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I think this may be the most important book I’ve ever written about (this is my 342nd post and it will be ten years in August since I started bookconscious, plus I’ve had a couple of newspaper review columns and I review for Kirkus). I was chatting with a student in the library last spring, and he asked if we had Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: a Young Black Man’s EducationWe didn’t but I told him I’d order it. He said it was “life-changing,” which seemed promising, and we probably talked about a few other titles that I don’t remember now, but I wrote down then and made sure we had. It stuck with me that he called this one “life-changing” so when it arrived and made its way to the new book shelf recently, I took it home.

Mychal Denzel Smith was twenty-five when Trayvon Martin was killed, and he opens the book there, then revisits his teens and college years and reflects on, examines, dissects bias of all kinds and the political, cultural, and societal context of those biases. I knew I was privileged before I read this book, not only because my family lives very comfortably, but also because I am white. I knew, intellectually, that it is beyond unjust that because of the color of their skin, I really don’t have to be afraid of my kids ever being shot for walking down the street, or for driving, or for wearing a hoodie, or for having their hands in their pockets. I knew that homophobia is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our society’s lack of openness to or acceptance of the gender spectrum. I knew that our culture is not open enough about anxiety and depression and mental illness in general, that we say “they’re depressed,” instead of “they have depression” that we say “try living in the moment” to people whose moments are hellish. I definitely knew about misogyny and gender inequality.

Intellectually I knew these things and I thought my awareness and concern and letter writing and the occasional protest made me an activist and an ally. I’ve questioned some of the things Smith questions and I thought that made me a progressive thinker. But Smith takes the questions farther — he questions the very nature of bias and justice and presents a way forward where “. . . acceptance won’t just be external. Acceptance will become too weak of a word. We’ll only be able to describe it as love.” I can never say I understand what it’s like to be black, of course, but any of the things that I thought was aware of I have now seen through a young black man’s perspective, never to un-see. Smith, like all excellent writers, took me into his story, made me see through his eyes, and feel through his heart. His gift is that he speaks with honesty and intimacy, two things our society doesn’t really make room for in everyday conversation, certainly not in our schools or workplaces, but really, not even between friends.

From the slaughter of unarmed black people (men, but also women, as Smith points out, you just don’t hear about them as much) to the response to Hurricane Katrina and the outrage at LeBron James’ career moves, Smith unravels the long chain of bias that is choking our country. He writes about music and social media, family life and friendship, the problems we plaster over with platitudes even if we are supposedly making progress (mental illness, drug abuse) in America today. His writing is powerful, muscular, direct, and also emotional, nuanced, and sensitive.

My second child and I have had some disagreements about forms of protest I am uncomfortable with — violence (like destroying property or burning cars), and the campus protests that have prevented people with abhorrent views from speaking. When we went to the women’s march event in our town last January, they took a sign that said “Fuck the Alt Right” and I was concerned that the vulgarity would mean people would take them less seriously. (Quick aside, one of our woman senators was there and read the sign and gave them a fist bump, so there’s that!) I have told them, and their brother, that I feel as if you can’t be respected if you break the law or refuse to hear someone, and if protesters want respect, they have to be civil and work within the system. It’s what I read in Martin Luther King Jr.’s books; his belief in nonviolent protest led him to believe that if black people dressed well, spoke well, and behaved well in the face of dogs, hoses, spit, cudgels, and fists, they would win the hearts and minds of whites and rights would follow.

Which partially came true — and Smith acknowledges that. But he also made me face the fact that it’s also my own implicit bias to prefer this way of protesting. I’ve been immersed in a culture that values “respectability,” and conflates that with respect. As a woman I’ve been taught the same by our culture — don’t dress provocatively, don’t be insistent or demanding, don’t be loud, don’t be strident, don’t be ambitious, or you’ll be seen as a slut, a bitch, a harpy, a ball buster. No one will date/marry/hire/respect you. Here’s what Smith has to say: “We shouldn’t be seeking the respect of an unjust system that will not respect us on the basis of our humanity alone. We cannot allow those terms to make the fight for justice mirror our broader system that relies on the oppression of the least ‘respectable.'”  That was one of the passages I read that caused me to actually out the book down and exclaim to myself, “Wow. What the hell have I been thinking?” If you insert any category of people who are marginalized in our culture — black people, native people, immigrants, women, trans people, gay and lesbian people, disabled people — those are words to live by.

