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Posts Tagged ‘Black’

52. “Hair Story: The History of Black Hair in America,” Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps

July 29, 2010 Leave a comment

A historical and cultural examination of the meanings assigned to Black hair in the US.

This was a really interesting and enlightening book. I did have some understanding of Black hair care (and myths, mythos, superstitions, and general bullshit) before reading, but this book was lush with first-person accounts and extremely balanced in its reporting of history and the meanings of history.

When I was younger, I had long, very textured and curly hair and if left to its own devises, my hair would dred a little. But this book really argues that it’s not the hair itself as much as it is the history of the hair that makes it so fraught. In most West African societies in (and long before) the 1600s, hair care and styling was incredibly ritualized, with different hair styles holding symbolic meaning and the creation and upkeep of them a cultural affair. When Africans were kidnapped and enslaved, their kidnappers shaved their heads, stripping them of their identities. After months in the belly of slave ships, they emerged with dirty, matted hair incomprehensible to their slavers. In a new continent, new climate, and inhuman (not merely inhumane) conditions, slaves had to come up with new ways of caring for, or more often, merely taming or containing their hair.

Enter the hot comb, grease, do-rags, followed up by relaxers, braids, Afros, Jerri Curl, weaves, cornrows, perms, dreds, and blow-dryers.

Along the way, White people, of course, have had a lot of shit to say about Black hair, such that smooth, silky, combable hair becomes good hair, worthy of both envy and derision, and textured, kinky hair is “bad” hair (but sometimes afforded a sort of grudging respect at particular political moments).

I mentioned my own hair earlier because it has always been kind of difficult for me to understand why many Black people are quick to snap that their hair is not curly, it’s kinky and that White people don’t really have dreds even when they, well, have dreds (because White hair usually requires intervention to make it dred, while kinky Black hair doesn’t). But reading this book helped me to understand the cultural meaning of kinky hair and how it probably feels like white washing to have it euphemized by White folks as curly. And White surfers with dreds, or me pointing out that my hair used to have a lot of texture, too, definitely smacks of appropriation of an extremely loaded topic by someone who simply doesn’t get the same cultural baggage with the hairstyle.

So, as I said, a really interesting book, and, I think, a good one for White people to read. Because the average Black person definitely knows more about caring for White hair than the average White person knows about caring for Black hair and that’s not comfortable to me.

Since it’s my favorite axe to grind with this genre, there were a few organizational/editing problems, though. Parts of it were set up almost like a magazine with vocab lists, profiles of five Black men who changed hair, a bio of Jesse Jackson (I didn’t know that his bouffant was originally cut and styled by his mentor and surrogate father James Brown, who made him promise to wear his hair like that until Brown died), and other interesting asides, but they are plopped in sort of randomly. Also, the time line kind of jumped around so that it wasn’t always in historical order, or we’d get an in-depth profile of Madam CJ Walker and her business and then, twenty pages later, have her explained again.

Overall, a solid B+.

Page count: 198
Page total: 14,376
Call number: E185.86.B96 2001x

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49. “Blonde Roots,” Bernardine Evaristo

July 19, 2010 Leave a comment

“Blonde Roots” is historical fiction with a twist, imagining if Europe had been imperialized by Africa and whites (or “whytes,” in the vernacular of the book) enslaved.

This was an interesting idea, but extremely heavy-handed, especially the first several pages, which is all telling (as opposed to showing). While the story calls for a massive over-haul in ones thinking (because the fingers of slavery are that long), all I heard for the first few page was “THE WHYTES ARE THE SLAVES, GET IT, BECAUSE IN THE REAL WORLD, THEY WERE THE SLAVE MASTERS AND ALSO THERE ARE THE WEST JAPANESE ISLANDS LIKE THE WEST INDIES AND HER MASTER’S INITIALS ARE KKK BECAUSE HE IS BAD LIKE THE KKK.”

I mention this because I would have stopped reading if someone in 50books_poc hadn’t mentioned that the first forty or so pages are really all about reversing/echoing as much as possible of narratives of Black slaves.

The broad concept was both interesting and compelling, but the details were rather shakey for me. It’s such an odd reversal, but a reversal of things that would not exist without slavery. For example, without many Africans of different religions thrown together and force-fed Catholicism, you don’t have Voodoo, so celebrating Voodoomas doesn’t make sense (the -mas from “Christmas” making, of course, the least sense).

