Thinking about gaps in our communal memory has long occupied Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. In a 1989 interview, she said:
“There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves . . . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist . . . the book had to.”
Professor Marilyn S. Mobley witnessed that quiet, first monument set upright on the island at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. She attended the second bench placement near Oberlin College, saw another installed in Paris, France and yet another on the campus of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Each spot is a link to the African-American resistance history that Morrison evokes.
The 19th bench, dedicated this April in Cleveland, sits on a green swell of lawn in University Circle, identical in its simple design to the benches installed before it: black ribbed steel, a length of four or six feet, with a descriptive plaque mounted in a cement foundation next to it. On a recent spring morning, sparrows and squirrels hopped and scurried around it.
Mobley, vice president of inclusion, diversity and equal opportunity at Case Western Reserve University, said she spent two years working toward putting a bench in the neighborhood adjacent to campus, a community once active on the Underground Railroad.
“It was worth my time and trouble because I believe in the concept of the need to remember — remember and celebrate,” she said. “I want to remember this history, which is part of our identity as Americans: there was a group of people who made this difficult journey to freedom. We were more than our suffering, our indignity.”
Mobley collaborated with Joan Southgate, the legendary retired social worker, who, at the age of 73 in 2002, began walking from Ripley, OH to St. Catharines, Ontario, the terminus of Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad. She completed the 519 miles and walked 250 more back to Cleveland.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t know much about the Bench by the Road until Marilyn brought the idea to me,” Southgate said. “It couldn’t have been more perfect. It’s what my walk was all about.”
Southgate expressed her deep pleasure with the placement of the bench on the lawn of the Cozad-Bates House, 11508 Mayfield Rd. It is the only pre-Civil War building left standing in this Cleveland neighborhood. Southgate is working to see that the structure, owned by University Circle Inc., will eventually reopen as a small abolitionist museum combined with a guesthouse for transplant patients.
“This bench is placed in recognition of the heroic freedom seekers who made the arduous journey to freedom along the Underground Railroad, aided in part by Cleveland’s African-American and White anti-slavery community,” reads the permanent proclamation. “Horatio Cyrus Ford and Samuel Cozad III, successful businessmen and property owners in the area now known as University Circle and African-American businessman and civil rights activist, John Malvin, were exemplars of Cleveland’s participation in the resistance to slavery and in the struggle for social justice. This bench is a memorial to the freedom seekers who passed through Cleveland and to those Cleveland residents who assisted them on their journey.”
The Toni Morrison Society states that “the goal of the Bench by the Road Project is to create an outdoor museum that will mark important locations in African American history both in the United States and abroad.” Its president, Carolyn Denard, flew from Atlanta to Cleveland to see the 19th bench unveiled.
Raymond Bobgan, executive director of Cleveland Public Theatre, said he would not have joined in the bench project without the blessing of Southgate. “We need to continue to acknowledge what we aren’t proud of in our history,” he said. “People sometimes say, ‘My family didn’t own slaves’ but the same people are happy to claim, say, the founding fathers. Well, both are our history, and both have repercussions in our lives.”
The 20th bench will be installed July 26 in Harlem, New York at the Schomburg Library in recognition of the institution’s century-long commitment to preserving, archiving and telling African-Americans stories. Papers from many winners of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards can be found on its premises, and embedded in the terrazzo tile of the lobby is a design honoring Langston Hughes’ seminal poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
When Andrew Solomon went to Finland to promote The Noonday Demon, his ground-breaking 2001 book on depression, he landed on a leading morning television show.
The interviewer, “a gorgeous blonde woman, leaned forward and asked in a mildly offended tone, ‘So, Mr. Solomon. What can you, an American, have to tell the Finnish people about depression?’” the writer recalls in his newest work.
Clearly this 52-year-old writer, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2013, has serious wanderlust. Solomon has traveled to 83 of the 196 recognized nations in the world. “I’ve been to so many places, and seen so much, and sometimes it feels like a glut of sunsets and churches and monuments,” he admits.
But it is also clear that travel has helped form Solomon into a public intellectual. By the end of this book, he himself is setting off scandals in Ghana and Romania, largely via his reputation as an LGBT activist. Far & Away collects 28 essays from Solomon’s decades of globe-trotting, including one set in northern Bali called “Where Everyone Signs.” It is plucked from his chapter on deafness in Far From the Tree, his Anisfield-Wolf winner in nonfiction.
“I had started traveling out of curiosity,” Solomon writes, “but I came to believe in travel’s political importance, that encouraging a nation’s citizenry to travel may be as important as encouraging school attendance, environmental conservation, or national thrift.” A few pages later he elaborates, “When I was in Libya, the people I met who had an essentially pro-American stance had all studied in the United States, whereas those who were vehemently anti-American had not.”
As a young New Yorker studying in England, Solomon cops to some youthful callowness: “I confused, as many young people do, the glamour of being an outsider with the liberty to do or think whatever crossed my mind.” Serious travel taught the writer to grapple with ideas he would not have otherwise encountered: “When Chinse intellectuals spoke to me of the good that came of the Tiananmen massacre, when Pakistani women spoke of their pride in wearing the hijab, when Cubans enthused about their autocracy, I had to reconsider my reflexive enthusiasm for self-determination. In a free society, you have a chance to achieve your ambitions; in an unfree one, you lack that choice, and this often allows for more visionary ambitions.”
Today Solomon leads a highly political life at the helm of the Pen America Center, a venerable nonprofit that advocates for imperiled writers globally.
His new book has a dizzying array of datelines. The first essay, “The Winter Palettes,” stems from Solomon’s first reporting assignment abroad. In 1988, the British monthly “Harpers & Queen” sent him to the USSR to cover Sotheby’s first sale of contemporary Soviet art. It begins with a toast, and in a book of many toasts and parties, captures some of the intoxication swirled into art and social change.
“I am susceptible to that little moment of romance when a society on the brink of change falls temporarily in love with itself,” Solomon writes. “I’ve heard to same people speak of the great hope they felt when Stalin came to power and the hope they later felt when he died; others, of the hope they felt when the Cultural Revolution began and the hope they felt when it ended. . . Hope is a regular chime in political life.”
His last essay, “Lost at the Surface,” details a narrow escape from drowning while scuba diving off Australia. He wrote it last year for “The Moth.” Invariably, it is illuminating to look out through Andrew Solomon’s eyes – whether he is drifting in the open ocean or realizing in Cuba in 1997 that “If you want to get to know a strange country quickly and deeply, there’s nothing like organizing a party.”
She called her talk in Cleveland “Why Weep for Stones?” and built it into a riveting meditation on history, art, war and morals. Readers of her fiction – Shamsie won a 2010 Anisfield-Wolf prize for “Burnt Shadows” – will recognize the thematic confluence at once.
