time's memory and other books

Time's Memory by Julius Lester

Lester is a fantastic author, and this book, with a blending of fantasy elements (based on African spiritual beliefs) and a setting in the late days of slavery in the south, was truly stunning.  The book opens from the perspective of a slave ship master who doesn't have the heart for cruelty that his competitors do.  A brutal storm is gathering outside the ship when the voice of his deceased wife tells him to promise to rescue one of the slave women when the voyage is done.  As soon as he agrees, the winds die down.  And Lester moves from there immediately to a next chapter written from the woman Amira's perspective.  She is pregnant, carrying a spirit-child who was miraculously conceived from the breath of her dying father and the group's spirit leader.  The spirit-child, Ekundayo (Joy out of Sorrow), goes through several transformations, but finally comes to be in the body of a young boy named Nat or Nathaniel, a slave on a plantation in Virginia, and he struggles with what the right way might be to eliminate the insanity of slavery:  resistance or violence?  Anything but acceptance.  "Slavery was a kind of chaos, a confusion of mind which distorted everyone's vision by making skin color an object of worship." (p. 138) 

Without giving it all away, it's worth mentioning another moving moment in the narrative, on p. 182, when the plantation owner Samuel tells his wretched story of betraying himself and his beloved to stay in power as a slave owner.  After he tells the story to Nathaniel and his guardian Harriet (both slaves), the man says:

        "'You may think there is nothing worse than physical slavery, and maybe there isn't.  But at this minute, I would swap places with you.  The question is:  would you swap places with me?'
       Neither Harriet nor I spoke, but we didn't have to.  Samuel Chelsea saw the pity for him on Harriet's face and the contempt on mine.
       'I don't blame you,' Samuel said finally.  'I don't want to be me either.'
       The three of us sat in silence for a long while.  What could we say to a life that had been lived poorly and without honesty?  Samuel Chelsea had failed to be a decent human being, which was a failure of the most elemental kind."

The last we hear of Samuel, he is still scheming, still dishonest, imagining wealthy widows upon whom he could prey next.  What Lester does is show the decency and indecency, the kindness and the cruelty, that human visit upon one another for the most flimsy of reasons, skin color.  He also gives us glimpses of deep love that defy social strictures around skin color.  Lester paints a picture of a kind of strength that considers but then rejects violence for the cycle it creates.  Oh, and there's a central love story between Nathaniel and Ellen.  It is profoundly touching; the characters come to be separated but, at long last, reunited in their spirits.  The epilogue about Lester's dream of African/Dogon spiritual architecture is fascinating too.


Black & White (previously Naughts & Crosses) by Malorie Blackman

Blackman creates a pseudo-British imagined world in which the dark-skinned Crosses rule society, and light-skinned Naughts (meaning zero) or, in derogatory slang, "blankers," were historically slaves and are only beginning to make any civil rights progress.  Sephy is the daughter of a wealthy Cross politician, but her best friend, Callum, is a Naught.  Callum's mother works for Sephy's mother when the novel opens, and the two have grown up together.  Even after Callum's mother is fired, they meet at the beach, and Sephy is thrilled when Callum is one of the few Naughts to pass the entrance exams to attend a Cross school.  She's very excited to have him at her school, but in her naivete she fails to see all the forces aligned against them.  It takes most of the novel for her to come to accept the cruelties that Callum cannot avoid.  Sephy says:  "I used to comfort myself with the belief that is was only certain individuals and their peculiar notions that spoiled things for the rest of us.  But how many individuals does it take before it's not the individuals who are prejudiced but society itself?" (p. 367)

With a hanging, a kidnapping, alcoholism, and other drama, the latter half of the book has soap-opera potential, but the overall premise makes all of the 489 pages worth it. 

