Book Review: From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (2016)

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

Where do we go from here?

five out of five stars

From the mutual foundation of slavery and freedom at the country’s inception to the genocide of the Native population that made the “peculiar institution” possible to the racist promulgation of “manifest destiny” to the Chinese Exclusion Act to the codified subordinate status of Black people for a hundred years after slavery ended, they are all grim reminders of the millions of bodies upon which the audacious smugness of American hubris is built. Race and racism have not been exceptions; instead, they have been the glue that holds the United States together.

Pathologizing “Black” crime while making “white” crime invisible creates a barrier between the two, when solidarity could unite both in confronting the excesses of the criminal justice system. This, in a sense, is the other product of the “culture of poverty” and of naturalizing Black inequality. This narrative works to deepen the cleavages between groups of people who would otherwise have every interest in combining forces.

— 4.5 stars —

I picked up From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation expecting a discussion about police brutality, mass incarceration, and the criminalization of blackness and poverty; what I found was a little different, and much more far-reaching.

While Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor does talk about recent, high-profile cases of police brutality and murder – and the protest movement these injustices have birthed – she also goes further back, in order to examine the current wave of activism in its historical context. Reaching as far back as Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1920s and LBJ’s “Great Society” reforms in the 1960s, Taylor shows how each came about as a result of social unrest – and was later undermined and dismantled as activism waned (or was routinely suppressed by the government), often under the guise of some utopian, post-racial colorblindness. Tracing the beginning of harmful racist stereotypes to the rise of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, she argues that the path to black liberation is primarily economic, i.e., dismantling the capitalist system and/or embracing socialist initiatives (presumably resembling the People’s Platform recently presented to the Democrats).

The early chapters on politics that predate me were a little rough to get through, I’m not gonna lie. But this is a personal preference, and you or may not feel the same. Once Taylor hit more contemporary events, my interest picked up too. Her argument is shrewd, impassioned, and all but guaranteed to make you think – even if you don’t agree with her conclusions 100%.

Before my reading, I perused the reviews on Goodreads to get a feel for the material. My attention was drawn to the lone two-star review, which took Taylor to task for ignoring the racism of early leftists, “equating racism by whites & black people’s response to it as if they are on the same level” (which I definitely don’t remember seeing). I think maybe some of the confusion lies in the terms; for example, Taylor frequently criticizes liberals for erasure (e.g., ignoring racism and racial identity in their policies and agendas), or engaging in racism themselves. Can the terms “liberal,” “progressive,” and “socialist” be used interchangeably, though? More importantly, are they here? It wasn’t always clear to me.

To this first point – erasure, for example, by focusing on class instead of race – I wondered what Taylor would make of Bernie Sanders, who has been roundly criticized by women and people of color for throwing these groups under the bus (‘identity politics are divisive’) in order to attract white, middle- and working-class Christian men (i.e., Trump’s base). Taylor does mention Sanders briefly, only to dismiss him as part of the “right wing” of the socialist party. I have to wonder how different (if at all) this book might have looked it it was written and published a year or two later. (fwiw, I supported Sanders in the primary, but voted for Clinton in the general election. I’ve grown increasingly disillusioned with Sanders’s focus on white men to the exclusion of marginalized groups. It’s almost like the Dems didn’t learn anything in November!)

Though not without some minor flaws, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation is a book that informs, educates, and challenges. I really hope it gets published with an update four or eight years down the line.

 

Table of Contents

Introduction: Black Awakening in Obama’s America

Chapter 1. A Culture of Racism
Chapter 2. From Civil Rights to Colorblind
Chapter 3. Black Faces in High Places
Chapter 4. The Double Standard of Justice
Chapter 5. Barack Obama: The End of an Illusion
Chapter 6. Black Lives Matter: A Movement, Not a Moment
Chapter 7. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation

Acknowledgments

Notes

About the Author

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Damian Duffy and John Jennings (2017)

Friday, July 21st, 2017

Octavia E. Butler Gets the Graphic Novel Treatment (Finally!)

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Trigger warning for violence, including rape.)

Inventive, hypnotic, unflinchingly honest – such is the work of Octavia Estelle Butler, and in Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation, the grand dame of science fiction finally receives the graphic novel treatment she so desperately deserves.