Standing in the ornate neo-Gothic Harkness Chapel of Case Western Reserve University, Shamsie drew her listeners into thinking about the political destruction of art, such as the desecration and damage in Palmyra, Syria, amid a civil war that has claimed more than a quarter of a million lives. Recent reports indicate that some of Palmyra’s irreplaceable ruins have survived the fighting.
“What do we celebrate when we celebrate ancient artifacts withstanding savagery?” Shamsie asked, before venturing a few answers in her mellifluous voice. “We celebrate the mere fact of endurance to begin with. We celebrate humanity’s search for beauty in every age and every corner of the globe. We celebrate the expansion of our own ways of seeing, the deepening of our understanding of beauty and art. We celebrate the dedication of the artists and artisans. We celebrate the work of those who preserve rather than destroy. We celebrate human curiosity.”
Shamsie, 43, who grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, knows a tension exists in valuing art in times of war. “There is no equation for calculating the value of a life against the value of a 2,000 year-old ruin,” she said. “The two acts of decimation cannot be seen in opposition . . . Or to put it another way, if you encounter someone who is going to dynamite a 2,000 year-old temple because they find it offensive you can be pretty sure they’ve killed some people on their way there.”
Such pithiness made Shamsie a highlight of the Cleveland Humanities Festival, which spent the first ten days of April “Remembering War.” The novelist wrote her fifth of sixth novels, “Burnt Shadows,” out of the foreboding of nuclear war threatened between India and Pakistan. The book begins with the 1945 bombing of Nagasaki, and ends in 2002 in a U.S. prison cell, where a character awaits being sent to Guantanamo Bay.
As the scope of “Burnt Shadows” indicates, Shamsie is deeply interested in history. She enlists it often in her writing, including frequent columns in the Guardian newspaper, to combat the amnesia that feeds toxic political impulses.
In 32 A.D., the wondrous temple in Palmyra “was dedicated to the Mesopotamian god, Bel, who is often identified with the Greek god Zeus and the Roman god Jupiter; during the Byzantine Era the Temple was converted into a Christian church; in the 12th century the Arabs further converted it into a mosque,” Shamsie reminded her Cleveland listeners. “The people of different faiths who worshipped here over the centuries were separated by a great deal but they all recognized the majesty of the temple and were moved to incorporate it into their own belief system.”
Not so for ISIS, or, as Shamsie prefers, Daesh – a term this group has outlawed in the territories it controls. Daesh first desecrated the temple with public executions, then blew it up. Of course, some of this is propaganda. “After a point, the outside word stops being interested in the stories of human victims, but dynamite a 2,000 year old structure and you’re back in the headlines,” she said.
In Pakistan a decade ago, Shamsie started meditating on “why weep for stones” when she visited Peshawar, near Afghanistan at the foot of the Khyber Pass. Within the city, Taliban influence has grown, and her own family in Karachi was nervous about her visit.
The novelist bridled: “It seemed to me I was allowing a kind of propaganda victory to the Taliban in reducing that city primarily to their actions and their influence, and to have very little sense of everything in Peshawar that stood in opposition to their narrow-minded, small-hearted version of the world.”
She found it in the Peshawar Museum, where Shamsie entered “close to a state of rapture.” Nearby is a 2007 excavation trench revealing Peshawar as a continuously-inhabited city back to the 6th century B.C. Persians form the baseline. Then came Greeks, then Indo-Greeks, then Scytho-Parthians, then Kushans, then White Huns, then Mughals, then Sikhs and the British.
Being among Peshawar’s ancient artifacts “in a time when Pakistan is one of the epicenters of the battle within Islam . . . is to be reminded that there are two stories we can tell ourselves about the interaction of different cultures and beliefs,” Shamsie said. “One is the story of conquest and destruction. The other is the story of exchange and deepening knowledge. Both stories are true, but we get to choose which one we choose as our worldview, which one we bear in mind when we consider if we want to build walls or doorways.”
Shamsie first arrived in the United States 25 years ago as a college exchange student. What she found as a Pakistani and Muslim, she said, was welcome. She called on her audience – embroiled in national political rhetoric of walls and banishment – to remember that version of American hospitality, and themselves.
Edwidge Danticat began her remarks in Cleveland by drawing attention to another artist, the painter Jacob Lawrence, whose migration series was on display last year at the Museum of Modern Art. Danticat, who has family in Brooklyn, New York, said she often walked the long rectangular room, soaking in the art as a way to reflect on the massacre at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charlotte, South Carolina.
“What kept me glued to these dark silhouettes is how beautifully and heartbreakingly Lawrence captured black bodies in motion, in transit, in danger, and in pain,” she said. “The bowed heads of the hungry and the curved backs of mourners helped the Great Migration to gain and keep its momentum, along with the promise of less abject poverty in the North, better educational opportunities, and the right to vote.”
Danticat won a 2005 Anisfield-Wolf Book award for her novel “The Dew Breaker” about political violence in Haiti and the consequences in New York. She returned to Cleveland to speak at Case Western Reserve as part of the Cuyahoga County Library’s Writers Center Stage series.
Case President Barbara Snyder praised both Lisa Nielson and Kaysha Corinealdi, Anisfield-Wolf SAGES scholars at Case, for their work teaching and mentoring on campus. Snyder then turned the lectern over to Corinealdi, who introduced Danticat from the breadth of her own scholarship on the Caribbean diaspora. Read her introduction, below.
Over the years I have had the great joy and honor to read and also share with my students a number of our guest speaker’s works. I can still recall my first readings of Krik? Krak! (1995) and The Dew Breaker (1998) and how with each story I asked myself, who is this Edwidge Danticat? How can she capture in such a nuanced and unflinching fashion the nature of being a young girl in a new country, the voices of ordinary women and men caught in the middle of brutal geopolitical and national events, the daily making of diaspora by exiles and migrants, and the experiences of parents, children and lovers having to make impossible choices and hoping that in time, they will find forgiveness, if not from within, at least from future generations.
I am not ashamed to say that in reading these stories and many of Danticat’s later works, I would find myself both eager and afraid, jubilant and sad, to turn the next page.
Teaching Edwidge Danticat’s work has likewise proven to be an inspirational and humbling experience. Few authors have the skill to elegantly navigate between fiction and non-fiction. Indeed, Danticat is one of a select group of writers to be honored for her work in both genres. It is this ability to illuminate the fictions in history and the historical resonance in fiction that most impresses my students.
Through her intricate story telling and her acute awareness of the histories that live with us, and the histories that at times haunt us, Danticat also dares us to include ourselves, our most vulnerable selves, in writing, living, and remembering history. This semester, in a course inspired by Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners, my students are reading Danticat’s memoir Brother, I’m Dying (2007). With a mixture of admiration and general curiosity, my students have wondered aloud about Danticat’s own journeys, her experiences with displacement, and her choice to write about love and responsibility in ways that crossed the boundaries of bloodlines and geography.
