Hobbs: Robert Peace & Chosen Exile

I decided to catch up on a few NPR Books podcasts and author Allyson Hobbs made me want to read something again. Tales of passing have always held my interest, so it wasn’t hard. I’ve seen Pinkie and both versions of Imitation of Life dozens of times (as if those are the qualifiers). So when Hobbs discussed her new release on NPR, I promised myself that I’d do more research.

A search for Hobbs & NPR, led me to another author with the same last name. Both might be worthy reads:

robertpeaceA heartfelt, and riveting biography of the short life of a talented young African-American man who escapes the slums of Newark for Yale University only to succumb to the dangers of the streets—and of one’s own nature—when he returns home. When author Jeff Hobbs arrived at Yale University, he became fast friends with the man who would be his college roommate for four years, Robert Peace. Robert’s life was rough from the beginning in the crime-ridden streets of Newark in the 1980s, with his father in jail and his mother earning less than $15,000 a year. But Robert was a brilliant student, and it was supposed to get easier when he was accepted to Yale, where he studied molecular biochemistry and biophysics. But it didn’t get easier. Robert carried with him the difficult dual nature of his existence, “fronting” in Yale, and at home.

chosenexileBetween the eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, countless African Americans passed as white, leaving behind families and friends, roots and community. It was, as Allyson Hobbs writes, a chosen exile, a separation from one racial identity and the leap into another. This revelatory history of passing explores the possibilities and challenges that racial indeterminacy presented to men and women living in a country obsessed with racial distinctions. It also tells a tale of loss.

Happy reading, y’all.


Tuesday Teaser: Dark End of the Street

With only 30 pages left in my current read, it’s time to once again consider my next book. I have five titles to choose from, including Lady Sings the Blues and Gone Girl, to name a few. You know, every now and then I like to mix in a little non-fiction to stay balanced. Today’s Tuesday Teaser comes from just such a recent purchase. Read more:

darkendofthestreetLovett was the first of six men to rape Taylor that night. When they finished, someone helped her get dressed, tied a handkerchief over her eyes, and shoved her back into the car. Back on the highway, the men stopped and ordered Taylor out of the car. “Don’t move until we get away from here,” one of them yelled. Taylor heard the car disappear into the night. She pulled off the blindfold, got her bearings, and began the long walk home. A few days later, a telephone rang at the NAACP branch office in Montgomery, Alabama. E.D. Nixon, the local president, promised to send his best investigator to Abbeville. That investigator would launch a movement that would ultimately change the world. Her name was Rosa Parks.

If I don’t read this one next, I’ll definitely read it soon. In the meantime, to learn more about the book, click the cover image or visit the author’s website.

Happy reading, y’all!

Hurston/Wright: Legacy Award Winners

The Hurston/Wright Foundation held it’s annual Legacy Award ceremony last weekend. While I’m not certain as to whether winners received a plaque, certificate, or money, the list of nominees weren’t surprising or unheard of. Fiction nominees included Tayari Jones, National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, Colson Whitehead, and Danzy Senna, to name a few. The fiction and non-fiction award winners are featured below:

Mr. Fox by Helen OyeyemiFairy-tale romances end with a wedding, and the fairy tales don’t get complicated. In this book, the celebrated writer Mr. Fox can’t stop himself from killing off the heroines of his novels, and neither can his wife, Daphne. It’s not until Mary, his muse, comes to life and transforms him from author into subject that his story begins to unfold differently. Mary challenges Mr. Fox to join her in stories of their own devising; and in different times and places, the two of them seek each other, find each other, thwart each other, and try to stay together, even when the roles they inhabit seem to forbid it. Their adventures twist the fairy tale into nine variations, exploding and teasing conventions of genre and romance, and each iteration explores the fears that come with accepting a lifelong bond. Meanwhile, Daphne becomes convinced that her husband is having an affair, and finds her way into Mary and Mr. Fox’s game. And so Mr. Fox is offered a choice: Will it be a life with the girl of his dreams, or a life with an all-too-real woman who delights him more than he cares to admit? (Read an excerpt)

