyes. In Cobb's chapter on North Carolina alone, we find site after site that is memorialized only by a tiny plaque, if indeed the location is marked in any way at all," Canavan wrote.
The book, "organized by destination, with street addresses for historic sites . . . is also full of stories," travel writer Beth J. Harpaz noted for the Associated Press. "Some are known to every schoolchild - like Rosa Parks' refusal to give her seat on the bus to a white passenger - but others will be new to many readers, like a 1944 incident in which a black woman named Irene Morgan¬† was jailed for refusing to yield her seat on a Greyhound bus headed from Virginia to Maryland. The conflict led the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down segregated seating on interstate travel."
Cobb told a Washington book party that one factor distinguishing his book from others on the movement is the credit it gives to women.
Writing¬†last February, Michael Taylor of the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch found "Road" "a valuable work that should be shared with young people needing a crash course on the civil rights movement. At a time when a black man is making a credible run for the presidency, this book offers another satisfying affirmation of how far black Americans have come.
"But it also offers a sobering reminder of how difficult the struggle for equal rights was."
Helene Cooper, diplomatic correspondent at the New York Times, has "The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood" (Simon & Schuster, $25.)
Caroline Elkins wrote¬†on the cover of the Times' Sunday book review: "In her masterly memoir, Helene Cooper brings us back to the halcyon years when Sugar Beach, her family's home, embodied the elite privilege and disco-age chic to which Liberia's upper class aspired. . . . Fate, so it seemed, handed Helene Cooper a 'one-in-a-million lottery ticket' when she was born into 'what passed for the landed gentry upper class of Africa's first independent country.'"
"Sugar Beach" was also a Starbucks pick, placed on sale at the coffee chain in September, and the book has been nominated for a few awards. Cooper, who is being assigned to the White House for the Obama administration, told Journal-isms her memoir would be of interest to journalists of color because "it deals with issues of African history, African American history, race and identity, the immigrant experience, and loss."
An audio¬†version is available and a paperback is due out this summer.¬†
Susan Curtis, professor of history and American studies at Purdue University, has "Colored Memories: A Biographer's Quest for the Elusive Lester A. Walton"¬†(University of Missouri Press, $39.95).
Walton made it possible for many black performers to appear on television and radio. He was one of the first African Americans to work for the Democratic National Committee and was U.S. minister to Liberia before and during World War II. And he was a black journalist who, beginning in 1913, began a crusade to make sure the word "Negro" appeared in print with a capital "N." A story about his letter to the Associated Press on that point is preserved¬†on the New York Times Web site.
Curtis was intrigued after coming across Walton, first known as the music and drama critic for the old New York Age, in researching ragtime notable Scott Joplin. She calls this a nontraditional "ghost" biography.
"I'm not just speaking metaphorically of his status as a dead person," she writes. "I really do mean to suggest that he is a humanizing figure. Walton provokes Americans to recall events that have been forgotten or suppressed out of shame over their weak allegiance to the ideals of democracy that supposedly define the nation."
In her chapter on Walton's ultimately successful battle to have "Negro" capitalized, Walton's argument will be familiar to those following the current debate over whether President-elect Barack Obama is "biracial" or "black." "Why not refer to the term 'Negro' as a race of people and not with regard to the color of one's skin?' he asked. 'Then the term would embrace blacks, mulattoes and all of mixed parentage; for there are millions who are mulattoes and near mulattoes, and there are thousands who are as white as any Caucasian."
Curtis calls Walton a journalistic subversive: "Unlike the men and women now best known for scholarship on American Negroes," W.E.B. "DuBois, Kelly Miller and Alain Locke, to name but three ‚Äî Walton sought to transform populist thought by focusing on mass media. As a journalist, he used professional ties and inside knowledge of newspapers to plant different terms and ideas that would come to represent the common sense of the society."
In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Steve Weinberg wrote, "Almost everything Walton did was accomplished with cool intellect, memorable phrasing and a passion for equality. He was not a paragon of virtue, but surely someone to admire. Despite the gaps in Curtis's telling of his life story, it is full enough to captivate readers."¬†
Paula J. Giddings
Paula J. Giddings, author of 1984's well-received "When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America," returns two decades later with the 800-page "Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching" (Amistad, $35).
Wells is a hero among black journalists, an anti-lynching crusader whose name distinguishes the annual award to a diversity proponent that is bestowed jointly by the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Conference of Editorial Writers.
But "Despite a long and influential career in journalism, social work and politics, Wells has not received the recognition she deserves," reviewer Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, a Yale professor, wrote¬†in the Washington Post. "She left an unfinished autobiography, and other authors have dealt with her activism in various contexts. Giddings set out to write a definitive biography and has succeeded spectacularly."
"Ida Wells's story is so important for this juncture in history ‚Äî and the reactions to her story are three-fold," Giddings, the Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 professor in Afro-American Studies at Smith College, told Journal-isms.
"First there is the take-one's-breath-away response to her raw courage. She, after all, stood up to southern lynchers virtually single-handedly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After her first anti-lynching editorials she purchased a pistol determined to take any attacker with her to Kingdom Come. As you know, her newspaper office was destroyed and she was threatened with lynching herself.