imagined animalia

Dust City by Robert Paul Weston

Henry lives in a world gone wrong.  Where fairy dust once created daily miracles, now pharmaceutical companies pedal knock-off versions of "dust" for every ill.  Henry should know, since one of their trucks killed his mother.  And his own world has gone wrong in other ways too.  He's stuck in St. Remus Home for Wayward Youth while his father is in prison for having killed Red Riding Hood and her grandmother.  Though aspects of the premise sound humorous, this novel is anything but a fractured fairy tale.  Henry hasn't heard from his dad since he was locked up, and although he has grown to be a pretty big wolf, like his dad, his friends all know that he's really a softie.  Of course, he does occasionally have to defend himself from the more violent inmates.  But when he walks in on the recently hanged body of his shrink, things change, and Henry breaks out of the "home" (really a juvenile detention facility) and into the real world.  His quest to see his father turns into a quest to find out what really happened to the fairies.

The fairies once lived in Eden, high above Dust City, where no one but they could travel.  And yet the world was not all right then, either, as Henry slowly realizes that the hominids had always cornered the market on happy endings, and the animalia--wolves like him, foxes, ravens, etc.--were hardly ever granted wishes, happy endings, or anything else.  The animalia have always been bit players in the stories of the hominids.  And this slow-dawning realization starts to make Henry mad, but what he finally uncovers sickens him and makes him sorry he started the quest in the first place (nope, no spoiler on this one--it's worth reading).  

Fantasy is great for exploring complex sides of social worlds, metaphors allowing a kind of distance from reality that highlights the lines that we accept as part of our daily worlds.  The various animalia-hominid-nixie-giant divides read as metaphors for race and class divisions in society today (albeit not easily mapped ones), and that's just part of what Weston has achieved.  He's also infused this tough young wolf Henry with a sense of deep pathos and longing for a better world, and the ending holds some possibility for hope.  

*****

I blog for many reasons, most of them to keep track of what I've read and what I thought when I did read.  Reading has been a constant in my life.  When everything else is in upheaval, I can read and, usually, learn or imagine something new.  I may not ever be able to explain fully why I value exploring worlds that don't exist so much.  It's a good day to celebrate a year of stamina through upheavals, and the steadiness of a good read.

race, whiteness, and anti-racism

Once intensive discussions of race, racism, and the social structures that perpetuate racism break out in your school, it can be a bit meaningless to concentrate on anything else.  I want to live and teach in a society, place, and community where people are striving for equality through explicitly anti-racist conversations, readings, and teaching.  And I'm beginning to think that white folks who intend to be anti-racist have a kind of endless "coming out" to do, because it is not at all visibly obvious which white people want to strive to overcome racism (internally and socially) and which are unconscious of their privilege.  On the one hand, coming out as gay or lesbian puts you in a state of vulnerability that "coming out" as anti-racist probably does not.  On the other hand, in a group of white people who are struggling with some of these ideas, revealing one's own anti-racist intentions and proposed actions may result in quick, defensive critiques from others who have benefited unconsciously from white priviledge.

Things I've read lately related to this include:

--Christine Pawley "Unequal Legacies:  Race and Multiculturalism in the LIS Curriculum" from Library Quarterly vol 76 no 2, pp. 149-168
Pawley's argument that the more comfortable topic of "diversity" is often used to obscure issues directly related to the less comfortable issue of "race" concludes with a call to arms for reexamining LIS curricula.  That is the space in which I find myself currently, as an LIS professor who teaches predominately in the area of youth services.

--Marilyn Frye "White Woman Feminist" from Willful Virgin:  Essays in Feminism (The Crossing Press, 1992)
Frye argues that "whiteliness" can be dismantled and avoided, much like "masculinity" as a privilege can be abandoned by men and "femininity" can be abandoned by women.  While intriguing, I found this argument full of mental acrobatics that suggest that such abandonments are intensive activities that actually deconstruct our own ways of being.  While I'm interested in this, I've seen too many women, people of color, and students in general subscribe to confidence-destroying self-examination activities that lack that quality of risk-taking and action that are so key to life-long learning.