But Smith doesn’t leave it there: “Our challenge is to take the spirit with which we have fought for black men — cisgender, heterosexual, class privileged, educated black men — and extend it to the fight for everyone else.” Smith tells readers his goal is to “become an honest black man and a good black writer.” He is those things. We could work towards all becoming honest people and good human beings if 1) everyone read this book and then 2) lived with the words 3) took them in, and 4) did the work of trying to live by them. I’ve done step 1 and started step 2. As a person of faith, as a mother, as a woman, as a human, I don’t think I have a choice but to pursue steps 3 and 4.

If you read nothing else this summer, read Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching.

 

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NoViolet Bulawayo grew up in Zimbabwe, where her 2013 debut novel, We Need New Names, opens. Darling, a ten year old girl, spends her days with a small group of friends, stealing guavas in wealthy neighborhoods, playing games in the dust of Paradise, the collection of shacks where their families started over after their middle class neighborhood was bulldozed. Darling can remember their previous life, when her parents had jobs, and she went to school. It’s the early 2000’s; the children play “Find bin Laden,” and one character who dies in political unrest has a sign on his grave that lists his date of death as 2008. The story follows Darling for a few years, from Paradise, where her grandmother turns to God as interpreted by a preacher named Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, to Michigan, where her mother’s twin sister, Aunt Fostalina, lives.

I chose this book from a display at my library of books with yellow covers, one of the categories in our summer reading program’s book bingo. I usually like novels about places I haven’t been and lives I haven’t experienced.  Although it’s fiction, this book is firmly rooted in reality, and for a privileged white reader, it’s pretty uncomfortable. People from NGOs and the BBC watch and photograph Darling and her friends and their families, as if they are an exotic species. Americans are clueless and judgmental about African countries and cultures. And of course, our immigration system denies people the new life they hope for; even as various people feel sorry for what’s happening in Zimbabwe, the African immigrants in the book work menial jobs, regardless of how educated they are. They can’t go home, because without official resident status they won’t be allowed to come back to their homes and work — and their American born children. The way Bulawayo portrayed whites caused me to feel as if I didn’t really even deserve to be reading Darlings’s story.

Although reading about the poverty, violence, and pain of Darling’s early childhood is tough — she has a friend her age whose grandfather rapes and impregnates her, her own father returns from South Africa, where he went to try and find work, when he is in the final stages of AIDS, Darling and her friends watch a group of young black men smash up a wealthy white couple’s home — the despair she feels in America is worse. Her family in Zimbabwe pressures her to tell her aunt they need money for a satellite dish; they are living in a nice house now, that Aunt Fostalina has purchased by working two jobs and getting herself into credit card debt. Darling has begun working two low wage jobs herself. Towards the end of the book, she tries to Skype with her mother and the only person home seems to be her old friend Chipo, who named her baby after Darling, but who scorns her now, telling her Zimbabwe is not her country because she left.

Of course, Darling didn’t choose, her mother and aunt decided she would go to America, and in America, adults — either those she knows or those who created the laws and cultural norms that influence her young life — decide much of what she does. The ending is a flashback to a painful memory seared in Darling’s mind, from her early days in Paradise. This has the effect of illustrating what a circle of futility Darling’s life has been to this point. She thinks she has not been at home since the time when her family was stable and safe. She is not home in the place that was meant to offer a new beginning. She can’t go back to the home she left, where her heart seems to remain.

Bulawayo conveys all that longing and unfulfilled promise and the geopolitical and cultural mess the adults in Darling’s world have unthinkingly unleashed upon her generation. She writes Darling’s voice as a small girl and then as a young adolescent and finally as the book ends, as a young woman. Darling, like many children, often thinks figuratively, as in this passage describing mourners at a political activist’s funeral, who had only recently been praying after the election: “They were awesome to see, and when they were in full form, their noise lit Fambeki like a burning bush, songs and chants and sermons and prayers rising to the heavens before tumbling down the mountain like rocks, mauling whoever happened to pass by. And when afterwards no change came, the voices of the worshipers folded like a butterfly’s wings, and the worshippers trickled down Fambeki like broken bones and dragged themselves away, but now they are back like God didn’t even ignore them that time.” A book I’m glad I read for the same reason I exercise — I know it’s good for me, even when it’s hard.