Today they had the opportunity to share some of these questions and observations with the writer herself, and in watching these exchanges I emerged an even greater fan of tonight’s speaker.
Before I turn over the stage to our speaker I must take the time to note some of her remarkable achievements. Edwidge Danticat is the winner of numerous awards, including the American Book Award (1999), the Anisfield-Wolf Book Prize in Fiction (2005), the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography (2007), a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant (2009), the Langston Hughes Medal by the City College of New York (2011), the One Caribbean Media Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature (2011), and her latest novel, Claire of the Sea Light, was shortlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction (2014).
In addition to her literary achievements, our speaker has over the years put into practice the notion of activist artists and artists as public intellectuals. In particular she has spoken out against dehumanizing portrayals of Haitians and Haitian Americans in the U.S. media, shed light on the deplorable conditions of U.S. immigration detention centers, urged us to mourn and collectively denounce violence against black bodies in the Americas, and most recently, helped educate the U.S. public about mass deportations and denationalization targeting Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic.
Through her literary and public intellectual and activist work, our speaker gives us much to aspire to as readers, students, scholars, and concerned citizens of the world.
Readers wondering what to pick up this spring can crack any of the six books just awarded the National Book Critics Circle prize – and enjoy a flowering of the mind.
Begin with “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” a poetry collection that leaps from the Bloomington (Indiana) Community Orchard, and, as Ross Gay tells it, “I write these things with my friends, I really do, and some of the truest things about these poems come from their eyes and ears and were discovered by them: Chris and Ruthie and Poppa and Bryce and Simone and on and on and on.”
The 24 poems begin with an ode called “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian” and end with “Last Will and Testament.” Gay, an orchardist, suggests that paying keen attention to the garden may yield — from our sorrow — insights to nourish us. He describes placing his father’s gray ashes around the roots of a tree, he sings the praises of buttons and his feet and the humble mulberry tree. This brilliant book, like “Leaves of Grass,” is one to carry outdoors.
Follow this book with “The Argonauts,” Maggie Nelson’s razor-sharp meditation on starting a family with a partner in gender transition. Nelson paid for her in vitro pregnancy with her Guggenheim, and she accompanies her spouse to Florida for his top surgery while spring-breakers party around them – each of these moments sparked by her sweeping command of critical theory. This book could not have existed a mere 20 years ago, and it thrills as it poses old questions about family, freedom and love in a queer context, all in fewer than 200 pages. What could be more spring-like than birth and re-birth?
“If you read ‘The Argonauts’ you’ll know that this book, it literally stands on the shoulders and makes itself come into being on the wild, revolutionary work of so many feminist, queer and anti-racist thinkers, writers, activists and artists,” Nelson told the gathering at the New School in Manhattan. She thanked both these predecessors, “the many-gendered mothers of my heart,” and her actual mother, who was in the audience with her partner, the artist Harry Dodge.
The critic Margo Jefferson followed Nelson onto the stage, beaming over her surprise win in autobiography for “Negroland,” a chronicle of her upbringing in upper-class Chicago in mid-century as the daughter of a doctor and a socialite. She defines her title as “a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty” even as she waved off any misunderstanding that she might be advocating a return to the term “Negro.” Her memoir is meticulous, a work of coiled fury and tinkling ice cubes, thoughts about “Little Women” and the cutthroat rigors of cheerleading. Few books have more to say about class, and none say it with the forensic acuity of Jefferson.
“Mother’s eyebrows settle now,” Jefferson read from “Negroland” last week. “She sits back in the day chair and pauses for effect. I’m about to receive another general instruction in the literacy of race and class: ‘We’re considered upper-class Negros and upper-middle class Americans,’ mother says, ‘but most white people would like to consider us just more Negros.’”
Charlotte Gordon won in biography for one of Western civilization’s most famous mother/daughter pairs: “Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley.” More than a decade in the making, this book beautifully conjures its time, when both women were publically mocked as “whores.” It seats them firmly in the world of ideas and demonstrates a rigorous, primary-source scholarship that refutes any recent grumbling that Shelley perhaps didn’t write “Frankenstein” on her own.
“The women I wrote about were such outlaws,” Gordon told the New York audience. “I wrote this book to bring them into the fold . . . I didn’t feel they had been properly understood for their incredible bravery. Everyone hated them; no one would speak to them . . . I really wanted to honor their courage, their independence and their ferocity.”
In nonfiction, Sam Quinones won for “Dreamland: The True Story of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” another revelatory book many years in the making. It details the unholy confluence of Big Pharma’s goosing of opiate prescription with the explosion of cheap, black-tar heroin. Mexican entrepreneurs deliver it like pizza around small-town America, capitalizing on cell phones. Other innovations: the dealers wouldn’t carry guns or use their own product. Quinones’ reporting in “Dreamland” is jaw-dropping and his topic ringed in urgency.
The novel of the year, according to the book critics, is “The Sellout,” Paul Beatty’s blistering satire of American racism. Boris Kachka in New York Magazine describes it well, a “satirical, centrifugal novel,” starring “a black man — a weed and watermelon dealer — hauled before the Supreme Court for keeping a slave, a surviving Little Rascal named Hominy. The Sellout abounds in slurs and stereotypes re-appropriated in the service of saw-toothed humor.”
None of these books are for the faint-of-heart. But in each of their subversive narratives, a reader can take heart. Spring awaits in Gay’s actual garden, and in Beatty’s demented imagined one near South Central Los Angeles.
The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards is sponsoring “Good Luck Soup” at this year’s Cleveland International Film Festival. The two screenings are 7:30 p.m.Thursday, March 31 and 5 p.m.Saturday, April 2.
Director Matthew Hashiguchi calls “Good Luck Soup” a comedy. Yet this appealing new documentary takes up the forced internment of some 140,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians during World War II. And Hashiguchi places several generations of his own family in starring roles.
He characterizes the internment camps as “well-documented but seldom discussed.” He uses World War II-era propaganda footage from the National Archives in the film, as well as the photographs of Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange. Some 140 Japanese American families have flocked to the interactive web version of “Good Luck Soup,” often adding private images and documents.
At the center of the movie is Eva Hashiguchi, the director’s grandmother, now 90. Her comic persona enlivens this 72-minute film. It is sobering to learn this woman merrily hunting for Dove bars in the movie trailer spent three formative years—from ages 16-19—incarcerated in Arkansas internment camps. Authorities forced her entire family from their California fruit farm after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
“The way my family has dealt with these issues was through laughter, through positivity,” the director said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think they’ve let bigotry or prejudice hold us back. It’s made it possible to not let the past hurt so much. My grandmother, she always looks for the light.”
Nevertheless, Hashiguchi says, he can’t recall a time as a boy growing up in a mostly Irish Catholic neighborhood when he was unaware of the camps. His grandmother spoke about them to his third-grade class at Gesu Elementary School in University Heights, and again to a gathering at Ohio State University. “I grew up with it, but I didn’t realize the gravity of it until later in my life,” he said. “When I was listening to her in Columbus, I think it dawned on me: this was an experience that caused some damage.”
