Tag Archives: African-American

Thoughts on “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead

This is a book that was selected to read for the book club to which I belong. Because it’s a book that deals with slavery, the subject matter is disturbing, as well it should be. It is a disturbing topic and demands a brutality in language in order to capture the horrors of slavery.

She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft. She had seen boys and girls younger than this beaten and had done nothing.

(p. 34)

At one point in the book, Cora, a runaway slave, is hidden by a couple in their attic. The scene reminded me of Anne Frank. But the internment in the attic space is used to  explore the question of what constitutes freedom.

What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from the outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.

(p. 183)

Shortly afterwards, Cora considers the Declaration of Independence, and how it relates to her concept of freedom. She comes to the conclusion that freedom in America is an illusion, based upon the shadow of an idea that existed in the past.

… the Declaration of Independence was an echo of something that existed elsewhere. Now that she had run away and seen a bit of the country, Cora wasn’t sure the document described anything real at all. America was a ghost in the darkness, like her.

(p. 184)

The last thing I want to mention regarding this book is the symbolism of the underground railroad. On the surface, it represents the possibility of freedom from bondage; but it also symbolizes something deeper. The underground railroad is a metaphor for the private self, the deeply personal aspects of your story that remains hidden from view. Additionally, it symbolizes the black collective consciousness, a collective story of a people forged from the individual stories of those who struggled from their freedom.

“We’re not supposed to talk about what we do down here,” Royal said. “And our passengers aren’t supposed to talk about how the railroad operates—it’d put a lot of good people in danger. They could talk if they wanted to, but they don’t”

It was true. When she told of her escape, she omitted the tunnels and kept to the main contours. It was private, a secret about yourself it never occurred to you to share. Not a bad secret, but an intimacy so much a part of who you were that it could not be made separate. It would die in the sharing.

(p. 272)

Overall, I really liked this book. It was disturbing, thought-provoking, and inspiring. While I sadly considered how much has remained the same, I also had to acknowledge that much has changed too, which provided me with hope. We still have a lot of healing to do as a society, and that healing has to start by honestly looking at the problems we face and not forgetting the darker aspects of our collective past.

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Hellboy and the B.P.R.D 1955: Secret Nature

I love when comics weave important social messages into the stories. This particular tale deals with racial discrimination, particularly directed toward African Americans.

Hellboy, a somewhat grotesque red monster, is on assignment with Woodrow Farrier, a young black man with a Ph.D in Biological Sciences from the University of Chicago. They meet and speak with a white rancher, who makes some disparaging comments directed towards Woodrow. Later, Hellboy inquires about whether or not this treatment bothers Woodrow:

Hellboy: Hey, about that? Does it ever get to you?

Woodrow: What? You mean the fact that people are more accepting of a big red guy with horns and a tail than they are a black man?

Hellboy: Yeah. I figure it can’t be easy.

Woodrow: Of course it’s not easy, Hellboy! Welcome to the world.

This short conversation speaks volumes about the plight of black people. It is high time we stopped judging people by their outsides.

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“Once” – Poems by Alice Walker

OnceAliceWalker

I bought this short book of poems by Alice Walker from The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. It’s a slim book and all the poems are short, so I read through it fairly quickly. Overall, I liked the book. There were some poems I really connected with, and then some, not so much.

The earlier poems in the collection deal with racism and those I found to be the most powerful, especially in the current racially charged social climate. The later poems were love poems that slipped into what felt like self-pity over failed relationships. And while I don’t mean to diminish the pain of a failed relationship (I’ve felt this myself), those types of poems are just not my personal preference.

In the poem “African Images, Glimpses from a Tiger’s Back,” Walker writes:

in my journal
I thought I could
capture
everything. . . .

I love this image, particularly because I am a journal writer. I’ve been keeping a journal for many years and have one shelf half full of completed journals. I know some people don’t like to keep their journals around for fear someone will read them. Me – I don’t care. I know my family won’t read them while I am around, and after I am dead, then I really don’t care if my family reads them. In fact, I like the idea that my children and their children’s children might have the opportunity to look back on my life, hear about the things I did, the thoughts I had living in this strange and exciting period of human existence.

The poem “Once,” which the book is titled after, is by far the best poem in the book. It deals with racism on multiple levels, because, let’s face it, racism exists on many levels. One of the passages that stands out is about a mother’s disgust with her daughter for being in an interracial relationship.

One day in
Georgia
Working around
the Negro section
My friend got a
letter
in
the mail
–the letter
said
“I hope you’re
having a good
time
fucking all
the niggers.”

“Sweet,” I winced.
“Who
wrote it?”

“mother.”
she
said.

