When They Call You A Terrorist: A Review

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When They Call you a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir isn’t like most memoirs. The emphasis, despite the title, is not solely on the BLM movement, instead, it builds the reason for creation and existence BLM through the life experiences of the co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors.

As it is not my practice, commonly, to give a synopsis of the book or provide spoilers that may deter interested readers, I will keep it simple and to the point. Khan-Cullors approach to the creation of this highly respected and equally controversial movement (funny how hue-man movements for the amelioration of a people is tainted with adjectives of anxiety) is in direct response to injustices that span beyond the color spectrum. When They Call You a Terrorist is larger than a title, it touches, without apology or stammer, the core of discrimination, both riotous and subdued, that affects the lives of nearly every life, deemed different, on the tree of humanity.

It is said that we fear what we don’t understand. Since the 1865 emancipation of enslaved Africans and people of African descent, there has been a consistent effort to eliminate the African race or traces of the race, by way of intimidation, deception, denigration, incarceration, and murder. For decades, even to this day, a sector of society is directly ostracized and openly isolated by some of the most abusive practices imaginable. Only the color of skin, their choice of who to love, and the God they understood was enough to make them the dregs of “proper Christian” society, by those who worshipped flags and burned crosses. Through the years, and one century later, the rights of people of African descent (and other who felt or were disenfranchised) came to a head and erupted for the world to see. Still, decades later, the rights of people considered different, remained in the forefront of the American psyche and the hue-man efforts branched off in directions the ruling parties were not prepared to deal with. This is what gave birth to Patrisse Khan-Cullors, whose memoir is revealing, exciting and sometimes confusing (in a nature versus nurture sort of way). And they called them terrorists.

Khan-Cullors, who is a very talented writer, was able to seamlessly blend the complexities of being an emotional automaton and a formidable force. The killings of innocent people by police, the discrimination against the LBGTQ community, and the “turn the other cheek” decisions of elected officials started the clearly missioned but intentionally misrepresented (by those who wanted to besmirch the cause) organization/ movement, BLM.

The book is magic even if its heavy biographical content dominates. It is a history lesson that may never appear in a textbook or on an SAT exam, but can never be hidden or destroyed. It is the single most recognized movement in current history and the reason that so many others, who remained silent for ions, are now raising their voices and donning warrior gear.

Read When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, not for those things that are easily seen, but for the content that encourages you to think. Take from it more than Patrisse intended. Like Black Lives Matter, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, is the blueprint of what’s to come.

 

Same Kind of Different As Me: A Review

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There are occasions when a reader is drawn to a book because of its title, cover or both. The contents become secondary, practically an after-thought. But it is the title and cover, in its complexity or simplicity… that often clinches the deal. Oddly, and perhaps only in my sensibilities, this applies (in its simplicity) to Ron Hall and Denver Moore’s book, Same Kind of Different as Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together.

With an awkwardly handwritten and excessively descriptive title, coupled with a muted and arid but luminous drab pale yellow ,  Same Kind of Different as Me,  could be told by scanning the cover without ever reading a word. The addition of an older Black man, a railroad crossing sign implying more than transportation (being from the other side of the tracks, perhaps?), a lone structure that could be a house and an empty landscape all effectively symbolize details to be found in the story. But beyond the cover, the words are stunning. The collective story is profound. The messages of life, love, and humanity, peppered with historically significant events, although often wordy, are as clear as confessions of sin.

I opted for the audio book version of Same Kind of Different As Me, certain that there would be — through the dramatic inflections of the human voice — greater authenticity in the telling of the story, and to undoubtedly heighten my appreciation for the depth of the tragedy and triumphs that the characters and their individual tales bestowed.  I wasn’t wrong.  I wasn’t disappointed. The audio book catapulted the story beyond expectation and heightened my visual.

