You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey

By Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar

Comedian Amber Ruffin relates, with her sister’s help, all the bonkers stories of racism that her sister Lacey experiences in her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. As she writes in the introduction, these stories will shock white readers and relate to Black readers, and man, was I shocked! She also warns that many of the stories don’t seem to have any logical motivation behind them, that people just seem to wild out for absolutely no reason, and that is racism in a nutshell.

At one point, after a particularly enraging story, Amber writes, “I have never been able to understand why white people have such a low tolerance for hearing about racism.” And I thought to myself, I could tell her why. It’s that most of us white people have the same sense of race relations as very young Black children before they’ve been fully exposed to the onslaught. I went most of my life thinking that the vast majority of people are generally decent and trying to do right, though they may stumble occasionally. All while Lacey, her siblings, and her parents experience daily racist words and actions from people just being mean to be mean.

It is a real testament to their writing how laugh-out-loud funny the book is, and how well they capture their relationship as sisters on the page. While Lacey deals with some truly outrageous shit, she often gets her own again in satisfying ways and reassures the reader that she is doing just fine with a loving family and friends and successful career. Of course, she has her sister to commiserate with as well, and I’m just grateful that they let us readers take a peak into their conversations (not to mention the brilliant photographic evidence)! The book alternates fonts for the two, which is very effective, but afterwards, I somewhat regretted not listening to the audiobook read by the two authors. The conversational tone makes it a quick read, but I bet would really shine in audio.

Who Is Ana Mendieta? by Redfern & Caron

Who Is Ana Mendieta?
by Christine Redfern & Caro Caron
introduction by Lucy R. Lippard
2011

This is a relatively short but extremely full and dense graphic novel. It’s a biography of an artist, but also a window into an artistic movement, and also a true crime tragedy, and also a demonstration of how systemic prejudice works to keep a whole demographic down. The particular art styles of both the book and the art movement that it describes are not ones that I particularly enjoy (a lot of shock value and intentionally disturbing imagery), and yet, I still highly recommend the book. It was a reminder to me of what second-wave feminism was trying to accomplish and the context it was working in.

Ana Mendieta was born in 1948 in Havana, Cuba, moved to the US in 1961, and died violently in 1985 (her husband was indicted for murder three times by a jury, and acquitted three times by a judge who then sealed the records.) During her life, Mendieta was a rising star in the art world and making waves. But the book also points out that she, like so many women before her, had to be their own firsts, breaking the glass ceiling, not because there hadn’t been women before her, but because the existence of those women was and is so regularly denied. This book itself is an effort to not have Ana Mendieta suffer the same fate, not just of death but of being quietly brushed aside, leaving art history to continue as a history of male artists.

So all of this to say: this book is educational, distasteful, enraging, and important.

illustrated travelogues

These books make me yearn for the open road. I don’t really enjoy hiking and I haven’t traveled much in a while even before the whole world went into various levels of quarantine but having read/looked through these two beautiful books about traveling the countryside by bicycle and by foot, I yearn. The complete impossibility of doing this myself makes the yearning all the stronger, since it doesn’t have to confront the fact that I like my creature comforts a bit too much for camping.

You & A Bike & A Road
by Eleanor Davis
2017

I received this book as a Christmas present in 2020 and read it within days. It’s basically a copy of the author’s sketch-pad/diary that she kept while making a cross-country bicycle trip from Tuscan, Arizona where her parents live to her home with her husband in Athens, Georgia. The pages are little illustrations of her experiences with short descriptions to show her thoughts. She’s struggling with depression and this is a way for her to get out of her head and try something new and difficult. While the main plot, such as it is, is her personal journey – both physical and emotional – it’s also dotted with stories of the people she comes across at the various resting points. As much as the journey works for Davis, it works for the reader too, to vicariously experience the weirdness, exhaustion, and exhilaration of making this attempt, and get out of my own head too.