In the 1940s, the Hashiguchi patriarch, Eva’s father, was making regular mortgage payments on his Florin, California acreage when the war in the Pacific started. The next year the Hashiguchis were forced from their strawberries and watermelon fields and sent to “relocation centers” in Jerome and Rohwer, Arkansas.
“Our family farm was taken away,” Eva Hashiguchi tells the camera. “Me, especially, felt California kicked me out, why should I go back and be a tax-paying citizen in California? So I call Ohio my home state.”
After the war ended, Eva and her older sister decided to leave the rural South. “Cleveland was one of the few cities inviting Japanese Americans,” Matthew Hashiguchi said. “There was a cultural committee reaching out, saying, ‘We have jobs; we have space.’”
Eva earned her first paycheck as a maid, but was ill-matched to the work. She righted herself through her knack with small children. “A number of women were hired by Jewish families,” Hashiguchi said. “I think there was a sensitivity within the Jewish community for what Japanese Americans went through.”
The director, 31, grew up with a brother and a sister in Cleveland’s eastern suburbs, regularly playing tennis at Gordon Park through the Nise Tennis Club, founded to bring the post-war Japanese diaspora together. The Hashiguchi children went to Sunday Mass at Gesu alongside their parents, Don, an engineer, and Roslyn, a librarian.
Matthew, who studied photojournalism at Ohio State and earned an MFA in Visual and Media Art from Emerson College, said he resisted making “Good Luck Soup,” which takes its title from a traditional broth made with vegetables, rice cake and seafood. It marks an auspicious start the Japanese New Year.
“This was the story I never wanted to tell or address,” he said. “In 2011, I finally said, this is the one film I have been thinking about for so long. I didn’t want to admit what I’d experienced with bigotry or racism, or to hear it from my family. At times, it was kind of a struggle to get them to talk about it.
“My cousins, my siblings, were more open. My father’s generation was less willing. And my grandmother was taught not to stir the pot, to keep quiet. In their day, who knows what might have happened if they spoke out?”
Subtitled “The American Experience through Asian Eyes,” this documentary tracks the nuanced experiences of multiple generations. Twice, the Anisfield-Wolf jury has honored books about the internment camps: “The Great Betrayal” by Audrie Girdner and Anne Loftis in 1970 and seven years later, “Years of Infamy” by Michi Weglyn.
“I think it was important not to make a one-note film,”’ Hashiguchi said. “I wanted it to have a fluctuation of emotions. And my grandmother is a character. She knows how to work a camera.”
Both Hashiguchis – grandmother and grandson — will answer questions at the two screenings. Tickets are $14 for film festival members, seniors and students; $16 for others. Moviegoers can receive a $2 discount at the box office, online or ordering on the phone, by using the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards code: ANWO.
It sprang from his year teaching in a two-room schoolhouse on Duafuskie Island, off the South Carolina coast. Conroy’s students spoke Gullah, a local dialect, and had little experience beyond their isolated, impoverished home. The writer said his unorthodox approach to teaching – including a refusal to use corporal punishment – led the superintendent to fire him after a single year. “The Water is Wide” grew from Conroy’s frustration with the racism and poverty he witnessed.
He intended to self-publish, but after a friend urged him to send his manuscript to the New York agent Julian Bach, Conroy got a phone call saying Houghton Mifflin was offering $7,500 for the book. According to the New York Times, the writer was unfamiliar with the concept of a publisher’s advance and replied that he could probably get the book printed more cheaply in Beaufort. “Pat, you do understand, they pay you,” Bach is quoted as responding.
“The Water is Wide” became a 1974 film starring Jon Voight, retitled “Conrack,” the first of four Conroy novels converted to movies. The best known are “The Great Santini,” a portrait of a sadistic father and fighter pilot, and “The Prince of Tides,” which cemented his fame.
When he died of pancreatic cancer March 4, 2016, Conroy was 70, the definitive chronicler of the South Carolina Lowcountry. He had sold more than 20 million copies of his books.
Their largely autobiographic content often distressed his family, as it did the administration of The Citadel, the military school that was Conroy’s alma mater and another rich source of his fiction. But the novelist and the school reconciled, and Conroy gave the commencement speech in 2001. He invited the graduates to attend his funeral and 30 did so. Here is what Conroy said:
“Usually I tell graduation classes I want them to think of me on their 40th birthday, but I’ve got something else I want to do for y’all, because I’m so moved at what you’ve done for me. I’d like to invite each one of you in the Class of 2001 to my funeral. I mean that. I will not be having a good day that day but I have told my wife and my heirs that I want the Class of 2001 to have an honored place whenever my funeral takes place, and I hope as many of you will come as you possibly can.
Because I want you to know how swift time is. There is nothing as swift, nothing. I’m going to tell you how to get in my funeral. You walk up toward them, you find the usher waiting outside. You put up your Citadel ring. Let them check for the 2001. And each one of you, I want you to say this before you enter the church at which I’m going to be buried. You tell them: ‘I wear the ring.’”
Almost a year before Matt de la Pena won the latest Newbery Medal—the highest honor in children’s literature—he told National Public Radio that his picture book about a young boy riding a bus with his grandmother wasn’t a story about diversity.
“That’s very important to me,” de la Pena told NPR. “I don’t think every book has to be about the Underground Railroad for it to be an African-American title.”
This observation from the author of “Last Stop on Market Street” drew an emphatic Amen from Professor Michelle H. Martin, the Augusta Baker Chair in Childhood Literacy at the University of South Carolina.
“I find it encouraging that this award winner tells a quiet story about an African American boy’s day in the city with his Nana that isn’t about 1) slavery, 2) the fight for civil rights or 3) famous black Americans, because if you strip those children’s and YA books out of the American literary record, you have a paltry list left,” Martin told a gathering in Cleveland. “We need more books like ‘Last Stop on Market Street,’ ‘One Word from Sophia’ and even Ezra Jack Keats’ 1965 ‘The Snowy Day’ that are about the dailiness of being a child of color in America.”
Martin delivered a pointed and eloquent case at the Schubert Center for Child Studies of Case Western Reserve University. She titled her remarks, “Brown Gold: African American Children’s Literature as a Genre of Resistance.”
Turns out that Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes—all Anisfield-Wolf winners—also wrote children’s books. So did Alice Walker, bell hooks, W.E.B. DuBois, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou and James Baldwin, according to the research of Cara Byrne, newly awarded a doctorate in English from Case Western Reserve.
Martin focused her remarks on the groundbreaking children’s books of Langston Hughes and his collaborator Arna Bontemps. They published “Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti” in 1932. This book, she noted, “combats the prevailing notion that black Americans and those in the African Diaspora spoke broken English reminiscent of slavery, that they were shiftless and lazy and that their broken families left their children to their own devices”—all tropes that still bedevil the white imagination.