Same Kind of Difference as Me is the story of Denver Moore, a Black man, whose personal perils and melancholy filled life are directly attributed to the color of his skin and the emptiness of his pocket, Ron Hall, a very successful art dealer, and Ron Hall’s wife, Beth, both of whom are cast as philanthropic humanitarians, initially more for self gratification (but, it seems, not in an insincere manner) and later by way of “spiritual” awakening. This is the story about being vastly different in an America that promises equality, and how those differences are so clear they have become practically invisible. It is the story of the second oldest form of segregation in the entire world: money, and how the wealthy and the impoverished view each other as different species.

The reader will  find that Denver Moore’s narratives were considerably more engaging than the others. This is not to say that the other characters lacked any of the nuances that would make for a spirited and riveting tale, but Moore’s stories were filled with the emotion only a walk through the fires of hell can produce. It was felt. I felt it. The opportunity to walk in his blister causing shoes hit a nerve, over and over again, as his stories pulled from the depths below where the rocks gathered, and his honest confrontations with sorrow, tragedy, bad luck and self-imposed alienation in immeasurable abundance, were his cause de rigueur against those who offered help and his general lack of trust. There are points within in the book where Denver openly describes himself as an opposing figure, an ogre, the unapproachable beast, emotionless and pitifully satisfied with his view of how the world views him (my words). This self view proves more penetrable than even he seemed to expect, as he lives the life he seeming felt he deserved.

To be honest, there were many questions not adequately answered; many beyond the contents within the book and maybe this is why a second book (What  Difference Do it Make?) was quick to follow (I have not yet read this book — and may not at all). I couldn’t help but question if Denver became another piece of art for Ron(after a personal tragedy) or a cash cow whose story could pull, ideally, at the heart strings of sympathetic country (just reread the title of Ron’s second book); a way for Ron Hall to make money through a story that he could only imagine based on the reality of another’s impecunious sorrow . I may be digging deeper than necessary, but it was Ron who open that Pandora’s box  as he also questioned the initial sincerity of his friendship with Denver toward the end of the story.

Still I’d say read or listen to  Same Kind of Different As Me, I’d like to know what you think and if you got from it any of what I did.

(Audiobook is highly recommended!!!)

 

The Man YOU Made–To Dad on His Birthday

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Dear Dad,

Happy birthday!

Man, when God made you, the mold was definitely broken. All I can say is that I am glad to know that I am a part of that mold. So, here’s the strange part,  despite the fact that I talk to you several times a day, every day, I hardly know where to begin without sounding commercial, forced or trite, so I will just start by saying, thank you.   I know you always tell me that I don’t have to give you thanks, but you do understand where I’m coming from and why I am coming from that direction. You know that through the years I have seen boys and men who have had no father to thank. So, I, Joey Bean-Head, with immeasurable appreciation, am thanking you.

I want to thank you for what some may see as common, expected, or the responsibility of a father. I don’t know what that means: common, expected, or the responsibility of a father.  You fulfilled our expectations and nothing about you is or has ever been common, but everything about you is father. In my eyes, for all of my life, you have been more: a superhero, a disciple, a Giant! from the expanse of your chest, your confident gait, or the unselfish giving of your heart. Oh Captain, my Captain! You are what no other man could ever be, and what many fathers never took time to become. I am working on becoming ….

You were young when I was born, barely out of childhood yourself, yet in the eyes of an infant, you were monumental. You gave me your name. I honor that and carry our name proudly. I remember how safe I felt, how I knew, regardless of what the world projected, that no harm would fall upon me, that no demon dared set foot or claw in our den. I hold memories of those days, memories that perhaps should have been forgotten by a child of three or four, but for reasons that I cannot explain, they remain, vividly. I remember growing with you, maturing as you further matured, in awed by your strength and your passion for the unseen, later evidenced by what you accomplished. You said it and it appeared. You promised it and it became.  I remember being taught how to cut grass (“follow the lines made by the wheel!”), prune trees, plant flowers, build fences (or try) and make BIG ASS fires in metal trash cans.

