Photo: Bruce Davidson, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
Learning About Black Lives Through Literature
“I like to think I know what death is.
I’d like to think that it’s something I could look at straight.”
—Jojo in “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward
I love to read. When I contemplated retirement, I imagined myself reading for hours every day, wrapped up in a blanket, immersed in all the classics that I never read and exploring new ideas in modern literature.
For the most part, I’m carrying out that dream. I’ve joined three book clubs: 1) Books by the Bay, a community book club in which we read a variety of books, mostly current best sellers; 2) The Great Books Discussion Group, sponsored by our community library that has so far included classics from Shakespeare, Herodotus, Locke, Thoreau, and many poets, and 3) Now Read This, a new online book club from The New York Times and PBS NewsHour. Each club is a totally different experience, with different goals, formats, and reader interests. I find all of them to be very stimulating, thought-provoking, and fun!
This month, something unusual happened in my book club experience. The monthly reading in each book club addressed the same topic: black life experiences in the United States. For years I have been fascinated by the concept of “synchronicity,” a concept, first introduced by analytical psychologist Carl Jung, which holds that events are “meaningful coincidences” if they occur with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synchronicity) The fact that three unrelated book clubs would choose readings addressing the topic of how African Americans experience life in the U.S. certainly seems to fall into the realm of synchronicity. I am paying attention to what I think may be a “sign” from the universe and I’m trying to integrate whatever I learn from these readings into my mindful retirement journey. As a white girl (VERY white) who grew up in the south, I have a lot to learn!
Between the World and Me is a letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s fifteen-year-old son, Samori. This book, the monthly reading from my book club, Books by the Bay, chronicles Coates’s experiences growing up on the dangerous streets of Baltimore, his enlightenment at Howard University, his perspective on the “destruction of the black body in America,” and his disillusionment with the “American Dream.” Coates shares his personal and community pain when he describes the impact of his friend’s death at the hands of the police and he has little hope that things will improve anytime soon for black lives in America.
The first selection for the new online book club collaboration between the New York Times Book Review and PBS NewsHour is Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. The perfect complement to Coates’s urban black setting, Ward writes poetically about black survival amid persistent racism in the deep rural south. This tragic story, narrated principally by 13-year old Jo-Jo, describes his family’s struggle with drug addiction, poverty, and death. Haunting by family ghosts helps Jo-Jo to grow up and also serves as the author’s vehicle to connect present-day black suffering to black history. It’s powerful and helped me to see this family’s struggles within a larger cultural context.
Finally, my Great Books Discussion Group read a selection of poems this month, including Big Momma, by Haki R. Madhubuti. This magnificent poem describes the poet’s visit to his grandmother, who rants about “all this blackness” and how African-Americans do more harm to themselves with violence and drugs than whites do to them. The poem emphasizes generational differences in the black community; while at the same time, celebrates the strength of black family matriarchs. I loved the poem for its humor and its humanity.
Reading these three powerful stories about the black experience helped me to recognize how institutionalized and ingrained racism is in this country. I was and I am still isolated from the pain and suffering that so many black Americans continue to endure. I don’t believe we are anywhere close to achieving the goal of equal rights in this country. I believe this President is erasing whatever progress we have accomplished and is endangering our democratic ideals in many areas. However, his racism and sexism are particularly appalling. I will continue to speak truth to power and I will not be silenced. Black lives matter and only those who have not been sheltered by white privilege can truly understand what that means. Being mindful means observing what is happening every moment and helping to shape each of those moments with compassion. Read these three selections. You may be changed for the better.
A Selection from Big Momma
By Haki R. Madhubuti
we finished our soup and I moved to excuse myself,
as we walked to the front door she made a last comment:
now, luther i knows you done changed a lots but if
you can think back, we never did eat too much pork
round here anyways, it was bad for the belly.
I shared her smile and agreed.
touching the snow lightly I headed for 43rd st.
at the corner i saw a brother crying while
trying to hold up a lamp post.
thru his watery eyes I did see big momma’s words.
she moves freely, is often right
and when there is food
eats joyously with her own