Black History Month Reading: Day 14

I’m close to finishing Phoebe Robinson’s You Can’t Touch My Hair (one chapter left to go) and have pretty much loved it. The thing about Phoebe Robinson is that you (or at least I) feel like she’s standing right there talking to you. She’s funny, direct, and honest. First off, I learned a lot about hair. Black hair in general and women’s in particular. You might not care about this, but I found it fascinating, and it has given me a new appreciation (and the occasional silent wow) for black women’s hair. Don’t touch it. Don’t ask to touch it.

Moving beyond hair, Robinson addresses stereotypes, or what she calls the monolith of black, which I totally got when I read:

Blackness is not a monolith. There’s nerdy black, jock black, manic pixie dream black, sassy black, shy black, conscious black, hipster black . . . the list goes on and on.”

After a nanosecond of introspection, I realized I have a bit of this monolith perspective myself. (This comes up in many of the books I’m reading—the perceptions, the expectations, the stereotypes. My eyes are opening a bit. I read on.)

Because I am an introvert and tend to analyze everything social, this, in particular resonated with me:

I don’t know about other black people, but that Greek chorus of “But what will the white people think?” has been a constant in my brain for much of my life. “Man, I truly am going to be late, not because of CPT but because of traffic. But what will the white people think?” “I really want to order certain food off this menu at dinner. But what will the white people think?” “I want to speak out about some injustice I just witnessed. But what will the white people think? That I’m a troublemaker? Guess I should keep my mouth shut.” Do you know the amount of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years that have been wasted second-guessing each and every behavior because I was wary of how I was going to reinforce or dismantle certain stereotypes?”

This is an excellent book, and I haven’t included any of the funny bits, some of which were quite exceptionally funny.

After You Can’t Touch My Hair, I decided maybe a little balance with the old school was in order, so I pulled out bell hooks and Alice Walker. I thumbed through both, decided on Alice Walker, and life was good. But then I went Stop! Why go old school? Why not read another up-and-coming (or at least on my bookshelves for less than a decade) author? So I put Ms. Walker back and pulled Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light off the shelf.

I’m not dismissing Alice Walker or any of her peers, but I think it’s time for me to get in touch with a younger generation of writers. Smith is Poet Laureate of the United States, and I’ve read a bit of her poetry, but Ordinary Light is a memoir, the story of “a young woman [born 1972] struggling to fashion her own understanding of belief, loss, history, and what it means to be black in America.”

I am beginning to begin to understand just a wee bit of what it means to be black in America.

In the fiction world, I loved The Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon. Here is what you have: a girl all about science, a boy who writes poetry. She is a Jamaican immigrant scheduled to be deported at the end of the day. He is a Korean American, the younger son, destined to become a doctor. Science meets poetry. This YA book is a wonder on many levels. First of all, it has physics and multiverses (one of my pet physics theories and my own preferred explanation of infinity), and then you add poetry and I’m a goner. So much more—lawyers, parental issues, family angst… I won’t say more except that I laughed out loud, cried (more than once), and loved it.

In the world of poetry, I have moved on to Sonia Sanchez, Like the Singing Coming Off the Drums. A beautiful book I want to read slowly but can’t. I will leave you with this:

love between us is
speech and breath, loving you is
a long river running

 –Sonia Sanchez

 Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Black History Month Reading Day 6

I’ve finished Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly. What an excellent book! Both deeper and broader than the movie, the book covers a longer period of time, a larger swath of people (including African American men) and, occasionally, areas outside Langley and the state of Virginia. The book, Hidden Figures, is about many more hidden figures than the three highlighted in the movie.

I loved the book. I loved the movie. As is usually true, the book holds a lot more than the movie. There’s a lot of history, and many more stories in the book than could ever make it into one movie. It would have to be a documentary. Or several documentaries.

But here’s something. Almost always I will say I loved the book more than the movie (there are a few exceptions, and I’ll think of one soon—maybe The Hours). But in this case, I didn’t love the book more than the movie, but nor did I love the movie more than the book. I loved them differently, in a way that I’m not sure has ever happened to me before.

The movie was a good bit of history, but its primary impact on me was emotional. I was just there with these women. Certainly I learned a lot in the movie, but when I walked out of the movie, I was all yes!—Give women a chance and a place at the table and we can do just about anything. And these black women who broke so many barriers in the face of so much discrimination—it makes me pause in awe.