As I look around, I see that we have come a long way in addressing racism, but that we still have a long way to go. There is still hatred and prejudice directed towards people of different ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and so on. I just hope some day soon we will all begin to recognize that we are all essentially similar, and that our differences are something to be celebrated, not hated. On that note, I want to end with one more passage from the poem “Once.”

what will we
finally do
with
prejudice

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“Revolutionary Dreams” by Nikki Giovanni

NikkiGiovanni

This morning I read an amazing poem by Ms. Giovanni from her book The Women and the Men. It’s a great collection of poems and I encourage you to invest in a copy. Anyway, I would like to share the poem because I feel it’s important in the current political climate.

i used to dream militant
dreams of taking
over america to show
these white folks how it should be
done
i used to dream radical dreams
of blowing everyone away with my perceptive powers
of correct analysis
i even used to think i’d be the one
to stop the riot and negotiate the peace
then i awoke and dug
that if i dreamed natural
dreams of being a natural
woman doing what a woman
does when she’s natural
i would have a revolution

As the campaign marches on, the rhetoric has become more harsh and combative. Everyone wants to “take back the country,” or get rid of this group or defeat this other group. The focus is on everyone else, and no one seems to be looking within to figure out how they should change. As Nikki so eloquently expresses in her poem, revolutionary change is not forcing others to change to your view or ideology, true revolutionary change comes from within. It is the process of changing yourself and being an example. And let’s face it—that is the truly difficult task. Forcing someone to change or imposing your will upon others is easy. Honestly looking at yourself, acknowledging your shortcomings, and making a conscious decision to change is infinitely harder and requires significantly more courage.

I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Nikki Giovanni when I was a college student. She is an inspiring individual and an amazing poet. If you are unfamiliar with her work, I highly recommend you read more of her poetry.

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RIP Maya Angelou

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

Today we lost a unique and powerful voice. This was not the post I had planned to write, but I felt the need to say that her poetry has been an inspiration to me. There is not much to write, other than she will be missed dearly. Fare thee well, Maya.

Click here to read the news release.

CNN.com

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“The Girls of Atomic City” by Denise Kiernan

GirlsAtomicCityWhen I first saw this book displayed at a local bookstore, I was intrigued. I had been to Oak Ridge, Tennessee several times. My daughter, who is a competitive rower, competes in Oak Ridge. I had a vague idea that the city was connected to the development of the atomic bomb, but did not know the history. Anyway, on a recent visit to the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C., I noticed they were selling autographed copies of the book, so I bought one.

The book is an historical account of the development of Oak Ridge and its involvement in the Manhattan Project, focusing on the role of women. Essentially, Oak Ridge was a secret government city whose primary goal was the enrichment of uranium into weapons-grade material. Workers were recruited by the government to live and work at the site. Since a large number of men were overseas fighting, Oak Ridge offered numerous opportunities for women. Much of the book is dedicated to the lives of these women and how they dealt with life in a top-secret military installation where discussing what you did was strictly forbidden. In fact, until after the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, most workers at Oak Ridge had no idea what they were working on. They were given a task, told their job was helping the war effort, and that was all they knew.

I was not surprised that women played such a significant role in the advancement of nuclear science, nor was I surprised that women’s contributions were written out of much of the male-dominated history. I for one had never heard of Lise Meitner, an Austrian physicist who escaped Nazi Germany and was part of the team that discovered fission; in fact, she actually coined the term. But not only did her male colleagues get credit for her work, she was often mistreated because of her gender, being “banished to research in a basement workshop because a superior thought women in the chemistry labs were dangerous—their hair might catch on fire.” (p. 58) Later, when Meitner’s colleague Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of fission, Meitner was “referred to in the press as Hahn’s junior associate.” (p. 293)

Kiernan points out that young women were preferred as recruits to work on the project because, in those days, women did what they were told and didn’t ask questions.

The Project liked high school girls, especially those from rural backgrounds. Recruiters sought them out relentlessly, feeling young women were easy to instruct. They did what they were told. They weren’t overly curious. If you tell a young woman of 18 from a small-town background to do something, she’ll do it, no questions asked. Educated women and men, people who had gone to college and learned just enough to think they might “know” something, gave you problems. The Project scoured the countryside of Tennessee and beyond looking for recent graduates. (p. 69)

One of the things briefly discussed in the book is the secret medical experiments administered to unsuspecting individuals, where people were injected with plutonium without knowledge and then watched to observe the effects. Ebb Cade, an African-American worker at Oak Ridge, was the first test subject.

Ebb Cade was not the only test subject. It turned out that between 1945 and 1947, 18 people were injected with plutonium, specifically: 11 at Rochester, New York, 3 at University of Chicago, 3 at UC San Francisco, and 1, Ebb Cade, at Oak Ridge. Several thousand human radiation experiments were conducted between 1944 and 1974. In 1994, President Clinton appointed the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE) to investigate these and other experiments funded by the United States government. Their final report was published in 1996. (p. 293)

If this is something that interests you, I recommend reading The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War by Eileen Welsome. I read this book when it came out and it had a strong impact on me.

Something that I found surprising in this book was the number of corporations and universities involved in the development of the atomic bomb. Companies like Westinghouse, Aluminum Company of America, and Eastman Kodak were involved. Even Kellogg was heavily involved. In fact, Kellogg was responsible for the enrichment plant’s design and development. (pp. 99 – 108) From now on, every time I see a box of Special-K on the grocery shelf, I will be reminded of K-25, the name given to the enrichment plant that Kellogg designed. Finally, I found out that ORACLE got its start in Oak Ridge, and that ORACLE is actually an acronym for the Oak Ridge Automatic Computer and Logical Engine.

Some history books can be pretty dull, but not this one. The topic is interesting and the book is very well-written. I recommend this book for everyone. It’s a fairly quick read and very insightful. I think I might have to take another trip out to Oak Ridge soon and visit the museum there. I’m sure I will find it as fascinating as this book.

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