First published in 1979, Kindred tells the story of Dana, a modern black woman who is suddenly and inexplicably transported to the antebellum south. She finds herself on a Maryland plantation, circa 1812(-ish), placed directly in the path of a drowning boy named Rufus. Over a period of weeks (her time) and years (his), Rufus will unconsciously summon Dana to his side whenever his life is endangered. Though she’s often tempted to let the selfish young man – and heir to the Weylin plantation – die, to do so would threaten her very existence. Rufus is Dana’s distant ancestor, and her life depends on the continuation of his. That is, at least until Grandmother Hagar Weylin has a chance to be born.

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0006 [flickr]

There’s a well-known nerdy maxim (or trope, if you prefer) that time travel isn’t safe for black people, or women, or [insert your marginalized group here]. Time travel is “exclusively a white [male] privilege,” as Louis CK put it. Kindred manifests this principle in ways both chilling and potent. Dana uses her time in the past to try and change things for the better, if only in tiny increments: she surreptitiously teaches some of the enslaved children to read, and attempts to steer her great-grandfather in a more enlightened direction. Yet history is more likely to change Dana than vice versa, as she notes with shock and horror as she finds herself growing accustomed to the daily cruelties of slavery.

Likewise, when Dana’s white husband Kevin is left stranded out of time – for a whopping five years, as she later learns – Dana is frightened of who or what she might find upon her return. How might an era steeped in racism and misogyny stain the man she loves?

Kindred is one of my favorite books, by one of my favorite writers. The prospect of an adaptation left me both nervous and excited, which is par for the course when it comes to literature that’s burrowed its way into my heart and mind. But Damian Duffy’s translation of the work is masterful; he mostly captures the spirit and tone of the original, and deftly condenses the novel into a comic book format.

(I say mostly because, let’s face it, Octavia Butler is in a class of her own. The original work is infinitely more harrowing, but the adaptation is still pretty great. If you haven’t yet read Kindred, you owe it to yourself to start today. If you have, this will definitely leave you clamoring for a re-read.)

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0018 [flickr]

From the first panel, which ominously proclaims “I lost an arm on my last trip home,” John Jennings’s artwork is moody and atmospheric.

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0001 [flickr]

Many of the palettes are stripped down, with two or three colors dominating many of the scenes.

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0014 [flickr]

He employs some pretty neat tricks, such as placing close-ups of Dana and Rufus side-by-side to emphasize both their opposition and interconnectedness,

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0010 [flickr]

and underscoring Dana’s trips through time and space with dramatic changes in color. Some of the drawings, especially of Rufus and his father Tom, are a little rough around the edges – which struck me as perfectly apt, given the circumstances. Dana, on the other hand, is a near-perfect mirror image of how I envisioned her.

2016-12-23 - Kindred - 0007 [flickr]

2016-12-23 - Kindred - 0008 [flickr]

Even the design of the book is breathtaking. The book cover features an almost gothic landscape of dark purple trees against a black sky and lavender moon. On the back side, the Weylin house beckons. The first and last pages are splashes of red with streaks of pink; Dana, Isaac, or Alice’s skin after a brutal lashing.

2017-06-25 - Kindred - 0017 [flickr]

Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation is a wonderful homage to Octavia Butler and the world she built, explored, and ultimately dismantled in Kindred. I hope it’s also a hint of what’s to come: from Kindred to the Parables duology, Lilith’s Brood to the Patternmaster series, Butler’s novels and short stories are all but begging for second lives on screens both big and small, panels in comic books and fan conventions the world over. May Damian Duffy and John Jennings’s work introduce a whole new generation of fans to this extraordinary writer.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Bitch Planet, Volume 2: President Bitch by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Taki Soma, & Valentine De Landro

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

“Lean in, can you hear it?”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic galley for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for plot points involving rape, misogyny, and transphobia.)

About a month ago Goodreads started sending me emails every time I marked a book read: “You finished Heart-Shaped Box. What’s next?” Usually I just send them to the trash without a second thought; just another gimmick to increase engagement, you know? But the one for Bitch Planet? Kind of gave me pause.

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What comes next after that dope ass ending? I NEED TO KNOW! As for ideas on what we can do in the meantime? I’m down (though I somehow doubt that, say, volunteering as a clinic escort or showing up to your state capitol building in full Handmaid regalia will make Goodreads’ top ten suggestions).