The Fifty-Three Stages of the Tokaido
by Hiroshige
1833-1834
published by Heibonsha Ltd, 1960

I received this book for Christmas in 2019, and worked though it in its and starts over the course of a year. The 55 illustrations in this series, showing images from Edo to Kyoto with the 53 stages of the Tokaido in between, are enchanting and lure me into thinking it’s a journey I would like to take. The Tokaido is a 320-mile-long road in Japan that the governments have maintained for centuries, connecting two of the country’s major cities. This set of woodblock prints by Hiroshige romanticizes each stage of the trip – the gorgeous vistas, the exciting markets, the specialized restaurants, and even the uncertain weather – and establishes his reputation as an artist at the same time. The scenes are both gorgeous and fascinating and the way they show calm water and raging storms and mountains both near and far just makes something in my mind un-tense for a little bit.

This specific publication of the illustrations also comes with short descriptions of each which were both helpfully informative and occasionally unintentionally funny. These captions vary between describing the locations (how the stages worked and which services and resources were there), describing the subject matter (what type of people were being shown and what interactions were taking place), and describing the artwork itself (letting me know which ones I should appreciate more than others, in case I wasn’t appreciating them correctly). What I considered particularly funny was the contrast between the detailed discussion regarding exactly when a particular image was set based on the presence of famous travelers versus how casually the descriptions discuss the artistic license used with both the events being shown and even the physical geography of other images that rearranged, removed, or created whole mountains for the aesthetic. But regardless of how much or little accuracy they may have, they are all lovely and intriguing.

In a time when it’s been nearly a full year of staying in my house with a single exciting trip to a grocery store every other week, these books were a chance to imagine a freedom of movement that comes with its own pros and cons, but feels so refreshing just to think about.

White Fragility

By Robin DiAngelo

White-FragilityWhite Fragility is written by a white woman very specifically for a white audience, to help us all process our feelings in a way that does not burden Black people around us. DiAngelo is explicit about this in the introduction: “This book is intended for us, for white progressives who so often—despite our conscious intentions—make life so difficult for people of color.”

DiAngelo writes in a very academic manner, which makes sense given that she started as a professor, with a matter-of-fact and somewhat dry style. She is now a consultant and trainer on issues of racial and social justice, and it’s quickly clear that she is very good at metaphorically holding white people’s hands while they slowly, and often grudgingly, wake up to systemic racism. (At one point, as she walks the reader through a common strawman argument, she requests that the reader take a calming breath.)

And by starting at the beginning, I mean she really starts at the very beginning: “Yet a critical component of cross-racial skill building is the ability to sit with the discomfort of being seen racially, of having to proceed as if our race matters (which it does). Being seen racially is a common trigger of white fragility, and thus, to build our stamina, white people must face the first challenge: naming our race.”

DiAngelo’s parallel of white fragility vs. racial stamina really speaks to me, since I want to be the strongest, most self-sufficient person I can be. Through occasionally excruciating detail, she makes it clear that avoidance of race issues is very much a weakness, and you only get stronger and more resilient by facing these truths head on. I admit that she is so methodical about walking the reader through the process of understanding white fragility, acknowledging it, and then combating it that it can be somewhat exhausting, but it has to be that way. As she describes, white supremacy is so deeply entrenched that we must be able to recognize it and combat it in every aspect of our society: “To say that whiteness is a standpoint is to say that a significant aspect of white identity is to see oneself as an individual, outside or innocent of race—“just human.”

To acknowledge white fragility, one must recognize the myths of individualism and objectivism which are so key to American society in particular. These myths deny the degree to which we are all influenced, even subconsciously, by cultural messages that for the most part work to bolster white supremacy. (This was also where I gave myself a mental pat on the back for already rejecting Ayn Rand’s bullshit.) It is no wonder she has to go into such meticulous detail; it is a huge undertaking to unravel these patterns of thought that have been reinforced since birth. DiAngelo is attempting with this book to remove the centering and the blindness that comes with it so we can see more clearly what whiteness means in our society.

