Category Archives: African American

Bird by Crystal Chan

BirdIn the small town of Caledonia, Iowa, Jewel stands out: she’s “‘half-Jamaican, a quarter white, and a quarter Mexican.’” As if to provide a physical embodiment of Jewel’s hapa background, the audible producers cast Amandla Stenberg, who played the heartbreaking role of young Rue in the film version of The Hunger Games. No doubt, Stenberg’s nuanced narration is a literary gift.

While Jewel’s appearance marks her as different in Caledonia, her family’s tragedy is what most circumscribes her young life. On the day she was born, her 5-year-old brother John – called Bird for “the way he kept jumping off things” – plummeted off a nearby cliff as he “tried to fly.” With his death, Grandpa stopped talking. Birthdays, understandably, were the most difficult of all: “I’ve always had to share my special day with the silence behind Grandpa’s closed door and the silence at the cemetery and the silence that hangs thick between Mom and Dad’s words.”

On the night of her 12th birthday, Jewel finds a stranger in “her” tree: a boy named John who is as “dark as the night sky,” who introduces himself as a neighbor’s visiting nephew from Virginia. He bluntly explains his lack of family resemblance: “‘I’m adopted. Raised by white people. It’s not as bad as it sounds.’” As the two become fast friends, Grandpa becomes agitated to the point of violence; he’s convinced that John is a “duppy” – an evil spirit from Caribbean folklore that Grandpa and Jewel’s father believe caused Bird’s death. Yet John’s possible resemblance to a brother she never knew makes him that much more intriguing to Jewel. For the rest of her family, John’s presence is both threatening and comforting, and eventually forces the too-many secrets to break through their silent surface.

Debut author Crystal Chan clearly shares a Midwest, small-town, mixed-race background with her protagonist: in addition to her bio, her author website offers a fun FAQ page with the question “What mix are you?” Her answer, complete with two photographs as a child with each parent, is: “My dad is from Hong Kong, and my mom is from Wisconsin and is of Polish descent. So I grew up eating pierogies, along with stir fry.”

Chan writes deftly not only about being different surrounded by homogeneity, but the conflict within those differences for both Jewel and transracially adopted John. Bird proves to be an empathetic, resonating read, full of wisdom, grace, hope, and – of course – the greatest love.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American, Carribbean American, Chinese American, Hapa, Latino/a

The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical by Warren Hoffman

Great White WayTheater producer/critic/playwright Warren Hoffman (The Passing Game) insists that audiences have been “duped” into believing that the Broadway musical “is the most innocent of art forms when, in fact, it is one of America’s most powerful, influential, and even at times polemical arts precisely because it often seems to be about nothing at all.”

Filtering many of Broadway’s beloved spectacles through a race-sensitive lens, the author eschews complicit complacency: sing, dance, and clap along, he says, but open your eyes and see that Show Boat, for instance, “validate[s] and rationalize[s] the ‘inferiority’ of blacks and the ‘superiority’ of whites”; Oklahoma! erases the Native American experience in their own Indian Territory; and Annie Get Your Gun puts Native Americans center stage only in “stereotypical if not downright racist” characterizations. The multicultural A Chorus Line, the author says, ironically ends with the bittersweet elision of individuality into “One,” and 42nd Street is little more than revisionist “pure white fantasy.” While Hoffman’s ideas are important, his execution is rife with repetition, inflammatory rhetoric, and surprising lapses (e.g., Miss Saigon‘s yellowface casting controversy).

Verdict: While all culture aficionados should read this book – indeed, a condensed version of it should be inserted into every musical’s playbill – few may reach the final page.

Review: “Arts and Humanities,” Library Journal, March 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Drama/Theater, .Nonfiction, African American, Chinese American, Jewish, Native American

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

Twelve Tribes of HattieWhen Oprah reinvented her book club in 2012, she elevated Cheryl Strayed’s Wild to near mythic status (I found Wild so tedious, I didn’t have the energy to write a post). Oprah’s 2013 choice was a first novel that hasn’t found quite that Wild level of ubiquitous success, but mega-bestselling annointment is definitely the next best way to launch a literary career. Besides, Ayana Mathis‘ Twelve Tribes resonates much more with Oprah’s usual-suspects: long-suffering protagonists (especially women) who must fight not only social oppression – usually with racial or classist overtones – but degradation caused by so-called loved ones, as well.