Before Martin began her talk, she played a tinny recording—featuring a woman’s soprano and then a man’s tenor—merrily singing “Ten Little Nigger Boys,” a nursery rhyme tittering about the annihilation of black children. It was enormously popular among whites until the mid-20th-century, showing up in stage plays, minstrel shows and on Ebay today. It stands with “A Coon Alphabet” and other children’s books so violently racist that their covers and content drew gasps from Martin’s audience.
Watching and listening seemed like a corollary to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ now famous observation in “Between the World and Me,” addressed to his son: “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.”
For Martin, “African-American children’s literature has always been a genre of resistance.” She cited “Clarence and Corrine” and “The Brownies’ Book Magazine” as vital counter-stories that “resist by telling from the inside and inviting readers to understand, not mock.”
But while the quality of literature produced by African Americans and other writers of color is often “tremendous,” Martin said, “the quantity is still shamefully low.” She offered numbers to illustrate this state of affairs:
Nearly 40 percent of American children are non-white and almost half under the age of five are children of color. But among the 3,500 titles sent to the Cooperative Center for Children’s Books in 2013, less than three percent were about black people and less than two percent were written by black authors.
Martin presented three tools to combat the status quo:
Buy books by and about people of color
Openly challenge summer reading lists and book stores and libraries to feature stories that are, in the words of Rudine Sims Bishop, mirrors, not merely windows.
“I have a 12-year-old who reads on a 12th grade level, who ‘eats’ books on her own, but her dad and/or I read to her every night,” the professor said. “It’s the best way to improve her ‘ear reading’ and to expose her to books and genres she isn’t yet willing to venture into on her own.”
A recent study by the Packard and MacArthur Foundations found that the average middle class child enjoys 1,000-1,700 hours of one-on-one picture book reading, compared to a low-income child’s total of 25 hours.
Deborah McHamm, president of A Cultural Exchange, stressed that not all books containing a brown face are worthwhile, and that reading is a political act. “Let’s remember,” she said, “that it used to be against the law for black and brown children to read.”
John Newbery, a printer who is said to have invented children’s literature in 1774, took as his motto the Latin “delectando monemus” or “instruction with delight.” Martin suggested that the phrase is still pertinent in crafting books that benefit all children, as de la Pena accomplished in his Newbery book.
He also reminded the audience at Playhouse Square that Hughes was still a teenager, newly graduated from Central High School in Cleveland in 1920, when he wrote The Negro Speaks of Rivers. “Every time I think of an 18-year-old writing a poem that great,” Brown deadpanned, “I really hate Langston Hughes.”
Now Brown has returned to this “first poet” in his pantheon, publishing an evocative, moving post “To Be Asked for A Kiss” on the Poetry Foundation web site.
Suicide’s Note by Langston Hughes
The calm, Cool face of the river Asked me for a kiss
Brown ponders Hughes’ 14 words, written sometime before he was 24; the poet’s lifelong preoccupation with rivers and the meanings of suicide – as both noun and verb – in the single tercet, and in Brown’s own life, and the lives of young, gay black men.
In introducing Brown to Cleveland in September, Dr. Henry Louis Gates praised the Emory University professor, saying that the jury singled him out “for his penetrating and elegant portrayal of the complexity of human identity in a digital, multicultural universe, generally, and more specifically, the complexity of black identity, encompassing the multiple and competing claims and denials of African American masculinity and personhood.”
Brown’s most recent essay makes the case for Langston Hughes’ poetry as a wellspring of that masculinity and personhood. He makes the case – with a poem called Suicide’s Note – for Hughes’ immortality.
Kenneth Warren, a University of Chicago literature professor, asked a gathering of students and faculty in Cleveland this fall to reflect on a famous 1968 classroom experiment – the one that teacher Jane Elliott created as a “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise with her Iowa third-graders.
The day after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Elliott divided her class between brown and blue-eyed children, arbitrarily declaring that brown eyes were better.
“The results are almost immediate and remarkable,” Warren said, recalling a famous documentary made about the experiment. “Students with brown-eyes began to treat students with blue eyes, some of whom they had, until that moment, regarded as best friends, as if they are indeed inferior and pariahs, while students with blue eyes began to behave diffidently and sullenly, and, when prompted, readily attribute any mistake or misstep they make to their having blue eyes.”
What’s more astonishing is that Elliott announced the next day that she made an error, and that blue-eyed people are superior. As Warren describes it, “her students do not balk at the seemingly arbitrariness of what has occurred, but rather repeat the previous day’s dynamic.”
In Cleveland, Warren describes Elliott’s exercise as “innocent of history,” in fact, anti-historical in reversing the brown eyed/blue eyed equation. This emphasis on process instead of context points to “a problem that has bedeviled progressive thought at least since the critique of essentialism took center stage in the 1970s. This problem can be expressed quite simply as the observation that despite the fact that we thought we had the correct critique of it (it’s a social construction, not a biological fact), race has persisted as a way of organizing cultural and social life, and racism continues to persist as a social fact.”
In a gentle voice, wearing a black jacket over jeans, Warren turned to works of both fiction and nonfiction to illuminate this conundrum. He quoted from the book by Karen Fields and Barbara Fields called “Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life.” The writers align racecraft with witchcraft: powerful systems of belief that people act upon as given truths.
Warren spent much of his lecture drawing upon William Faulkner’s 1948 anti-lynching novel, “Intruder in the Dust.” It is the story of a young white boy, Chick Mallison, who is rescued from an icy creek through the intercession of a black man, Lucas Beauchamp. In the process of drying off and accepting Beauchamp’s food and shelter, Chick’s encounter with what he has assumed were “Negro” food and smells is a revelation. The boy confronts, as Warren argues, “the reality that what he assumed to be innate and given, was, in reality conditional and contingent.” This insight corrodes Chick’s birthright supposition that “to be a Southerner would be forever to smell the odor of Negro subordination as part of one’s heritage.
Gesturing frequently with his glasses, Warren drew his listeners into considering the tension between group identity as a form of vibrancy and a system that preserves inequity. “I am beginning to tread on the discursive territory occupied by #blacklivesmatter, whose name makes evident its concerns, and commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me and his Atlantic Monthly essay on reparations in which he demonstrates a preference for the term ‘the black body’ as a way of describing the target of American racial practices.”
Warren challenged his audience at Case Western Reserve University to think about whether the rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement is an echo of the “blue eyes/brown eyes” conundrum of Jane Elliott’s Iowa classroom. What matters is not the putative color of our bodies or our lives, but the processes and mindsets that makes color matter. He pointed out that group identity works better for some groups than others, and “for those on the bottom, not so much.”
