Chilly gray winter coupled with angry voices have left me feeling blue and a bit angry myself. I have a list of possible blog entries but can’t seem to get past the feeling that they are frivolous in a time of great seriousness.
The New Yorker published a list of books that various writers are reading now, and Caleb Crain comments about his reading of Langdon Hammer’s biography of poet James Merrill:
In such parlous times, I felt a little guilty about indulging at length in reading for mere pleasure—the one lacuna in Merrill’s cosmopolitanism was politics, which he seems to have found boring—but only a formidable pleasure was capable of drawing me away from the news, and for the sake of my mental health I decided I had to license it.
I’m reading a lot this year, but my path does seem to have taken a serious turn that Crain might not count as reading for pleasure. The year started with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee’s prose poem/ethnographic study about poor southerners who worked as cotton tenants during the Depression. It seemed a good place to start to understand division and anger in America, and in The New Yorker article, Judith Thurman references it in her review of the 1960 book Crowds and Power, a book she says is about the dangerous resentments of those who feel helpless:
It seems that we are seeing something parallel taking place in Trump’s America: the panicked reaction of a crowd that feels it has been devalued and is looking to project that sense onto a group that can then be driven from the fold. This process has happened before in American history, notably in the post-Civil War South, when defeated whites, many of them poor and dispossessed, projected their sense of depreciation onto the even poorer population of former slaves. (Read James Agee on THAT subject.)
I read Agee as a follow up to Hillbilly Elegy, the new book about these same people. If I had to do over, I would read Agee first as the historical understanding helps with Vance’s more abbreviated memoir.
For Martin Luther King Day, I read all three volumes of The March, John Lewis’s collaboration with Nate Powell. The graphic novel takes us to the heart of the Civil Rights movement. Hatred and violence pulse in the black and white images of murder and mayhem during a time when it seemed as though black lives really didn’t matter and the police and courts were the handmaidens of systemic evil. As he tells the story, Lewis is preparing to attend the inauguration of the first Black president. A moment of pride and success that now seems under attack by that same evil cloaked not in KKK robes but suits and ties and forked tongues.
Sabrina Stevens’ twitter thread was one of the first things I saw on February 1. She provided a list of the myths that were going to be told to kids during Black History Month to make slavery seem not so bad.
Enslavement was not akin to being an unpaid intern. Enslavement involved mind control, physical abuse, rape, torturous experimentation, etc.
— Sabrina Stevens (@realsabijoy) February 1, 2017
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s story of a runaway slave who moves through a world where whites implement diverse evil ways of dealing with slaves, deals with all these issues. While I suspect it would not pass the censors in high schools, it would be historically realistic in a way that is, as Sabrina writes, is often not presented in public schools classrooms. Whitehead drew his characters from slave narratives and runaway slave advertisements, and in the book the runaways move along a real railroad, built deep in the ground, each station bringing them to new places where they had to discover the rules and underlying secrets in order to navigate dangerous paths. I think the most sinister of all places was South Carolina where the slaves seemed to be treated respectfully even as whites were experimenting in terrible ways. The novel was powerful, often mentally jarring, and I am still thinking about it. It would certainly overturn the myths of the happy slaves and paternal owners that are the usual fare of this month and black history in general.
My nonfiction reading–Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling–provides an ethnographic view of the racial divides that exist in seemingly integrated schools and shows the legacy of continuing prejudice. Even though they are in the same school, black and white students are not getting the same quality of education. Expectations for the students are different with many black students finding their way into special education classes while white students take advantage of advanced classes or after school programs. He describes an ugly 1985 redistricting battle that clearly hinged on race and sounded a lot like my local suburban school division lived through much more recently.
Next on the list is Hidden Figures, about the Black women of NASA. It may be a bit more uplifting except the segregated world where they did their work kept them from them from advancing. Even now, they would probably face discrimination–they might be able to use whichever bathroom they wished but the upper levels of engineering still seem to be off limits.
These are the books students should be reading rather than watered down textbooks that don’t want to make anyone feel bad about themselves or their ancestors. It is “reading for pleasure”? While it is not always pleasant, it is reading I have chosen as a way to understand the world around me which I think helps define reading for pleasure. But it doesn’t matter. It is reading for knowledge and understanding and that is more important right now.