Red River/Lalita Tademy

When I heard that Lalita Tademy had released a new book, Red River, I was really excited for a couple of reasons. The first one was that I had read Cane River, the chronicle of the times of her mother’s ancestors. The second was that I was very familiar with the area of Louisiana in which the story takes place, as I was with Cane River. I had good reason to be excited. Lalita Tademy combines her extensive research, family lore and imagination to create another compelling tale of the triumphs of African Americans in the face of adversity.
Cane River, Tademy’s first novel, follows the life and times of her maternal line, from slavery to the early 1930s. Red River begins around 1873, the date of the Colfax Riot. The ironic thing about the riot is, well, it wasn’t a riot. The largely black state militia was butchered to the tune of about 200 deaths by some accounts (many of the bodies were buried and hidden) while only three whites fell during the slaughter. Further alarming, is the fact that a huge marble monument stands in tribute to the fall of those three men for “white supremacy”.
The blacks were at the courthouse to defend their vote (the democratic incumbent sheriff refused to vacate his post).
As a result of the “riot”, black people lost their vote and were intimidated for decades by the forces responsible for the slaughter and their descendants.
The book follows the journeys, in the aftermath, of two families who eventually become one, the Smiths and the Tademys. They are her father’s ancestors. The intra-discrimination among blacks plays more of a background role than in the previous novel, but it is of a reverse nature.
Whiteness in the form of European features, most notably light skin, are seen as a mark of quality, a means of privilege by Suzanne and Emily in Cane River.
In Red River, Israel Smith and Lucy Smith, recently liberated slaves, have two sons. One of them, David, is obviously the result of Lucy’s rape at the hands of a white man on their last plantation. Israel hates David, often neglecting him in favor of Noby, his first born son in freedom. This sets the brothers on a path of bitterness and resentment that has painful, life-altering consequences for their entire family.
As with Cane River, Red River has photographs of landmarks and the people involved in the story. which makes the story more interesting. I also really enjoyed the book because of the strength of the men involved in the story and balanced portrayal of the women. I was supposed to donate it to the library, but I might have to sneak a copy for myself, because it’s really good.

The Known World/Edward P. Jones

The Known World by Edward P. Jones could be best summarized by the following passage.

Winifred had meant no bad thing by the words. With what little money she had, she hired a printer-an enlightened white immigrant from Savannah, Georgia,-to make up the posters and put them up all about Philadelphia, “where any eye could see,” she had instructed the printer. She had meant only love with the words, for she loved Minerva more than she loved any other human being in the world. But John Skiffington’s widow had been fifteen years in the South, in Manchester County, Virginia and people down there just talked that way. She and the printer from Savannah would have told anyone that they didnt mean any harm by it.

From Caldonia Townsend, the free colored woman who inherits a plantation when her husband dies in an untimely manner to John Skiffington, the sheriff who reads his bible, and yet never seems to honestly attempt to live the words he finds inside, most of the characters in power in the book appear to be as helpless as the slaves they own. They go through the course of the book doing horrible and ugly and immoral things, not meaning anything by them, but that’s just the way they do things down there. This book navigates the lives of the slaves on Henry Townsend’s plantation, the activities of the night patrol hired by John Skiffington to keep slaves from running amok and William Robbins, the most powerful man in the county. The story chronicles these journies from past to future.

The slave Celeste loses her baby at six months of pregnancy when she is sent to the fields by the overseer Moses after she has told him that she does not feel good and her husband has offered to do her work for her. Her husband, Elias, who has already had part of his ear taken off at the request of Moses and Henry Townsend (Caldonia’s late husband) pins a lock of the dead child’s hair to his shirt and plots in his heart the revenge against Moses. Caldonia and her mother have affairs with their slaves. The book is full of the kind of drama that happened during the antebellum period. However, after reading about what happens to Augustus, the master craftsman who had bought his, his wife and Henry’s freedom, I was truly speechless and breathless, and I’ve read slave narratives (including that of a black man who was born free and sold into slavery), lynching accounts, and other documents of the racial violence and injustice visited upon African Americans.

This book is amazing. I’m adding it to my permanent collection. My kids WILL read it when they are old enough.

The Measure of a Man/Sidney Poitier

I have always respected Sidney Poitier. Even before I learned of his humble beginnings in this country as a dishwasher, he always appeared to symbolize the strength and dignity that all too often eludes roles written for black actors. I had hoped that reading this book would give me insight into the character of the actor that I respected so much.
The book begins with his childhood in the Bahamas and the great adventures he had there as a little boy growing up in nature. Sometimes I wish that my kids had those kinds of surroundings where they could explore and not be limited by anything except for the bounds of their imaginations.
I think that the part of the book that resonated the most with me was where he discussed his life in America and the fact that because he had come of age in caribbean society, he had no concept of his place in Jim Crow America. It is really sad to say, but growing up in Louisiana, I felt the same thing. I didn’t feel that my color limited my intellect, my possibilities in life, any of that stuff, but a lot of my classmates did. As late as 1990, the white kids at my high school sat on one side of the gym and the black kids sat on the other. The white kids sat on the clean side and the black kids sat on the raggedy and dirty side. Well, except for me and maybe two or three of my friends.
He refused to sign loyalty oaths that would have meant that he would have had to disown friends like Paul Robeson. Even when it meant that he would have to wash dishes instead of accepting roles. He said that his reason for doing so was that he strived to be the kind of person that his dad was, to have that kind of integrity. Many of his other friends like Harry Belafonte and Charley Blackwell make appearances in the book. There seemed to be points of the book where the reading went slower than with others. I dont know if this was the result of me having read extensively about Poitier, or if it just got wordy in spots.
If you’re a Poitier fan who doesnt know much about the man or his life, I would suggest the book. Maybe I have read too much about him to really appreciate this book.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty by Zadie Smith is a searing indictment on race, class, politics and sex in an upper middle class New England Enclave, said to be modeled after one of the ivy league schools. A lot of the things reflected in academic life reminded me of my experience in a college town. It is said to “borrow” from Howards End (E.M. Forster) as a form of tribute, but I’m kind of uneasy by the heaviness of said borrowing. It’s still a great book though.
The novel explores the life of the rich Kipps family, the working class Belsey family, and the people they interact with in a fictional New England college town not far from Boston. The patriarchs, Montague “Monty” Kipps and Howard Belsey have a run in of sorts.
The Kipps project an image of being ideal conservatives, mother Carlene stays at home and runs an efficient home, son Michael is an investment banker, daughter Victoria is a stellar student who is “growing into her looks” and of course Montague is a paragon of all that is Christian and upright. Or is he?
Jerome, Zora and Levi (the Belsey children) curse in front of their parents and call them by their first names. Parents Kiki and Howard are dealing with the excruciating residue of Howard’s infidelity. With the exception of Jerome, who seeks to deal with his anger and hurt over Howard’s affair and life with Howard in general through Christianity, all of them are adamant anti-Christians. Levi, the youngest, seeks to escape his home situation by adopting a “hood” persona and falls in with a group of Haitians and Africans he meets while in Boston and learns much more than he bargained for. I think that the book is very well written because although I found something to intensely dislike in all of the characters (except Jerome), I wanted to know what was going to happen to all of them. I was not satisfied at all with the ending. It left too many questions for me, but then again, nothing was perfect about the book. The characters weren’t perfect to begin with and they behaved in very imperfect ways during the course of the book.
This is a great book for discussion. Political definitions in this country, marriage, immigration, the so called liberation of women, sex and race are but a few of the topics that could be discussed through the experiences of the Belseys, the Kipps and their cohorts. I think it’s a really should read (check it out from the library first), but not a must read.