Hattie Shepherd, the novel’s matriarch, is still a teenager when she moves from Georgia to Philadelphia in the 1920s. By 17, she’s a married woman with twins. Her babies fall victim to pneumonia at seven months and die; Hattie never quite recovers in the more than half century she births, raises, and lets go of nine more children. Hattie is crippled by her bitterness towards her philandering husband, her impatience with trying to control her needy offspring, her disappointment over their lives as adults. Her difficulties render her incapable of ever openly showing love and affection to those she cares about most.

Over 10 chapters that read like interlinked short stories, Hattie’s maturity from teenaged mother to weathered grandmother is revealed via dovetailing glimpses of her children’s lives, mirroring the restrictive, challenging, not-changing-fast-enough African American experience of the 20th century. Floyd womanizes to cover his homosexuality, Six’s violent temper leads him to become a man of God, both Ruthie and Ella will always be someone else’s daughters, Alice pops pills convinced her life purpose is to take care of brother Billy whom she couldn’t protect as a child, Franklin gambles away his family, Bell gives up, Cassie succumbs to voices, and … in the final chapter, only Sala seems to look at her future with any hope.

No, this isn’t a feel-good story by any stretch of the imagination [Oprah chose it, ahem!]. That Hattie survives with her back straight and her head held high is perhaps the title’s greatest achievement. For those who want to go beyond the page, a cast of veteran narrators adeptly imbue the characters with urgent immediacy. Here’s to resilience – Hattie’s and committed readers both!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Under the Same Sun by Sharon Robinson, illustrated by AG Ford

Under the Same SonAn 85-year-old grandmother makes a special birthday trip from the U.S. to Tanzania where three generations celebrate with a surprise safari through Serengeti National Park. The story is special enough … but this one is far more layered …

Grandmother Bibi is Rachel Robinson, the widow of the legendary Jackie Robinson who broke the race barrier in 1947 to become the first African American to play Major League Baseball. The author (and co-traveler) is daughter Sharon Robinson and the family’s birthday adventure is hosted by her brother, David Robinson, who “… in 1984, gave up all that was familiar to him – and started a new life in East Africa.”

Artist AG Ford captures all the important moments with brilliant hues and rich vibrancy, from Bibi and Sharon’s arrival in Dar Es Salaam, to their few days in David’s home “exchanging gifts, telling stories, and filling in the gaps from their years apart,” to the unforgettable safari which ends on a historical beach on the Indian Ocean.

The final day of Bibi’s birthday trip takes the family to Bagamoyo, which “‘… was once home to a slave-trading post,’” David explains. “‘People were captured and brought here with their legs chained together to keep them from running away. ‘Bagamoyo’ comes from a Swahili phrase that means ‘to let go of one’s heart.””

The somber moment becomes both a historical lesson as well as a celebration of the deep bonds of family: “‘Your great-great-grandparents were captured on the west coast of Africa and shipped to America, to the state of Georgia,’” David tells his children. As an adult, David made the voyage back: “‘I wanted to return to my ancestral past. And I made my home here with you.’” In the detailed “Author’s Note,” at book’s end, Sharon further explicates: “As the founder of a coffeegrowers’ cooperative, David has committed his life to partnering with the people of this region to fight poverty and foster economic development.”

While continents and time zones might separate families all over the world, heroes like Jackie Robinson and his descendents who continue a legacy of social activism, ensure today’s”‘freedom to travel back and forth.’” And, as Bibi reminds us all, “‘We may be separated by land and sea, but we are always under the same sun.’”

Readers: Children

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, African, African American

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride

Color of Water McBrideWhat writer and musician James McBride initially thought might take just six months to write required 14 long years to produce his now-almost-20-year-old debut title, The Color of Water. “Mommy” – McBride never calls her anything else – was never a cooperative subject: she shared her memories in her own good time, in between her endless warnings of “‘Mind your own business!’” and “‘Leave me alone. You’re a nosy-body!’”

