Book Pairings: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and There There

At any given point in time, I am simultaneously reading a fiction book, a non-fiction book, a graphic novel, and (occasionally) a book of essays as a bedtime read. Non-fiction still takes me a long time to read. I can never shake the feeling that I have to remember everything – as though I have a test to pass afterwards – and sometimes it is difficult for me to really get into non-fiction. It actually took me several *years* to finish reading A People’s History of the United States, and a full 6 months to read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It doesn’t always happen that the fiction I am reading pairs with the non-fiction, but I happened to read the novel There There at the same time that I was reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Bury My Heart is subtitled “An Indian History of the American West” and is one of the most well-known histories of Native Americans. There There is the Pulitzer-nominated novel following a large cast of Native American characters in Oakland. It was interesting for me to get both the factual presentation of the Indian History of the American West, and an emotional portrait of the Indian present in the United States at the same time.

Continue reading “Book Pairings: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and There There”

The Black Body in America: Reflections on “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Since I drive around for work all day, I occasionally find myself somewhere around the city with an awkward amount of time to pass before my next appointment. I often spend this by finding the nearest park or coffee shop to take a quick walk or have half a cup of coffee. Recently, I was downtown with under an hour to spend and decided to stop in the library. Shamefully, I haven’t been to the library in years. Mostly due to a bad habit of buying more books than I can read, I have never been without a book ready at hand to pick up whenever I need something new. Libraries are so much more than just a place to read books for free, though. When I walked into the atrium, there was a temporary art collection on display. Children’s story time was going on among brightly colored cushions. People were doing research on the computers and in the reference section, using the available editing software, or working with the drop-in tutoring that is offered for adults. I even discovered that my library lends out “book club bags” with multiple copies of the same book and a few optional materials for discussion. The last time I went to a library was three and a half years ago to get help writing a resume when moving back to the city from a tiny town up north. However, one of my best friends is a library clerk and, for a while now, I felt that in order to be able to face her guilt-free I needed to patronize my library again.

Inside, I walked around the shelves, feeling a little rush of happiness every time I saw a familiar title that I loved: Paladin of Souls, Middlesex, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Crime and Punishment, Pride and Prejudice, they were all there, but I often fall into the trap of spending time thinking about books wistfully at the expense of actually reading them. I decided to pick up a non-fiction book. I pulled up a LitHub article of “Best Works of Nonfiction of the Decade,” rapidly picked a book from the list, looked up the dewy decimal number in the library catalogue, found it on the shelf, and went to check it out. This is when I had the embarrassing experience of being told my library card had been expired for many years and I still had fines from 2012.

“I’m curious,” I said, “what were the fines for?”

Lolita and The Diary of Anaïs Nin,” said the young man behind the counter.

I never did read that diary, but I remember the beautiful language of Lolita and how it took a very long time for me to finish reading because it made me so sad I had to repeatedly put it down for a pause. They waived the fines, updated my card, and I walked out of the library with a copy of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (I was happy to find that the book was very short – hopefully I would not end up with more late fees.)

I had heard of Ta-Nehisi Coates before, but knew very little about him. Between the World and Me is Coates’s letter to his son about growing up black in America and what that meant for him when navigating family, self-image, education, romance, and – underlying everything – the safety of his physical self at home, on the streets, and in the wider community. We are all permitted to read this, but in writing a letter to his son, Coates is dealing with the perennial issue of parenthood – how do I make sure my kid grows up okay? How can I teach them to stay safe? To respect themselves and others? Which of my values do I try to instill in them? There is an awareness that it is impossible for our children to learn the same lessons in the same ways that we did. Some of the lessons we learned were hard and we want them to be better than that, but how do they learn these important lessons without going through the same trials? Eventually, they will grow to have different views and values, but we hope that they still understand some of the things that are so deeply important to us.

As he tracks his personal growth through childhood, college, early adulthood, and parenthood, the language of his story is poetic. It is this poetic voice that lays Coates’s world open for his son and the rest of us reading to understand his life on a more fundamental level than facts and figures could ever convey. “Poetry aims for an economy of truth—loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts,” Coates says, and he displays this to great effect throughout the book. He is precise, yet emotive and this is what makes Between the World and Me a brilliant read as well as an important one. Continue reading “The Black Body in America: Reflections on “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates”

If You’re a Bird, I’m a Bird: The Beautiful Power of “H Is for Hawk”

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H is for Hawk is a bit of a departure from my normal reading habits since it is a memoir rather than a novel. I had heard high praise of the book and of Helen Macdonald’s writing, which grabbed my attention when it was released in 2014, although I never happened to pick it up. About a year ago I was with a patient of mine in her home and saw H is for Hawk sitting on an end table. “Oh, I’ve heard of this book!” I said. My patient told me she loved it and that she was reading through it for the third time. I was surprised by her enthusiasm and knew this book must be special to her. A couple weeks later, when I said goodbye for the final visit, she gave me the book. “Just promise you won’t let it sit on your shelf – if you don’t read it, pass it on to someone else,” she said. I promised. For a year, I looked at the cover of the book and said to myself that it was on my short list. When the New Year rolled around, I knew its time had come – I either had to read it or give it away. Continue reading “If You’re a Bird, I’m a Bird: The Beautiful Power of “H Is for Hawk””

The Creation of an American Undercaste: Reading The New Jim Crow

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This is a book I have been meaning to read for a while. Several of my friends and acquaintances who I consider intelligent and well-read have recommended it as a very important work. The author, Michelle Alexander, admits that the book is not for everyone: it is written for those who are concerned about race relations in the US and about the marginalization of the black population here. It is, at times, a gut-wrenching read – the sort of thing that makes you feel angry and helpless at the same time. Luckily, Alexander’s writing is clear and moves quickly along, which makes this book easier to read without getting too fatigued.

The New Jim Crow was written back when Barack Obama was still president, before Black Lives Matter became a movement. Perhaps at that time it could have been easy to think that, as a country, we were moving swiftly upward on a steadily improving trend for race relations. Alexander knows differently. It is no secret that our prisons are filled with black men, that black neighborhoods are impoverished, and black families are often fractured. With a quick glance, some are tempted to blame African Americans as individuals or as a culture for their own marginalization in society. Without looking deeper at what brought us to the present day, however, we would come away from our musings tragically misled. Alexander shows throughout the book how mass incarceration is the tool used in America to continue oppression of African Americans after Jim Crow was ended, just as Jim Crow laws were used to maintain an underclass of black people after slavery was abolished.

Prior to reading this book, I assumed that discrepancies in arrests or conviction rates were due entirely to unconscious bias – the “intuitive” assumption that a black man is a “thug” skewing the perception of cops, juries, prosecutors, and judges. For example, I know a number of black people who all have admitted to being stopped for “driving while black” – that is, doing nothing wrong other than looking too suspicious due to the color of their skin. While that certainly plays a big role and contributes to the continued problems of mass incarceration, I was unaware of much of the intentional racism bred into many laws at their inception, and how those laws continue to affect communities today. No matter whether we actively promote these racist systems or simply ignore them in the vain hope that racism can disappear if we are only “colorblind,” by neglecting to fight these systems, we are perpetuating them. The problem is, colorblindness in the face of racial discrimination is just plain blindness. Continue reading “The Creation of an American Undercaste: Reading The New Jim Crow”