• The Queen by Josh Levin ** (of 4)

    In principle, the story of Linda Taylor, the woman stuck with the appellation of America’s Welfare Queen, upon whom so much political scorn has been laid is worthy of a solid retelling. She is reviled by all working class taxpayers for her rampant and rambunctious fleecing of America’s welfare systems. Ronald Reagan made her infamous as he campaigned for President, mentioning the Welfare Queen as representative of all that was wrong with government in America. Linda Taylor had amassed scores of aliases, ID cards, addresses, social security numbers, and heartbreaking sob stories in pursuit of tens of thousands of dollars and Reagan repeated that description every chance he got.

    Buried beneath Reagan’s rhetoric, but not very deeply, was the implication that People of Color were primarily, and as a group, collectively, foregoing work in favor of taking free money supplied by lower-class, hard-working, white Americans. Reagan relied upon racism in place of either research or data. It worked then and continues to work now.

    Complicating the story still further was Linda Taylor’s background story as the child of mixed-race parentage in the South where miscegenation was illegal and the product of such a relationship was to be shunned at all costs. The Supreme Court did not strike down laws forbidding Blacks and Whites to marry until 1967 and many southern states sill support the rights of businesses and churches to deny services to mixed-race couples. In some ways, becoming a con-woman was a smart business move on Taylor’s part and she succeeded to such a degree that she seems to have lost all touch with reality or the truth, shifting stories about who she was or what she was up to on the turn of a dime. As a world-class con-artist without regard for veracity she reminds me of a very recent president.

    The Queen is meticulously researched. Every crime on Taylor’s long list is evaluated in full detail and therein lies the downfall of the book. It is gruelingly detailed.

  • Razorblade Tears by S.A. Crosby **** (of 4)

    Ike and Buddy Lee couldn’t be more different or more the same. Ike is Black and barely the survivor of deeply embedded southern racism. Buddy Lee, self identifies as a beer-drinking, redneck piece of trailer-trash. Their only sons are married to one another and murdered in cold blood just before the book opens. Now the two ex-cons have to face one another, their long-held homophobia, and a police force unable or indifferent about finding their sons’ killers.

    Ike and Buddy Lee take it upon themselves to search for the unrepentant killers and as we tag along the two old man, tired, but still tough and wily, get to know one another. They also get to know themselves. Violence bubbles up around the pair like a slashed artery but is diluted with insightful compassion for two men coming to terms with their failures as fathers. Together, they prove that you are never too old to try again, to make amends, to apologize to those who have been wronged, and to accede to the power of love. Even as bodies drop like flies caught behind glass, Ike and Buddy Lee discover who killed their sons, but more importantly grasp that judging a human takes more than a glance at skin color, class, sexual orientation, or gender. Goodness, like evil, can be found in surprising places.

  • Harlem Shuffle **** (of 4) Colson Whitehead

    It is the early 1960s and Ray Carney sells contemporary furniture from a showroom on 125th Street in Harlem, New York City’s Black enclave. Harlem vibrates with the energy of strivers, both straight and crooked. Men (women are conspicuously second class characters in this book) aim to get ahead anyway they can and Carney has, in addition, to his sale of couches and dinettes, a side hustle of fenced electronics, appliances, and jewels. Carney’s cousin, Freddy, is endowed with more charm than common sense; he routinely draws Carney into a series of crimes that Carney ultimately wishes he had no part of.

    Harlem Shuffle appears to be part compelling crime novel, part family saga, and an exceedingly lively encapsulation of the language and vibe of inner city life in the early 1960s. (Listen to the audiobook, if you have the opportunity.) But most of all, the genius of the book is the feeling of racial imprisonment affected by the invisible urban borders of Harlem. Yes, the boundaries are semi-porous: Carney can ride the subway downtown to move stolen items through white middlemen – also with straight-looking storefronts – but his skin color makes him too conspicuous to linger. White cops own the streets of Manhattan from the Battery to the Bronx and cruise the blocks of Harlem beating, occasionally killing young Black men, and all around ensuring that no matter the aspirations of Harlems’ dreamers, educated or not, their station in life is preordained.

    The setting is 1959-1964. Not nearly enough has changed.

  • Darktown by Thomas Mullen **** (of 4)

    Following the end of WWII, the Atlanta Police Force reluctantly added eight African American police officers.  Their beats were restricted to Darktown, the part of Atlanta without streetlights, and it almost goes without saying, without white people.  Two recently hired war veterans, Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, stumble across an inebriated white man with a young black woman in his car.  After they see her get punched and then escape from her driver they later find her body buried among trash in a vacant lot.  Superficially, the novel is a 1940s murder mystery in the south, but the real story is the unflinching detail with which we observe Boggs and Smith endure Jim Crow.  They are forbidden from arresting criminals, only white officers can, so they must subdue adversaries, run to a telephone, and call for a squad car whose white officers may or may not arrive.  They may not question, nor even look into the eyes, of white officers, or for that matter, white men.  They may not be seen alone with, nor speak to white women without fear of subsequent lynching.  Boggs and Smith choose to uphold the law where they can while circumventing a white police force that alternately extorts, threatens, shoots, and convicts Atlanta’s blacks and despises its colored comrades.  As with most elements of Jim Crow I don’t know whether I am more offended by the inhumane behavior of America’s white racists or the fact I was never taught anything about Jim Crow at any point in my education.  The heat in this extremely well written mystery is as intense as a breezeless summer day in Atlanta.  The audio version of this book is excellent.