--Gregory Jay, "Introduction to Whiteness Studies" https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/gjay/www/Whiteness/introwhite.htm
Like Pawley, Jay offers that the idea of "whiteness" stems from efforts to rethink "celebratory multiculturalism" in favor of "critical multiculturalism."  Celebrating difference, again, is not enough.  And yet Jay attempts to move the white reader beyond fear or defensiveness:  "Whiteness Studies is not an attack on people, whatever their skin color."  Jay goes on to talk about the historical appearance of the term "white" as a legal and social term that "determined who could vote, who could be enslaved, who could be a citizen, who could attend which schools and churches, who could marry whom, and who could drink from what water fountain."   

--Debra Van Ausdale and Joe R. Fegan, The First R:  How Children Learn Race and Racism
Much more to read in this book, but the gist is that, if children were "colorblind" and somehow nobly impervious to racism, racism itself would die out in a generation.  The authors demonstrate that even very young children are not only aware of race but will actually use racial epithets.  Adults look outside to see where this was learned *from,* and so fail to see the real causes.  More reading TBA.

--Karen Coates "Blinded by the White:  The Responsibilities of Race," chpt six in Looking Glasses and Neverlands:  Lacan, Desire, and Subjectivity in Children's Literature (Univ of Iowa Press, 2004)
Two folks I've been teaching lately have been using and referring to Coates, so I thought I'd refresh myself on this text.  Coates looks at how "whiteness" functions as a "master signifier," but also at how naming and thinking about that signifier destabilizes its power:  "When Whiteness itself is opened to interrogation and theorization, when it is revealed to be historically and culturally grounded in specific qualities, then it can be mobilized as one signifier among many rather than the unconscious support of a racist cultural system."  (p. 126)  I like the critical theory optimist of being able to get out of social binds via careful, thoughtful use of language, but I do remain a bit skeptical.  Destabilizing signifiers has its limits!


Aside from reading, things I've done in response to the ideas circulating at GSLIS include:

--Talking about the topic of race (which came up in a town hall meeting) in the storytelling class with the students, and making some space to listen
--Offering to teach a new course on Local to Global Intersections in Library and Information Science, with the help of a syllabus that a group of master's students drafted as suggested by the GSLIS Curriculum Committee
--Reviewing my own syllabi and working toward changing about 5-7of the 35 books I'll require for my fall course in Fantasy Literature and Media for Youth
--Locating sources about race, anti-racism, and work with urban youth for the new course 490YS
--Participating in three sessions of the May 5 day-long meetings in response to the Town Hall

Previews of coming reading attractions:

fantasy books lately

Quick check-in on a few novels before I get to the meaty stuff I've been reading about race, whiteness, and racism:

Michael Buckley The Sisters Grimm
This is the first of a series of detective-style romps through the world of the Grimm family.  Sabrina and Daphne are the newest members, and their family is responsible for all of the classic Grimm's Fairy Tale characters.  This is clever and funny, and there are twists and turns as characters such as Puck and Jack the Giant Killer are neither the enemies nor the friends they first appear to be.  Sabrina is slowly won over to her younger sister Daphne's optimistic perspective that Mrs. Grimm really is their grandmother.  And the hunt for their missing parents will continue in the next books...

Jean Ferris Once Upon a Marigold
This won a big Horn Book thing as well as a bunch of ALA and NYPL accolades, so kudos for that.  

(Warning:  Snark Alert.  You have been warned.)
And yet I found it to be sweet, twee, and triteI mean, it's nice enough.  This book is like a friend from middle school that I'd talk to on the bus politely, but who never guffaw or roll her eyes with me at the absurdity of the world.  Christian runs away from home and adopts Edric the Troll as his new family.  Obviously, he will turn out to be a prince.  As he grows, he develops a correspondence (via pigeons or p-mail) with the princess across the river.  Obviously, they will fall in love against the odds.  The only interesting bits were the part where Princess Marigold's mother wants to kill her, but then that's tidied up as the girls turn out to be adopted.  Mild drama, no surprises, and a rather large dose of overplayed proverb-based humor.