Tag Archives: race in America
“The Vanishing Half” by Britt Bennett
I received this book as a Christmas gift, and I loved it!
It’s about race, about “passing”, about identity and community. The very pretty twin Vignes sisters are identical, and can “pass” for white, but their daughters are opposites, one dark skinned and the other light.
With its detailed portrayal of a small town and its complex, well developed characters (male as well as female), The Vanishing Half reminded me of Marilynne Robinson and her four-book Gilead series, some of the best literary fiction I have ever read.
“The Darling Dahlias Mysteries” by Susan Wittig Albert.
So far I’ve read two of these novels. I wasn’t at all certain that anything from the “cozy mystery” genre would work for me, but these books are great. Yes, chick lit. Yes, beach reading. Intelligent, lively beach reading!
To clarify, Darling is an imaginary small town in southern Alabama. The Darling Dahlias is a garden club with 12 members of varied ages. The series starts at the beginning of the Great Depression. Times are hard, and no one knows if improvement can be expected.
The Dahlias face a variety of (predictable) challenges and the occasional disruption of their quiet town by murder, embezzlement and organized crime. The local, two-person police force can’t always resolve these issues, but the Dahlias, thinking “outside the box” and using unconventional methods, have remarkable success. At the same time, they have fun and revel in mutual support. Darling is the (imaginary) small town we all wish we could live in!
“Run” by Ann Patchett
I found this book by accident, during my first post-Covid IRL visit to my local library! HOW did I miss it before? Run was Patchett’s second novel (2007), after the wonderful Bel Canto (2005).
Run was ahead of its time in its consideration of race. The book triggered my curiosity about transracial adoption.
The plot: A prominent white urban politician (and his wife) adopt two black children to “complete” their family after infertility thwarts their desire for a second child. The wife dies, and the father is left to raise a ten year old son and two preschoolers. Almost two decades later, the father learns that the birth mother of his two younger boys has “stalked” his family persistently. Perhaps this revelation had been inevitable. Everyone has to rethink his/her identity and role. A girl, the younger half-sister of the adopted boys, emerges as a major character.
All these characters are strongly drawn and believable. The oldest son, Sullivan, is particularly interesting, reminding me slightly of Marilynne Robinson’s “prodigal” son Jack Boughton in the Gilead series, another story in which race is examined.
I can’t think of any other novel with a one word-three letter name. “Run” has so many meanings. A politician “runs” for office. A manager “runs” an office. I “run” to catch a train. Life, in many ways, is an endurance run. Patchett’s characters are all struggling to do their best with what life throws at them.
I’m glad that there are several more books by Patchett for me to read.
“Students for White Community Action” at Michigan State University, 1968. Personal history.
Sounds bad, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t. It was (I think) ahead of its time, and taught me important things.
I can’t remember when SWCA emerged. Possibly it was just after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered in 1968.
I had radical friends, members of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). One of them told me they were forming a new organization, Students for White Community Action, to deal with the fact that racism in America is fundamentally a WHITE problem. This was contrary to my assumptions. I thought that Black Americans were poor and uneducated, and needed (white) teachers and social workers to help them rise to “mainstream” social and economic status. My radical buddies enlightened me about the Black professional class, cultural values and (to some extent) the accomplishments of Black Americans.
I don’t know what happened to SWCA. Perhaps a few meetings were held? I was struggling to keep up in my chosen academic major (chemistry) and didn’t indulge in much outside of studying.
Why was my viewpoint on race so limited? I grew up in a defacto segregated suburb of Hartford, Connecticut. The “North End” of Hartford, home to its African American population, was perhaps five miles from my house, but it might as well have been on the far side of the moon. By the time I was a senior in high school, a tiny bit of communication had been established by teachers and church leaders. One friend of mine went to the North End weekly, to tutor. Eventually, we had one “cultural exchange” – choir concerts! We were bused into the North End and performed at a high school, which reciprocated.