The book layered a lot more history on that good feeling, which was also a good feeling.

And then somewhere in there I took a break and watched Bagdad Café again. Does anyone out there know/remember this movie? One of my all-time faves (I think it would have to be in my top 10). I loved this movie for the music first, most specifically “Calling You” by Jevetta Steele—a mesmerizing and haunting song. I am not sure I can listen to this song without being moved to tears (is there any other song that falls into that category? Oh, yes, “What a Wonderful World,” by Louis Armstrong).

It might not work if you haven’t seen the movie (the emotional wallop of the song, I mean), not sure—I’ve mostly only heard it watching the movie (at least a dozen times now).

But this quirky movie is worth watching if it has escaped your radar. It’s one of those movies I seem to enjoy just a bit more each time, and I never tire of C.C.H. Pounder.

And I have recently learned that this song that I have loved for decades is sung by a local musician. Yes, right here in the Twin Cities. Jevetta Steele, part of the Steele family. (Thank you dear spouse for bringing this to my attention; I have a tendency to miss things close to home.)

Back to books. In the land of poetry, I’m On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove. About two-thirds through, I am thoroughly enjoying it. I especially liked the second section, “Freedom: Bird’s-Eye View,” which contains several gems. One of the best known may be “Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967,” and that certainly is a most excellent poem. I thought to include that one because I love it. But I decided on this one because it’s shorter and perhaps a little less well known.

The First Book

Open it.

Go ahead, it won’t bite.
Well . . . maybe a little.

More a nip, like. A tingle.
It’s pleasurable, really.

You see, it keeps on opening.
You may fall in.

Sure, it’s hard to get started;
remember learning to use

knife and fork? Dig in:
You’ll never reach bottom.

It’s not like it’s the end of the world—
just the world as you think

you know it.

–Rita Dove

We’re still in serious winter here in Minnesota, so I’m going back to hibernating with my books. Stay warm (to those of you in the winter climes) and happy reading to all!

Black History Month Reading: Day 1

No, I’m not going to do a daily report (I don’t read—or write—fast enough to make a daily report interesting) but I hope to provide several updates throughout the month.

A few days ago I started Phoebe Robinson’s You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain. I’m about a quarter of the way through and loving it. At least three times I’ve almost gotten up from the table to email Ms. Robinson and tell her how much I am loving her book, but coffee and inertia win out. There’s a good chance I’ll still write her. From my chair, the first two chapters of the book alone were worth the price. Already I respect black women more (yes, this is how much I don’t know). The power of hair.

To leaven the pot a little bit, tonight I read the preface of Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly (on which the movie—which I loved—was based) and I got teary-eyed just with the preface. This is some fine history of the key role that black women played in the NASA space program. (If you haven’t seen the movie—oh my. I will only say I loved it. I’m sure not everyone should love it just because I loved it, but really, in this case, maybe yes. Excellent story, excellent acting. And you can get it from the library.)

I was a little surprised/disappointed that I didn’t have any African American poetry on my to-read shelf (I found several on my poetry-to-keep-forever shelf, but I find I want to go beyond what I have already read). I requested several books from the library in late January, as soon as I discovered my in-house dearth. The next day, five were already in transit. Yes! I checked online this morning, and still none had arrived. But this afternoon I took a chance and stopped by the library. You never know when the books might arrive. I headed right to the reserve books, and boo, none had arrived. So I hunted up poetry (buried in nonfiction, which surprised me, and all mixed up with essays and children’s books—I need to ask my librarian friend about this; it feels like Dewey Decimal run amok). That was fruitless, but the 10 minutes I stood trying to make sense of the shelves made a difference. I stopped by the reserve shelves on my way out, and yes! There they were, 3 (of 10) that I requested: On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove; and Morning Haiku and Under a Soprano Sky, both by Sonia Sanchez.

And while logic would have it that I start with Sonia Sanchez so that I could then read Dove and not get all samey-samey, I purely could not stop myself from starting with the Rita Dove book. I have read only the first bit, but I am happy with my choice. I love Rita Dove (2 books on the keep-forever shelf) and this is a most excellent start to the month.

