Retro Review: The Ways of Folks by Langston Hughes White

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born James Mercer Langston Hughes in Joplin, Missouri. He was a prolific writer, poet, playwright, author and activist. As a young man, Langston led a complex and adventurous life both in the United State and abroad, which undoubtedly influenced his writing style and his outpouring of work.  He was a key player in the Harlem Renaissance, a collective of African-American writers, artists, performers, and activists, which included Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, Alan Locke, Claude Toomer, Josephine Baker, and Louis Armstrong.

Intrigued by both the Harlem Renaissance and its key players, I found myself drawn to Hughes collection of short stories The Way of White Folks. And though it was published in 1934, I find it immensely timely in 2017.

Langston’s stories fully express the lives of black people, especially when dealing with white people, during the 1920s and ‘30s, even those so-called good liberal white people who only seemed to be on the side of “colored people.” These stories are at turns sad and humorous, and not one of them rings a false note.

The Way of White Folks consists of 14 powerful short stories. It opens with “Cora Unashamed.” Cora of the title is Cora Jenkins who lives in small town called Melton. She is considered a “Negress,” that is a polite, unassuming, and quiet colored lady. She works for the Studevants, who sadly to say, don’t treat her in a favorable manner. And Cora accepts this because due to her race and her sex, she doesn’t have much power.

Cora does everything for the Studevants. She cleans cooks, runs errands and takes care of the children. But to the Studevants, Cora is just a servant, nothing more. She should be grateful for the job.

But she is so much more than a servant. She is quietly strong. She once had a passionate love affair. And as the “Cora Unashamed” unfolds proves to be far more bold and passionate than she lets on unleashing a very surprising and interesting dénouement.

In “Home,” the protagonist, Roy Williams  goes back to his home in the United States after many years of making a living as a jazz musician, traveling all over Europe. Roy contemplates how his experiences in both cultures as a black man are similar and different.

The Colony, a collective of black artists and intellectuals, is splendidly examined in the chapter called, “Rejuvenation of Joy.” These talented people convey both the good and bad of The Colony and what they face when not in their protective and inspiring community of shared experiences.

The final chapter “Father and Son” tells the tale of Colonel Thomas Norwood’s relationship with his black mistress Coralee Lewis and their biracial children. Colonel Norward takes advantage but doesn’t offer advantage to these children. And his attitude is best summed up in the dejected and heartbreaking words of his son, Bert.

“Oh, but I’m not a nigger, Colonel Norwood. I’m your son.”

Although I finished this book several days ago, I still feel them greatly. I have very little in common with Langston Hughes. I am a privileged white woman born and raised after the age of Jim Crow. Yet, I’d like to think it’s my deep well of empathy that made me love this book, but I also grew up in a small town where people still harbor the racist ideas of the white folks in this collection. When it comes to works of culture and art, we don’t only see them as they are; we also see them as we are.

But for the most part, the reason why The Way of White Folks cuts so deep is due to the book itself, and Langston’s gifted, soulful way with the English language. It is a book that will take a figurative spot within my soul, and one I can truly say is placed on my book self.

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Book Review: Under the Affluence-Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America by Tim Wise

under the affluenceEvery once in while there comes a book that makes me want to shout from the roof tops, “Everybody, please read this book if you truly care about humanity and society!” Tim Wise’s book Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America, is one such book. And though it may sound melodramatic, I truly think Mr. Wise’s book is an excellent primer on exactly why our nation seems so skewed, confused and messed-up, especially during one of our most scary, yet important presidential election years ever.

Scholar, activist and writer, the aptly named Tim Wise, has focused on societal issues since college and one of his first jobs was working against former KKK grand wizard, David Duke’s presidential bid. Since then Wise has worked on behalf of many progressive causes and has written several books, Under the Affluence being his latest.

In 2016 Wise wonders why do we (as a nation and a society) shame the poor (and let’s face it, anyone who isn’t mega wealthy) while praising the super-rich? And what does that say about us and what impact is this having on society?

Wise calls this detestable movement “Scroogism,” and, yes, based on Ebenezer Scrooge from the Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. And it is a theme that has shaped our thinking about the haves vs. the have-nots and have-lessers, much of it encouraged by big business, Wall Street, billionaires and millionaires, CEOs, the radical right political pundits, the current state of the GOP, conservative Christianity, mainstream media and often, ourselves. And yes, that includes the have-nots and have-lessers. And Wise offers evidence through nearly 40 pages of end notes to give gravitas to Under the Affluence.

Under the Affluence and its theme of Scroogism is divided into three well-researched, scholarly, yet audience friendly, maddening, heartbreaking and in the end, cautiously hopeful chapters. These chapters include:

  1. Pulling Apart-The State of Disunited America
  2. Resurrecting Scrooge-Rhetoric and Policy in a Culture of Cruelty
  3. Redeeming Scrooge-Fostering a Culture of CompassionIn Resurrecting Scrooge,

Wise carefully researches how in the 21st century the United States is a society that bashes the poor, blames victims, the unemployed and underemployed, embraces a serious lack of compassion and celebrates cruelty while putting the wealthy and the powerful on a pedestal. And Wise examines the origins of class and cruelty in the United States, the ideas of the Social Gospel and FDR’s New Deal, the myths and realities of the War on Poverty from its inception to Reaganism (and how liberals responded), and the concept how culture of cruelty affects who receives justice and who receives nothing at all except horrifically de-humanizing insults, both in rhetoric and reality. It is probably these two chapters that truly stirred my rage, and at times, I had to put Under the Affluence down and take a few deep breaths.But just as I was about to chuck Under the Affluence across the room and spend a week in the corner rocking back and forth, I read the final chapter, and felt a bit of hope. Perhaps, as nation things aren’t as bleak as they seem. In this chapter, Wise reminds us to look for possible roadblocks on the way of redemption. He also mentions that besides facts, use storytelling because behind every fact there is a very human face with a story that must be heard. He behooves us to create “a vision of a culture of a compassion” and how we can help communities to control their destiny.