Michigan State University was almost as white as my hometown, but the winds of change were blowing at gale force. Possibly the Civil Rights movement in the South could have been ignored, but the “long hot summer” of 1967 culminated in the terrible 5-day Detroit Riot which left 43 dead, 1,189 injured, 7,200 arrested and 2,000 buildings destroyed (Wikipedia).This took place one hour’s drive from the campus I entered in September of 1967. MSU had been used as a staging area for the military assault on Detroit. The University was not, that season, a stable institution. No wonder I remember my college years as “turbulent”.
More than 50 years have passed since then. I’m still learning…
“Passing” by Nella Larsen
This book surprised and intrigued me! I’d never heard of Nella Larsen (1891-1964). The title Passing refers to racial identity and presentation. Some people with African blood look “white”, and hence can choose to “pass” and live as white in America.
Larsen was a multiracial child raised in a Danish immigrant family in Chicago. Her mother was born in Denmark and emigrated to the US. Larsen’s father was a mixed race immigrant from the Danish West Indies (now US Virgin Islands) who died (or disappeared) soon after his daughter’s birth. Her mother then married another Danish immigrant and had a second daughter. From 1895 to 1898, the family lived in Denmark, then they returned to Chicago.
Nella Larsen had no conventional “place” in American society. White people considered her a Negro (hence of low class), but she had little in common with the African Americans (mostly descendants of the formerly enslaved) who began moving North around 1915. Larsen attended Fisk University briefly. At age 23, she took up nursing. Later, she participated in the Harlem Renaissance (aka the Negro Awakening) which emerged in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. In addition to working as a nurse and a librarian, Larsen published two novels. The first, Quicksand, was largely autobiographical.
Passing features three African American women who look white, who can “pass” as white if they choose. Irene marries a successful (but discontented) Black medical doctor. In contemporary terms, Irene identifies as African American. (Larsen says Negro.) Clare hides her racial background, opportunistically marries a (racist) white man and lives simultaneously in material splendor, fear and ambivalence. Gertrude, a minor character, marries a white man who knew her from childhood, and accepted her background without question.
For these women, “passing” is a freighted decision. Children are a big issue. Who will a child resemble? Clare has one daughter, who looks white. She declares she could not possibly risk another pregnancy. Irene calmly announces to her friends that one of her two sons is “dark”. The ideas of “tainted” blood and genetic unpredictability are strong. Gertrude has twins, but refuses to consider the idea of conceiving another child, despite her husband’s total acceptance of her identity.
What about the men? Irene’s husband wants to move to Brazil, to get away from American racism. Irene wants “security” above all and argues against leaving New York. Clare’s husband is a sketchily drawn stereotype, hateful and extremely angry. We don’t meet Gertrude’s husband. He is described as the successful owner of a grocery store.
Another big issue for these three women is the idea of “going back”. If you pass as white, must you surrender all ties to your black family and friends and culture?
Clare is savagely ambivalent, repeatedly asking Irene and her husband to take her with them to Harlem when her husband is out of town. Irene considers this incredibly reckless and dangerous, and, indeed, Clare’s bigoted husband learns of her background and tragedy ensues. I did not foresee the ending.
Much more is explored in this book. Highly recommended!
“I Passed for White” by Reba Lee as told to Mary Hastings Bradley (1955)
When I compiled my list of blog posts about race in America (November 1, 2020), a memory crossed my mind. I remembered a book entitled I Passed for White, which I glanced at but didn’t check it out of my hometown library. I remember a photo of a girl about my age, 12 or 13, and reading that she told a (white) friend that her dark-skinned Dad was not her “real” father, but rather her stepfather.
Sure enough, I found the book for sale on Amazon.
To my surprise, the title led me (via Wikipedia) to a movie version of the book, which was referenced as a novel, not (as it seemed to be) a memoir. The 1960 movie adaptation was salacious. It made a much bigger splash than the book. A poster shows a negligee clad young woman lounging on a bed. The caption reads “I look white…I married white…now I must live with a secret that can destroy us both!” This from Fred Wilcox, the director who brought us “Lassie Come Home” and “The Secret Garden”! It was his last movie.