I’m not new to black literature, but this immersion experience is new. I know I will learn a lot. I wonder if it will change me. It well might. This is the power of books.

I’ll keep you in the loop.

Going Rogue (Bookishly) for Black History Month

A funny thing happened as I was finishing up the “Love” chapter of Krista Tippett’s book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. Somewhere after reading longish passages from her conversations with Elizabeth Alexander (African American poet) and finishing the chapter, I decided I needed to read more black and African American literature. I decided to prioritize all the black writers in my theme pile for February.

Guess what? Not a one. Well, boo. January was great with African American writers I didn’t get to. So I decided to go rogue and push the book theme to the side (not completely) and focus on black writers in February, partly because it’s Black History Month, but mostly because I really want to do it. Sometimes I get a little too wed to the book themes. I have books I’ve wanted to read for quite some time now, but I let the themes drive my reading. (I do have control over this, there are no rules. I do have control. Really I do.)

So sometime between my second and third cup of coffee this morning, I decided to read (mostly) black/African American books in February. I was excited before I even got up from my chair. Perusing my shelves (reminder: I tend to use the book themes to read and potentially pare down the huge excess of books I have accumulated over the years), I found nonfiction quite fruitful:

  • The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander
  • The End of Blackness, Debra J. Dickerson
  • Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay
  • Wounds of Passion, bell hooks (plus a few of her other books that I haven’t read yet)
  • You Can’t Touch My Hair, Phoebe Robinson
  • Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith
  • Living By the Word, Alice Walker
  • Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward

Not so very gender balanced, I will admit. But note, I still haven’t gone through memoirs or foodish books. Still, a very exciting list of prospects for the month. I expect I’ll start with You Can’t Touch My Hair, immediately followed by Hidden Figures (which I bought shortly after seeing the movie).

I’m adding another book to the nonfiction mix for February, not specific to Black History Month, but relevant nonetheless: A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (edited by Sun Yung Shin). Not all the writers are black, but several are, and it’s here in Minnesota. This is what I need to hear. To learn. To understand.

I haven’t finished going through all the general fiction yet, but I’ve been a bit surprised at the sparsity:

  • Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Zanzele, J. Nozipo Maraire
  • Sula, Toni Morrison
  • The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead
  • Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez

I might go to the “already read” shelves and pull a few favorites. Mama Day (Gloria Naylor) comes to mind. Then  Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo (Ntozake Shange). And The Color Purple (Alice Walker).

I also found a few mysteries (picked up back in the day when I was reading a lot more mysteries):

  • A Little Yellow Dog, Walter Mosley
  • Hidden in Plain View, Blair S. Walker
  • Easier to Kill, Valerie Wilson Wesley
  • Killer Riches, Chassie West

And a few science fiction/fantasy books (mostly purchased at WisCon, the annual feminist science fiction convention held in Madison, WI):

  • Clay’s Ark, Octavia Butler
  • Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler
  • Redwood and Wildfire, Andrea Hairston
  • The Killing Moon, N.K. Jemisin
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin
  • Filter House, Nisi Shawl

Again, a bit heavy on the women. And while that’s okay in general for reading (to make up for all those years of male classics), in this case I think I will need to add a few more male voices (since we didn’t read a lot of black male classics). Ellison’s Invisible Man immediately comes to mind. I would welcome other suggestions.

And I’ve decided that while a Black History immersion month is probably a good thing, I’ve decided to keep it up in a most modest way by resolving to read at least one African American book each month after February through the end of the year. Some might fit into a reading theme, but if not, I’ve realized I want to broaden my reading landscape more than I want to cleave to the theme.

I’m excited to bring this new focus into my life. Every once in a while, it’s really fun to go rogue.

Postcard Project, What?

I got several questions after my Postcard Project Mid-Year Summary, most commonly about the content of the postcards and especially about the suggestions. I decided that rather than reply to each query in kind, I’d write a post in response.

[Brief recap: At the start of the year, I, a liberal in Minneapolis, began a weekly postcard project, writing to our new Senate Majority Leader, Paul Gazelka, a Republican from northern Minnesota; in late summer I added Republican Senator Julie Rosen to the project. So far, I’ve sent more than 60 postcards, most to Gazelka, but 10+ to Rosen.]

