Between the World and Me

There’s been a lot of buzz about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and I’m late getting on that train.  This is my book club’s latest pick and after reading it, I think the discussion will be one of the best discussions we have had.

WorldTo start off with, I think the choice to frame this book as a letter to his son was a brilliant choice.  As the discussion was framed as a discussion rather than a lecture/speech/argument, I feel that readers can access the story bringing their own experiences and comparing/contrasting them with those that Coates is describing.

Coates discusses his experience of what it means to being Black in America. He starts by discussing the idea that as Black Americans, part of the struggle has been to constantly protect your body.  Whether it was survival during the period of slavery, to Jim Crow, to the urban ghettos, Black Americans have had to fight just to keep themselves and their children safe.  Having the experience discussed in terms of safety not only gives access to others who are not Black or who have not had this experience; it creates an idea that everyone can relate to.

Early on one of the key ideas that Coates presents is that race is the child, not the father, of racism.  This both caused me to stop and think. It seems as if previous discussions of race/racism flip this idea.  It would be interesting to see what would happen if we were all to consider race itself as the foundation for racism.  It makes me reconsider marking what my race is on questionnaires.

This is a good book for discussion in that it’s a journey and you get the feeling that there’s more to come as Coates continues question. It also ask the reader to consider in what ways do they cause harm others autonomy of body and how they take advantage of “The Dream”.

Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton (2015) has been on my to-watch list since its premiere this summer.  Sadly, I was never able to see it in theaters, but I was lucky enough to just get it sent to me thanks to Netflix.  Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the review, I think it would be good to give you some background on my relationship to the film.  I was born and lived in California for a good part of my life, so I had heard of NWA, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Tu Pac, and Snoop Dogg.  However, it wasn’t until I was 13 and living in Washington state that I actually started listening to their music.  By that time (1997), Ice Cube wasn’t making music, Dre was producing, Tu Pac was dead (but still making albums?), and Snoop Dogg was doing his thing.  I was more familiar with a lot of the cultural events surrounding the film’s era, that of the Rodney King riots in 1993.  I was actually living in Ventura county at that time and remember seeing the events unfold on the television.

What impressed me with this film is that it morphed from being a film about a group of friends in Compton trying to make it big to adults looking to settle into careers, and find out what matters in life.  There was a lot of people who buzzed about this being a “black” film, which always bothered me.  We don’t label movies that feature white individuals as “white” movies, so why should this apply to minorities?  Sure, I’ve never lived in Compton and never had to navigate drugs and gangs, but that’s not the only focus of this film.  For me, the film shifts the focus from this subculture and instead shows us how each one of the individuals reacts to becoming adults and professionals as well as reacting to volatile current events.  That’s where I feel the universal access lies.  I can relate to those life situations and am therefore able to sympathize and relate to the conflicts and the characters.  Obviously that’s not to say that I’m boiling down all of the conflicts regarding the music industry, but that’s my job as a viewer is to try and find the theme of the film and dialogue with it.  The actors and directors should be telling their stories in such a way that I’m able to access this universal theme without watering down their stories. It’s not an easy job, but movies that can transcend entertainment and reach universal access to their viewers are art in my books.  After all, isn’t art supposed to be the artists interpretation of life around s/he?

Having viewed the film, I’m very disappointed it wasn’t nominated as a Best Picture.  To think that events in the early 1990’s are echoes of what we are STILL dealing with today is exactly what art-as-film should be doing.  By ignoring this dialogue with our contemporary culture I feel that the Academy is ignoring an important analysis of our society.  Shame on them.

I highly recommend this film.  Before you view it, just know that the film was produced by several individuals who are the subjects of the film, so there’s some editing to make them look better than I’m sure they actually were in real life.  However, I didn’t get the feeling that they were telling a story that was fake.  I do think the message the film leaves us with is so pertinent to our discussion of race relations.  It also makes a good cultural piece along with Beyonce’s “Formation”.  If I were teaching a cultural literacy course, I would teach these to as part of a unit.  I would probably also add Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing as well.

The Color of Water

The penultimate read for my first Cannonball go-around was selected by an astute member of my book club.  As race has risen to the forefront of our culture once again, she thought it would be interesting to read and discuss a book about…race.  The Color of Water by James McBride is the biography/autobiography of McBride’s mother and himself.  I should mention that McBride’s mother is Jewish and McBride’s father is Black.  I was interested to see how he would develop the narrative and what point he was trying to make.

ColorInterestingly, he didn’t seem to have a bias in the narrative.  He just told about his mother’s and he’s experiences and leaves any conjecturing to the readers.  He arranges the book in a circle, of sorts.  He alternates chapters between his memories and his mother’s history.  He begins his experiences with his home life and going to school for the first time.  His mother’s experiences are told through her own voice.  It seems that McBride interviewed his mother to learn about her past and it’s her responses that are recorded in the chapters focusing on her life.  Towards the end of the novel, the two experiences link up and McBride continues telling the narrative on his own.

