Posts tagged ‘Racism’

The Courage to Plant your Feet – “Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League” by Jonathan Odell

This author is just good.  He is a great storyteller and his writing is well suited for the story.  But his writing goes deeper than that – you can see in his writing that this author has a story all his own.  I really liked his book “The Healing” and was happy to come across this book at my favorite local book store The Book Loft (little plug for the independent bookstore).

516bMIYk55L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Don’t be fooled by the summary, this is a story you think you have read before, but it just isn’t.  Is the late 1940s and Hazel is a poor, white trash Southerner.  She is plain and stooped and doomed to be a farmer’s wife.  But convinced she is destined for more, Hazel teaches herself how to stand up straight, how to apply make-up, how to do her hair just so.  And so she becomes the desirable woman that Floyd is looking for when he walks into local Dairy Barn Diner.  Floyd sweeps Hazel off her feet.  They marry and move to Delta, Mississippi where, through the power of positive thinking, he is going to make all of their dreams come true.  By the 1950s, Hazel has two children, a house bigger than she ever dreamed, and a hole inside of her that she just can’t seem to fill.  And so, she drives around town and all over the countryside with her two boys in the back and a flask of whiskey in her lap.

By the time, Vida is hired as the housekeeper, Hazel has lost one son to an unfortunate jump off the porch and has been hospitalized multiple times for nervous breakdowns.  And while Hazel’s story is a sad one, it pales in comparison to Vida’s, which is not unlike the story of many Southern black women growing up in the 1940s and 50s.  She is a woman who was raped by the white sheriff, lost her son (who looked too much like the sheriff), and then lost her home.  Because of this, Vida has replaced her sense of self and her security (what little there was) with a quiet but deep-seeded rage.  It is an interesting parallel. While one woman, Hazel, is trying to fill a void that is slowing killing her, the other is trying to find an outlet for her rage that she is willing to let destroy her as long as she gets revenge.

The way Vida and Hazel’s lives intersect is not an unusual story, black housekeeper working for a sad rich, white lady, but their need for each other is what makes the story more interesting than others of its ilk.   The white woman doesn’t save the black woman here.  Or really vice versa. But they do help each other accomplish what they need to in order to fill those holes in themselves that were slowly and methodically destroying them.  That combination makes the story powerful and worthy of telling.

As in “The Healing,” Odell spends a lot of time with his female characters.  And, not even just for a male writer, he excels at it.  I recently heard Gillian Flyn (author of “Gone Girl”) speak and she said that sometimes when writing from the female prospective, male authors really push it. And then you are stuck with some ridiculous line like “and then I got my period” so you can feel like the male author really knows women.  But Odell does not need to rely on the triteness of this kind of writing, because quite frankly he is skilled – and that, perhaps sadly, is refreshing.

The topic is a tough one. Let’s be honest here, how much whining can a rich white woman do – particularly in the presence of such extreme racism in the 1950s South?  But somehow, because of the way Hazel pulls out of her slump to help the black women in her community, the reader can feel okay about Hazel’s hardships.  And as always, Odell’s afterward is key to the story.  We haven’t heard enough about women in the Civil Rights movement. Great numbers of women boycotted buses, suffered beatings and rapes and police dogs.  They linked arms and walked to demeaning jobs in white households, sometimes just to spy on their employers to forward the equality movement.  They have stories and those stories are important.  As Odell so insightfully points out, Mrs. Parks, on the day that she refused to move on that bus, “showed a million women where to plant their feet.”   And they did, time and time again.  I can only hope, when the time comes, we all have the courage to do the same.

As for Jonathan Odell, I just hope he keeps writing.

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November 8, 2015 at 1:21 pm Leave a comment

The Schools out It’s Time to Read List

I have been reading a lot, and a lot of the books have been fun.  So here is what I think you should be reading while malingering by the pool.

1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: This was one of those big hype books that never sounded particularly like my kind of genre.  But it is just so good. Admittedly, it is another of those futuristic, lots of people die from a disease, stories. But the way the story is linked with the life of a celebrity actor is just fascinating.  The novel also takes  an interesting look at theater and how it changes as the world changes. Celebrity acting is such a disconnecting/lonely thing but a traveling troupe of actors connects people and towns.  I can’t guarantee your money back or anything, but this book is worth the leap of faith.

