Tag Archives: 60 second review

60 Second Review: Gender and Jim Crow

Most histories are written as “top-down” or “bottom-up.” Glenda Gilmore, however, uses “bottom-up” and “middle-up” in Gender and Jim Crow, a study of middle-class black women in turn-of-the-century North Carolina. In particular, she focuses on Sarah Dudley Pettey, using her to explore the social construction of race and gender as it related to (and was affected by) the politics of white supremacy.

Gilmore’s conclusions, based on her research, are twofold:

1) that the disciplines and subfields into which historians have divided history obscure the way people actually lived, and have actually aided in the burial of black resistance from our collective past, and

2) that if southern history is to be revised to portray a more realistic vision of the past, historians must include and analyze new information about African-Americans and women; understand that race and gender are socially constructed; and reconceptualize notions of what is public and what is private.

The Good

Gilmore’s use of Pettey’s evolving life to argue that both race and gender took on new and different meanings is excellent and very well done. She clearly shows how, for the black middle class, the private was public, that one private decision or action, anything not a carefully considered strategic move, could spell doom for an entire race. The public body politic was inevitably tied to the personal lives of the black middle class, especially after the disfranchisement of black males and the enfranchisement of (white) women.

The Not-So-Bad

(Or, why Gilmore’s chief failing doesn’t make the book a failure)

Gilmore’s one failure is not including true class analysis. However, she does explain how white supremacists — among them Furnifold Simmons, Josephus Daniels and Charles Aycock — used class divisions among whites to promote their disfranchisement rhetoric. The triple whammy of African-American men holding public office (effectively “holding dominion” over white males), rapid industrialization and urbanization, she argues, cemented in their minds the idea that black men rose to prominence only to seek out the white women. This allowed them to portray the black middle class not as progressive, industrious citizens striving for a better life, but as dangerous degenerates who sought to destroy the white race. It also allowed them to politicize working-class whites, destroying any possible biracial class alliance that might have emerged through the Populist Party or among cotton mill workers.

The Takeaway

The “limits of the possible” is the crucial theme of the book. “What is possible?” and “what is not?” are questions she asks throughout the narrative when discussing those who stepped out of the carefully constructed idea of race and/or gender. She also raises the controversial question of how to judge those men and women whose roles were to mitigate circumstances instead of working to correct injustice. In this respect Gilmore is certainly on the “road to Memphis,” following in Jacquelyn Hall’s footsteps in trying to understand the roles southern women and African-Americans played in southern politics in the years before 1960. Most of all, however, she shows that only by studying the “politics of the oppressed” will historians be able to understand the full breadth and scope of southern history.

60 Second Review: Dust

The genre of fiction broadly title Young Adult has changed tremendously since I was one of its target readers. It’s edgier, more realistic even when fantastic, and a lot bleaker. Dystopian novels existed, but few were geared specifically at the 10-16 age range.

The change is, despite some arguments to the contrary (here and here), for the better.

Arthur Slade’s award-winning Dust is one of those great new YA stories. At first I hesitated to call it a novel; surely, I thought, this is a novella. Then I realised that I was comparing its length to novels written for adults and adjusted my paradigm accordingly.

In the end, though, what it’s called doesn’t matter. It’s a good story. Even the synopsis pulls you in:

Imagine a depression-era town where it hasn’t rained for years. A pale rainmaker with other-worldly eyes brings rain to the countryside and mesmerizes the townspeople, but the children begin to disappear one by one. Only young Robert Steelgate is able to resist the rainmaker’s spell and begin the struggle to discover what has happened to his missing brother and the other children.

As good as the hook is, the catch is even better. Dust grabs you from the beginning and keeps your attention all the way through. That said, this is not a story filled with action and adventure in the traditional sense. Rather it’s the building suspense, the anticipation, the not knowing what’s going to happen on the next page, that keeps you reading — and the climactic scene, when it comes, is all the more visceral and heartbreaking for it.

The physical landscape also has its role. Slade’s evocative use of the Canadian prairie, a place he knows very well, makes the scenes come alive in a way that’s missing in a lot of fiction today. He believes in “show, not tell”; when Robert observes that the tumbleweeds aren’t tumbling, even people who have never seen the prairie understand what’s going on.

The characterisations in Dust are first-rate, too. Robert’s evolution from not-quite-child to budding young adult is very well done indeed. Given that the tale is told from his point of view, it’s inevitable that there are things we do not know, question that remain unanswered, about the other characters. But that’s okay, because through Robert we learn all we really need to know; Slade could have given us more insight into the other characters, but this story would’ve been the less for it.

This novel is magical realism at its best, turning the humdrum, everyday world around us on its ear — and sometimes into something else. Stephen King and Ray Bradbury can be proud.

[Bookish Note: 60 Second Reviews are not written in 60 seconds; they’re not really designed to be read in 60 seconds either, although they probably could be. They are called so because they short and to the point. It’s all about getting down to brass tacks, really.]

60 second book review: “Borderlands”

Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera is, perhaps obviously, about borders — of language, culture, sexuality, gender, class, spirituality, race, belief, religion, history, literature, family, ethics and morality. In other words, lots of fun stuff. This book is incredibly relevant to the way we live in the new millennium, not just with respect to race, class and culture, but to sex, gender and belief as well. Investors and analysts and politicians talk a lot about globalization and the global economy, but what they seem to ignore is that we are many people with many beliefs. We are not so much a global society as a border society, and those borders are not limited to the physical and geographical. Anzaldúa realizes this; in fact, I would say that Borderlands/La Frontera, while about living along the U.S./Mexico border, is about everything but that. It’s about what happens when cultures and beliefs collide, when capitalism and racism combine to disenfranchise those the dominant race considers Other. It’s also explains how even among the Other one can be even more Other, to the extent of seeming monstrous.

“The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in the outer terrains … nothing happens in the real world unless it first happens in the images in our heads,” she writes. We constantly live with divided loyalties, just as we may live with multiple oppressions, and Anzaldúa knows this. Her entire point is to exult in these borders — because it is when we are conscious of these borders that we connect with other people.

Even her language bears this out; she writes mainly in English (the language of the dominant group, the language she learned from childhood that was “correct”), but adds bits in Castilian, Tex-Mex and Nahuatl. This has the effect of marginalizing readers, making them feel Other, but more than that it allows Anzaldúa to rejoice in the way her world has many borders. It that allows her to claim — whether with “permission” or not — pieces of each culture. By doing so, by embracing and exulting in the smoky, hazy, ambiguous borders, she is creating culture and religion and belief and gender and sex … and inviting us to do the same.

[Bookish Note: 60 second reviews are not written in 60 seconds; they’re not really designed to be read in 60 seconds either, although they probably could be. They are so called because they short and to the point. It’s all about getting down to brass tacks, really. Oh, and just to be safe, no one sent me this book, it was bought with my own hard-earned cash.]