August 2019

Here is a quick review of the best of my summer reading. Perhaps you may want to add one or more of these books to your autumn reading table. 

First, is the smallest book, half the physical size of a typical book, from Haymarket Books and the Intercept, and an absolute must read: Naomi Klein’s The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists, published in late 2018.  Another masterpiece from Klein, the book is the result of two visits she made to PR after Hurricane Maria smashed into the island in 2017.  Klein was invited by a “self-appointed” group of five faculty calling themselves “Professors Self-Assembled in Resistance (PAReS). Klein asks two simple questions as she travels the island with community organizers: Who is Puerto Rico for? Who gets to decide? The book tells the stories of PuertoRicanyas on the ground, and how they scrambled to meet the needs of the injured, continued to feed their communities, rebuilt with solar and wind power, and resisted the legacy of colonialism. The book is just 78 tiny pages, and we now know that the people of PR are indeed fighting back yet again against the powerful forces who are eager to empty the magnificent island of its resilient people and turn it into a privatized enclave for the rich. And, p.s., all book royalties go directly to JunteGente, a gathering of organizations in Puerto Rico resisting disaster capitalism.

Chicago’s brilliant young writer, poet, activist and educator, Eve Ewing published her third book, 1919, a collection of poems about the Chicago “race riot” at the end of the dreadful 1st World War and in the midst of the Great Migration of African Americans to the North.  The “Red Summer” comes alive with remarkable photographs from a century ago, and Ewing’s trenchant words bringing to life the Northern form of lynching: segregation via housing, factory labor, the Great Fire, organized bands of white men and boys attacking the Black community with fists, bombs, arson and guns. The spark for the “race riot” was the death of 17 year old Eugene Williams who went rafting in Lake Michigan in an area between unofficially segregated beaches, and drifted to a “white area” and white people began throwing rocks at approaching Black people.  Eugene Williams drowned. Twenty-three Black people and fifteen white people were killed in the subsequent white riot; 537 were injured, and 1,000 were made homeless.  Some 5,000 National Guard occupied the city.  Ewing’s poetry boldly and lyrically unearths, and reminds us of the weight and consequences of a century of white supremacist violence. At the same moment, her words hold both her love and anger.

Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, by Imani Perry, brings to contemporary sensibilities an extraordinary Chicago playwright who moved to New York City, became famous with the sensational success of A Raisin in the Sun, married, was openly a lesbian, a communist, a committed activist, and dear friends with James Baldwin and Nina Simone. She was a Black nationalist and an internationalist. She was under FBI surveillance during McCarthyism when she was newly in her twenties.  She died at the age of 34.  Perry has carefully plumbed Hansberry’s recently released papers, as well as her published plays and articles, to explore and bring to readers one of the most remarkable, complex and confident women of the last century.  Lorraine Hansberry has been brought back to us with her full passions and her artistry.  Perry’s book is blurbed by Alice Walker, Cornell West, Edwidge Dandicat, Donna Seaman and Jacqueline Woodson. 

The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros.  I know. I missed this groundbreaking book first published in 1989, in which Cisneros blends genres and mediums to reveal the vibrant life of a Mexican American community in Chicago through the voice of a young girl growing up in an impoverished and immigrant Chicago neighborhood.  The book is dedicated, “A Las Mujeres, To the Women.”  The “chapters” are a page or two and pull you forward with sharp vignettes and an insistent feminist edge.  I love this book and will add it to my course syllabus.  On the cover of my used book, the poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks describes Cisneros as “… sensitive, alert, nuanceful…rich with music and picture.”

How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, edited by historian Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, is a collection of interviews of three founding authors of the Combahee River Collective, a group of radical Black feminists who gathered to write about Black liberation and feminism in 1977: Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith and Demita Frazier, as well as two contemporary Black feminist activists, Alicia Garza and historian Barbara Ransby.  The book includes a powerful introduction by Taylor, the Combahee River Collective Statement itself (just twelve pages), and the five interviews. I think it is mandatory reading for all activists, and for white women who are radical activists in particular.  It is essential to uproot the lingering notion that the second wave women’s movement of the 1970s was primarily, largely, or only forged by white women.

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States: For Young People, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, adapted by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese.  Perhaps I can assume that everyone reading this piece has read the original An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, written by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and released in 2013.  That book, wrote historian Robin D.G. Kelley, is “the most important book you will read in your lifetime.”  It shattered, again, the notion that the US was a land “discovered” in the “New World.” 

This new book is adapted for young people who, in the U.S. and on the continent, are still forced to imbibe a steady stream of white supremacist-drenched history that erases the indigenous people who lived on the land for centuries before it was colonized, and shamefully hides the bloody and explicit attempts to use irregular warfare (torture, starvation and genocide) to seize the land and its resources from the people who lived there.  Give this book to all the adolescents and young readers you know, and to teachers everywhere.

Things that Make White People Uncomfortable, by Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin.  Okay, this is for all sports fans but also all those interested in how racism, police violence and capitalism work in a particular, powerful domain. And it is a thoroughly gloves-off look at white supremacy and racism in the US.  Bennett is a savvy and courageous professional football player and Super Bowl champion who responds to Colin Kaepernick’s unrepentant action with total solidarity. Bennett, a father of three, grew up in LA and Texas, and credits his activism and his interest in the world to his teacher/mom who had him reading the encyclopedia and taught him to keep asking “why?”. And to his wife, with whom he matured as they rode the waves of NFL life and fame. The book, like him, is dazzling, eloquent, profound, and audacious.

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