She has somewhat repetitive wording, using similar phrases and going over the same topic in multiple ways, which can be a bit of a grind when reading, but does its job. Her guidance has continued to stay with me, reinforcing what I’m reading/hearing/seeing from people of color and giving me strength when I fear I’ll make something worse through ignorance. You are a far better ally if you acknowledge your inevitable mistakes and gratefully accept correction than if you try to avoid, by either inaction or unaccountability, ever falling into racist patterns (which doesn’t fool anyone anyway).

“Still, I don’t feel guilty about racism. I didn’t choose this socialization, and it could not be avoided. But I am responsible for my role in it.…Unlike the heavy feelings such as guilt, the continuous work of identifying my internalized superiority and how it may be manifesting itself is incredibly liberating. When I start from the premise that of course I have been thoroughly socialized into the racist culture in which I was born, I no longer need to expend energy denying that fact.”

So You Want to Talk About Race

By Ijeoma Oluo

So_You_Want_To_Talk_About_RaceHonestly, I did not want to read about race right now, let alone talk about it. I wanted to keep reading the historical mysteries and romances that have kept me moderately distracted during this pandemic, but they started to feel tiresome, and I knew that I couldn’t ignore this national dialogue any longer.

When faced with all the recommended readings, So You Want to Talk About Race was an easy choice, since I already follow Ijeoma Oluo on twitter and instagram, where she is very smart, funny, honest, and occasionally posts beautiful makeup demos. I’d been meaning to get to her book for longer than I like to admit.

Also, white complacency is insidious! I’ve done enough reading over the years that I’m more or less comfortable with terms like “social construct” and “intersectionality,” but this also means that I too often fall into the mental trap of thinking that I don’t need to do any of this recommended reading.

And boy, did Oluo school me fast! She writes So You Want to Talk About Race in the same accessibly conversational tone that she uses in her social media, so I’d initially thought it would be a pretty quick read. It came as a shock the first few times I had to set down the book for a day so that I could think through everything she had laid on me in the chapter I’d just read.

I can’t resist sharing a few passages that I highlighted:

From the chapter “Is it really about race?” on how our country’s economics is intrinsically connected to race:

Racism in America exists to exclude people of color from opportunity and progress so that there is more profit for others deemed superior. This profit itself is the greater promise for nonracialized people—you will get more because they exist to get less.

From “What is racism?:”

Systemic racism is a machine that runs whether we pull the levers or not, and by just letting it be, we are responsible for what it produces. We have to actually dismantle the machine if we want to make change….

Continue reading

Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women

sayhernameSay Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women
by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Andrea J. Ritchie, Rachel Anspach, Rachel Gilmer, Luke Harris
Published by: African American Policy Forum, Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies
2016

Breonna Taylor, a 27-year-old EMT, was shot and killed by three armed intruders who broke into her house at 1am on 3/13/2020. The intruders, it turns out, were police officers, which makes them different from any other armed intruder breaking into a house at 1am in that they may well get away with murder.

There’s a long history of police officers getting away with murder. Most of the time it doesn’t even make the news. This report, that’s only 124 pages long, is an attempt to address that issue, because black women are being murdered and even their deaths are being erased.

I read this report because as difficult as it was to read, it felt worse to be the person reading only escapist fiction right now.

Most of the statistics collected about police killings of black people are gender neutral studies: how many black people are being killed. But the reporting of those studies often shift to talk about how many black men are being killed, even though the actual breakdown, according to this report, is actually pretty evenly divided between black men and black women.

A lot of black people’s deaths go unremarked in the news, their murderers unpunished, but when one of those deaths does get deemed news-worthy, it’s almost always a boy or a man. This report is an attempt to remind the world that it’s not just black men who are dying, it’s not just black women who are left to mourn.