Cultural critic Daniel Mendelsohn paused in Cleveland this October before his written remarks to take in the stunning, restored Temple-Tifereth Israel, repurposed at the heart of a new Maltz Performing Arts Center.
“I am dazzled by the space we are all sitting in,” said Mendelsohn, gesturing toward the burnished wood and subdued golds. The auditorium reminded him of the ruined beauty of many Eastern European synagogues, abandoned with “trees growing in the middle of them now.”
He also wryly noted, as a platter of pink shrimp hors d’oeuvres shimmered past during the faculty reception, “It’s not a synagogue anymore.”
The celebrated writer, a classicist whose essays appear in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, traveled extensively for five years, visiting Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania, as well as Israel, Sweden, Denmark and Australia, to report his much-honored memoir, “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million.”
The six relatives in Mendelsohn’s subtitle were a maternal great-uncle, Schmeil Jager, his wife Ester and their four teenage daughters: Lorcka, Frydka, Ruchele and Bronia. For more than three centuries, the family had lived in “a small, pre-Carpathian Polish town” called Bolechow, now part of Ukraine.
The reader enters “The Lost” through the youthful sensibilities of young Daniel, who grew up enthralled by his snappily-dressed, successful grandfather, and who spent part of his childhood provoking tears in Florida from certain elderly European Jews: the great nephew so closely resembled Schmeil. A handful of surviving photos of Jager, reprinted in “The Lost,” capture a strong echo between the two men’s eyes, mouth and posture.
When the Germans marched into Bolechow in July 1941, some 6,000 Jews called it home. In August 1944, as the Soviets’ army arrived, “48 survivors emerged from the forest, the cellars, the haystacks where they had been hiding.”
Some sixty years later, Mendelsohn began searching for this remnant. He also discovered the names of his six relatives in the Yad Vashem database for Shoah victims. Yet the archival information turned out to be “wrong, all wrong, the spelling of names, the dates of births and deaths, the spelling of parents’ names.”
“Why does this matter?” he asked. “It matters to me precisely because we are in a hinge moment: still close enough to care about small things, small inaccuracies that depart from the truth. But in 2000 years, will it matter that a young woman died at 21, not 18? That large events are made of small details?”
Mendelsohn, 55, is deeply interested in the moral drift inherent in storytelling. He is keenly aware that that his own experience – writing “The Lost” – moved what happened into “the story of what happened.”
The book’s raw material was a fragment of a welter of stories – belonging to “perpetrators, victims, neighbors, survivors.” One such survivor kept her secrets. Meg Grossbard told Mendelsohn, “You think you deserve to know all this because it’s part of ‘history.’ This wasn’t history to me. This was my life. And my life belongs to me . . . If I tell you my story, it will become your story.”
With the perspective of a classicist, Mendelsohn asked his audience – gathered for the first ThinkForum of the academic year – to consider how catastrophic and complex Jewish slavery in Egypt was, now boiled down into the Haggadah, stories reduced to a ritual two hours.
“We today are too close to the Holocaust to assess what it will mean,” he said. “My own, seemingly big book, is not but a grain of sand. In 2,000 years, Lorcka will have disappeared.”
Mendelsohn seems reconciled to this notion. “People of the future will need room to live their own lives.”
Tom Pantic, a junior at Hiram College in Ohio, wanted to know how poet Eugene Gloria felt about being put in the Asian box.
“I’m OK with being grouped with Asian American poets – I’m very proud of that community,” he said. “It is a problem to be put on the ethnic shelf, with ‘American poets’ shelved elsewhere – that’s a problem for me. I’m happy to represent. I’m a Filipino poet but there are many other identities I inhabit.”
Gloria, now 58, was the youngest of six children when his family left Manila and settled in San Francisco. The first poem in “My Favorite Warlord” is called “Water.” It begins:
The street when I was five
was a deep, wide river
coursing through a shimmering city.
I had no need for proper shoes,
no need for long pants.
I didn’t yet know how to make
Conclusions and say, “Life’s like this . . .”
Gloria, who won a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Book award for “My Favorite Warlord,” read “Water” several times over three days in Hiram. He visited high school students, ate dinner with English majors and gave a warm, wry public appearance, part of a Big Read initiative this fall in Hiram. “It took me five or six years to finish ‘Water,’” he told those gathering in what was once the college library.
“The students from both local high schools and Hiram College . . . came away with a new understanding of the power of poetry to convey deep emotions, to comment on social issues, or just to crystallize a moment in time,” noted Gloria’s host, Professor Kirsten L. Parkinson, who directs the Lindsay-Crane Center for Writing and Literature at the college.
“How unfortunate to think I have an ‘in’ because my name is exotic enough,” Gloria in an interview said after his reading. “Mostly I feel sad. This is another instance of – racism is probably too strong – of misperception. Poetry is an opportunity for me to be honest about my identity. I like what [anthology editor] Sherman Alexie called it, ‘colonial theft.’ ”
Alexie made the controversial decision to keep Hudson’s poem in the 2015 anthology; Gloria plans to incorporate this episode into the discussion of the creative writing workshop he leads at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.
“I like to go to Indianapolis occasionally to take care of my Asian needs – fish sauce, good rice,” Gloria riffed in his gentle, mellifluous voice. He then read “Here, On Earth,” adding, “yes, happy poems are possible.”
The October evening in Hiram served as a welcome tour of “My Favorite Warlord” with Gloria providing insights into individual poems. He began the book sparked by an observation from Susan Orleans, who suggested that boys of 10 define the man they will become at 40. Gloria realized that at 10 he was a schoolboy at St. Agnes Elementary School in the Haight Asbury neighborhood in 1967, a fascinating spot in a momentous year. So he began writing poems constellated around 1967, but as he worked, “My Favorite Warlord” developed a parallel meditation on Gloria’s father, inflected with an interest in the 16th century Japanese warrior Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
“It became an accidental book in that I was conflating my thoughts about Hideyoshi with meditations on my father,” Gloria told a DePauw University staff writer. “People assume that ‘my favorite warlord’ is my father, which really isn’t the case. But I don’t mind the mistake, because on some level I was thinking about both of them as one thing.”
For his part, Pantic loved the poem “Allegory of the Laundromat,” also a favorite of Anisfield-Wolf Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Pantic quoted the final line in his introduction of Gloria:
Who gives a whit about the indelicate balance of our weekly wash?
Take a look at Jean-Michel Basquiat’s mesmerizing 1984 painting “Trumpet.” It inspired a new poem from Adrian Matejka that he calls “& Later,”
Matejka won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award last year for “The Big Smoke,” his Jack Johnson-infused collection. Now the Indiana University professor is putting together a new book called “Collectable Blacks.”
“I get caught up easily in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings, especially his work focusing on boxers and jazz,” Matejka said. “His painting from 1984, ‘Trumpet,’ cracked open a tense holiday moment from my childhood. I don’t remember any actual trumpets at that holiday fracas, but Basquiat’s lines and pigments always seem to create unexpected opportunities for improvisation and meditation.”