Throughout the book, I also felt myself wondering a lot if what we needed was further empathetic identification with white characters. Is Evaristo simply exploiting the fact that we are trained to identify with white people and see through their eyes, making the story of a white slave girl more heart-wrenching? Or is she effectively reenacting this connection? Is the book challenging because it plays out the distant historical facts of slavery in a way that seems new and therefore immediate? Or is it challenging because it plays fast and loose with history, resulting in a confusing hodgepodge? Does taking issue with the style of a narrative like this totally overlook the point of it, or is it valid to feel that the writing got in the way of an extremely useful conceit?

In the end, I felt that this was a pretty solid piece of young adult fiction– which, I want to be clear, is not an insult. I read a lot of young adult fiction and I enjoy it and think that the genre truly does have the power to educate, enlighten, and challenge. Easy-to-understand writing is not a bad thing. After I got more used to Evaristo’s narrative style, the book got more enjoyable. I would love to read more on the same theme because I do think that this book has the ability to really challenge people to see with fresh eyes the inhumanity of the slave trade. It is creative, intelligent, and deep thought and craft obviously went into the world the book portrays. It’s just that the writing never matched for me the sophistication of the idea.

Page count: 270
Page total: 13,392

28. “Freakonomics,” Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

May 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Interesting and a quick read, but I feel pretty dubious about many of the conclusions Levitt reaches. I’m no John Bates Clark Medal-winner, but I can’t help but think that most events are the result of more than one thing coming together. So saying that legalizing abortion in resulted in the 1990s dip in crime might be partially true, but it is certainly not the only cause. But it’s not as interesting to say that an event is the result of many causes as it is to attribute it to the fact that poor, undereducated, unwed mothers were free to terminate their pregnancies in record numbers, thereby reducing the pool of the people who most frequently commit crimes. Which may be true, but is almost certainly not the whole truth.

Page count: 207
Page total: 6,963

27. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Rebecca Skloot

May 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Another excellent book. While I was initially disappointed to discover that this book was more about the Lacks family and how their lives have been affected by Henrietta’s cells having been stolen than about the science related to those cells, Skloot gives her subject such excellent treatment that it becomes utterly engrossing.

I was number eighty- or ninety-something on my library’s waitlist; it took about three months for me to get it. It was worth the wait!

Page count: 338
Page total: 6,756

8. “Push,” Sapphire

December 26, 2009 Leave a comment

I let this review sit for a few weeks, for reasons that will probably become clear.

I saw “Precious” for a paper I wrote for my Feminist Film class and my reaction to the film and the book are closely tied (surprisingly enough). It’s not a story one can claim to like, of course, but I wish my reaction were something other that reserved blankness. In case you don’t know the plot, Precious is a sixteen-year-old middle school student who is illiterate and pregnant with her second child. This child, like the first (who has Down’s Syndrome and lives with her grandmother) is product of her father’s repeated rapes. This book, which is written in the first person, begins when she is kicked out of middle school for being pregnant again. She enrolls in an alternative school where a supportive teacher helps her to learn how to read and to tell her story. In doing so, Precious gains the strength and self-worth necessary to escape the home of her physically, emotionally, verbally, financially, and sexually abusive mother. She has her second child and evntually takes custody of both her children and, with the help of a social worker, removes her mother from her live once and for all. But not before finding out that she has HIV, which she got from her dad. And then the story’s over.

This is a really loaded book. The paper I wrote was about reception theory with my own reactions as a white man watching this film woven in with the reactions of several Black women bloggers. I was trying to reconcile their differing views and receptions of the film with my own, starting from the belief that we are approaching a story loaded with issues of race, class, and sex from two very different points. This reading was touched off partially from director Lee Daniel’s invitation to “the beautiful white people” to laugh at the darkness of the film.

Because of how loaded this is, I’m not sure that my reactions to the book are entirely relevant, as I don’t think it was written for me. More than that, I think it was specifically not written for me (or people like me). So when I read it and feel uncomfortable about the (constant) aspiration to have light skin, I do so not from a space of identification (as a dark-skinned Black woman who has constantly seen lighter-skinned women get it better than they themselves do), but from an almost colonizing discomfort, a space of superiority that wants to say, “hey, you shouldn’t have to want your skin to be light (like mine).”

I think the book was written for Black women who either can identify with or are identified with with Precious’s status as a poor, abused, “stupid” young woman. So while I can say that I didn’t particularly care for this book and I didn’t really know what Sapphire wanted me to get from it, I will do so with the acknowlegement that this is probably because it wasn’t speaking to or about me.