So I really dug the first volume, Extraordinary Machine, when it came out in October 2015. I think I even pre-ordered it, something I rarely do, on the strength of DeConnick’s Pretty Deadly (which was released earlier that year, and I cannot recommend strongly enough). It was smart and unapologetic and feminist as fuck, with a diverse and believable cast of characters. (Black women are incarcerated at four times the rate of white women – a disparity that’s only like to worsen under the Protectorate.)

When I reread Extraordinary Machine prior to diving into the second volume, my love for it only grew*: in today’s political climate, wherein nearly 63 million of my fellow citizens voted a reality tv buffoon and admitted sexual assailant into the White House (due in no small part to a backlash against the first black President in addition to sexism and misogyny), dystopias like Bitch Planet seem more trenchant than ever.

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And President Bitch? Well, it’s even better than its predecessor. (With a name like that, was there any doubt?) Fittingly, the volume starts off with fallen hero Meiko’s backstory – which spans a full issue and includes a prominent trigger warning for rape. Equal parts heart-rending and amazing, it left me in awe of the entire Maki clan – father Makoto in particular.

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The narrative then picks up more or less where Extraordinary Machine left off, only shit doesn’t go down quite how you’d expect. Kam finds who/what she’s looking for (how did I miss that foreshadowing in Volume 1!?), the N.C.s realize they’re not the only “auxiliary compliance outpost” on their ship, and we meet President Bitch – a black woman who’s been labeled a terrorist by the (largely white, all-male) Protectorate. Naturally.

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Things go sideways before you can say “Illegitimi non carborundum,” and Volume 2 ends with a challenge, and a promise: as long as the women of earth and space have each other’s backs, the resistance lives. All hail President Bitch!

(More below the fold…)

Mini-Review: There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, Morgan Parker (2017)

Monday, February 13th, 2017

“It’s mostly about machine tits”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

This is for all the grown women out there
Whose countries hate them and their brothers
Who carry knives in their purses down the street
Maybe they will not get out alive
Maybe they will turn into air or news or brown flower petals
There are more beautiful things than Beyoncé:
Lavender, education, becoming other people,
The fucking sky

(“Please Wait (Or, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé)”)

I don’t read a ton of poetry, since it mostly tends to go over my head. There are the rare exceptions, of course: stories written in verse, and the occasional feminist title; see, e.g. The Princess Saves Herself in this One. But mostly I shy away from it, since it makes me feel … not the sharpest tool in the shed.

That said, between the title and the cover, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé proved pretty much impossible to pass up. While I’m sure I missed out on many of the cultural references – I’m white, and this is a collection of poetry about black womanhood – and didn’t pick up all the varied and more veiled messages that Parker was putting down, I enjoyed it all the same. I read it cover-to-cover three times in two days, and with each successive reading, discovered something new. Parker’s poetry sparkles and shines and cuts more deeply, the more time you spend with it.

It’s hard to play favorites, since each piece has at least one or two especially memorable lines. (To wit: “At school they learned that Black people happened.”) But among the poems that really stood out to me are Hottentot Venus; Beyoncé On The Line for Gaga; Afro; These Are Dangerous Times, Man; RoboBeyoncé; 13 Ways of Looking at a Black Girl; The Gospel According to Her; The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife; White Beyoncé; What Beyoncé Won’t Say on a Shrink’s Couch; It’s Getting Hot In Here So Take Off All Your Clothes; The Book of Revelation; 99 Problems; and the titular Please Wait (Or, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé).

There are forty-two poems total, twenty-five of which have previously been published elsewhere. For those keeping count at home, thirteen have Beyoncé in the title. The Beyoncé/Lady Gaga mashups are fun, if only because I enjoy imagining them hanging together – or swapping bodies in a Freaky Friday twist.

I feel like I should say more but idk how to read poetry, let alone review it. There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé is a fierce, funny, and subversive collection of poetry. You don’t need to be a member of the Bey Hive to love it (but it sure doesn’t hurt). It’s earned a permanent spot on my Kindle so I can return to it as needed over the next four to eight (please dog no) years.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case, Patricia Hruby Powell & Shadra Strickland (2017)

Monday, January 30th, 2017

“Tell the Court I love my wife”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program, as well as an e-ARC through NetGalley. Trigger warning for racism and an allusion to rape.)

MILDRED

Richard once said,
“It could be worse, Bean.
If you was the white one
and I was the colored one,
people saw us together?
They’d lynch me.
We can do this.”