2. The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon: This book is creepy and scary and all of those good things that a creepy-scary book should be.  Below the floor boards in an old house, surrounded by encroaching woods,  someone finds the diary of a woman who was murdered in 1908.  This is really all I need to say, right?

3. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng: You know from the first sentence of the book that Lydia is dead but her family does not.  Lydia is the teen daughter of a mixed-race marriage in the 1970s.  Her father is Chinese and her mother is Caucasian.  While it is a mystery through-out how Lydia died, it is not the driving force of the book. It is instead driven by the dreams that parents have and how the unspoken force of these dreams can do great harm, even when they are meant with the best intentions.  This novel was amazingly insightful, particularly in how Ng examines how broken people carry their brokenness into parenthood.

4. At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen:  I didn’t think this was a stunning novel.  And it was extremely predictable, almost painfully so, but it took place in Scotland and that made me inexplicably happy.  It is set during WWII, when three American socialites Maddie and her husband Ellis, along with his friend Hank, decide to head to Loch Ness to find the infamous monster.  They are spoiled, rich kids with a ridiculous plan.  While Ellis and Hank spend their days drinking on the shores of Loch Ness, with binoculars, Maddie sits at the pub and waits.  There is a sully maid and a burly pub keeper – so one gets in a fight, another woman gets pregnant, etc.  I think you get the idea but it is a fun, mindless read for the summer.

IMG_0498Swim, read. Work, read. Have a cocktail, read. Have two cocktails, read.  Whatever happens just make sure it ends with a book. Cheers.

May 26, 2015 at 7:05 pm Leave a comment

The power of rage – “Forty Acres” by Dwayne Alexander Smith

18774967This book is such a great idea. In fact, it is so good I am surprised that this storyline hasn’t been done before.  For the story alone, Forty Acres is worth the read.  Just go into this read knowing that Smith is a screenplay writer. So in many parts of this novel it seems better written for the screen than a book.  I don’t think this takes much away from the story or what the author is trying to convey, it is just is a bit of a hiccup.

Martin Grey is an African-American attorney in New York. He and his partner are slowly building their law firm. When Martin wins a big lawsuit the firm’s success is guaranteed and he feels like things are all falling into place.  Adding to his new-found success, Martin is approached by an extremely successful African-American attorney, Damon. Damon invites Martin to meet some of his friends.  All of the friends are extremely successful African-American men who seem to have everything.  After a very careful vetting, Martin is invited for the group’s yearly white-water rafting trip.  When the private jet lands Martin begins to suspect that the armed guards meeting them are not taking them on a rafting trip.  Instead Martin is taken to a large plantation home, his bag is taken up to his room by a skittish caucasian boy. He realizes, fairly quickly, that he has now joined a secret society of African-American men who have enslaved caucasian people to serve them.  The society was established by Dr. Kasim who has determined that the only way to deal with black rage, and the painful history every black man must face, he must have the opportunity to be the master in the master-slave relationship.   He must have retribution. And so, Martin is faced with an awful dilemma, join the society or be killed himself so the society can remain secret.

This book is labeled a thriller. And it is that, but it is more.  Smith has found an interesting way to talk about how our history of slavery affects all of us.  How it continues to control how our lives play out, particularly for African-Americans.  I found it really interesting.  Smith also addresses the anger and rage that is inside many African-American men and posits that without an outlet this rage will destroy.  The question is really what outlet is appropriate.  And what is justice, true justice, for the past generations enslaved and what is the right penance that those whose ancestors enslaved others must pay.  Smith obviously takes this to the extreme but what a great way to grab the reader’s attention.  Either way, rage and the history of slavery cannot be ignored – and if Ferguson, Missouri shows us anything, it is surely that we, as a nation, continue to live in the shadow of both.