Courage to Dissent by Tomiko Brown-NaginThe Civil Rights movement that emerged in the United States after World War II was a reaction against centuries of racial discrimination. In this sweeping history of the Civil Rights movement in Atlanta–the South’s largest and most economically important city–from the 1940s through 1980, Tomiko Brown-Nagin shows that the movement featured a vast array of activists and many sophisticated approaches to activism. Long before “black power” emerged and gave black dissent from the mainstream civil rights agenda a new name, African Americans in Atlanta debated the meaning of equality and the steps necessary to obtain social and economic justice. This groundbreaking book uncovers the activism of visionaries–both well-known legal figures and unsung citizens–from across the ideological spectrum who sought something different from, or more complicated than, “integration.” Local activists often played leading roles in carrying out the integrationist agenda of the NAACP, but some also pursued goals that differed markedly from those of the venerable civil rights organization. Brown-Nagin discusses debates over politics, housing, public accommodations, and schools. She documents how the bruising battle over school desegregation in the 1970s, which featured opposing camps of African Americans, had its roots in the years before Brown v. Board of Education.

Read more about the finalists and nominees at the Hurston/Wright website. Happy reading, y’all.


How to Be Black: Baratunde Talks Ethnic Names

My name seems simple enough—to me anyway. Trenee. My mother simply added a letter to her own name and there you have it. Her version of junior, but for a girl. Growing up, I’ve heard people add extra letters, abbreviate it, make mama seem ignorant, or totally butcher it. A few examples of this include, Trebay, Treneshalay, Treneeka, Trini, and the dreaded Tra-nay-nay.  How to be Black author Baratunde Thurston feels my pain. He knows what it’s like to have people act like your name is too hard to remember or it’s too ethnic. Again, like Thurston, in classrooms and public spaces when my name is called, I always recognize the strange face and lip contortions as people attempt to say my 6-letter name—three vowels and an accent. Renee with a T. That’s all.

This excerpt from How to Be Black really hits home for me. Thurston shares my exact name-game story. I hope a few others out there will relate:

Chapter One: Where Did You Get That Name?

Barry. Barrington. Baracuda. Bartuna. Bartender. Bartunda. Bartholomew. Bart. Baritone. Baritone Dave. Baranthunde. Bar—. Brad.

This is a representative sample of the world’s attempts to say or recreate my name. For the record, it’s Baratunde (baa-ruh-TOON-day).

I’ve trained for decades in the art of patiently waiting for people to butcher my name. It’s often a teacher or customer service official who has to read aloud from a list. I listen to them breeze through Daniel and Jennifer and even Dwayne, but inevitably, there’s a break in their rhythm. “James! Carrie! Karima! Stephanie! Kevin!” Pause. “Bar—.” Pause. They look around the room, and then look back at their list. Their confidence falters.The declarative tone applied to the names before mine gives way to a weak, interrogative stumbling:

Barry? Barrington? Baracuda? Bartuna? Bartender? Bar-tunda? Bartholomew? Bart? Baritone? Baritone Dave? Baranthunde? Bar—? Brad!!

The person who called me Brad was engaged in the most lazy and hilarious form of wishful thinking, but all the others kind of, sort of, maybe make some sense. This experience is so common in my life that I now entirely look forward to it. Like a child on Christmas morning who hasn’t yet been told that Santa is a creation of consumer culture maintained by society to extend the myth of “economic growth,” I eagerly await the gift of any new variation the next person will invent. Can I get a Beelzebub? Who will see a Q where none exists? How about some numbers or special characters? Can I get a hyphen, underscore, forward slash? Only after letting the awkward process run its public course do I step forward, volunteering myself as the bearer of the unpronounceable label and correct them: “That’s me. It’s Baratunde.”

I love my name. I love people’s attempts to say it. I love that everyone, especially white people, wants to know what it means. So here’s the answer:

My full name is Baratunde Rafiq Thurston. It’s got a nice flow. It’s global. I like to joke that “Baratunde” is a Nigerian name that means “one with no nickname.” “Rafiq” is Arabic for “really, no nickname,” and “Thurston” is a British name that means “property of Massa Thurston.” (Read more . . . )

Happy reading, y’all.