Now, I am a realist. I know for the most part Under the Affluence is a book that preaches to the choir, especially in 2016. But maybe, just maybe, Under the Affluence will open minds, soften hearts and act an agent for, as Elvis Costello so aptly put it, “peace, love and understanding.” Under the Affluence is not only one of the most important books to come out in 2016; it is one of the most important books to come out in the 21st century.

Wise also takes a look at the world of the working poor and the non-working rich, the myth of meritocracy, horribly mean-spirited remarks, much of it coming from the radical right, including pundits and politicians, excessive CEO and big business pay, the devaluing of work that truly benefits all of society-nursing, teaching social work, protecting the public, improving our infrastructure, creating art, taking care of the elderly and disabled, and so on. And let’s not forget the very valuable work that doesn’t pay-parenting, eldercare, volunteering, etc.

In Pulling Apart, Wise takes a hardcore look at our current state of joblessness, wage stagnation, underemployment and how they affect us in this stage of “post-recession recovering” America. He investigates today’s realities and the long-term effects of income and wealth inequality. Wise contemplates who and what caused these problems and how race, class and economics are involved.

Tribute-Harper Lee

Harper Lee quote posterAs many of you know, we lost a true literary great yesterday—Harper Lee—author of the iconic novel To Kill a Mockingbird died at the age of 89.

Born Nelle Harper Lee on April 28, 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, Miss Lee later worked as an airlines reservations clerk while pursuing a writing career. It was at this time she wrote and later published To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel about a small-town lawyer named Atticus Finch defending an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman. To Kill a Mockingbird was not told from Atticus’s point of view, but of his tomboyish daughter, Jean Louise, better known as Scout.

To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year and was both a critical rave and successful bestseller. In 1962 the film adaption of To Kill a Mockingbird, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as Scout was released. Like the novel, the film was both a critical and commercial triumph.

Harper Lee TKAM

However, Miss Lee did not take to celebrity. She was a quiet and very private person who found fame quite off-putting giving her a bit of a Greta Garbo mystique, which is quite refreshing in our age of table-turning “real” housewives and people with the last name Kardashian.

Lovers of To Kill a Mockingbird pined for Miss Lee to write another novel and for decades this wish seemed like a pipe dream. But in February of last year, the world was shocked when the publishing giant Harper Collins imprint Harper’s announced they were going to publish a manuscript of Miss Lee’s that she had written in 1957. This novel, called Go Set a Watchman also became a best-seller.

But it is To Kill a Mockingbird that will truly be Harper Lee’s legacy. It has been translated into countless languages, has been called the best novel of the 20th Century by Library Journal, read and discussed in most high schools and has countless fans, both famous and unknown. To Kill a Mockingbird has also inspired many related books, stage plays and documentaries.

It’s no secret to my readers To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee are close to my heart, inspiring both a Retro Reads and a Reading to Reels post. There are no words I can find at this time to express my love and appreciation for Miss Lee’s talent and her iconic novel other than a mawkish paraphrased quote from To Kill a Mockingbird, “Stand up, people. Miss Harper Lee has passed.”

Book Review: Meet Me Halfway-Milwaukee Stories by Jennifer Morales

Meet-Me-Halfway-coverJennifer Morales is a former Milwaukee-based activist focused on education, and once acted as a board member for Milwaukee public schools. Now she can add published author to her list of accomplishments with the release of her interconnected collection of short stories in Meet Me Halfway-Milwaukee Stories.

Meet Me Halfway opens up with “Heavy Lifting.” In this story, Johnquell, an African-American teenage boy, is mortally wounded when helps his white neighbor, Mrs. Czernicki move a heavy piece of furniture in home. Feeling fully, responsible, Mrs. Czernicki feels compelled to connect further with Johnquell’s family that goes beyond attending his funeral. She becomes friendly towards Johnquell’s grieving mother and learns more about Johnquell from his siblings, learning though there are differences that divide us, there are also shared experiences that explain our shared humanity.

Thus, Meet Me Halfway, uses “Heavy Lifting” as a launching pad to share intermingling stories about various Milwaukee residents in one of America’s most segregated cities-Milwaukee.

In “Fragging,” a still alive Johnquell describes his experiences as a black student from a lower middle class family in a mostly white, wealthy suburban highschool.

In “Revision” Stu Reid’s limited ideas on young black men change when he feels compelled to attend Johnquell’s funeral after dealing with him in class as a substitute teacher. Perhaps Milwaukee’s answer to Rush Limbaugh, Clark “Psycho” Sykora, doesn’t have all the answers after all.

When flowers are “Misdirected” and accidentally sent to Johnquell’s mother Gloria that are meant for another woman, Gloria learns a long-kept secret of Donna Tillet, a white suburban matron, a secret that kept Donna estranged from her children for far too long.

And in the final chapter, “Pressing On,” Tarquan, Johnquell’s surviving brother navigate the difficult aftermath of his brother’s death, putting up with the questions from concerned adults, his siblings, and high school friends and peers. If adults can’t explain life and death, how can Tarquan? Perhaps, some day he’ll have the answers.

Morales’s empathetic and vivid writing is both thought-provoking and inspiring. In a city like Milwaukee, so segregated amongst all races,  Morales is able to fully evoke the multi-dimensional characters with wisdom and grace. She doesn’t just feel for these men, women and children; Morales’ feels with them as truly masterful writers should and do. Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories is a slim book that spoke to me in volumes. And I hope it is not the only book Jennifer Morales has within her. I want more books from such a talented writer.