Tag Archives: african americans

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, read by Keven Kernerly

Lovecraft Country

Here’s how we came to listen to Lovecraft Country. After approximately 20 attempts of going to the movies with friends collapsed in last-minute mishaps, Kaitlyn and I watched Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele. Get Out was and is our favorite film of 2017– Peele weaves the classic tropes of horror films together to show the endurance and adaptation of racism in America today. Get Out has been a critical and box office break-out success, and HBO spent little time hiring Peele and his Monkeypaw Productions to make a series adapted from Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (2016). So, driving through the mountains of British Columbia and Alberta and cruelly deprived of access to Game of Thrones while camping, Kaitlyn and I decided to listen to the book that will no doubt be our favorite tv show one day soon.

Lovecraft Country is a novel composed of episodic chapters that follow different members of two African American families living in Chicago during the 50s. When Montrose, the father of Atticus, disappears into a notorious sundown town of rural Massachusetts, Atticus, his Uncle (the publisher of the Safe Negro Travel Guide) and a friend, Leticia, embark on a journey to find and save Montrose. They confront the horrors of 1950s Jim Crow and Northern racism, but these horrors blend seamlessly with supernatural horrors that pay homage to the sci-fi stories Atticus, George and Leticia devour in their spare time. The episodes cover a lot of ground; the sinister manor stories (like Get Out), space-travel, haunted houses, creepy doll stuff, transformations, and witchcraft. But in every richly imagined story, it’s the banal violence Jim Crow that cements itself as the most pervasive and dangerous.

Kaitlyn writes that “at first I wasn’t sure about the style of episodic stories, but it worked. It really worked.”

As I am writing this NPR is describing the violent clash of white supremacists and counter-protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia. As both Get Out and Lovecraft Country show, the horror of Jim Crow and racism are the stuff of nightmares, and nightmares alive today.

Availability: COSMOS (Print & Audio)
Review Submitted by:  Shane D. Hall
Rating:  Highly Recommended

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi


This début novel really knocked my socks off. The novel is composed of interlocking stories of two branches of a shared family tree. Two half-siblings are born on the Gold Coast of Africa in the 1700s; one child and her descendants will remain in Africa (for the most part), while the other child is enslaved and sent to North America. The chapters alternate between strands of the family tree as the generations march forward, children becoming parents, lives blossoming or curdling, as personal journeys inevitably crash into the historical forces around them.

The book challenges the reader to consider about the durability and mystery of family ties, as well as the concepts of inherited trauma and institutional racism. The author deftly shows how certain themes, symbols, and objects echo through the generations and across family lines, as the novel is firmly grounded in a sense of place. All of the characters look back to the same place of origin; they live and die under the same sun, they cool themselves in the same waters.

Read earlier reviews of Homegoing on the summer reading blog.

Availability: USMAI, COSMOS, SMCM
Review Submitted by:  Michael Dunn
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: A book from the 2017 Tournament of Books

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

Secrets of Mary Bowser

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen is a based on the life of Mary Bowser, a black woman who spied on the Confederates during the Civil War while working in Jefferson Davis’s home.

I loved reading about her journey from being a slave to becoming an educated woman and then pretending to be a slave so she could help end slavery. Unfortunately despite Mary Bowser being a real person due to her gender and race nothing is really known about her, so the historical accuracy of this book isn’t the highest. I enjoyed reading about her struggle to be an educated black woman in a time when neither of those things were appreciated. I also appreciated that this is a book that is trying to glorify a woman who was an integral part of the Civil War. Finally I enjoyed Mary as a character and the relationships she made with people.

Another good part of the book was how it described the Confederate government and how she managed to evade suspicion by relying on their belief that a black woman wouldn’t be smart or brave enough to spy on them.