But because of the lack of reporting, the women who are dying are even harder to identify than their male equals. Their deaths pass unnoticed by the public outside of their local communities. These authors searched what newspaper archives they could in order to create short bios and summaries of the murders of thirty-five women, knowing that they would only be able to find those that made at least some newspaper give them attention.

Even before the current protests pointed a spotlight on police violence, I was already becoming uncomfortable with the way fictional police were so often shown performing vigilante justice and being dismissive and unfriendly to their own internal affairs officers. It’s more recently that I’ve become aware of how much worse the real police are. Policemen casual in their disregard for black lives because they can be, because they don’t face any repercussions. The police protect their own from any harm without caring that their own is the cause of harm to the people they are supposed to be protecting. As someone on tumblr put it: “If there are 1,000 good cops and 10 bad cops, but the 1,000 good cops don’t arrest the 10 bad cops, then there are really just 1,010 bad cops.”

One of the patterns that I noticed in this report because I’ve noticed it before in the news, is how scared the police are, or at least say that they are, of their victims. How the judges and juries let them get away with the murders because, “regardless of how real or not the danger was”, what mattered was the policeman’s fear. At the same time, many of the victims were killed trying to get away from the policemen who were presenting a very real and obvious danger to them. Their fear, their pain, their capacity for emotion, wasn’t even acknowledged. It’s an infuriating bit of hypocrisy.

The bios of the women were divided into sections based on the circumstances of their deaths: driving while black, policing poverty, the war on drugs, mental illness, death in custody, guilt by association, responding to a call for help, and sexual profiling, with a further sections to address serial rapist policemen, the treatment of black mothers, and the treatment of black survivors of police violence. Then a short conclusion with recommended further reading and recommendations for societal change.

Say her name: Alexia Christian, Mya Hall, Gabriella Nevarez, Miriam Carey, Shantel Davis, Malissa Williams, Sharmel Edwards, Kendra James, LaTanya Haggerty, Sandra Bland, Shelly Frey, Margaret LaVerne Mitchell, Eleanore Bumpurs, Kathryn Johnston, Alberta Spruill, Danette Daniels, Frankie Ann Perkins, Tanisha Anderson, Michelle Cusseaux, Pearlie Golden, Kayla Moore, Shereese Francis, Tyisha Miller, Natasha McKenna, Kyam Livingston, Sheneque Proctor, Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tarika Wilson, Meagan Hockaday, Janisha Fonville, Aura Rosser, Yvette Smith, Duanna Johnson, Nizah Morris, …

Keep in mind, this report was published in January 2016, a full year before the Trump presidency ushered in a spike in racial violence and fascist behaviors.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

packingformarsPacking for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
by Mary Roach
2010

This is amazing, ridiculous, and horrifying in all the best ways, as Roach looks into the history of the space program and the work that went into keeping astronauts alive. Which mostly means looking into the details of how a body works and then trying to figure out what parts are impacted by gravity. And air pressure. Eating and drinking, peeing and pooping, blood circulation, bone growth, sweating, etc. And then consider all of those same issues, along with physical and mental health related to being confined to a small capsule moving at incredible speeds and with extremely limited personal supplies. (How greasy does a person get if they just… don’t bathe, or change their clothes, or get up from their chair, for three weeks? This was a real study done with real people.)

Space programs in both the US and Russia looked into these in detail, and thus so too does Roach. With delight! But not sex: NASA is much like the DC Comics universe: there’s no masturbation. Much to Roach’s dismay, too, as one tangent discusses the failure of journalism integrity as she searches for truth between the tales and the denials of scandalous space monkey masturbation and finds a series of authors so excited by the idea that they forewent the facts of the matter. She supplements the space program research by delving into the research on aquatic animal sex and searching for information on a zero-gravity porn movie, instead.

And then she looks into the disasters and how many ways a body can stop working under various traumatic circumstances and let me tell you: I had never before considered that in a sudden stop from a sufficiently high speed, your internal organs can have noticeably different deceleration rates. (This is not a good thing for your future well-being.)