Born Ruchel Dwajra Zylska in Poland, Mommy’s “parents got rid of that name when we came to America and changed it to Rachel Deborah Shilsky.” Her father was an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who abused his own family, her mother a long-suffering sweet woman partially paralyzed by polio. The five Shilskys – Mommy had an older brother and a U.S.-born younger sister – eventually settled in rural Suffolk, Virginia. At 17, Mommy escaped her miserable home life and found independence in New York City.

She became Ruth McBride when she married her first husband, Andrew McBride, a kind African American man who eventually became a minister and founded – with Mommy’s unwavering support and involvement – the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The as-yet unborn James was the 8th child of that union, which ended when Andrew died in 1957. He was not quite a year old when Mommy married the man James always called “Daddy,” Hunter Jordan, Sr., a “quiet, soft-spoken,” nattily-dressed African American furnace fireman for the NYC Housing Authority, with whom she had another four children. When Daddy died of a stroke in 1972, the hapa family was left in desperate poverty and yet Mommy miraculously managed to raise “twelve very creative and talented children.” Indeed, “her children’s achievements are her life’s work.”

Mommy’s story stayed on The New York Times‘ bestseller list for over two years. McBride has since written three novels, the latest of which, The Good Lord Bird, is currently a finalist in fiction for the 2013 National Book Award (the winner gets announced November 20). That his name has recently been popping up with regularity might be what prompted me to pick up Color again, although this time I decided to stick it in my ears.

As superbly written as this now-classic memoir is, the audible version manages to be markedly better. Truly. The unforgettable André Braugher gives elegant, commanding voice to McBride, but even more spectacular is inimitable Lainie Kazan who completely embodies “Mommy” in one of the best book performances I’ve ever heard. Although Mommy passed away at age 88 in 2010, Kazan’s riveting narration ensures she lives on and on and on …

Readers: Adult

Published: 1996

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Biography, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, African American, Hapa

Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng

Southern Cross the DogLet’s start with this fascinating article: “The One Thing White Writers Get Away With, But Authors of Color Don’t” by PolicyMic‘s Gracie Jin – go ahead, take a few minutes to read it.

You’ll see from that giant close-up photo that author Bill Cheng is indeed of Asian ethnicity. He’s Chinese American, in case you were wondering, and was just 29 when his debut novel pubbed last May, a book that follows the lives of African Americans in rural Mississippi during the decades following the Great Flood of 1927.

Mega-award winning author Colum McCann blurbs, “Cheng, almost literally, writes out of his skin.” Ironically, McCann – an Irishman now domiciled in NYC – himself has a reputation for writing beyond his background, but who’s noticing? Indeed, that’s exactly Jin’s premise: “Unfortunately, most reviewers and interviewers seem to care less about the quality of Cheng’s writing than they do about the answers to these questions: Did the Chinese guy get it right? Can an authentic picture of the South come from a man of Asian descent who grew up in Queens? …In a society masquerading as post-racial, it is still only the white man who can speak authoritatively for every man. People of color, on the other hand, are expected to speak only for themselves.” Ouch.

Cheng apparently hadn’t set foot in Mississippi before he went on book tour in the deep South. But that didn’t stop him from creating the absolutely convincing, haunting voice of his African American protagonist, Robert Lee Chatham. Moreover, if you decide to stick the book in your ears, actor Prentice Onayemi will undoubtedly dispel any lingering doubts.

Robert Lee Chatham survives the Great Flood with his parents – his mother already hopelessly damaged by the brutal lynching murder of her older son, his father desperate to save his remaining child – only to be put in the care of a brothel owner. He does the rest of his growing up at the Hotel Beau-Miel, but is again set adrift as a young man. His journey keeps him moving, as a laborer, fugitive, prisoner, friend, and lover; he bears the scars of ingrained prejudice of his violently segregated surroundings, but runs as often from his own demons.

Beyond ethnicity, Southern Cross is a Bildungsroman of epic proportions, rhythmically punctuated by Cheng’s devotion to the blues, “particularly country/delta blues,” he reveals in the publicity letter that accompanied the book. “I thought my first full-length work should be a tribute to that kind of music, those stories, those people.” As if in answer to his ethnic questioners, he adds, “I wanted to capture the sense of a country and people that was unsure of itself, that was tenuous about the future. I think that has some resonance with how I think America is today.”