Happy Thanksgiving: Soul Food Books

Well, I don’t get to enjoy the usual Thanksgiving fare here in China, but at least I can talk about a few books that deal with good food from the African American community. These are a few of the titles that were referenced in my current read, Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens. These aren’t cookbooks, but rather, books on why African Americans eat the food we eat and the cultural impacts of such cuisines. So, hold on to that turkey leg and read a few summaries:

Acclaimed cookbook author Jessica B. Harris has spent much of her life researching the food and foodways of the African Diaspora. High on the Hog is the culmination of years of her work, and the result is a most engaging history of African American cuisine. Harris takes the reader on a harrowing journey from Africa across the Atlantic to America, tracking the trials that the people and the food have undergone along the way. From chitlins and ham hocks to fried chicken and vegan soul, Harris celebrates the delicious and restorative foods of the African American experience and details how each came to form such an important part of African American culture, history, and identity. Although the story of African cuisine in America begins with slavery, High on the Hog ultimately chronicles a thrilling history of triumph and survival. The work of a masterful storyteller and an acclaimed scholar, Jessica B. Harris’s High on the Hog fills an important gap in our culinary history.

In 1889, the owners of a pancake mix witnessed the vaudeville performance of a white man in blackface and drag playing a character called Aunt Jemima. This character went on to become one of the most pervasive stereotypes of black women in the United States, embodying not only the pancakes she was appropriated to market but also post-Civil War race and gender hierarchies–including the subordination of African American women as servants and white fantasies of the nurturing mammy. Using the history of Aunt Jemima as a springboard for exploring the relationship between food and African Americans, “Black Hunger focuses on debates over soul food since the 1960s to illuminate a complex web of political, economic, religious, sexual, and racial tensions between whites and blacks and within the black community itself. Celebrated by many African Americans as a sacramental emblem of slavery and protest, soul food was simultaneously rejected by others as a manifestation of middle-class black “slumming.”

Frederick Douglass Opie deconstructs and compares the foodways of people of African descent throughout the Americas, interprets the health legacies of black culinary traditions, and explains the concept of soul itself, revealing soul food to be an amalgamation of West and Central African social and cultural influences as well as the adaptations blacks made to the conditions of slavery and freedom in the Americas. Sampling from travel accounts, periodicals, government reports on food and diet, and interviews with more than thirty people born before 1945, Opie reconstructs an interrelated history of Moorish influence on the Iberian Peninsula, the African slave trade, slavery in the Americas, the emergence of Jim Crow, the Great Migration, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. His grassroots approach reveals the global origins of soul food, the forces that shaped its development, and the distinctive cultural collaborations that occurred among Africans, Asians, Europeans, and Americans throughout history. Opie shows how food can be an indicator of social position, a site of community building and cultural identity, and a juncture at which different cultural traditions can develop and impact the collective health of a community.

Happy Thanksgiving reading, y’all!


Tuesday Teaser: Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens

As people in the States prepare to greedily gobble down delicious delights, I’m currently reading about the women who use to make such possible inside other people’s kitchens year round. No, this isn’t the book that inspired The Help. I’d say this non-fiction read is something more scholarly. Here’s a Tuesday Teaser:

Cooks who did not wish to give away their recipes might give incorrect proportions or directions to people who pushed them. White cookbook writer Marion Flexner told of a family cook named Molly, whom Flexner’s aunt tried to beg for the recipe for her “famous Shredded Apple Pie.” Molly gave her a recipe with ingredients left out and incorrect proportions. Flexner asked Molly why she didn’t give away the recipe and reported Molly’s response in dialect: ‘Lissen chile,’ she said seriously, shaking her finger at me, ‘dat pie is ma specialty—see? Effen Ah gives my receipts to everybody what axes for ’em, what Ah gwine ter hafe lef’ ter surprise ’em wid?’ She put her hand kindly on her arm. ‘Ah’ll give you a piece of advice from an ol’ woman—always keep sumpin’ in reserve what you kin do better’n ennybody else, and don’ share dat secret wid no one.’ Molly realized she had created a very special dish, and she wanted to continue to use that creation for her own advantage.

Happy reading, y’all.