"Secondly, Wells not only had physical courage, but she had what I call social courage. To be an anti-lynching activist meant that she had to delve into discourses (including those around interracial sex), activities, and leadership roles that challenged the role of women and gender at a time when doing so exposed one to criticism and the kind of insults (the New York Times called her a dirty-minded mulatress) that made the blood boil.
"Finally, Wells offers a political lesson that has provided insight to many. She lived and worked in an era like this one: an era that called for reform, that was wrought with division and economic uncertainty. Interestingly, the black elite had unprecedented educational, political and economic opportunities (i.e. the first Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, hundreds of political appointments under Republican administrations and the first black millionaires) and so there was pressure to abandon protest and to believe that education and hard work alone would inevitably result in racial progress.
"Wells of course recognized the opportunities, and the importance of education, and middle-class respectability, but also recognized that protest and mobilization was necessary to secure rights, particularly the rights of the poor. In other words, Wells understood that unprecedented achievement and targeted racial violence and exploitation could happen simultaneously and developed strategies accordingly. I think that this is an important perspective for journalists of color in this era as well."
Nancy Goldstein, collector, dealer and historian of dolls, has written "Jackie Ormes: The First African-American Woman Cartoonist" (University of Michigan Press, $35), a coffee-table book with more than 120 cartoons and comic-strip samples.
"I am a doll collector, and have written about dolls. I knew that Jackie Ormes was connected with a doll, Patty-Jo, first made in 1947, and that she fashioned the doll after her cartoon 'Patty-Jo 'n' Ginger' that ran in the Pittsburgh Courier from 1945 to 1956," Goldstein told Journal-isms. "So I went to old Couriers to find more on this doll, and when I got into the newspapers, the cartoons and their messages were more interesting than just looking for the doll. There wasn't much written about Ormes. As I became fascinated with her life and her work (and with the encouragement of her family), I realized this could be a valuable project."
The pin-up fashionable Ormes, who died in 1985, created four cartoon and comics series that ran in the black press from 1937 to 1956. "Cute five-year-old Patty-Jo and her beautiful older sister, Ginger, are depicted in upscale surroundings that at first might seem at odds with some of the provocative messages in the captions," Goldstein wries in the preface. "Precocious Patty-Jo could be satiric and biting, ingenuously commenting on complex political and social events that affected the average person in mid-twentieth-century Chicago and America. Patty-Jo not only has the best lines, but she has the only lines. Ginger remains speechless as Patty-Jo expounds on a range of subjects including racism, education, housing, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the atomic bomb, taxes, Truman, boyfriends and modern art, to name only a few.
". . . She was probably the first cartoonist anywhere in the country to address industrial pollution effects on underclass communities, as she did in 'Torchy in Heartbeats.' In one episode, Ormes shows readers worried-looking African American mothers bringing their babies, sickened by toxic waste from a factory in the neighborhood to a shabby, meager clinic ‚Äî a comic strip theme that was unheard of in its day."
Goldstein told Journal-isms that Ormes fully participated -- and took pleasure in ‚Äî "the great tradition of pin-ups, so popular during WW II and after."¬†
Wil LaVeist, editor in chief of MIX magazine, a publication of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, has "Fired Up: How to Win When You Lose Your Job" (Xulon Press, $13.99, paper).
As reported¬†here in September, LaVeist writes what it felt like to leave a job as a newspaper columnist for a new job in Chicago with the leading African American magazine company, only to be fired after six months because the boss said he went to a conference and decided he wanted to go in a different direction.
LaVeist said then, "I share the facts of my personal story only so that readers can know where I'm coming from. I give readers an intimate behind the scenes look at what really goes on with a person who has been blindsided so that others who are going through job loss can be helped. The lessons I share apply to dealing with any type of major loss. Ultimately, the bad things that happen to you are oftentimes what point you to your true destiny. It's all in whether you decide to embrace the bad or be its victim."¬†
Jennifer 8. Lee
Jennifer 8. Lee, a reporter for the New York Times, the daughter of Chinese immigrants and a fluent speaker of Mandarin, has "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food" (Twelve, $24.99).
Lee "takes readers on a remarkable journey that is both foreign and familiar: into the secret world of Chinese restaurants, a cultural phenomenon with far greater influence than we realize," the dust jacket says.
She seems to have done so successfully. "Lee promises procedural journalism, a how-and-here's-why book like the work of Michael Pollan¬†and Elizabeth Royte," Kevin Smokler wrote¬†in the San Francisco Chronicle, "but instead delivers an intoxicating ethnographic study of the history and culture of American Chinese cuisine. No, this wasn't exactly what we ordered nor what it looked like on the menu. But we support her digressions because the book we got is probably just as much fun as the one she promised."
"The book is interesting in that it makes you think twice of what is 'American,'" Lee told Journal-isms. "It argues that Chinese food as we know it is more recognized by Americans as it is by Chinese. I think that's an important message, and all the more resonant with our new president."
While the book is "very popular," Lee said, "one thing that I did not expect is that I get invited to do a lot of diversity talks at companies, law firms, banks, government agencies, schools. (I even went to Oscar Meyer!). But I can't take [an] honorarium since I am a journalist for the NYTimes, so I do it mostly out of spirit of spreading the word."
Lee has been invited to appear on television's "Martha Stewart Show" in January.
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