That said, choose Southern Cross with certainty. The only bottom line you really need to know? It’s a good story, very well-told. Simple as that.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American, Chinese American

The Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden

Wedding GiftTwo sisters, born three months apart on the same Alabama plantation, could not have more different lives. As the daughter of a slave, Sarah is Master Allen’s property; as the legitimate Mrs. Allen’s youngest child, Clarissa is a pampered young lady of means. Playmates as children, Sarah is eventually given to Clarissa’s new household as her personal servant when Clarissa marries an older widower. What is clearly a financial arrangement of convenience threatens the future of the entire Allen estate.

Told in chapters narrated by Sarah and Mrs. Theodora Allen, both women reveal a pre-Civil War society that allowed few freedoms for women, regardless of their skin tones. Being a slave is surely the most heinous existence: when Sarah’s mother Emmeline refuses Master Allen after years of nightly service, he sells Sarah’s older sister to a faraway plantation where she is inhumanely tortured. Theodora arrives on the plantation as a hopeful young wife, and while her privileged status provides lavish creature comforts, she remains a victim of the Master’s violent whims and debaucheries, just as their daughter Clarissa is, in effect, ‘sold’ to the highest bidder.

According to the press release accompanying the galley, first-time author Marlen Suyapa Bodden – who works as an attorney with The Legal Aid Society in NYC – based her novel “on a true court case in Alabama in the 1800′s.” Although the novel’s official publication date is scheduled for later this month, Gift is already a national bestseller, thanks to a 2011 self-published debut that put 150,000 copies into circulation. I might also add that with an African American author, Gift seems rare among recent bestsellers featuring African American narratives: Tara Conklin’s The House Girl, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks were all written by non-African Americans.

As Gift returns to shelves now backed by a major publisher (St. Martin’s Press, part of the vast Macmillan network), it’s also available to stick in your ears, narrated by January LaVoy, who embodies Sarah’s character with determination and authority, and Jenna Lamia, whose flighty youthful voice is surely an example of unfortunate casting. Lamia might have been an ideal choice to personify Clarissa had the chapters been thus written, but her narration lacks any solemnity as the long-suffering Theodora.

That said, even at 10.5 hours, the audible narrative moves more swiftly than on the page; Lamia aside (Sarah’s chapters, thankfully, outnumber Theodora’s), Gift just sounds better than it reads. In silent print, the dialogue, especially, is predictable and stilted, but add a bit of breathily modulated southern accent and such judgment is easily eclipsed. [Could Oprah or Tyler Perry be thinking celluloid?]

With the weather cooling, grab your headset and let the miles fly by with this historic saga of two ill-fated sisters – who needs enemies when you’ve got your own family to wreak such ruinous destruction?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011, 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American

The Caretaker by A.X. Ahmad

CaretakerFor you DC-area-locals who were wondering, debut novelist A.X. Ahmad is one of us … I tell you that, not to make stalking easy, but to share with you book group groupies that, according to Ahmad’s website, he just might be available to join your gathering “… if you live within driving distance of Washington, D.C.” Really, I’m just quoting!

Let me also say that should you decide to stalk … I mean request! … him at an upcoming meeting, your groupies will have much to discuss. Caretaker is full of Very Important Topics to deliberate and dissect, from post-9/11 profiling, to military cover-ups, itinerant illegal immigrant workers, racial and socioeconomic hierarchies, political elites, the Pakistan/India divide, the North Korean threat, not to mention the more mundane issues like infidelity, mental instability, and the overprivileged lives of the rich and famous – all reaching boiling point together in one blood-pressure cooker of a ride.

Ahmad’s peripatetic thriller moves back and forth between a disputed glacier border 20,000 feet up in the sky, down to an exclusive island getaway on the other side of the world. His protagonist is a former Sikh Indian Army Captain, Ranjit Singh, who is forced to flee his home country after a tragic military disaster, and eventually lands on the posh Martha’s Vineyard hoping to ride out the off-season with multiple caretaking jobs for owners of empty luxury homes.

Unable to afford to keep his family even in a disintegrating rental, Ranjit risks temporarily relocating to the waterfront estate of a Massachusetts Senator, just for a few days while he attempts to arrange alternative accommodations. The family’s plush enjoyment is interrupted when two men enter overnight, setting in motion a chain of runaway events from betrayal to deportation to murder. Guided by the ghost of a fellow Indian officer and assisted by a terminally ill American veteran, Ranjit’s survival depends on an antique doll, a computer-savvy relative-by-marriage, and an override alarm code of BLUESKY.