Here are some of the things I’ve suggested:

Early on (possibly in January) I suggested a statewide survey, specifically looking at concerns of urban and rural residents. Much is said about the urban/rural divide in Minnesota, but I think a bit of it might be manufactured in our state Capitol. Certainly there are issues (e.g., grass buffers for farmers, mining near the Boundary Waters—but even these are not completely rural/urban). But who knows? Anyone who has filled out a questionnaire from a political party knows how badly the questionnaires are designed. I am talking about a survey done by a reputable firm with a track record (local, please), that would actually help us understand where we agree and where we disagree. I suggested either the survey center at the University of Minnesota, or Wilder Research (fairly well-known in Minnesota and respected on both sides of the aisle). For funding (since I am sure that would be a concern) I suggested that one of our many local foundations might foot the bill.

It is amazing how much you can get on one postcard.

This is an issue that has my heart, because I have a foot in both worlds: I grew up in rural Minnesota and visit frequently. I always loved going to “The Cities” when I was growing up. Pretty much everyone I knew did. It was a bit special. People back home still go to The Cities—to shop, for sporting events and entertainment (I ran into my second cousin, from my hometown, at the Guthrie Theater not so very long ago). I think rural Minnesotans want and value a vibrant Twin Cities. And I think most urban Minnesotans want strong rural areas. After all, where do most of us go over the weekend?

I think this is being exploited as a divisive issue by politicians, and I want to get to the bottom of it. (As you can imagine, I’ve written more than one postcard about this issue.) Ok, I will stop that long song.

I also asked the senators to consider a tiered minimum wage in Minnesota. This was after Minneapolis started talking about a $15/hour minimum wage and the Legislature tried to legislate that the minimum wage had to be statewide (wanting to avoid a patchwork quilt of minimum wage rates across the state, which I think is quite reasonable). But a lot of things are more expensive in the city. A minimum wage of $15 makes a lot of sense in Minneapolis. Maybe not so much in my hometown, where I could get a much bigger and newer house for a lot less money.

Additional suggestions, including several in the healthcare arena, since I’m in that special class of people that purchases individual health insurance: Expand MinnesotaCare (our excellent statewide health insurance program for low-income people) so that people on the individual market can buy into it; allow people on the individual market to join the state health system; and consider something like credit unions, but healthcare unions (I am not sure exactly how the model would transfer, but it seems like someone smarter than I might be able to figure it out).

Also, I asked them to consider increasing the gas tax (because who would notice after two weeks?) to facilitate road repair; support a bill that would ban hand-held devices (e.g., phones and razors) while driving; and to please follow the single-subject rule (which is in the Minnesota Constitution) that no bill can address more than one subject. It makes legislation so transparent, and it would have avoided so much of the mess that our (MN) government is currently in (to wit: a standoff between the governor and the legislature).

I was also asked if I’ve heard back. Yes, I’ve heard from Senator Gazelka twice, once in response to my initial email introduction (he responded via email) and a few weeks into the project, I received a letter responding to the first three (or so) postcards. Very briefly, but my points were noted, and he acknowledged an area or two of agreement. I’ve not heard from him since, but I’ve decided to treat that letter as an indication that he is at least reading the postcards. I like to think this. Even if he isn’t, probably someone is—a mail carrier, an office worker.

And even if no one reads them, they’ve helped me. They’ve goaded me into thinking about things differently. I’ve expanded my horizons, learned how to think outside the box (or maybe I’ve gotten out of a box?) and perhaps become a little more creative.

Not bad for a postcard project.

October Is for Home

The reading theme this month is house/home. When better than in October, when you’re starting to move from the outdoor of summer towards the indoor of winter. This is a repeat from last year because we both had so many books we didn’t get to. Since I’ve not been reading so much in the last couple of months, I didn’t do my usual careful gleaning of the nonfiction shelves. Still, I have a nice assortment to choose from:

  • Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, Paul Collins
  • The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, Kao Kalia Yang (local author)
  • The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca, Tahir Shah
  • February House, Sherill Tippins
  • Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, Thich Nhat Hanh
  • A Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, Brianna Karp
  • The City Homesteader, Scott Meyer

Number one on my list just now is Sixpence House. I feel about ready to get lost in a town of books. I’m also quite interested in The Latehomecomer which has been on my to-read list for years now, and also February House, which is about a house shared by W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, in Brooklyn during 1940 and 1941 (described as a yearlong party).