I couldn’t find information about Reba Lee. I found more than one obituary, but none that mentioned publication of a book.
Mary Hastings Bradley turns up in Wikipedia, but I’m not certain of the match. Bradley was a prolific writer of travelogues and novels, several of which were made into movies. Her last novel was published in 1952, and she lived in Chicago, the initial setting of I Passed for White.
According to the movie plot summary, the protagonist left her community, married a white man, lost a child to stillbirth and divorced without revealing her mixed race heritage. Thereafter, she returned to her previous home and identity.
None of which, I guess, was particularly surprising for America in the 1950s. Reba Lee was probably scantily compensated for her story (whether fictional or actual), and her personal history was, I suspect, sensationalized. I’m glad there are still copies of the book available. Perhaps there’s more to be learned here. Recently, the book I Passed for White has attracted some academic interest.
List of posts pertaining to race in America
Hello, dear Readers!
Are you looking for books about race and/or white supremacy? This is what I’ve read (willy nilly) over the past 8 years. Most of these were just lucky finds, often from the New Arrivals shelf at my library. Some of these (towards the bottom) are books I haven’t read yet!
I’m using the term “race” broadly, to include “people of color” and indigenous Americans.
I’ve also written about lectures and personal experiences.
Sorry about the rough formatting. Dates (column two) are given in YYYYMMDD format, which can be used with the blog archive to find my reviews/essays. Or use the blog search function with the author’s name (third and fourth columns). If there’s nothing in the third and fourth column, I am the author.
|“Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher…Edward Curtis”||20130519||Timothy||Egan||biography|
|“The Eve of Destruction – How 1965 Transformed America”||20130603||James T||Patterson||sociology|
|“Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences”||20130804||Richard||Pryor||autobiography|
|“Detroit – An American Autopsy”||20130907||Charlie||LeDuff||urban planning|
|“The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger”||20130915||Richard||Wilkenson||sociology|
|“Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance”||20131004||Carla||Kaplan||lecture review|
|“Playing the enemy – Nelson Mandela and the game that made a nation”||20131016||John||Carlin||political science|
|“My Beloved World”||20131118||Sonia||Sotomayor||autobiography|
|Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013) – Rest in Peace||20131206||essay Gitchell|
|“Tangled Webs – How false statements are undermining America: from Martha Steward to Bernie Madoff”||20140108||James B||Stewart||sociology|
|“American Mirror – The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell”||20140205||Deborah||Solomon||biography|
|“Hellhound On His Trail: the electrifying account of the largest manhunt in American history”||20141030||Hampton||Sides||history – recent|
|My Days in Court – Reflections on Jury Duty||20150217||essay Gitchell|
|“Son of the Rough South – an Uncivil Memoir”||20160109||Karl||Flemming||autobiography|
|“The Color of Water”||20160410||James||McBride||autobiography|
|“Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption”||20160924||Bryan||Stevenson||sociology|
|Constitution Day Lecture – SU – 2016||20161105||Akhim||Reen||lecture review|
|“Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City” and “Why We Chose This Way”||20161217||Turiya S.A.||Raheem||autobiography & creative non fiction|
|Women’s Protest March (Trenton, NJ) and protest memories||20170122||essay Gitchell|
|Women’s March in Trenton (2) – about Elder Sister||20170125||essay Gitchell|
|Ms. Edith Savage-Jennings – Elder Sister||20170128||essay Gitchell|
|The Central State University Chorus in performance||20170328||concert review|
|Intersectionality – a personal essay||20170525||essay Gitchell|
|In honor of MLK Day (1) – Remembering Lillie Belle Allen and York, PA||20180116||essay Gitchell|
|In Honor of MLK Day (2) – Remembering Lillie Belle Allen and York, PA||20180220||essay Gitchell|
|Having Our Say: Women of Color in the 2018 Election||20181019||Sheila||Oliver||lecture review|
|Drawing Fire – A Pawnee…WW II||20190719||Brummett||Echohawk||autobiography|
|When I Was White – A Memoir||20190827||Sarah||Valentine||autobiography|
|Constitution Day Lecture – SU 2019 – J Biskupic||20190920||Joan||Biskupic||lecture review|
|Say Her Name – Lillie Belle Allen||20200610||essay Gitchell|
|Senator Cory Booker virtual town hall||20200621||essay Gitchell|
|“Race in America” in my blog||20200628||essay Gitchell|
|“Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy”||20201018||David||Zucchino||history|
|“Whistling Vivaldi – How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do” by Claude M. Steele||20201017||Claude||Steele||sociology|
|“Rain of Gold” by Victor E. Villasenor||20200829||Victort||Villasenor||history|
“Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy” by David Zucchino
I should read this book. While a close friend was reading it, he disappeared into somber gloom. It’s bad news, fully documented, and way too close to home.