 

Other reviews to check out: 

September 21, 2014 at 7:13 pm 5 comments

My life as a legal aid lawyer

This is not my typical post, but I hope you will bear with me. I have spent the last seven years as an attorney, eight years if you count my clerkship, for the Legal Aid Society.  I will be leaving this job on October 18th to spend more time with my children.  But as I end my time at my job I wanted to write something about it.

The Legal Aid Society may not be what you think. We help low-income people with their civil legal needs – we are not criminal attorneys and are grateful for it.  I have spent my time there defending people from evictions and loss of their housing subsidies.  My friends and coworkers help low-income people keep their food stamps, keep their medical coverage, avoid foreclosure.  They help our clients get protection orders from their abusers and get custody of their children.  Simply put, we keep our clients housed, fed, and safe physically, medically, and financially.

I believe in what we do. I believe in our mission. I have represented hundreds and hundreds of people. I have seen what poverty can do.  My clients are disabled, undereducated, angry, depressed, overwhelmed, ashamed and scared.  Most of them come from generations and generations of poverty.  They know what you think of them. They know you look at what they buy with their food stamps and judge them.  My single moms would tell you that if you are spending $1.50 per person for each meal you have to pick what is most filling and that it is not always apples.   And if you see them with cell phones, well have you tried to get a land-line lately? It is extremely expensive, so a monthly minutes limited plan is much, much cheaper and easier to get with poor credit.  Nails and hair they do for each other in their homes.  They wish things were different.  They would want me to stress that they are not lazy, they want to get out of poverty, they don’t want handouts.  They just need help.

Something we don’t talk about enough is that over 90% of my clients are African-American.  This is a cycle of poverty that as a country with our history we are responsible for and it is a problem.  We don’t like to talk about it, because it is uncomfortable but it is also true. About 60% of my clients suffer from severe mental health issues.  They are unemployable, they live on disability checks which are $710.00 a month.  Their only choice is to live in poverty.  This is also something we need to talk about.

My clients will never own a home so their apartments are their homes.  Our county municipal court has between 17,000 and 20,000 evictions each year.  Court is a cattle call. It is fast, it is hard to navigate and it is intimidating.  If my clients are evicted a large percentage of them will return to the shelter system, which is overcrowded.   In my town, our Section 8 list has been frozen for 6 years, our public housing has been cut significantly, and our project-based subsidized housing often has a 2 year waiting list.  My clients have few options. So they live in homes with holes in the walls, feces in the basement. They live with landlords coming in unannounced and going through their dresser drawers. They are denied the right to have a nurse visit them. They are denied the right to have the father of their children visit.  They are told that because they were beaten by their boyfriend and the police were called they are a disturbance. They are evicted for being late with a $20.00 fee or because they are behind on their water bills because of a leak or because their car broke-down and they couldn’t get to work so they lost their job and rent got behind.  My clients’ lives are precarious and everything can fall apart so easily and it does, everyday.

We do what we do because all of this deserves a voice.  It is not easy. I am a “free attorney” which comes with all kinds of prejudices.  I work with attorneys who were in the top of their law classes, who are brilliant problem solvers and people who somehow are attorneys with hearts.  Everyone I work with is here because they believe that even “unto the least of these” we have a duty.  And we are really, really good at what we do. We know the law, we know what is at stake, and we will fight for it.

I have been yelled at, threatened, cursed, hugged, and thanked.  I have sat with women sobbing and men tearing up. I have seen people hit bottom and promise to do better and then just fail again.  My repeat clients break my heart.  I have lost clients to addiction, suicide, mental institutions and jail. There are days when I have gone home overwhelmed by my job and I have sobbed.  But I have also been able to help people stay housed, move to a better place, keep their Section 8, sue bad landlords, get title to property that is rightfully theirs – I have been able to help people find and keep their dignity.

The last seven years have been tough. We have been underfunded, our staff has been cut, we are overloaded, overburdened and many of us are burnt out.  But I can honestly say what I have learned here I will be forever grateful for and, even knowing what I know now, I would not have done it any differently.    Almost everyone goes to law school with a plan to “make a difference.”   I have had the great gift to work with men and women who really meant what they said and they are doing it, everyday.

September 6, 2013 at 10:36 am 19 comments


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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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