Black History Month Book Report #4: The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

I hadn’t heard of this book before my lovely partner, Dr. Bae, bought a copy for me for Valentine’s Day (along with several other candidates for my BHM reading project and/or readerly delectation). “I’ll be really interested to see what you think about this,” she said, with both eagerness and trepidation in her voice.

I knew I was in for it when I read the back cover, which describes the (mostly) unnamed black narrator’s attempt to put his southern Californian town back on the map, by way of reinstating both slavery and segregation, landing him, as you might expect, in front of the Supreme Court of the United States, who don’t have any more of an idea of what to do with him than anyone else does.

Then I read the prologue, which was so fucking funny that I stopped and read it again, just to make sure I had properly enjoyed and appreciated it. Wow. Just… wow.

The Sellout is satire, yes, of the highest order. Satire which takes as its target not only these disUnited States of the twenty-first century, but skewers in particular what I can only describe as American Blackness, at least as presently constituted. It’s a particularly cogent way in to skewering America more generally, because we are defined – significantly if not solely – by our nation’s Original Sin of chattel slavery and, more deeply, by our persistent unwillingness to face the nature and consequences of that sin down through the ages to the present day. The cognitive dissonance that lies therein fucks with all of us, which is not great for our psychological health on a societal or individual level but constitutes a gold mine for the perspicacious satirist, and boy howdy is Paul Beatty that guy.

As the narrator tells us, everything that happens happens naturally. All he sets out to do is put his tiny hometown in the south end of the Los Angeles sprawl back on the map. Dickens is a bit of an anomaly, in that it’s a farming community in the middle of one of the world’s sprawling-est cities. What’s not anomalous is the racial character of its population, historically. Thanks to redlining and segregation, Dickens is black, or was til the powers that be saw fit to disincorporate the town, much to the dismay of the narrator and his friend Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal. As both faded child star and relic of a (mostly, supposedly) bygone era, Hominy plays an outsized role in what follows once our narrator, a farmer/surfer/soCal stoner raised and homeschooled by a controversial black sociologist, rescues him from an attempted self-lynching. Hominy is, for lack of a better term (and with apologies in advance for my inelegant language) a shuck-and-jive pickaninny who derives a weird but totally believable contentment, even serenity, from his bone-deep belief in whites’ racial superiority. He’s a caricature, yes, but no more so than the other, opposing pole in The Sellout’s satire/critique of contemporary blackness, Foy Cheshire, a self-important do-gooderish Black Scholar and racial activist who spends his time penning uplifting, ridiculous updates of canonical literary texts (think ‘Tom Soarer’) and scheming to take over the Dum Dum Donuts Intellectuals, who meet in Dickens’ donut shop to debate contemporary blackness and partake of the credibility associated with doing so in the ”Hood.’

It would be easy to misread Beatty’s accomplishment and (I suspect) intent. After all, in the world of the Sellout, bringing back overt racism and segregation has only positive effects. ‘Whites only’ stickers on the bus driven by our narrator’s one true love bring crime down. The local middle school’s performance improves significantly after a fake charter school serving white students is announced and the narrator convinces the principal to segregate the school. A shallow interpretation might read Beatty as implying that racism and segregation were good for black folks in America, and maybe we ought to go back to that, for everyone’s sake.

I don’t read it that way, though. What I take from the novel is that it’s not so much a return to segregation Beatty might be calling for, but simply a return to honesty about racism and segregation. That white America’s tendency to believe that what writer Charlie Pierce calls the Day of Jubilee has come, in which the Problem of Racism is Solved (thanks in no small part to our first black President) and that it’s All Good Now, and the pretense that our Original Sin has been, if not redeemed, then resolved, only serves to obfuscate the painful truth that things are not so much better than they used to be and may in fact be worse, since America is almost as racist as it used to be but won’t cop to it anymore. When the narrator and his friends cordon off a space to be theirs, it’s not so much the edification and uplift of black folks they’re seeking, but simply a space where they can be themselves, on their own terms.

I don’t know. I’m just an old white guy. But that’s what I got out of it. Either way, you should totally read this book, because even if you don’t come away with any big lessons, it’s goddamned funny as hell, and so deftly and expertly edgy that it shows the internet’s ‘edgelord’ boys for the whingey, overprivileged twerps that they are. Seriously. Don’t be like me and sleep on this one.