In 1898, the democratically elected city government of Wilmington NC was overthrown and at least 60 African Americans were murdered. Hundreds of families were driven out of Wilmington.
One Amazon reviewer described the events as “an atrocity against God.” Other descriptions included “depraved” and “unsettling”.
In human experience, evil sometimes triumphs. White supremacy came out on top. Perhaps I’ll read this when I feel stronger.
NJ Senator Cory Booker, “Town Hall” Meeting, June 11, 2020 – Race in America #2
This was a Zoom gathering, and I was one of about 1500 participants. Senator Booker began by announcing that “the press” was not welcome. I was surprised. There’s no way a meeting that size could be “closed”, so I assume he was simply making it clear that he didn’t want to be quoted.
Questions were accepted both in advance of and during the meeting, but all were in writing and the moderator (his Deputy Campaign Manager) screened and read all questions. No one had an opportunity to throw either a softball or a curveball. I think the term is “on background”. Surely the press was listening, but they were not allowed any part in the event. OK with me.
A video of the event was later made available on line. I don’t think anything surprising or controversial was said. Booker has been in the public eye for a long time. He is suitably cautious.
Booker was born in 1969, after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King. While admiring that advances of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, he said it had “accepted a negative peace”. The (then common) assumption was that integration and the Civil Rights Act would greatly advance the interests and quality of life for African Americans.
Booker believes racism (as presently experienced) is systemic as well as personal.
Booker talked about America as two nations, with unequal access to healthcare, justice, and a clean environment (as evidenced by rates of asthma, lead poisoning, etc.) He challenged the idea that the documented differences are really economic. Even controlling for income, health differentials confirm that the system is biased against non-Whites.
Booker says we are experiencing a time of opportunity. He encourages continued demonstrations. (He didn’t address preventing instigators from causing or exacerbating violence.) His sees his role as legislative and discussed the new legislation he (with other Senators) has written. One Republican Senator has expressed crossover support. Booker is uncertain if others can be recruited. The legislation calls for “substantive accountability” as follows:
- ban on chokeholds and other lethal actions
- data transparency and a national database about police infractions and penalties (so violent officers can’t just move to a new department) and
- limits on police immunity, changing the standard from willfulness to recklessness.
Booker emphasized that it’s not the job of law enforcement to solve problems. That responsibility rests on government. Law enforcement does what government prescribes.
The next topic was incarceration. He describes our prisons as being full of addicts and non-violent offenders, many of whom are desperate for health care, especially mental health services. He says that there ARE solutions, it is a matter of how much we the American people are willing to struggle. Booker wants to end “mass” incarceration in this generation. It’s a big goal.
During the Q/A, topics included police in schools, systemic issues like the food and clothing industries, and voter suppression.
Asked how to keep protest going, he asked allies to stay engaged, to use every possible platform, to be creative and aggressive, and to be increasingly well informed. He advised reading The New Jim Crow and Just Mercy.
Considering he had been my Senator for about seven years, I’m a little late trying to get acquainted with Cory Booker. This was a reasonable, not particularly surprising, introduction. I’m optimistic about his leadership and concerned about the pitfalls and challenges of being a Senator at this time.