Matejka made this observation for staff at the American Academy of Poets, which sent “& Later,” to some 300,000 readers September 4 as part of its digital dose of verse. Readers can sign up for the “Poem a Day” project.
—after “Trumpet,” Jean-Michel Basquiat
the broken sprawl & crawl
of Basquiat’s paints, the thin cleft
of villainous pigments wrapping
each frame like the syntax
in somebody else’s relaxed
explanation of lateness: what had happened was. Below blackened
crowns, below words crossed out
to remind of what is underneath:
potholes, ashy elbows, & breath
that, in the cold, comes out in red light
& complaint shapes—3 lines
from the horn’s mouth
in the habit of tardy remunerations.
All of that 3-triggered agitation,
all that angry-fingered fruition
like Indianapolis’s 3-skyscrapered smile
when the sun goes down & even
the colors themselves start talking
in the same suspicious idiom
as a brass instrument—
thin throat like a fist,
flat declinations of pastors
& teachers at Christmas in the inner city.
Shoulders back & heads up when
playing in holiday choir of hungry
paints, chins covered
in red scribbles in all of the songs.
Claude Steele, 69, has spent his professional life thinking about stereotypes. He knows how easily we drop into a defensive crouch around race and sex, ethnicity and gender nonconformity.
“I learned somewhere in the middle of my life that a whole world will open up to you that you didn’t know you didn’t know – if you ask questions,” Steele told the new entering class of students at Case Western Reserve University. “Ask a person a question and you will make friendships you didn’t anticipate. It’s a remarkable tactic, and a handy strategy.”
Steele, executive vice president and provost at the University of California-Berkeley, coaxed the 1,260 new students at Case to spend their academic years as explorers instead of confined inside the safe territories of group identities.
Steele is the author of the 2010 book, Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. The title comes from an anecdote described in the first chapter: Brent Staples, now a New York Times editorial writer, would reassure skittish pedestrians he encountered at night in Hyde Park by whistling. Staples was a graduate student at the University of Chicago who hit upon the tactic after watching frightened whites cross the street and clutch their belongings when he passed.
The provost quotes Staples’ 1995 Anisfield-Wolf award-winning book, Parallel Lives: “I became an expert in the language of fear. . . Out of nervousness I began to whistle and discovered I was good at it. My whistle was pure and sweet – and also in tune. On the street at night I whistled popular tunes from the Beatles and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The tensions drained from people’s bodies when they heard me. A few even smiled when they passed me in the dark.”
Steele, who earned a degree in psychology in 1967 from Hiram College, remembered visiting Case to hear the legendary behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. Steele went on to earn his doctorate in psychology from Ohio State University in 1971.
But if the students were told that women always scored just as well on this particular math test, the difference between genders would disappear. And if students were told the test did not measure cognitive abilities but was just a puzzle the researchers were studying, the African Americans scored as high as the whites and Asians.
“One does not have to believe for a minute in the truth of the stereotype for it to affect you,” Steele said. “You just have to be aware of it. Stereotype threat works if you care about doing well in an arena where your group is negatively stereotyped.”
These dynamics pose a particular challenge to places of learning, he said. “Almost any setting where you bring people together in an integrated society is going to have cues that trigger stereotype threat.”
Simple diversity training often doesn’t work, and can make matters worse, Steele said. But give people opportunities to learn, and particularly to ask questions, and they become more open and nuanced in their thinking. In real experiments, he said, folk will move their chairs closer when stereotype threat is reduced.
He thanked the CWRU community for reading Whistling Vivaldi, and smiling, added, “or at least intending to read this book.”
Poet Jericho Brown, winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award this year, has written a 14-line poem that begins with the names of flowers and concludes with the names of men. He calls it “The Tradition.” Brown notes, “The poet’s relationship to language and form is an addiction where what’s past is present, a video on loop. Not watching won’t make what that video says about our future go away.”
He made this observation to accompany “The Tradition” as the American Academy of Poets sent it to some 300,000 readers August 7, part of its “Poem a Day” project, which has been distributing poetry digitally since 2006.
A native of Louisiana and a professor of English at Emory University, Brown will accept his Anisfield-Wolf prize in Cleveland next month for his second collection, “The New Testament.” He will read at Trinity Cathedral at 7 p.m. Wednesday September 9. The gathering in the nave is free and the public is welcome.
Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Star Gazer. Foxglove. Summer seemed to bloom against the will
Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter
On this planet than when our dead fathers
Wiped sweat from their necks. Cosmos. Baby’s Breath.
Men like me and my brothers filmed what we
Planted for proof we existed before
Too late, sped the video to see blossoms
Brought in seconds, colors you expect in poems
Where the world ends, everything cut down. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.
Novelist Walter Mosley, the creator of the private investigator Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, has just published a ruminating essay called “Patter and Patois.” He reflects on a lifetime of storytelling, and his Louisiana heritage of stories and storytellers. The 1,800-word piece is homage to his roots.
“I’m not saying that you have to be a reader to save your soul in the modern world,” Mosley writes. “I’m saying it helps.”
Most celebrated for his crime fiction, Mosley, 63, won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1998 for “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned.” He grew up an only child in South Central Los Angeles, and has lived most of his life in New York City. When Bill Clinton mentioned in 1992 that Mosley was among his favorite writers, the Rawlins series enjoyed a spike in sales.
Anisfield-Wolf award winners are—almost by definition—civic minded.
They continue a generous tradition of adding extra public conversations each September in Cleveland. For those readers whose schedules don’t allow them to attend the awards ceremony or who want more than one chance to hear these gifted writers, here are the details:
Historian Richard S. Dunn will give a multi-media presentation on his landmark book, A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia at 5 p.m. Wednesday September 9 at the Baker-Nord Center of Case Western Reserve University. Dunn spent more than four decades researching thousands of individuals over three generations, yielding ground-breaking insights into daily plantation life.
The first three events are free. Registration is requested for the Dunn presentation. Those keen to hear Marlon James at the City Club should buy a lunch ticket or tune into the broadcast on WCPN 90.3 FM.
LaTosha Brown, jazz singer and project director of Grantmakers for Southern Progress, told a story on herself: Having gleefully decided to break her diet, she passed a homeless man eating outside the Atlanta restaurant she had chosen. Brown went in, savored her fried chicken and saved half for later. When she exited, the man asked her for her leftovers.
On a stage in the Louis Stokes wing of the Cleveland Public Library, Brown stamped her foot, mimicking her frustration.
“I get this from my grandmother: if somebody tells me they are hungry, I don’t ask questions, I give them food,” she said. “But I had saved that chicken wing and I wanted it for dinner. I said, ‘You probably eat better than me.’ And he said, ‘You think I shouldn’t?’
“And I didn’t sleep all night.” Brown, a quarter century into her activism in civil rights, felt humbled. The man was right—she had considered herself more deserving, despite a lifetime as a church-going Christian.