My fiction shelves surprised me. Apparently, I had been more diligent in reading my homely fiction that I realized. Still, several viable contenders:

  • At Home With the Glynns, Eric Kraft
  • Lions at Lamb House, Edwin Yoder*
  • Homecoming, Caren Gussof
  • The Irresistible Henry House, Lisa Grunwald
  • The Teahouse Fire, Ellis Avery
  • The Newsboys’ Lodging House, Jon Boorstin*
  • The Homecoming Party, Carmine Abate

*Both of these books have William James as a character. That in and of itself makes them appeal to me, and reading them in the same month could be just the thing. Also very high on my to-read list is The Irresistible Henry House, which I think might be one of those don’t-want-to-leave-your-chair books.

But the month starts with Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (one of the scariest books I’ve ever read; right up there with Stephen King’s The Shining). But House of Leaves is much more complex and multilayered than The Shining, with a design that makes its own thread. I’ve read it twice before. The first time I mostly got scared and was kind of amazed; the second time I noted a lot of design detail that I missed on the first go. On this third read, I’m wondering if the scary factor will still be there. The time is right: October with its shorter days, and dark rainy damp evenings (thunderstorms as I write) is perfect for a long scary book.

The September theme (man/woman/boy/girl/child), much like the August theme, was a bit of a bust, and for the same reason: I just didn’t read that much in September. I read a child, a girl, two men, a woman, and kids. Just Kids, by Patti Smith, would be the standout. And purely because the titles are fun, I will mention Running Like a Woman With Her Hair on Fire, by Martina Newberry, and The Man Who Sleeps in My Office, by Jason Sommer (both poetry).

Happy reading, and happy belated equinox!

Postcard Project Mid-Year Report (Belated)

At the start of the year, tired and frustrated with partisan politics, I decided to write a postcard every week to the Minnesota Republican Senate Majority Leader, who seems to be an amiable, well-intentioned man. My intent was not to rile or rage, but simply to impart my opinion in a respectful manner. He is a conservative from a small (but fun) town in northern Minnesota. I am a liberal in Minneapolis.

He had said he wanted to build bridges and work in a bipartisan manner. I, too, want to build bridges and work in a bipartisan manner. Hence, the postcard project. I thought if he received a thoughtful, well-reasoned (and occasionally entertaining) postcard from a liberal every week, that it perhaps might move the needle a little, if not in terms of beliefs or values, at least in how we view the person across the aisle.

And move the needle it did. But surprise surprise, not his needle—my needle. Totally unanticipated outcome from this project.

Being a person of moderate intelligence, I knew that if I simply wrote vituperative postcards, they would not get the kind of attention I was seeking. That’s not my style, anyway. I’d rather entertain, I’d rather educate, I’d rather provide suggestions that seem to at least have a possibility of being considered, even if only for a moment. And as I got more into the postcard project, I started reading much more closely about state politics. Because of course it helps if you know what you’re talking about when you’re writing weekly missives to a senator.

Of course I’m always looking for news in the paper about my guy, but I read everything. And I notice this huge difference across the Republican party. Why this surprises me, I do not know, but there are as many ways of being a Republican as there are of being a Democrat. There are Republicans who are environmentalists; there are Evangelicals that are earth stewards (yes!). There is common ground to be found.

I am starting to understand a lot of conservative principles. And while this understanding has not changed my values, it is making me increasingly aware of places where our goals might be similar, but we approach it in such different ways we don’t see our commonalities.

Yes, wow, can you believe it? All this from a postcard project? But wait, there’s more! Towards the end of July, I realized I was learning so much that I decided to add another Republican to my postcard fold—head of the finance committee and very involved in healthcare policy (which I am super concerned about). So far I have sent her 9 postcards. I’ve sent the Senate Majority Leader 50 (50! Clearly not a postcard a week, but rather “a minimum of a postcard a week.”). I had no idea how compelling and fun this project would be.

I like to think they enjoy getting the postcards. I have a huge assortment (birds, cooking, various artists, botanicals, WPA posters, science fiction, other bookish postcards), and I try to tie the postcard image/picture to the message. Sometimes they’re a wee bit funny, and I like to think that every once in a while they evoke at least a smile.