However, as much as I loved reading about Ms. Bowser, there is a part of this book I can’t ignore. The woman who freed Mary was named Elizabeth Van Lew (she was a slave to her family and she freed her when she received her inheritance from her father’s death). She was an abolitionist and feminist and became the first female Post Master of Richmond. She was a real historical figure who actually ran the Richmond spy ring that Mary was apart of and that included more than 300 people. I mention this because the book treats her as a self-righteous fool who at first fights for abolition more to spite her family than out of genuine compassion for slaves. She ran a spy ring in real life and yet the book treats her as an idiot whose greatest achievements were actually Mary’s. The reason this bothers me is that it seems almost disrespectful to a woman who fought for the things she believed in and was later ostracized by society because of her differences. An unfortunate truth is that there isn’t a lot of knowledge on what Mary Bowser’s life was like due to her status as a black woman and no one knows what happened to her after the war. Thus it is almost hypocritical for the author to portray Elizabeth in a way that discredits and denies her contributions to the war effort in order to shed light on a woman whose own contributions to the war effort were forgotten about.
I would recommend this book.

Availability: COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Madeline Rivard
Rating:   Recommended

Tuff by Paul Beatty


Published in 2000, this is Beatty’s first novel. [Editor’s note, Paul Beatty’s first novel, The White Boy Shuffle was published in 1996.] Like his Man Booker-award-winning novel, The Sellout (2015), Tuff is a simultaneously hilarious and scathing story about race in “postracial” America. Perhaps because I’m reading it in 2017, I can’t help reading the book as a story of populist politics breaking the two-party system that has long ignored large swaths of America. (But in a way that doesn’t make me want to emigrate to Mars). After narrowly surviving a drug-related shooting, Tuff decides, in fits and starts, to do something different with his life. His real dream is to make a “commercial” film called “Captain Crunch– the Movie” starring Danny DeVito (though he is far more interested in art-house films). He ends up, however, running for City Council.

The book is hilarious– Tuffy and his friends trade razor-sharp wit and philosophical observations about their lives in Harlem as they try one scheme or another to run minor cons, secure living-wage jobs, finish college, or raise their kids. “Acerbic, irreverent, biting, sharp, playful”– pick your literary descriptor for humor as you please, but this book is just flat-out funny. I should mention there’s enough swearing in the book to impress a fleet of sailors, and includes so many uses of the “n-word” that even Huck Finn would blanch or blush.

Availability:  USMAI, COSMOS
Review Submitted by:  Shane D. Hall
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: Book with a one word title.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi


Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi  is one of the books from the 2017 Tournament of Books. This book is essentially about two half sisters and their descendants lives as one becomes rich from the slave trade and remains in Africa and one is forced into slavery in America. The book does this by going back and forth between each lineage and spending only one chapter on each person as main characters. The next time the lineage gets its turn it is instead narrated by the offspring of the last  character. The only problem I have with this book is that it can be hard to determine what time period you are in or how old the chapter character is at the start of each chapter, although after a few pages you can figure out what is going on so it wasn’t too bad.

All of the characters feel incredibly fleshed out and real despite their short time as main characters and I would happily read an entire novel about each of them. The book also has different structures for each person. Some chapters begin in adulthood and only focus on one or two days as the character narrates the story of their life and other chapters start out with adults and spend years with them. Meanwhile some other chapters start when the protagonist is a child. It was very engaging especially when some of the chapters end before the conclusion and you are left wondering what happened to the characters while others play out to their conclusion. Finally some characters reappear as parents in their children’s stories while others, often through the horrors around them, are cut off from their families and we don’t know what happened to them.

The book also deals with several themes including evil being passed from generation to generation, responsibility and guilt. It also asks questions like who is ultimately responsible for the horror of slavery?, are people whose families have done horrible things responsible for them? and how can we piece back the stories of family lineage and history when we might not have details for a lot of it?

Availability: SMCM, USMAI, COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Madeline Rivard
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: Tournament of Books

Read Kaitlyn Grigsby-Hall’s review of Homegoing.

The Death of Denmark Vesey by James Paul Rice

Death of Denmark VeseyThe book’s basic plot is the story of Denmark Vesey, who in 1822 tried to create a slave revolution in Charleston. Denmark Vesey was an actual person who did plot to overthrow the slaveowners. The plot was betrayed before it could happen and based on that information and the title you can probably tell that this doesn’t end well for him. But this leaves the author with a problem, if the main character of your story has their fate determined by history then what will keep the audience invested in the story? To solve this problem Rice adds a 16 year old slave named Lucinda, who isn’t part of the conspiracy but is aware of what is going on and is sympathetic to the rebellion, to the story. Through her the audience can now become invested in her struggle to determine right and wrong. Thus the story is split between Lucinda, Vesey, the white prosecutors and a third person perspective.