Through the years (I call them my war years) I grew more complex, feeling at one point that I didn’t even know myself. I wanted for nothing, yet here I was. I was sixteen, maybe seventeen, my heart betrayed me as my forever love said love wasn’t forever, at least not hers. I thought myself smart, talented, athletic, a trifecta that would be irresistible, but that wasn’t, at that time, supposed to be, at least not with her.

I came home from school that day, broken, after wandering through the streets enshrouded in an impenetrable fog. It was warm. The sun was bright. The scent of Jasmine perfumed the air. Birds sang so beautifully that the Angels hushed to listen. To the rest of the world, life was joyous, but for me, my universe was in shambles. I remember little about what happened when I got home. For reasons forever mysterious, I was drawn to the bathroom. When I entered I collapsed on the floor and trembled, curled in a fetal position, tears streaming down my face and neck, wails calling out to God. The door was closed but as I lay there, confessing that life was no longer worth living, contemplating how I’d end this excruciating pain, you entered, still dressed in your uniform. I don’t remember what you said, or if you said anything at all, but I do remember feeling your warmth, as you lowered yourself in a tiny clearing next to me on that floor of Tremble, and embraced me until the chill waned. I thought I heard you whisper:

Now if you feel that you can’t go on (can’t go on)
Because all of your hope is gone (all your hope is gone)
And your life is filled with much confusion (much confusion)
Until happiness is just an illusion (happiness is just an illusion)
And your world around is crumbling down, darlin’…

(Reach out) Reach out for me…

I’ll be there with a love that will shelter you
I’ll be there with a love that will see you through…

You gave me a part of your soul that day. No one was ever to know and we never spoke of it again and life went on. And I knew on that day I was given undeniable confirmation that you were more than just my dad.

There were many similar stories as the years progressed. You accepted my sensitivities, made me accept my failures, encouraged my passions, and fed me with the fuel of brilliance. You let me know that there will always be people who wouldn’t understand my drive, try to discourage my dreams, hope to break my spirit, and project their self-hatred in my direction. You spoke of naysayers spitting fire in your path, but how the water on your soles kept the fires extinguished. I, too, now have well-earned soles of water extinguishing their fires.

Dad, I, in this letter, am trying to recall everything that you provided to ensure that I would live a life of satisfaction. I am hoping to remember so I can share those memories in several hundred more pages, with my daughter, my nieces and nephews, and people who approach me with curiosity, but even that would prove insufficient.  A million words would only touch the surface of who you are and what you are. But I do see that look from my child; that same look that I used to give you when I was her age; the look of amazement and awe, love and assurance. I never thought I could walk in your footsteps, but I realized that you never wanted me to. You instead encouraged that I create my own, and when I ventured into a world I didn’t know, surrounded by people whose language I did not speak, I knew I was making you proud.

So, here I am, humming your favorite tune, looking in the mirror at a facsimile of your face, enamored by the thought that your DNA is in two generations and that each time I sign my name I also sign yours. Today I pay great tribute to you on the day you broke the mold. I will continue your journey because I know that next to your giant footsteps, perhaps a bit smaller, and not as sure, are mine.

Love you Dad! Happy Birthday.

Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home — A REVIEW

“Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home,” by Sheri Booker, was introduce to me before I saw the cover. What I read is perhaps that most unique memoir I have come across in a very long time.

Set in Baltimore, “Nine Years…” addresses “life” in the funeral business, but it twists, turns, and journeys beyond the normal expectations of death and gore. It takes the reader into a depth that is unexpected, applying a level of storytelling that is both telling and profound, and that is very welcoming.

Part confessional, part biography, “Nine Years Under…” opens, a few pages in, with the death of Booker’s aunt.  This experience evolves into the unexpected, unpredicted, and ‘unlikely’ undertakers’ Odyssey for fifteen-year-old Booker. Alfred Wiley, the proprietor of Wiley funeral home, sees something special in young  Booker, and oddly, offers her employment (it took a while to understand offering a funeral home job to a fifteen-year-old), and she rises, profoundly, to the occasion. Sheri becomes a sort of protégé in the world of embalming and reconstruction, learning every aspect of the business (she began and remained in the business office for years before she started working on bodies) and letting it shape her into someone she certainly would not have been otherwise.

