My summer reading list
SUMMER 2013 READING
“There is no beach reading on this list,” quipped a friend when I asked if she could make heads or tails of my summer reading list. This comes as no surprise: the winter of 1979 I took Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism by Mary Daly on a vacation to Jamaica.
I actually did go to the beach this summer while the celebrations of fiftieth anniversaries of Civil Rights events were in full media swing. The stories of the 1963 August 28th, March on Washington for Jobs and Justice followed by the September 15th’s bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama kept these stories alive, brought people together in the 2013 marches.
Michelle Norris wrote in Time Magazine, September 2, 2013, “One thing I have come to realize during this summer retrospective is that the equality King called for involves not physical terrain but the geography of the mind.” She founded the NPR Race Card Project where you may submit a six-word description of your experience with race, ethnicity, or cultural identity to be posted on the Race Card Wall. One card sent by Rondrea Danielle Mathis reads, “We wanted equality. We got integration.”
There is deep disappointment at the seeming lack of progress over the past fifty years. Integration has not meant equality even with the election of a biracial President and the appointment of two women to the Supreme Court. Instances of injustice continue, and I want to understand why. You’ll notice the copyrights of my summer reading books range from 1949 – 2013. You’ll notice the themes are identity, home, searching heart and soul to understand what divides people and what sustains them.
Learning is key to interrupting hate. Marion Dane Bauer cites a friend in the introduction to the anthology Am I Blue? Coming out from the Silence (1994) that I often ponder when my faith in learning wavers, “I have never met a bigot who was a reader as a child.” I needed to believe in that antidote to bigotry, especially this summer, reminded as we were of 1963 as the 2013 headlines read: July 13th in the New York Times: “Zimmerman is acquitted in Trayvon Martin Killing.” On August 27th again in the New York Times: “ 21 year-old intern for Harlem design house Ay’ Medici, Islan Nettles, beaten to death in an apparent hate crime toward transsexuals.”
“Why can’t people just love one another?” my students from ages 17-62 plead. I’m always searching for the answer. My summer books range from textbooks to memoir. The authors are journalists, academics, theater and literary types. You may wonder why Alexander Fuller is here. Her parents’ story of expatriation offers another view on race and class dynamics. James Baldwin joined the American expatriates in Paris in a search of freedom from hostilities in the U.S. Lillian Smith and John Howard Griffin were exiled from their local communities—philosophically and in Griffin’s case, physically. They seemed a random collection as I read them, but when I think about all of these books together, now that summer is giving way to autumn, a real sense of continuity appeared as the themes filtered together.
History is only current events in hindsight. What happened fifty years ago is still happening today. Each movement for social justice teaches the next one, but the need to insist and struggle for equal rights is constant. In this is my sense of the continuity between the books I read this summer. A movement is a gathering of individual people designing and building change at all levels of our society. We see though the historic record how the Labor Rights Movement taught the Civil Rights Movement and the Movement to end the war in Vietnam taught the Gay and Women’s Rights movements. We need to keep moving. Our next focus, as I see it, is the quest to dismantle rape culture. The headlines put us on notice. Rape culture cuts across all lines of rich and poor, young and old, heterosexual and homosexual, male, female and transgender. We’ve got to end the glorification of guns and sexual violence.
So here is what I’ve been reading in preparation to teach and to live in these times, which are teeming with teaching moments. In my summer reading list I found a counterbalance to despair: hope and understanding.
Baird, Vanessa. (2007). The No-Nonsense Guide to Sexual Diversity. Oxford, UK: New Internationalist Publications, Ltd.
Vanessa Baird has compiled a concise international LGBT history and explanations of non-heterosexual expression and oppression. There have been many changes in legislation since publication yet ferocious acts of gendered and sexualized violence occur regularly around the globe. Different gender expression and sexual desire ought not provoke forensic overkill.
Baird cites Paul Cameron, Founder of the Family Institute in the United States as saying, “‘If all you want is the most satisfying orgasm you can get,’ then homosexuality becomes ‘too powerful to resist.’ Marital sex, he says, ‘tends toward the boring end’” (p. 86). This offers a very different point of view as to the core of homophobia. The emotional and economic lives of men and women shift when dependencies are altered by same sex love. This shakes up a society built on hetero-normative expectations. This is such a danger zone for traditionalists and consequently for those who do not conform.
James Baldwin. (1956). Giovanni’s Room. New York: Delta Books.