I like the alternating experience because I always believe people should tell their own stories.  I also feels like it gives a more intimate feel that he takes the time to speak with his mother about her past, rather than turn her history into facts and details.  And I liked how he shows the link between our past and our present and ultimately how the two create our future.  McBride’s purpose for writing the novel seems to be his way of working out what his future will look like.  He describes that he was always confused why his mother didn’t look like his friends’ mothers.  He would ask her why she didn’t look Black and she always deferred.  He then asked what God looked like and she said he was the color of water.

This answer not only becomes the title of the book but a complicated answer to help him on his journey of finding out who he was.  Interestingly enough, his mother converted from Judaism to Christianity before meeting McBride’s father.  They met at the church they were attending and the rest, as they say, is history.  However, converting to a new religion doesn’t erase your past.  And this was something that McBride was always curious about but could never get his mother to talk about.  Once he finally convinced his mother to open up, he went back to her hometown and tracked down some of the people from his mother’s past.

There’s no real ideological conclusion to the novel.  No big insight on race.  But I think maybe that’s what McBride is trying to say.  That just like families, we can’t choose what race we are, but we can choose who we are as individuals; our race shouldn’t define us.  While he identified with the Black community, his mother never truly left her Jewish roots behind.  She just decided that it wouldn’t define her and she would make herself at home in the Black community and become part of the neighborhood.

I wish we could live in a society where your race doesn’t determine how people treat you, what type of education you receive, or how well you will do in your job.  While we’ve made strides to de-emphasize race, we still have room for improvement.  I think it will take more people like Mrs. McBride who choose to not see people for their race but the people that they are.  If we all take this example, the world would be a better place.

Pudd’nhead Wilson

WilsonPudd’nhead Wilson was my first introduction to Mark Twain, but as a freshman in High School I’m sad to say his brilliance was lost on me.  I didn’t read any more Twain until I started Cannonball Read this year.  I decided to read Huckleberry Finn.  I really did like the book, but I hated the ending and I didn’t like how long it took to teach.  So this is what led me to consider another work by Twain that didn’t feature Tom Sawyer.  Don’t even get me started on him.  I feel like it’s important for people to read Twain not only for his wit and satire, but because of the way he can tell a story and tackle issues such as slavery and society’s expectations for race.

It took me awhile to get into Pudd’nhead Wilson mostly because it takes Twain awhile to land on which character is going to be the focus of the story.  First it’s Roxy, then it’s Tom, then it’s the twins, and finally, Wilson.  Then I had to work to figure out what the point of the novel is because it’s one of Twain’s darkest and most satirical.  I like to get to know a character or characters and invest in their development.  So Ronaldowhen it takes awhile to get to know a character it’s hard for me to get invested in the book.

When we finally settle on Tom it becomes easier to get into the plot.  But then you realize Tom is a douche. He’s the guy you just want to punch in the face and you don’t know why (which is exactly how I feel about the dude to the right).  Ok, by the time you get into the book there’s a ton of reasons why you want to punch him in the face, but yet everyone seems to just accept him as he is.  Maybe people were just more patient and accepting than I am.

And then there’s Wilson.  Dear, dear Wilson.  He’s patient in the face of ignorance, accepting in the face of douche baggery, and he’s persistent in the face of hopelessness.  He’s sort of the late-blooming hero.  Honey_badgerAnd the thing is, looking back on the story, you know he’s going to win in the end, yet you aren’t sure how the plots going to get there.  I think he’s a good role model because he does him like a honeybadger.  He doesn’t change who he is because the townspeople don’t understand him.  He persists in his hobby of fingerprinting before it became a legitimate form of identification and criminology.  And he is genuinely a nice guy.  A little naive, but nice all the same.

Ultimately what I came away from the novel is how absurd society’s expectations are for race.  While we don’t legally treat people different based on race (unless you live in Ferguson, Mo.), we do “expect” individuals of particular races to behave in different ways.  That’s where racial profiling occurs or when people are shocked that someone of Hispanic or African-American descent is a valedictorian.  Or if you’re a European American who is fluent in Spanish but is continually questioned whether he can legitimately speak Spanish because his skin is so light; it’s just insulting.  I think it’s all the more potent that Twain wrote this satire on race and social expectation in 1894 so long after the Civil War yet clearly people were still treating individuals as if they were back in the antebellum South.  And sadly we haven’t moved very far from this paradigm.  We have room to grow but we have to embrace the desire for growth.  I hope that someday in the future, readers will reflect on how far in the past racism and racial profiling are and we can all just get along and accept each other for who we are.