Throughout the book, Booker prepares the reader for something unexpected. Each page climbs to uncertain destinations. She colors the story with characters that seem almost surreal and often immense. The image of a funeral home is unhinged as she writes of mourners holding their own “form of ceremony” and of fights that spill over into the street in front of the funeral home and the brutal death of personal acquaintances whose lifeless bodies become clients. She lets us into her heart, and into the often complex personalities of her characters. Booker, for example, nails the sometimes tyrannous personality of Alfred Wiley, creating him with broad no-nonsense strokes insisting on uncompromising loyalty and unquestioned commitment, even if he refuses to reciprocate the same (when firing someone he says, “leave the keys”). She confesses a sort of unrequited love for the son of Wiley, but dart strategically through the details, so we are left to wonder the actual depth of their relationship. She does, however, profess the eventual realization that the Booker / Wiley affair was a love that was never meant to be. But even there, it seemed that she held back the details.

The book has magic and equally some moments that feel self-serving, but it does entertain, and it does reveal many unknowns. “Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home” answers questions that many may refuse to ask about funeral homes and the business, and it makes Sheri Booker translucent. Nine Years… is part history lesson, part sit-com, but all a lesson of life, loyalty, love, and death. A worthy read, from a special talent.

The Hate U Give — A Review

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Like a comet, in the form of her debut and NYT best-selling novel, The Hate U Give,  author Angie Thomas rocketed across a haunting and darkened sky leaving a trail of light a mile long. In the first chapter, the reader senses a developing conflict, anticipating the revealing of the unknown. What better way to dive into the deep end of the emotional abyss than a party?  The public flossing and social adoration of the 464-page multifaceted work of fictitious realism made me wonder if it was honest to its premise: The police shooting of an unarmed African-American boy based on that officer’s fear (sound familiar?). Admirably, Thomas, who is from Mississippi, pulls no punches, on either side of this deleterious event and (re)opens the emotional wounds that African-Americans were confronting even as the book was in its early stages of composition. She keeps it real, from the opening lines: “There are just some places where it’s not enough to be me,”  and intended or not, this simple line becomes the ever-evolving, multi-meaning theme of the novel.

Angie Thomas pulls from a place deep and familiar. At times her words are transcendent, beyond storyteller; becoming a universal conversation. It is abundantly clear that Thomas invested more than research in the producing of this novel, she pours her soul into it. She, thankfully, did not bombard and bull-rush us with one-dimensional rebellious banter, as easy and, perhaps, enticing as it may have been, but instead invited us to those pivotal moments and events as they were unveiled. She made us feel the pain of the bullet; the searing heat from the lies and cover-ups, the complexities of familial love, and the riotous, ravenous nature of a community. She pulled magically from her experience, producing characters that walked the streets she’d ambled upon ( i.e.,. Fo’ty Ounce), the same streets we may have walked upon all across this country. We know them.  We love, hate, and sometimes fear them. But Thomas accurately reminds us that they are our familiar.

There will be many moments when the reader feels that they are no longer reading The Hate U Give, but hypnotically experiencing the panic and chaos, the conflict and affection, the challenges and disappointments that spring from the pages; breathing in the burn and scorching their lungs.   It was certain that Thomas intended this to be the desired reaction and it was done beautifully.

