Given the hour, and my commitment to always posting on Monday, I wanted to make a post–even if it has to be quite brief. Thus, my recommendation for living in opposition to mainstream assumptions regarding what it means to live a good life is that you READ over the Thanksgiving break. Here are some of my suggestions:
Ravi Howard, Like Trees, Walking. This narrative elegantly commemorates the crude lynching of Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama on March 21, 1981. Usually, I don’t read fiction before history but in this case, I was interested in Howard’s experience of this event as an Alabama native and how he used fiction to represent what history cannot. After listening to an interesting NPR interview with Howard, I was convinced that I wanted to read his debut novel before reading B.J. Hollars’s creative non-fiction account of the Donald lynching in Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America.
In talking to a dear friend and thoughtful, engaging, and very accomplished poet, I shared my recent discovery of Marilyn Nelson’s brilliance. Though I started with her award winning book, A Wreath for Emmett Till before moving on to the award winning, Carver: A Life in Poems, I recommend starting with another award winning work, Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem. I suggest this as a starting point because it was only this year that Mr. Fortune was finally given a proper burial. Until now, his cadaver has been used by Dr. Porter, the slave holder who once held Fortune captive in life, to use in medical training and study. Mr. Fortune’s skeleton remained in the Porter family for four generations before being donated to the Mattatuck Museum and placed on exhibit there in 1940 and remained on display until the 1970s. Thus far, I haven’t read any work that makes a connection between Mr. Fortune and Sara Baartman, his death in 1798 pre-dates her birth by nine years. They share the story of being used for “scientific advancement” and their remains being subject to public exhibition. Baartman was finally returned to her birthplace in South Africa and buried in 2002, thus pre-dating Fortune’s 2013 burial in a formal ceremony at the church where he was baptized (I’ve read the Crais and Scully book on Baartman that extends the essay hyperlinked above and I highly recommend it).
What I find truly provocative with respect to Nelson’s poetry is that it’s directed towards a pre-adolescent- young adult audience! The sophistication, complexity, and beauty suggests great respect for the intellectual ability of young readers. In addition to her rich poetry, a reader comes away with a profound sense of how much contemporary education insults the capacity of young people to read, reflect, and think in complex, sophisticated ways.
Given my keen interest in 1963 as an interesting and significant year in American history, most of my non-fiction reading has been about John F. Kennedy. If you have an e-reader, I recommend the Kindle single, The Kennedy Baby: The Loss that Transformed JFK (cost: $2.99). The work centers on the death of Patrick Bouvier Kennedy who died August 9, 1963. What I find most interesting about much of what is written about the Kennedy’s is how this work ignores aspects of JFK’s experience of the triumphs and tragedies of the human condition alongside the catastrophic losses black American families faced during the same year. To that end, rarely do mainstream accounts of JFK’s life, loss, and assassination engage facets of his experiences alongside the June 12, 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers and its impact on his widow, and their anguished son, for example. Life magazine used a moving photograph of Myrlie Evers comforting her grieving son, Darrell Kenyatta Evers, at his father’s June 15th funeral. In addition, there’s no mention of how JFK’s loss impacted his experience of the horrific loss that six black American families faced in the aftermath of the Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963.
I also recommend Vanity Fair’s commemorative issue of the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. While the articles, which are mostly excerpts from previously published books, are clearly invested in glamour of JFK, his wife, and their heirs I found the unremarked ugliness informing these articles striking. From Jacqueline Kennedy telling William Manchester that she would “ruin” him because he would not agree to accommodate her firm attempt to halt the publication of his book (which she had not initially read, and shifted this task to her personal secretary; upon reading the work years later, she called it “Fascinating”) to Caroline Bassett Kennedy referring to Sean “Puffy” Combs as a “thug,” no one appears to acknowledge their behavior and their characterizations as ugly, elitist, and racist though it seems obvious to me.
Continuing with this Kennedy theme, I recommend watching Letters to Jackie, the TLC work based on historian Ellen Fitzpatrick’s book of the same title. I have this book, and I’ve read most of it, but from what I’ve read so far, there’s not a moment in it where Fitzpatrick acknowledges the ugliness informing some expressions of grief in our violent culture. For example, Diane McWhorter admits that when someone came into her class at Brooke Hill School for Girls with the grim news that JFK had been shot, some “people cheered.” One of the articles in the Vanity Fair commemorative issue on JFK also offers an example of the gleeful response of some people in Dallas who opposed Kennedy. To that end, one of William Manchester’s discoveries for his book, The Death of a President, “[revealed] that in a wealthy Dallas suburb, when told that President Kennedy had been murdered in their city, the students in a fourth-grade class burst into applause.”
O.K., that’s all I’ve got. What are you reading or planning to read during this time of thanksgiving? I know one thing I won’t be doing: shopping for “Black Friday” sales 🙂