We Were There: Black Veterans

This (late) Veteran’s Day post is in honor of the soldiers who fought for American freedoms that they often weren’t afforded themselves. Name one war or battle involving Americans that didn’t involve a Black American. And while you’re thinking, allow these books to give you a little more knowledge on the topic:

  We Were There: Voices of African American Veterans by Yvone Latty Black Americans have had an ongoing presence in the American military, from the Revolution to the Civil War to Vietnam to the War in Iraq, yet their contributions are often relegated to a footnote of history, if mentioned at all. The recent successes and wide visibility of African Americans in the military — such as those of Colin Powell and Shoshanna Johnson — belie a harsh reality: the Army was segregated until the Korean War. Only in the last fifty years have blacks been allowed to serve in a manner commensurate with both their skills and commitment. Now, in a book that honors their service to their country, more than two dozen veterans and military personnel, including Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, one of the foremost spokespersons to the media on the War in Iraq, speak for themselves and their peers about their experiences — in combat, in the barracks, and in their hometowns after they returned from war. Each profile is accompanied by photographs of the men and women from their days in uniform, as well as specially commissioned contemporary portraits from acclaimed photographer Ron Tarver. With stories of patriotism combined with a determination to overcome obstacles, We Were There is an inspiring account of the extraordinary sacrifices of everyday Americans.


Fighting for America: Black Soldiers-the Unsung Heroes of World War II by Christopher Paul Moore – The African-American contribution to winning World War II has never been celebrated as profoundly as in Fighting for America. In this inspirational and uniquely personal tribute, the essential part played by black servicemen and -women in that cataclysmic conflict is brought home. Here are letters, photographs, oral histories, and rare documents, collected by historian Christopher Moore, the son of two black WWII veterans. Weaving his family history with that of his people and nation, Moore has created an unforgettable tapestry of sacrifice, fortitude, and courage. From the 1,800 black soldiers who landed at Normandy Beach on D-Day, and the legendary Tuskegee Airmen who won ninety-five Distinguished Flying Crosses, to the 761st Tank Battalion who, under General Patton, helped liberate Nazi death camps, the invaluable effort of black Americans to defend democracy is captured in word and image. Readers will be introduced to many unheralded heroes who helped America win the war, including Dorie Miller, the messman who manned a machine gun and downed four Japanese planes; Robert Brooks, the first American to die in armored battle; Lt. Jackie Robinson, the future baseball legend who faced court-martial for refusing to sit in the back of a military bus; an until now forgotten African-American philosopher who helped save many lives at a Japanese POW camp; even the author’s own parents: his mother, Kay, a WAC when she met his father, Bill, who was part of the celebrated Red Ball Express.


Hidden Heroism: Black Soldiers in America’s Wars by Robert Edgerton – In Hidden Heroism, Robert Edgerton investigates the history of Afro-American participation in American wars, from the French and Indian War to the present. He argues that blacks in American society have long-suffered from a “natural coward” stereotype that is implicit in the racism propagated from America’s earliest days, and often intensified as blacks slowly received freedom in American society. For instance, blacks served admirably in various wars, returned home after their service to short-term recognition, and then soon found themselves even more seriously entrenched in a racist system because they were perceived as a threat to whites. This was true, Edgerton argues, until the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam, though the stereotypes have not been fully eradicated. In this book, Edgerton provides an accessible and well-informed tour through this little-known, but significant aspect of race in American military history.


American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm by Gail Lumet Buckley – A dramatic and moving tribute to the military’s unsung heroes, American Patriots tells the story of the black servicemen and women who defended American ideals on the battlefield, even as they faced racism in the ranks and segregation on the home front. Through hundreds of original interviews with veterans of every war since World War I, historic accounts, and photographs, Gail Buckley brings these heroes and their struggles to life. We meet Henry O. Flipper, who withstood silent treatment from his classmates to become the first black graduate of West Point in 1877. And World War II infantry medic Bruce M. Wright, who crawled through a minefield to shield a fallen soldier during an attack. Finally, we meet a young soldier in Vietnam, Colin Powell, who rose through the ranks to become, during the Gulf War, the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Fourteen years in the making, American Patriots is a landmark chronicle of the brave men and women whose courage and determination changed the course of American history.

Thank you, veterans. Happy reading y’all!