When Starr, the narrator, and 16-year-old powerhouse, is made to walk through the maze between community loyalty or honor to her friend,  she treads lightly, but decisively. Her goal to make certain that the officer who shot and killed her friend, Khalil, is exposed and pays for the devastation of his crime. During an understood, but relatively undisclosed period of time, Starr grapples with the decisions she has to make. She wisely decides to hide her identity (as the ‘other’ passenger in the car) to avoid conflict from a multitude of parties hell-bent on justice, chaos, or honesty. Her world is turned upside down, and her awareness of the truth of social injustices beyond the judicial system peeks. As she begins to understand, so does the reader. We begin to reflect upon the lives Black men killed by police officers, from Eleanor Bumpurs to, most recently, Charleena Lyles.  Gotta applaud Thomas for stepping into a place that is hard for society to find (and agree upon) common ground.

Read this haunting, brilliant, necessary, and honest novel! One of the best “layered” reads to date.

A Review of Bernice McFadden’s “Sugar”

 

Title: Sugar: A Novel

Author: Bernice L. McFadden:

Hardcover: 240 pages

Publisher: Dutton Adult (January 10, 2000)

Bernice McFadden’s first novel, Sugar, encapsulates the elements that exemplify the making of a classic. This is not to say that it was perfect, for that would be pretentious on my part, but it was arguably a guaranteed page turner that you hoped would last just a little while longer. As a debut, Sugar did not lack any of the many elements we have come to know and love about McFadden’s storytelling style or her imaginative, colorful, and captivating characters. But the tale, even with its twists, was simple – direct with less density than, let’s say, The Book of Harlan (one of my favorite novels). Stylistically, it was as vivid, engaging, and captivating —  unmistakably McFadden.

Set in Bigelow, Arkansas, Sugar takes the reader on a heartfelt journey through poetic pain and the lives of Sugar Lacey and Pearl Taylor (primarily), and a host of others (secondarily). Sugar’s deleterious childhood, overwhelmed by scars and filled with a level of isolation that steals her youth and ultimately her identity, contributes to the creating of the wayward woman she becomes.

Pearl, we learn early in the novel, struggles with her own isolation, but unlike Sugar’s, hers is involuntarily self-imposed, developed after the tragic and brutal murder of her daughter, Jude. This isolation is not so much about staying out of the company of others (she finds both companionship and solace in church), or even being an effective mother to her other children (Seth, her son, speaks on this point in a single but precise statement later in the book), as it is about withdrawing into herself. 

Pearl’s actions and personality scream depression but McFadden is careful not to label her, allowing the emotional wave we ride with Pearl to reveal, by layer, her quiet but obvious struggle. This internal conflict catapults Pearl into a place from which she cannot easily escape until Sugar crosses her path forming and firming an unusual friendship and, progressively, the voids they’ve carried are seemingly filled.

Sugar Lacey is bold, worldly, mysterious and irresistible. She is a woman equally desired and hated, caught, it seems, in a complex network of interconnected (and interlocking) elements, surviving the only way she knows how, by giving pleasure, yet seems to have relegated herself undeserving of joy. She is a vassal to the highest bidder, a beast of burden, a mannequin sans emotions, and as such she receives nothing but a womb filled with frustration. But despite her transgressions and unsavory nonchalance,  she has a heart longing, from the child she never was, for unconditional love.

Sugar reinvents Pearl, rebuilding the confidence she sorely lacked and the sexiness she secretly, seemingly, yearned for. She takes Pearl from mundane to magnificent, while Joe, Pearl’s husband who would object to this rebirth (and perhaps revelation) or so we are made to believe, is out of town (his reaction shortly after his return dismisses all assumptions, including Pearl’s). The elements of resurrection (the church is an important “character”) develop almost seamlessly throughout the book and the conflicts are broad but not alarming or distasteful; they are real and familiar.

Sugar, as a novel, is multitudinous — an impassioned vision, seething with hope and finishing with unexpected confessions, familiar brutality and wow factor discoveries. It would make for an amazing movie, an incredible television series or Broadway-worthy stage play (think The Color Purple). I was enveloped by Bernice McFadden’s voice, slowly consuming each chapter and resting a day before beginning the next.  I am that kid waiting for her upcoming creations with bated breath and wondrous anticipation. Read Sugar, and you’ll understand. I promise.