Black History Month Book Report #3: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

So, unlike many if not most spec fic writers, I never had a Lovecraft phase. I mean, I knew the name. But if I read anything until much later in life, it didn’t stick. So I hadn’t read The Horror at Red Hook, of which The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle is a retelling from the point of view of a black man.

Not that it’s required to enjoy this page-turner of a dark mystery novella set in ’20s-era Harlem and New York. Which is good, because I’m about three decades past the point where Lovecraft’s turgid prose and particular brand of cosmic horror was going to land. Victor LaValle, I’ll be reading more of.

Tommy Tester is a hustler and musician living in Harlem with his father, who makes his living playing music for white people and doing the odd odd job for them, too. When Robert Suydam, a mysterious and wealthy white man with a very strange plan to liberate New York’s poor and marginalized, hires him to play a party in his mansion, it opens the door (alright, eldritch portal) to a whole new (horrific) world for Tommy. Continue reading “Black History Month Book Report #3: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle”

Black History Month Book Report #2: American Street by Ibi Zoboi

I wasn’t going to read this one second (though it was on the list). But then I cracked the cover and read the first chapter, and, just like that, I was hooked.

American Street begins with a loss. Fabiola Toussaint and her mother, Valerie, are moving to Detroit from Port-au-Prince. Fabiola is American born, and passes through immigration with no problem. But now she’s stuck on the wrong side of the glass: her mother has been detained. Reluctantly, she boards her connecting flight to Detroit, hoping against hope that her mother will follow along shortly.

I don’t think I’m spoiling much if I say that her mother does not. Instead, Fabiola (shortly Fabulous) joins her cousins Chantal, Princess (‘Pri’), and Primadonna (‘Donna’) and her aunt Jo in Detroit, where Fabiola must find a way to navigate this strange and dangerous territory while holding on to who she is and trying to find a way to bring her mother through the gateway and into America.

It’s a neat trick, establishing empathy with a character you’ve just met, and Zoboi does it flawlessly in those first pages and then never lets up. Fabiola must find her way through not only the culture shock of moving from Haiti to America, but also the discrepancies between the America she expected and the America she experiences, all while trying to build a sense of family with her cousins, who were only voices on the phone til she arrived, and restore the family she’s known her whole life by getting her mother through immigration. Add in the dangers of high school, the drug trade, and the particular precariousness of life in Detroit, fallen symbol of the 20th Century American Dream, it’s no wonder Fabulous feels lost. Luckily, she has her vodou practice, her cousins, and her memories to carry her through.

This is one of those books that just grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. At least it was for me. Tautly-plotted and written in prose that manages to be visceral, poetic, and windowpane-clear all at once, I chewed my way through most of this book in a single day. I can see why it won the National Book Award.

Immigrant stories are an American perennial, both because of the long and mostly positive history of our lifted lamp beside the golden door, and because we can see it most clear through fresh eyes, both in its ideal form (both foreign and domestic) and its actuality. Here that actuality takes many forms: the injustice of splitting Fabiola from her mother, the Faustian bargain she’s offered by a local police detective, and the fruits of that bargain, too, which I won’t spoil but will have you nodding and saying ‘yeah, that’s about right’ even as you wipe a tear from your eye and read on, hoping Zoboi will take it back. But of course she doesn’t, because even though Fabiola is eminently root-forable, this is America, and she and her family – and everyone near their home at the corner of American Street and Joy Road – are black.

That’s not to say this book is a bummer. Much of it is so ebullient and alive that the reader will forgive the inescapably complicated state of things by the end. It is, perhaps, as happy an ending as can be asked for, and one that satisfies even if you don’t get all you root for.

Either way, this is a fantastic book, and one I’d recommend both for its all-too-relevant subject matter and its stunning fulfillment of the promise it makes in those first few pages. Go ahead, pick it up. I’m willing to bet you won’t put it down.

Black History Month Book Report #1: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

First off, this is a great book that succeeds on just about every level. If good books is your jam, here is one.

A woman escapes slavery in the Gold Coast in the late 18th Century. She leaves behind one daughter, goes inland to freedom, has another. One daughter marries an Englishman, and lives out her life in a castle by the ocean. The other is captured, and taken there as a slave, to be sold on to the American South. The novel follows their children and grandchildren down the generations, alternating between the lines, as they live their lives embedded in our history, both African and American, until more or less the present day.