RICHARD

After waiting another year –
more like fourteen months –
they lost that case.
Is that four now?
They called for another.

They lawyers sure are excited
for losing.

As its 50th anniversary approaches, the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia is receiving some extra attention: from the recently released film starring Ruth Negga (forever my Annie Cresta!) and Joel Edgerton (titled simply Loving), to a mention on the ABC sitcom Blackish, and now a “documentary novel” written by Patricia Hruby Powell, with illustrations by Shadra Strickland.

For those unfamiliar with the case, Loving vs. Virginia struck down the state’s anti-miscegenation statute (the Racial Integrity Act of 1924) – and, by extension, similar statutes that existed in twenty-five other states – which prohibited whites from marrying outside their race. Interestingly, no such restrictions existed for non-whites, which is part of what led to the law’s downfall: The Lovings’ lawyers argued that the emphasis on maintaining the racial purity of whites (but not nonwhites) presupposed the superiority of the “white race,” in clear violation of the 14th Amendment.

In Loving vs. Virginia, Hruby Powell tells the story of Mildred and Richard’s historic fight, from the genesis of their relationship to their victory in the Supreme Court on June 12, 1967 (a day that’s now remembered as Loving Day). The couple grew up together in Central Point, Virginia; their rural neighborhood was home to people of all colors: black, white, Native American, and multiracial. (Mildred herself was light-skinned, with both African and Native American ancestry.) They socialized, shared potluck dinners, and helped each other with farm work. Despite the state’s law against it, interracial relationships were not unheard of.

Millie and Richard started dating in 1955, and two years later they had their first child, Sidney Clay. When Mildred found herself pregnant for the second time, the couple decided to get married – in nearby Washington, D.C. Just five weeks later, they were arrested in the dead of night. Sheriff Garnett Brooks and two deputies stormed into the couple’s bedroom in the Jeter house and demanded of Richard, “Who’s that woman you’re sleeping with?” When Mildred replied that she was his wife, Brooks shot back, “Not here, she ain’t.”

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Book Review: The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, Daina Ramey Berry (2017)

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

A difficult yet necessary read.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence related to slavery, including racism and rape.)

This book is written in a historical moment that historians have not yet named—a moment when black persons are disproportionately being killed and their deaths recorded. We witness the destruction of their lives via cell phones and dash and body cameras. The current voyeuristic gaze contains a level of brutality grounded in slavery. I call this moment the historic spectacle of black death: a chronicling of racial violence, a foreshadowing of medical exploitation, a rehearsing of ritualized lynching that took place in the postslavery era. African Americans and their allies respond by rejecting the devaluation of their bodies with the phrase #BlackLivesMatter. This book, however, argues that the historical record is clear: #BlackBodiesMatter.

Dear wife, they cannot sell the rose
Of love, that in my bosom glows.
Remember, as your tears may start,
They cannot sell th’ immortal part!

(A poem carved by an enslaved black man named Mingo, on the beam of his cell, as he awaited trial and execution.)

Whether it’s some rando on a plantation tour, or a nationally syndicated talk show host, it always boggles my mind when people insist that some slaves were treated well: “like members of the family.” I guess this means they weren’t flogged on the daily, forced to live in unheated shacks, or forcibly bred? Idk, given that women and children were largely considered the property of their husbands and fathers; the first case of child abuse wasn’t prosecuted in the United States until 1874; and marital rape wasn’t a thing in all 50 states until 1993, forgive me if I don’t find this argument terribly compelling. But I digress.

I may have received the same sanitized, whitewashed public high school education as everyone else – but it doesn’t take an especially critical thinker to realize that, at the end of the day, slaves were property. In the eyes of the law, they were more somethings than someones: more like a television set or CD player (or, to use more contemporary examples, a banjo or a milk pan) than a human being. Some enslavers may have been less cruel than others, sure, but that doesn’t negate the power differential one bit. To borrow an example from this text, kindly patriarch Dr. Carson may have provided medical care for his slaves, and worried about their well-being after his death, but if he had had a bad day, there was nothing preventing him from taking his frustrations out on one of them. As his property, it was well within his right to punch, whip, stab, shoot, starve, dismember, rape, or molest them. And therein lays the problem: when you dehumanize and objectify others, especially but not only by relegating them to the status of property, it excuses any and every abuse imaginable. Slaves exist at their captors’ mercy.

(More below the fold…)