This book looks at all the gross parts of being a living body made of flesh and phlegm and explores them with joyous abandon and is an absolute delight.

 

My Planet by Mary Roach

myplanetMy Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places
written by Mary Roach
read by Angela Dawe
2013

I’ve loved (and been grossed out by) every book that I’ve read by Mary Roach… except this one. This is quite the departure from the other books since it’s actually a compilation of short anecdotes that she wrote for a regular column in Reader’s Digest. They’re often cute and funny but I didn’t find any of them particularly interesting and by their very nature, they were fairly repetitive when in a collection rather than a serial: her husband Ed gets introduced at the beginning of at least half of them. They’re essentially a cheery little sitcom of a life, with many of the traditional sitcom tropes including both mocking and perpetuating 1950s stereotypes of married life. And I just don’t care for sitcoms.

To summarize: it’s well written for its intended audience, but that audience isn’t really me.

Harriet Tubman by Catherine Clinton

HarrietTubmanHarriet Tubman: The road to freedom
by Catherine Clinton, 2004
read by Shayna Small, 2017

I put a hold on this book as soon as I returned from the theatre after watching Harriet, the movie, because it was an amazingly good movie and I wanted to know more about the history. Also because I wanted to know if the theme of Joan of Arc parallels was unique to the movie. As it turns out: no, the similarities were acknowledged during her lifetime.

I highly recommend this book.

Also, the audiobook version picked an excellent voice to read the book: clear spoken and academic but with a hint of a southern accent.

And that really typifies the book: it’s an academic biography of Harriet Tubman that addresses where the evidence and documentation comes from and where the holes in that evidence are and why, in a very direct and personable manner. We don’t know what year she was born because there’s no birth certificate and a possible ten year span. There’s a lot we don’t know about the Underground Railroad because anyone keeping records at the time would have been keeping records of their own criminal activity. Tubman struggled to get any sort of payment from the government for her services in the civil war because, despite being at that point a well-known celebrity, the bureaucracy demanded documentation that didn’t always exist. And the implications for how these issues effected other African-Americans is staggering because Harriet Tubman was well-known, well-respected, and well-remembered by highly ranked military personnel.

Apparently during the civil war there was a third category of African-Americans that I had never heard of before: Contraband. These weren’t free blacks or slaves, these were “contraband” who had been confiscated and/or escaped from their masters but were still considered possessions rather than people in the eyes of the law. The whole thing really highlights how insane the slave era was, (and how insane the white supremacy era continues to be.)

Anyway, Harriet Tubman was amazing and doing her best as she could, and her life is an example of: do what you can, when you can, and you can move mountains… but there will always be more to do.

But also, risking your life to change the world doesn’t always end with death, even for someone so similar to Joan of Arc: Harriet Tubman Davis died free, of old age, in a house she owned, surrounded by family, as a cherished and celebrated member of her community.

Grunt by Mary Roach

gruntGrunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
by Mary Roach
read by Abby Elvidge
2016

I think every child goes through a phase of being fascinated by the gross and gruesome and Mary Roach never grew out of that phase. And she invites her readers to take similar joy in it as well. She takes such honest delight in peering into the hidden, dusty, bug-infested corners of history and science and holding up the often gruesome contents for our perusal.

What’s the sleep schedule like on a nuclear submarine and why is it a major problem that sleep deprivation is an ongoing and increasing concern? How are military doctors advancing the science of genital reconstruction and recreation from where it used to be due to the increased survival of IED victims? Who are the people designing the uniforms and what are the features they’re trying to optimize? How can you protect soldiers in the field, their hearing, their eyesight, their bodies, without hampering their abilities act and react quickly? Why is diarrhea such a concern and yet so difficult to study? Why are maggots so helpful in medical care and yet so rarely used?

All of these questions and more are examined in this book that looks at the establishment part of the military establishment rather than the military part.

So this book is delightful and I highly recommend it, but maybe not while you’re trying to eat anything.