James Baldwin grew up in Harlem as the Harlem Renaissance was waning and the Civil Rights Era waxing. Baldwin fled the racial and homosexual discrimination of the United States and took up residence abroad. He returned to the US to advocate for civil justice believing this was “the latest slave rebellion.” His second novel, Giovanni’s Room, describes the gnawing pains of protagonist David, as he struggles with internalized and external homophobia. He attempts bisexuality as he negotiates his love of men under the guise of heterosexuality. Paris expatriates from many countries populate the novel as David searches for his identity and in the end, betrays his heart and his lover, Giovanni.
Ruth Behar. (2013). Traveling Heavy: a memoir in between journeys. Durham: Duke University Press.
Ruth Behar is a Yiddish-Sephardic-Cuban-American anthropologist, an immigrant, a professor, and compassionate observer. She writes of her search for identity as she constantly returns to the island she had to leave as a child. Her freedom to travel is in sharp contrast to the stasis of those on the island who can’t so easily leave. Behar’s American students bask under her guidance in their Cuban semesters, finding their own meaning while their teacher continues to search for pieces of her life puzzle. Behar visits friends around the world who have left Cuba, those thrust into exiles’ limbo, searching for work in country after country, searching for home while Behar boards another plane. She is always traveling.
“Memory, however, is volatile, slippery; we tie it down, as the classical orators did, by linking it to places, sites” (81), she wrote in The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart (1996). She is still trying to tie things down.
Delgado, Richard and Jean Stefancic. (2012). Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. Second Edition. New York: New York University Press.
Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic defy the usual obtuse nature of theoretical writing and offer the hugely systematic and day-to-day pragmatism of Critical Race Theory. This introduction puts into perspective the legal, economic, feminist, and philosophical nature of power and the construction of social roles we all are subjected to in contemporary American life. Everyone has overlapping identities; sometimes conflicting identities. We each are a wild kaleidoscope of biological and social aspects. The particles of our being are those we are born with, born into, and those we are influenced by as children– and those we can change (or know we are pressured by) as our awareness develops.
As we align the fragments and colors in the kaleidoscope we come to see how our nation racializes different groups in different ways at different times. (Consider the exotic Aladdin and the magical genie as they become evil Middle Eastern terrorists after 9/11/2001.) How do we learn to listen to all voices, search for all sides of the story? Where do we get the news and from whose point of view is it written? If your son or daughter is in the courtroom—how will the verdict be decided? Challenging our privileges, preconceptions and world-view can only create a more fair and just future for us all. Understanding how our legal, social, political and personal systems are racialized allows us to make choices to initiate and advocate for change.
Fisher, Emily S. & Komosa-Hawkins, Karen. (Eds). (2013). Creating Safe and Supportive Learning Environments: A Guide for Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Youth and Families. New York: Routledge.
The editors have assembled a truly accessible collection of essays that are mercifully concise and deeply compelling. We are well informed about the queer historic landscape and adolescent development issues for LGBTIQ youth. The L and the G kids have a more developed support system than the T and I youth, who are still on the fringe of most people’s understanding. The Q, it turns out, are extremely vulnerable because they haven’t landed in a group where support and acceptance reside. What to do with the transgender Kindergartener? Teachers get ready! Consider lining them up for recess by the color of their socks rather than the traditional gender binary.
Pushing the gender envelope causes great distress. Hippies in the Sixties were harassed for their long hair but they were not necessarily transgressing gender lines. The fluidity of gender for youth today defies all prior prescriptions for “boy” or “girl.” It is a very exciting era and it can also be murderous. There is so much creativity and joy in the possibilities. Part Two offers Applications in Schools and Communities. Parents and teachers need support for understanding their LGBTQI kids in order to provide safe learning and growing environments. This is thrilling work for us all.
Fuller, Alexandra. (2011). Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. New York: Penguin Press.
Alexandra Fuller takes us back to the landscapes of her earlier memoirs, “Those Awful Books,” exclaims her mother, “Nicola Fuller of Central Africa.” This book is actually about her. How does a daughter understand her mother? The memoir delves boldly into this usual abyss. Many of us spend our adult years wondering, just who was that woman behind the mask of motherhood? Alexandra Fuller describes the amazing losses (beloved horses, infants, farms, dreams) and the dazzling life force (off to a children’s party driving the Land Rover with an Uzi in her lap) of Nicola Fuller. The personal losses, grief, and wars in Africa drove Nicola into despair so deep no pills nor psychiatry could reach her. Her husband’s unfailing devotion, the pounding happy tails of her hounds, and the new farm brought her back. “She gave herself amnesty and her soul had a home again” is how Alexandra puts it. Under the Tree of Forgetfulness Nicola regained her courage. The Fullers are white people in Africa, not the party people or abusively greedy, but the workers, devoted to the land they work: their spirits irrepressible.