Brown challenged her listeners, gathered by the Foundation Center-Cleveland, to get uncomfortable, and to examine who makes them so. The audience, assembled to consider “the intersection of Black male achievement, LGBTQ issues and the empowerment of low-income women,” had real individuals to think about—thanks to a lightning round of storytellers, played back on tape.
Timothy Tramble spoke about his childhood in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood as it is reflected today in the lives of young black men growing up in the Garden Valley Estates public housing, part of his territory as executive director of Burton, Bell, Carr Community Development, Inc.
“Many people growing up in a dysfunctional environment don’t recognize that dysfunction,” Tramble said. “To think out of the box, you need some time out of the box.” For him, that time was college.
Assigned female at birth, Max said he worked for his tuition and could not afford the surgery available to wealthier transgender people. He said he came out as male to his lesbian mother on Pride Day between his sophomore and junior years – a declaration she rejected. Now he worries his college applications will be voided as he legally changes his name.
For her part, Fatimah Zahra described herself as “a proud Cleveland State Viking,” having already earned an associate degree. The daughter of a single mom with eight children, Zahra said she grew up amid hunger and zero expectations.
“I literally came from nothing,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was good enough. I had people tell me I wouldn’t be nothing, that I belonged in a kitchen. I was surrounded by drugs and violence and could have went down that route.”
Brown took in these stories and declared, “talk about intersectionality: too poor, too black, too gay. For all these folk, somebody always thinks they deserve more than them.”
Brown keynoted an afternoon called “Rising Tide: Remix,” seeded in a conviction that “a rising tide of philanthropic support and social innovation can solve entrenched problems and address community challenges head on.”
Brown said, “In philanthropy, we act upon people, we aren’t directed by them. And when people aren’t part of the change, they are not part of the change.”
Nelson Beckford, senior program officer for strong communities at the St. Luke’s Foundation, mused about whether any foundation would fund Mahatma Gandhi—with no board of directors, without other funders: “We probably wouldn’t fund him.”
Brown added, “Charity doesn’t necessarily create change . . .When we try to help the other without asking them how, we’re simply treating them as an experiment.”
An authority on the Great Migration—the departure of six million African-Americans from a South lynching them at a rate of one every four days over six decades of the 20th-century—Wilkerson is steeped in the ways of movement. She can pinpoint the families that “left along three beautifully predictable streams: up the East coast, into the Midwest and Far West.” She is conversant in the food, folkways and the names of churches that traveled with them.
“I am thrilled to be back in Ohio, one of the receiving stations of the Great Migration, one of the places people dreamt about when dreaming about living their lives in freedom,” she said to a gathering celebrating the tenth anniversary of PolicyBridge, a Cleveland think tank on policy that intersects black and brown lives.
After visiting more than 100 universities and speaking on four continents, Wilkerson, 51, delivered pinpoint geography in her remarks: Jesse Owens’ family of 11 left Alabama sharecropping for a better life in Cleveland even as Toni Morrison’s parents traveled to Lorain from an Alabama where no black child could obtain a library card, where they raised a daughter who remade world literature.
Likewise August Wilson’s maternal grandmother walked all the way out of North Carolina into Pennsylvania and Miles Davis’ people left Arkansas for Illinois. The parents of Theolonious Monk migrated from North Carolina to New York City, where his mother could earn enough to buy an upright piano. Yet another woman fleeing North Carolina, the widow Alice Coltrane, arrived in Philadelphia in 1943 and bought her son John an alto saxophone that first year.
“All these people were a gift to the world, and thus the Great Migration was a gift to the world,” said Wilkerson, who laid down this knowledge in her landmark book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2011. She asked her audience to imagine the generations of creativity squandered to rice and sugar plantations, the God-given talent extinguished in cotton and tobacco fields.
Dressed in an orange suit with turquoise jewelry, Wilkerson began by acknowledging that Anisfield-Wolf prize, and the 15 years it took her to interview 1,200 participants in the migration. She joked that “if this book were a human being it would be in high school and dating—that’s how long it took.”
“The freedom to be able to decide for oneself what to do with your God-given talents is a very new phenomenon for African-Americans in this country,” Wilkerson observed, noting that some audiences have a hard time imagining a time when stepping too slowly off a sidewalk for a white pedestrian could cost a black person his life.
In conversation with Hawaiian high school students—”beautifully removed” from the realities of the segregated South— Wilkerson described for them driving in a region that prohibited black motorists from passing a white one. Students suggested honking or tailgating, indignant at the notion of being stymied behind the wheel. “You had to stay in your place,” she reminded them. “This is what it means to be in a caste system.”
Randell McShepard, co-founder of PolicyBridge, said reading Wilkerson’s book “shook me to the core.” Politician Nina Turner called it “riveting, beautiful” and a lesson in “using our two hands, to reach forward and to reach back.” David Abbott, executive director of the Gund Foundation, said the great gift of Warmth was “that we see ourselves in the story when we read books like this.”
The audience applauded the notion of making Wilkerson’s book required reading in high school. And McShepard announced that PolicyBridge was adding a sixth core value—social justice—to its work this year.
This year, two strikingly opposed vistas marked Book Expo America, the largest annual book industry trade show.
Shiny black stretch limos deposited representatives of dozens of Chinese publishing houses onto the sidewalk of the cavernous Javits Convention Center, where Ambassador Cui Tiankai, China’s lead representative to the United States, joined a 500-member delegation spread across almost 25,000 feet of floor space. Amid bamboo and soft light, 10,000 books were featured, and 26 prominent authors from the mainland flew halfway around the globe to attend. Another 50 events highlighting Chinese literature—readings, films, panels—were sprinkled around Manhattan.
But on the steps of the New York Public Library, protestors gathered to lift up placards demanding “Free Expression”—a challenge to widespread censorship in China. Novelists Ha Jin and Murong Xuecun spoke publicly of their dismay, standing alongside American writers Jonathan Franzen, A. M. Homes and Paul Auster.
The protest, organized by PEN America, noted the widespread censorship within China, often suppressing writing on gay rights, repressed Chinese minorities, Tibet and the Tiananmen Square massacre. Andrew Solomon, president of PEN America, had a bruising experience of the translation of The Noonday Demon, his landmark book on depression.
“I think there’s a suggestion that because China is an enormous market, we have to defer to the Chinese internal standards of censorship,” Solomon told the New York Times. “It’s somewhere between naïve and hypocritical to engage with China and not acknowledge the severity of this problem.”
The marketplace is huge – China is adding 20 million English readers a year, the Times reported. And the Chinese book industry has expanded into an $8 billion annual business, second only to the one in the United States. Steve Rosato, event director for Book Expo, called the Chinese presence at his trade show a watershed: “We’re going to remember this for a generation, because it’s going to be the beginning of opening some doors.”