I will, however, say that I did appreciate that the story didn’t end with Precious having a GED and headed to college, all happy and healthy. It ended better for her, but still damn hard, which I think is realistic.

Page count: 194
Page total: 1,603

6. “Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America,” Scott Poulson-Bryant

December 21, 2009 1 comment

I started reading this in October, mostly via eBrary, which is a pretty cool site. It lets you highlight the text and, the really cool part, copy it. I was making such slow progress with it, though, that I had to give up and order it through the BPL.

This book pretty much what the title says, a meditation on (US American) discourse constructing the black man as hung. It’s written in the first person, which I think required, to use the metaphor Poulson-Bryant expands upon in the past third of the book, a pretty big dick. He peppers his writing with anecdotes about his own dick and the dicks of guys he knows. Drawing on his career writing for magazines, he’s able to reference a lot of Black NFL and NBA stars, as well as hip-hop and rap artists and draw common links between their sexualization and the sexualization of old movies like “Mandingo,” right through Lexington Steele’s porn.

The writing is pretty good, too, though occasionally self-consciously so. There’s a chapter where he quotes liberally from an old journal, which always kind of bothers me, and the book begins with some references to his college journalism career. Overall, I think I was expecting something a little more academic (more citations, less ancedata), but it was pretty good for what it was: one man’s personal attempts to understand the myth of the big black penis and all it means for him and America.

Here are a few quotes:
A (white) woman, upon seeing his penis, remarks that she thought he’d have a bigger one. “I thought I’d have a bigger dick, too. There was shame in that response but also a nagging question, as in: Why the shame?” (12)

James Baldwin in “Just Above My Head”: “It was more a matter of its color than its size… its color was its size.” (quoted on 14)

Gunnar Myrdal study: White Southerners were asked what Blacks most wanted. They rated intermarriage and sex with whites #1 of 6 options (20)

“The white men who invented America weren’t trying to create a monster to subjugate. They needed a monster against which to measure their own monstrous actions. […] It’s a measuring stick of self-worth, capabilities and fallablities.” (22)

“It’s the men’s magazines that run articles about dick size […] because for so many men, it’s the very definition of who they are.” (23)

“I could cite position papers and speeches and documents detailing the African-American male’s continued status as less than endowed on the economic, social, and political totem poles. But it almost seems to defeat the point because pop-culture-wise, black men are the cream of the crop, the definers of image, and the valued sites of desire and cultural anointment, endowed, as it were, like myths. And maybe, eventually, that’s all we have. Maybe, eventually, that will be our salvation, as America, and not just hiphop, makes its mad dash to the finish line of high capitalism. Maybe, eventually, it is the Michael Jordans and Puff Daddys of our world who will signify what it means to be a black man, who will be the sole signposts to follow along the road to true endowment. Perhaps the myth will hold because there are men like our pop-culture and sports icons who put a face on the American dream of bigness, whether it’s the real financial thing or the big-dicked-ness everyone surmises them to have. Not that Jordan and his crew are immune to adhering to some of the same mythic qualities in the American obsession. “(198)

Page count: 224
Page total: 11,85

5. “The White Boy Shuffle,” Paul Beatty

December 17, 2009 Leave a comment

I didn’t know how to explain this to anyone when I was reading it, so the summary might be sort of disjointed.

This book is highly sarcastic/parodic story following Gunnar Kaufmann, a black teenager raised in an affluent suburb of Santa Monica whose mother decides that he is not getting the authentic black experience and moves the family to the ghetto. Which should give you an idea about the tone this book takes– it’s a witty, scathing critique of racial politics in the US told as a Bildungsroman, much of its criticism predicated around the idea of the “authentic” black experience.

Gunnar is a poet, writing his observations about Black street life on the walls of his neighborhood. The first time he plays basketball, at the age of twelve, he discovers that he can dunk. He doesn’t know enough about the sport to know that this is a feat, but everyone else does. Rapidly, he is pushed into a life of basketball stardom that eventually carries him to BU, which has recently bought its way into the Ivy League. With his new wife, a mail-order bride bought for him by a friend, Psycho Loco, from Japan, he moves into a small Boston apartment. His classmates and professor worship him in his first poetry class. All have read his chapbooks and so overwhelm him with praise that he simply walks home, stripping off his clothes on the street and laying naked with his pregnant wife while his entire class asks him questions about his process.

More when I have the book with me.

Page count: 226
Page total: 961