Flanked by collaborators Andrew Aydin, his co-writer, and illustrator Nate Powell, Lewis shared the significance of the moment with the crowd. His brief acceptance speech, which brought tears to both Aydin and Powell, is worth a listen.
by Charles Ellenbogen
Eddie has just escaped from the farm; Eddie also has no hands.
Those are among the first two things we learn in James Hannaham’s outstanding, tense and underappreciated novel, Delicious Foods (underappreciated despite winning the 2015 PEN/Faulker Award). Having established that frame, Hannaham recounts the events that led to that point using the voices of three narrators: Eddie, his mother Darlene and Scotty. I am going to avoid explaining who Scotty is.
It suffices to say that Hannaham takes a risk here that in other hands might have come across as a gimmick; here, it works. Darlene, having lost her husband Nat to a brutal act of racist violence (an act for which Darlene blames herself), spirals downward and severs the relationship with her son.
Darlene’s obsession with the loss of her husband and her role in it is not the only kind of enslavement in this story. She becomes, by all accounts, a pretty unsuccessful prostitute and falls under the spell of a self-help book. This allows her to be seduced by representatives from Delicious Foods, who promise her excellent accommodations and wages in exchange for her work on their farm. We are not fooled; Darlene, without telling Eddie, is. As soon as she arrives, she finds herself in another kind of slavery, one akin to the logistics of sharecropping. She doesn’t know where she’s been taken. That’s part of how the company controls her. Her accommodations are far from luxurious and her wages are abysmal. In fact, by the time she wakes up the next morning, she already owes the company money. And she can’t make the phone call to her son to tell him where she is.
And Eddie wants to know. Despite all of her frustrations with her, Eddie loves his mother. Hannaham explains in this elegant passage:
He remembered eating a certain brand of chocolate sandwich cookie that matched her complexion, not the deep brown of stained wood but lighter and ruddier, like cedar-bark chips. She had grace, and painted her finger and toenails a respectable shade of plum. A night sky of faint dots spread across her face. . . He remembered sitting in her lap and tracing these constellations. . .
After wandering among the people of the night, Eddie finds the same representatives from Delicious Foods and is reunited with his mother. The problem becomes that he, too, cannot leave the farm. And his mother doesn’t always want to.
In addition to taking us back to both the slavery and sharecropping eras, Hannaham’s descriptions of life on the farm resonates with the conditions that farmworkers face today. Some of the farmworkers dream about the plates and mouths where the food they pick will end up. How often, Hannaham seems to be asking, do we really acknowledge the labor that brings us our food? Where have you gone, Cesar Chavez?
Darlene gets increasingly drawn into life of the farm. Eddie, despite finding himself favored by the farm’s owner and therefore a prime candidate for an overseer position, becomes increasingly desperate to escape. And while his desperation does lead to his escape, it also explains – in a prolonged scene that is both horrible and true – why, when we first meet him, he is driving with no hands.
In what I first thought was a mistake, the story does not end there. Both Darlene and Eddie have to continue living and find a way back to each other. Like the readers, they are haunted by their experiences with Delicious Foods. Like the readers, they know their lives will never be the same. Life will not suddenly be easy. Hannaham – who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. and teaches at Pratt Institute – does not let them, or us, off of the hook.
Delicious Foods, like Emma Donoghue’s Room, demonstrates the incredible power of the love between a parent and child while they are both ensnared in very dismal circumstances. But in the end, there is hope. Hannaham writes of Eddie: “He had to survive. He had to live. He was free.”
Hannaham – who earned his MFA at the University of Texas at Austin – has written a new kind of Southern Gothic. Flannery O’Connor would be proud. Thanks to Hannaham’s understated prose, the power of the novel sneaks up on you. And it does not go away.
Charles Ellenbogen teaches English at John F. Kennedy – Eagle Academy in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.
What if Martin Luther King Jr woke up and asked, “What happened since I’ve been gone?” The answer is the premise of “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise” – the latest documentary series from Henry Louis Gates Jr.
The two-parter premieres on PBS November 15 at 8 p.m., with Gates serving as host, executive producer and writer. There is also a companion book, “And Still I Rise,” published in 2015.
In the 50 years since King was assassinated, progress in Black America has been complex. African Americans have dominated sports, music and pop culture over the past few decades, but struggled since 1965 in the economic and political realms. “Black America Since MLK” explores this multi-faceted coin, examining mass incarceration, child poverty and police brutality alongside the election of the nation’s first black president.
“I want white America and black America to listen to black people talking to each other about what their lives mean and what these events signify,” said Gates, who chairs the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards jury. “I want Americans to realize we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”
This series promises new faces will emerge as eyewitnesses to history.
“We’re all familiar with the leadership — especially the male leadership, so I wanted to tell the story of Ella Baker,” Gates told Salon. “But I was also finding foot soldiers, who didn’t make the evening news but were sitting in those churches, clapping their hands, but had never been interviewed before. So we spent a lot of time on the ground, just talking to people. ‘Hey, were you there? Do you want to be in the series?’… We wanted to widen the lens.”
Viewers can tune in November 15 and 22. Watch the official trailer below:
Each time poet and Akron native Rita Dove speaks in Northeast Ohio, she begins with an acknowledgement of home. Her trip to Cleveland this past September was particularly rich in the significance of place.