It’s a worthy conceit to hang the novel’s structure on, though not without its dangers. Characters rarely appear in more than two or three successive chapters, and each chapter has a new protagonist moving through a significant chunk of their lives. Each has their arc, though thanks to the history we’re following, arcs do not so much as close as find a way to keep going under immense and unfair restrictions. In less deft hands, a novel like this might fail to resonate, but Gyasi does such a good job with her characters that most all of the chapters are satisfying, to the reader if not the protagonist, and when characters reappear in their children’s lives we can see what those children can’t, that their parents were people in their own right, trapped in unkind history, and doing what best they could under the circumstances, even if that best wasn’t great.

Gyasi’s gorgeous, evocative prose helps the project along immensely. She has a knack for framing that conveys a rich, deep world in the background, the kind of world you could wander off and get lost in if you weren’t careful. But you never do, because the narrative carries you forward, through decades and centuries of lived history, of heartbreak and small victories just great enough to keep it all going, all of it rendered with flawless grace and economy.

My intent is to keep things spoiler-free, so I won’t go into individual characters and arcs. Telling truth, I think it best to encounter them with fresh eyes, even if you know your history well. What Homegoing excels at is melding that history with story, with the stories of lives lived swimming in history’s currents in the wake of the African slave trade. It is, all of it, complicated, with sympathetic villains and humanizing moments to spare, and Gyasi doesn’t spare the reader that complexity in the service of easy answers. This is a work of art, not polemic, after all.

I’m disinclined toward numerical rating, or trying to give my subjective experience a gloss of objectivity. Suffice to say, if you are a person who enjoys moving, beautifully written, well-constructed literature (with or without a capital ‘L’), you will find Homegoing to be all that and more. If you have the interest (and fortitude) to take a long and often painful look at the ramifications of human chattel slavery, in a well-researched  and -rendered (albeit fictional) form, you could do a lot worse than read Homegoing.

It’s one thing to know something intellectually, say that Jim Crow laws in the post-Civil War South led to all manner of abuses. It’s another to engage with a firsthand account, or a first-rate artistic engagement, one that plays to the full human spectrum, rather than seek emotionless shelter in facts. To my mind, it’s one of the highest purposes of human creative endeavor, an accomplishment of serious magnitude when well-executed. Yaa Gyasi has done that, and then some, with Homegoing.

You should read it.

I Read Only Books by Women For a Year: Here’s What Happened

I read a lot of great books, is the short answer.

So, a few days ago writer K Tempest Bradford published this article, in which she challenged readers to stop reading white, straight, cisgendered male authors for one year. Sadly (and predictably), certain corners of the internet exploded in rage at the notion (she has assembled a lovely collection of rage-tweets here, if you enjoy that sort of thing). I won’t reprise their objections, which savvy interneteers will likely be able to intuit themselves, nor pass judgement on any validity those objections may or may not have. But it so happens that I recently spent the better part of a year doing something very similar to Ms Bradford’s challenge. From roughly November 2013 until late last year, I read only books by women(*), many of them women of color, others not cisgendered (two of the new favorite writers whose work I discovered are married).

I did so for my own reasons, both personal and (for lack of a better term) professional. On a personal level it was simply the realization that the vast majority of the books on my overstuffed shelves were by men. I fought it for a long time, that realization. I mean, these were great books, each easily defensible on the merits. I have, if I may say, damned fine taste in literature, and reading material in general. Ask any of my friends. I’ve been an obsessive reader since kindergarten, the kind of person who never goes anywhere without a book and hasn’t since he could carry one. But looked at en masse, the unconscious bias in my collection was (and is) painfully clear (in my defense, I actually am a cisgendered white male).

My bookshelves.
My bookshelves.

When I was younger, the notion of placing any kind of limitation on my reading material for a whole year would have seemed preposterous. Now comfortably ensconced in middle age, it didn’t seem like that big a deal. It wasn’t like I was going to run out of good books to read, and while it might mean holding off on some things in my to-be-read stack, it’s hardly without precedent for a book to be in that stack for years before I get around to reading it. Really all I had to do was rearrange the order, though of course I used it as an excuse to go book-shopping, which is one of my favorite things to do.

The timing that November seemed propitious. I’d started writing Continue reading “I Read Only Books by Women For a Year: Here’s What Happened”