  • March: Book Three by Andrew Aydin, John Lewis, and John Noel Claude Lewis **** (of 4)

    This is the final installment of the biography of Congressman John Lewis’s youthful campaign for civil rights for America’s black population.  Books One and Two cover the fight for desegregation in the later 1950s and early 1960s.  Book Three details what it took to force President Johnson to introduce legislation allowing the federal government of the United States to override southern states that forbid blacks from voting.  For years John Lewis led the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee through peaceful demonstrations to enable Americans with dark skin to register to vote like other Americans.  Repeatedly, men and women approaching courthouses hoping to register were met with police beatings, enabled posses of armed white men, obstinate white judges, and murderous Klansmen.  The story is a bloody one and sprinkled throughout are references to an event that was unimaginable in 1964:  John Lewis, the Congressman, attending the inauguration of Barack Obama.  And yet, today, gerrymandering of voting districts mean that Republicans (with negligible support or accountability to black voters) control the Presidency (who did not win the popular vote), both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, and a majority of governorships and statehouses.  Everyone should read this book.  And consider kneeling during the National Anthem.

  • The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty ** (of 4)

    It is a great idea for research that is long overdue.  Michael Twitty explores the role of enslaved Africans in shaping American foodways.  Think about it.  Africans captured in Africa and transported for sale to American owners brought with them foods and methods of cooking they knew from home.  In America they were forced to work in the kitchens of slave owners and to keep themselves from starving to death too quickly — fieldwork for Africans was no different in duration or difficulty than it was for horses and mules — they grew small household gardens when they could.  In short, their influence on what we know of today as southern cooking was deep and wide.  Twitty is fascinating just by himself:  black, gay, Jewish, historian, and foodie.  Where the book falters, unfortunately, is the confusing intertwining of food history, Twitty’s autobiography, and his search for his genetic roots.  By themselves, each story is a fine thread.  Together, they are a hopelessly tangled series of knots and broken leads.

  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead **** (of 4)

    Before Colson Whitehead ever gets to the story of Cora’s attempted escape from enslavement, he sets the stage in Africa.  Cora’s grandmother and mother are captured beginning a saga of human beings herded, branded, chained, transported, discarded when insufficiently healthy, and sold like so many pieces of meat.  Some are consumed, others are tossed overboard or left to rot.  Whitehead’s descriptions of the relationship between white slave owners and the human beings they own is a delicately painted portrait of white men using all their faculties to subdue the humanity of their black workers with rape, torture, and psychological brutality.  For this portion of the book alone, the real-life portrayal of slavery in the south, The Underground Railroad should be required reading of all Americans.  Whitehead’s description of plantation work for slaves also makes the idea of escape almost logical.  The alternatives are equally daunting: staying on the plantation means ceaseless labor, sexual assaults, tongue extractions for speaking up, castrations for being black and male and therefore a threat to white men’s sense of superiority, and beatings so severe that infections beneath missing skin are inevitable.  Leaving for the underground railroad, in contrast, means fearing owners so desperate to regain their lost property that dogs trained to shred human tissue and professional slave catchers brandishing chains and iron collars will be sent even into free states to recapture lost goods.  Cora’s lifelong sprint for freedom is harrowing, accurate, and the story of an underdog for whom you can’t help but root.  Her plight is also an important reminder that in the age of Charlottesville the legacy of slavery has not yet been overcome.

  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi *** (of 5)

    homegoingGyasi uses her own experience as a Ghanaian American to create an original tale of history.  We are asked to follow the descendants of one family member captured in northern Ghana, sold to the British, imprisoned in the Cape Coast Castle and shipped to the United States as enslaved chattel.  The other continues residence in Ghana under the curse of the ancestors.  While the raw brutality of enslavement is on full display, the remaining lives in Ghana are not to be envied.  Over the centuries, Ghanaians capture neighbors and sell them, they fight off British overlords, barely, and are trapped by superstition and custom.  Alas, Gyasi, a very young writer, has bitten off more than she can regurgitate in such a short novel.  Trying to cover two continents and all the generations encumbered by nearly three centuries means the recounting of too many stories that feel just a bit familiar: an aborted ride on the underground railroad, a slave whose back is scarred beyond recognition by whippings, the Middle Passage is inhumanely sickening.  The stories from Ghana are of course newer for us, but their brevity makes many of them too shallow to appreciate.

  • Negroland by Margo Jefferson *** (of 4)

    Margo-Jefferson-Negroland-Cover.w370.h555Margo Jefferson is nearing the end of a successful career as an English professor and brings all of her skill as a cultural analyst and textual critic to bear on her life as an elite African American.  What emerges, beyond a lot of references to literature I haven’t read, and cultural icons of the 1950s and 1960s that I barely recall, is the grinding, irrepressible tank tread of American racism.  Jefferson is buffeted on one side by the burden of having to be forever superior to low blacks, black blacks.  Always, because whites are watching and evaluating, and as her parents instructed her, she must be a model for her race.  And yet no amount of education, intellect, acumen, or accomplishment can erase a skin color that immediately draws suppositions, most of them discounting, some of them denigrating, from white Americans.  Despite claims to the contrary that her intentions were otherwise, Jefferson’s book is agonizingly tedious, monotonous in its inability to escape the premise that race pollutes everything in America.  And I think that is the point.

  • The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis *** (of 4)

    hattiejpg-3519a9cd782a1f72This first novel captures the bleak experience of Hattie, the black mother of a dozen kids, who has come north as part of The Great Migration.  Escaping Jim Crow south to settle in Philadelphia and struggling to keep her head above a rising tide of poverty, poor relationships, wayward children, and a philandering husband, we read a series of loosely tied short stories about each of Hattie’s children.  The painted pictures are rich with detail and character but poor Hattie is the bible’s Job.  She is tested over and over and while she manages to maintain her pride, I was beaten down in the process.