If you choose to be aurally thrilled, the inimitable Sam Dastor will keep you running for hours (almost 11, to be more accurate). Dastor’s previous suspenseful experiences – he also voices Delhi-based Tarquin Hall‘s fabulous Vish Puri series – expertly enhances Ahmad’s prose. Hopefully Dastor’s reading days are not fully committed; Ahmad’s website also reveals that Caretaker is the “first in a trilogy,” an enticing promise of more chills and thrills ahead.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him by David Henry and Joe Henry

Furious CoolThe latest biography of “the world’s most brilliant stand-up comedian” is the culmination of a project that took more than a decade (originally intended as a three-act screenplay) by screenwriter David Henry and his brother, musician Joe Henry. Born in 1940 in Peoria, IL, Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor III was raised by his grandmother, who ran a brothel in which his mother “also turned tricks.” Raped at five by a teenage bully (who, decades later, appeared with his son seeking Pryor’s autograph), Pryor found respite from his oppressive childhood by acting in local theater.

Leaving the first of six wives and his first two (of seven) children, Pryor arrived in New York City in 1963, embarking on a career that spanned clubs, television, and film, finding unparalleled success as a black performer in a racially stratified industry. Universally lauded as a genius, Pryor never overcame his drug addictions, spectacularly exemplified by his 1980 freebasing-induced self-immolation.

Verdict: More a compilation of assiduous research than a narrative – with irreverent profanity that echoes Pryor’s performances – this book should succeed in introducing a legend to new generations. Readers raised on dystopia will find Pryor’s life tragically epic.

Review: “Arts and Humanities,” Library Journal, September 1, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Biography, .Nonfiction, African American

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names“We are on our way to Budapest,” 10-year-old Darling announces as NoViolet Bulawayo‘s 2013 Booker longlisted debut novel opens. ‘We’ includes “Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina,” banded together with plans to steal guavas as they sneak out of Paradise, the ironically named shantytown home the children refer to as a “kaka toilet.” In spite of warnings, the children regularly, longingly, venture to London, Los Angeles, Paris, in addition to Budapest – all the nearby wealthy neighborhoods where they will never be welcomed. Already Darling is determined she will be “blazing out of this kaka country” – Zimbabwe, although never named, where Bulawayo was born and raised.

Darling comes of age living with her grandmother (who still keeps Queen Elizabeth-visaged British money hidden in her Bible under her bed long after only U.S. dollars and South African rands have any buying power), her traveling mother who needs to support three generations of women, and her deadbeat father who unexpectedly returns from South Africa as a barely recognizable near-skeleton. Sundays are spent perspiring on a mountain, where “that crazy Prophet Revelations Bitchington MBorro” one week climbs on top of a screaming woman to exorcise her demons, and Chipo – silenced by her mysterious pregnancy at age 11 – reclaims her voice to reveal she was raped by her grandfather.

Before Chipo’s baby is born, countrywide violence will send Darling to the other side of the world. Degraded by colonial legacy and trapped in murderous unrest, survival means escape: “Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps.” Darling is one of the lucky few who has an Aunt Fostalina who arrives to take her away, seemingly to safety as her grandmother laments the “ruin” of their country. Even as she is buffered by new family and friends, Darling’s immigrant rebirth comes at a high price: “They will never be the same again because you just cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are …”

Labeled “A Novel” on the cover, Bulawayo’s chapters read more like short stories that could easily stand alone. The result is effectively jarring, creating a sense of disconnect that jumps from story to story, as if echoing Darling’s disjointed coming-of age – her African childhood defined by inequity and horror, and the subsequent adaptations she must make as a stranger in a strange land. Stuck in the ears, narrator Robin Miles imbues Darling’s journey with resonating tension, regret, and hope.

The Booker shortlist debuts in a couple of weeks, on September 10, when this year’s “Booker dozen” of 13 will drop to five or six titles. I’m betting Names will stay in the running … at least until October 15 when Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland will remain the last one standing. Stay tuned.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African, African American