 

 

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The university where I work selected The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore as the book all incoming freshmen are reading this summer. Since Convocation Day is just under four weeks away, I decided it was time to read it. If you haven’t heard of it, the book is written by a man who heard in college of the fate of another man with the same name, who’d been convicted of killing an off duty police officer during a robbery. The author, stuck by their same name and similar early childhood circumstances, eventually wrote to the convicted man, later visited, got to know him, and after a few years wrote a book about their two lives.

Wes Moore the author and Wes Moore the convicted man were both boys in Baltimore with single mothers. Both got into trouble early in life, although the author’s mother tried more drastic steps to prevent her son from wrecking his life, first moving the young family to the Bronx to live with her parents in her childhood home, then sending Wes away to military boarding school when he appeared to be headed in the wrong direction.

It paid off. Military school led to an Army commission, then to Johns Hopkins, the Rhodes scholarship, a White House fellowship, a Wall Street career, a book deal. The other Wes Moore got into increasingly more dire situations, including selling drugs, and had four children by the time he was twenty. When he watched the mother of two of his children succumb to addiction he couldn’t face his own part in it. He found out about Job Corps, got his GED in a very short time, and trained as a carpenter. Back in Baltimore, he could only get low paying unskilled jobs and under continued financial pressure as he tried to support his family, he went back to dealing drugs.

The Other Wes Moore juxtaposes these two stories, focusing primarily on the first 20 years of each Wes’s life. It’s a telling portrait of life for poor, young black Americans, and it’s also a heart-breaking look at what happens when society does not fulfill its promises fully — Wes the convict is smart, but he never graduates from school and if anyone tries to help him there it goes unmentioned. His mother was in college (ironically, at Johns Hopkins) and also working to support herself and her kids when Pell grants were cancelled and she was forced to drop out. When Wes made it through Job Corps he was prepared to live a new life, but was not given a chance with a living wage or even a job where he could apply his skills, and he turned back to crime.

Yes, the author’s mother managed to keep her kids safe, and sacrificed to get him first to private school in the Bronx and then military school, and yes, people have free will, and should be able to take responsibility for their actions. Still, I was really struck by how different things could have been if the convicted Wes had just had a couple of things go differently in his life. But there was something that bothered me even more: he claimed he wasn’t even at the robbery, and therefore could not have participated in the murder. Wes the author mentions this, but does not pursue it, or even spend more than a sentence or two on it. In the introduction to the book he writes,”Wes, it should never be forgotten, is in prison for his participation in a heinous crime.” So I guess he just doesn’t question the verdict, even though he’s come to know the man who claims he wasn’t there.

It seems to me that a man who has become devoutly religious while serving a life sentence who still maintains his innocence deserves more than a passing reference to his contention that he didn’t do it. He was young black man with a record, and I don’t know if I have enough faith in the justice system to believe his conviction was definitely just. That really bothers me, but it’s true. Society had given up on him long before and had sentenced him to a life of despair. So it’s not much of a leap to wonder if society would even think twice about locking him up. The community was demanding justice for a police officer. In light of all the recent attention given to the endemic police bias in Baltimore, I can’t help but wonder. Would that bias trickle into the justice system? I can’t imagine it wouldn’t.

As a memoir, The Other Wes Moore is compelling, but there were some stylistic choices I had a hard time with. I’ve never been a fan of reconstructed dialogue, which Moore employs not only in the sections about his own life and family (at least he was there) but also those about the other Wes. The author is a good storyteller though, and when I was reading the book those sections didn’t bother me. So maybe it was my overall discomfort that made me think twice as I looked back at the book when I was finished. Is it a good choice for a community-wide read? Absolutely — there is a great deal to discuss about race, economic and social inequality, education, family, personal responsibility, even the power of books and stories to change lives.

But I remain disquieted nonetheless.

 

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