Because this book is based on an actual event the historical accuracy is important. Unfortunately it is hard to determine because the trials were kept secret, Vesey never admitted guilt so he didn’t provide details and the Charleston government immediately tried to suppress information about the plot from the general public. The author also claims that Vesey was born in Africa when it is generally accepted that he was born in the Caribbean, although it is possible that this is incorrect. He did however make a point of adding some actual quotes about the trials into the dialogue of the novel.

I enjoyed this book but I will get some parts that bother me out of the way. First the book has a nasty habit of changing perspective in the middle of chapters without any warning or indication of who is currently speaking. It kind of ruins the immersive experience when you have to figure out whose thoughts your reading. Second, a lot of Vesey’s narration comes in the form of a journal where he lays out the details of the plot and who’s involved which he decides to keep despite the fact that he got rid of all the other incriminating evidence, including the names of people involved, when the plot was betrayed. It just seems incredibly stupid from an otherwise intelligent character. The third  problem is that Vesey himself could be viewed as an insulting stereotype created by a white author. While Vesey is an intelligent man who wants to end slavery despite being a free man, which are admirable qualities, he also is portrayed as a violent psychopath. Historically the plan involved murdering slaveowners in order to ensure that all the slaves could escape to Haiti, which can be interpreted multiple ways; the author takes that to mean he wanted to massacre every white person in Charleston including children in order to exterminate them before fleeing to Haiti. The only exception he makes is to allow other men to abduct, enslave (and probably rape) virgin white women who will be taken to Haiti. Also, he often lies to the other people by saying that the White people are planning to massacre them and brings reluctant people into the plot under threat of death. This portrayal does mean that the book can be seen as an endorsement of the racist stereotype of black men being angry, murderous rapists who can’t be trusted. This also undercuts the horror of the trial where he isn’t allowed to question some of the witnesses against him because the reason given, that they are afraid that his followers will murder them if they find out that they testified, is totally justified.

Continue reading

Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and Mother’s Quest by Beth Macy

TruevineThe circus, at the height of its popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, provided an attractive future for many rural adolescents. Independence and a chance to travel were some of the reasons why young people ran away to join the “big top.” For others, however, the circus was a prison, not a liberator.

In 1899, a circus promoter kidnapped young George and Willie Muse, who both had albinism, from a field near their home in Truevine, a small African-American tobacco farming community outside of Roanoke, Virginia. For the following decades, the brothers performed as sideshow attractions, often portrayed as savages, cannibals, or aliens. Circus managers treated George and Willie cruelly, forbidding them from contacting their family and refusing to pay them. The boys were told that their mother was dead, when in reality she was desperately searching for them.

In her book, Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South, Jane Macy explores the story of Willie and George Muse and their mother’s struggle to find the brothers and secure for them a better future. In the 1980s, as a reporter for the Roanoke Times, Macy began hearing rumors about the Muse brothers – “the best story in town.” Interested, Macy befriended the brother’s niece and caregiver, Nancy Saunders. It took nearly two decades for Macy to gain Saunders’ trust. She ultimately began her research and interviews only after Willie’s death in 2001.

Truevine is not just a story of the circus. Although George and Willie’s tale was both fascinating and horrifying, their mother Harriet’s quest for justice was just as compelling. After tracking down her sons, she confronted their circus managers and eventually sued Ringling Brothers for mistreatment and back pay in the 1920s. Her persistence ensured that George and Willie were able to return to the circus on their own terms, with fair wages. I was impressed with Harriet Muse’s bravery in confronting the famous Ringling Brothers during the height of Jim Crow. Truevine is a fascinating story of the South during this period. I highly recommend it.

Availability: COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby-Hall
Rating: Highly Recommended