“It’s been like one huge family reunion,” she said, smiling wide at the audience assembled at the Maltz Performing Arts Center on the Case Western Reserve University campus.
More than 600 people sat entranced for “An Evening With Rita Dove and Friends,” a celebration of the Anisfield-Wolf juror’s three decades of literary prominence. One of them was Harvard Sociologist Orlando Patterson, who said the following evening, “Last night I witnessed the extraordinary cultural presence of black America in our cultural life as I sat with the largest and most integrated audience I have ever seen, listening in rapt attention and near reverence to Rita Dove reading her glorious American poems.”
The evening of verse commemorated the 30th anniversary of “Thomas & Beaulah,” Dove’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, and this year’s publication of her “Collected Poems.” At 64, Dove has said the new anthology felt like “a tombstone,” but that she has come to appreciate having her best poems in one volume.
Dave Lucas, co-founder of Brews + Prose, emceed the evening, cautioning against viewing the evening as a respective. “I think I can speak for all of us when I say, thank you Rita, but we are greedy for much much more.”
Poet Toi Derricotte, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “The Black Notebooks” in 1998, made the trek from Pittsburgh to introduce her friend, sampling and relishing her verse. As the capper, Lucas presented his mentor with a paper bouquet of flowers, carefully constructed from a copy of “Thomas and Beulah.”
“It must have been so difficult to destroy a book, I hope,” Dove remarked as she admired the token, “but it’s so beautiful.”
Philosopher David Livingstone Smith gave a lively preview of “Making Monsters: The Uncanny Powers of Dehumanization,” his forthcoming book, for an avid circle of listeners gathered at the Inamori Center for Ethics and Excellence in Cleveland.
The new work examines two cases of spectacle lynching – public events for which railroads put on extra excursion cars, tens of thousands assembled and crowds fought for human relics and nightmarish photos to commemorate the torture and killing of young black men.
Smith, 63, is keen to know “what is going on under the hood here, in these acts pursued by sane, ordinary people…the same sort of folk you’d meet at an average PTA meeting.”
One critique came from philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, another Anisfield-Wolf winner, who suggested that the lethal violence perpetrators direct at others is actually an acknowledgement of their target’s very humanity. Such fury is only directed against someone capable of agency — that is moral reasoning.
“Virtually every genocide that I know anything about has been a racialized genocide,” Smith has said. “The notion of race gets us into a lot of trouble.” He told his Cleveland audience that “racializing a group of people is halfway to dehumanization.”
A warm, casually dressed man who is rigorous about definitions, Smith was frequently wry and very comfortable telling questioners when he didn’t know. He participated in a thought-provoking panel on combating dehumanization with Shannon E. French, a military ethics expert who directs the Inamori Center at Case Western Reserve University, and Dalindyebo Shabalala, a specialist in environmental law and the intellectual property rights of indigenous peoples. He is a visiting professor at the Case law school.
“The death penalty in the United States is fundamentally racialized – its roots are in slavery and violent law enforcement,” Shabalala said. “It comes from a story we tell about those getting the death penalty, one that is centered on the black male threat.”
French, whose book “The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present” was updated and reissued this fall, argued that Tamir Rice would not have died if Cleveland police had adhered to military standards. Fear for one’s own life is no justification for opening fire among soldiers, she said, particularly in an instance when the boy had no gun. “We need a warrior’s code in the police department,” she said.
Shabalala was skeptical that a code of honor could be restored to modern warfare, but French argued that some U.S. generals had insisted on respecting Iraqi culture and people when American forces invaded, and that an alertness to the code among chaplains and others has prevented some atrocities.
When pressed on how to combat dehumanization, Smith called for improved education on our delusions about race. He stressed that we must face “the full extent of our national crimes. I think that would free us in a lot of ways.”
The gritty documentary “Romeo is Bleeding” took home the top audience choice prize at this year’s Cleveland International Film Festival. Now the festival is hosting an encore screening of the award-winning film at the Breen Center for the Arts on Cleveland’s West Side.
The film follows 22-year-old poet and educator Donté Clark as he worked with youth in Richmond, California to mount an adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” in the hopes of starting a dialogue about the gang-related violence in the community. Clark is a founding member and artistic director of the RAW Talent Creative Arts Program, which offers workshops in visual arts, theater and music production.
But it’s the spoken word component that provides the backbone for the documentary, as viewers watch the students tell a Shakespearean tale using their own life experiences. Since its release in 2015, “Romeo” has picked up more than 20 awards on the festival circuit.
“Romeo Is Bleeding” is Jason Zeldes’ directorial debut. He is best known for editing the Academy Award-winning documentary, “Twenty Feet from Stardom.”
“Richmond is a community facing difficult problems but doing so with real fortitude,” Zeldes said in a 2015 interview. “Furthermore, Richmond is not my city. I am an outsider and the last thing I wanted to do was impose my perspective where it doesn’t belong. So early on I committed to the idea that the story would be told from Donté’s perspective, and adhere to his life’s experience in Richmond.”
Prior to the screening, light hors d’oeuvres and beverages will be available and afterward, audience members will have the opportunity to digest the film during a Q&A with some of the cast and crew.