Griffin, John Howard. (1960). Black Like Me. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
I have again reread John Howard Griffin as he darkened his white skin and walked into New Orleans and Mississippi of 1959. Black Like Me chronicles the journalist’s physical and emotional transformation as he encounters the double standards of humanity. As a white man he could enter any restaurant, find a bathroom or a cup of coffee. As a man of color he had to find the places that would serve him, where he would be safe to sleep or get a glass of water. Griffin’s book records the insults, the assumptions, the disregard and disingenuous nature of white people towards people of color. The sexualization of people of color, the demeaning assumptions of moral and ethical behavior in contrast to the extreme eroticism and immorality by white people toward people of color leaves the reader spinning. Griffin records the insults, injustice and inhumanity to the point where he finds the internalization of racism enters him so he even fears writing a letter to his white wife as a ‘black’ man.
True, the white guy gets to take the color off and go home after a few months but Griffin’s emotional and psychological being has been transformed. After publication he and his family were so harassed they left Texas and years later while on the lecture circuit, he was beaten and left for dead by the Klu Klux Klan. He lectured until his death from complications of diabetes at age 60. “If we could only put ourselves in the shoes of others to see how we would react, then we might become aware of the injustices of discrimination and the tragic inhumanity of every kind of prejudice.”
All these decades later, Griffin’s descriptions of the South, his interactions between peoples, his realization that with darkened skin he was not viewed by white people as a human parent or an intelligent man still resonate. He was automatically inhuman, unintelligent, and unfeeling. He went to Mississippi in 1959 right after Mack Parker was lynched by a mob in Mississippi despite FBI evidence of his innocence. Trayvon Martin was killed in a neighborhood in Florida in 2012 with Stand Your Ground impunity. We must dare to ask, how far have we come, and who are we, white people?
Said, Najla . (2013). Looking for Palestine: growing up confused in an arab-american family. New York: Riverhead Books.
Edward Said’s writing launched careers for many academics in Post-Colonialism and Orientalism. His memoir, Out of Place: A Memoir (1999), offers insight into the grounds on which his theories grew. His daughter was raised in this heady environment. The paradox is that he raised a daughter beset with her own mystery and sense of misplacement. In this memoir Najla Said takes the reader through the landscape of her mother’s Lebanon, her father’s Palestine, New York private schools, the Episcopal Church and anorexia of her own geography. Ms. Said describes churning with the inner turmoil of her eating disorder while walking through the mud in a refugee camp in her expensive shoes and wardrobe. She couldn’t bridge all her worlds until she found theater to eventually allow her full expression. Her father’s stage was the world, Palestinian Statehood and justice. Her world, Off Broadway is where identity can be explored and the Arab and American becomes one.
Smith, Lillian. (1949/1994). Killers of the Dream. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
This book sabotaged Lillian Smith’s writing career. She had a smashing success with her 1944 novel Strange Fruit but no critic would comment on Killers of the Dream five years later. It was too autobiographical, too critical of racism and segregation. She was a decade ahead of John Howard Griffin and they both beseech white readers to wake up to racism and how it diminishes white people. Smith describes the wonder with which children approach differences and the difficulties of race at her summer camp. She defines three ghost relationships of the white man and the African American woman (Negro and Colored are her terms, the usage of the times); the white father and the biracial children, the white children and their beloved African American nurse. Then there is a fourth, the white children with their biological mother and their African American caregiver. White women became sacred, aloof on pedestals while the black women were endless caregivers. Her analysis was written in 1949, to be taken further by people of color and feminists in the following decades. She was delving into the intricacies of black and white relationships in bold stokes. Griffin would encounter haunting questions about his sexuality and penis size as he hitchhiked through Mississippi. In all these relationships between whites and African Americans there was silence, perpetuating assumptions, brutality, inequality, and broken hearts and minds. Eric Deggans cites Dr. Bernard Lafayette, Jr. in Race Baiter: How Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation (2012), “The whole purpose of segregation was so black and white folks wouldn’t talk to each other and find out they had more in common, okay?”
Smith had a lifelong-closeted relationship with Paula Snelling. She died of breast cancer at age 68.
Teich, Nicholas M. (2012). Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue. New York: Columbia University Press.
Teich says it all in the title. He is so clear and, ironically, straight-forward. What is gender? What is sexual orientation? What is transgender? There is an international and historic lineage to transgenderism and Teich (and Baird, Fisher & Komosa-Hawkins) offer stories and insight. I think Transgender is exciting for heteronormative and homosexual readers because it offers many deeper questions and requires more insight into gendered experiences. There is tremendous opportunity for the disruption of the very segregated gender options in our expression, toys, clothing, story-lines in film and books.
Even BatGirl has a transgender roommate now. We could Marvel….(but BatGirl is DC Comic after all).