Posts Tagged ‘racism’

Book Review – The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical

The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway MusicalThe Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical by Warren Hoffman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hoffman offers a close reading of some of the quintessential American musicals including Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun, West Side Story, and The Music Man, to examine how each conceptualizes and engages definitions of race. At this point, you might go, “Huh? Okay, Show Boat and West Side, sure, but what’s The Music Man got to do with race? Marian the Librarian never talks about racial prejudice! Harold Hill could be any ethnicity! An interracial couple could play Zaneeta and Tommy and it wouldn’t make one difference to the script!”

Except that we all know, don’t we, given the time period, the Midwest location, and how the characters act and react to one another, that they are white.

Which is precisely Hoffman’s point — that the American musical has, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, been the province of white folks. This in turn shapes the way white people think of ourselves, and because race remains a hidden subtext when only white characters on are stage, allows us to believe our experiences generalize to the rest of humanity. Though Hoffman doesn’t make this point, I will: this makes it harder to understand people of other races, and in particular to accept that structural racism exists — because we don’t experience it, it’s hard to believe that anyone does.

Hoffman also offers broader analysis of some historical Broadway trends: all-black casts in traditionally all-white shows (Hello, Dolly!, Guys and Dolls) in the ’60s and ’70s, shows written for multicultural casts (A Chorus Line) in the ’80s, revisals — revivals with revised libretto — (Annie Get Your Gun, Flower Drum Song), and the (inevitable?) return of all-white musicals with shows that look back to the “Golden Age” (42nd Street). In some cases, Hoffman’s conclusions are surprising, as in his analysis of color-blind casting trends and the revision of older musicals to make them more palatable to modern tastes, but always thoughtful. Occasionally, I wished the author included more information to back up his point, though generally the chapters feel thorough without being tedious.

It’d be easy to cite what’s left out, such as British and other musicals that don’t originate in the U.S. I’d have loved a close reading of Miss Saigon and/or Les Miserables, or at least more mention than the off-handed dismissal of the mega-musical. Hoffman is admittedly a cranky aficionado of the Golden-Age style of musical, and it’s clear that with this book, he is focusing on the shows he loves, not simply on shows that made an artistic or market impact. Given that, I respect him more: it takes courage to critique the works that mean most to you, to see their flaws and potential danger to real-world justice.

In challenging the idea that a piece of theater only has something to say about race when minority characters appear, Hoffman offers a theoretical tool to analyze not only theater, but other forms of entertainment and art, like TV and comics, where discussions of inclusivity and fair representation run hot. Granted, musical theater is a bit niche, despite the author’s passionate argument for the relevance of musicals to the average American. I appreciate his defense but only partially accept it and I’m one of the many who love musicals; given options, I’ll probably listen to show tunes before any other kind of album. But I am just not sure I can buy into the argument that, because the songs are so detachable from the rest of the script and become known to more people than ever see the full show, that their impact on definitions of whiteness is similarly vast. I’m not sure that a song divorced from the full musical’s context can maintain that kind of ideological weight. But perhaps that’s my own desire to keep the musicals I love safe, in both meanings of the word: safe from criticism, and safe for all and any to consume, without consequence. No work of art or entertainment really is.

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Book Review – Three Parts Dead

Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1)Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bad-ass magic lady lawyers in a mystical, steampunk world, have to resurrect a dead god so he can fulfill his obligations to his followers. This is ancient, do-ut-des (“I give to you so that you will give to me”) pagan religion taken to a logical, modernist conclusion. It’s world-building after my own heart, starting with the economy and the magic system and building its way up, with a few interesting things to say about religious devotion and collective projects. Oh, and there are vampires and gargoyles and an adorable chain-smoking young priest.

The premise is so cool and the execution so good, you might miss a few of the other sweet things Gladstone throws in just because well, I assume he’s an awesome person and committed to social justice: 1) Gladstone’s world doesn’t adhere to our notions of race, and the cast of characters are diverse in color, including our main character Tara; 2) when speaking in generalities or about a person of unknown gender, both narrator and characters (with few exceptions) use “she” instead of the universal “he”; 3) in keeping with steampunk’s usual Victorian aesthetic, characters ride in horse-drawn carriages here, but without drivers. Instead, they just pay the horse (who was always doing most of the work). Lovely.

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Book Review – One Crazy Summer

One Crazy Summer (Gaither Sisters, #1)One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like Rebecca Stead, Rita Williams-Garcia has a natural feel for how kids think, feel, rationalize, and worry. This story, told in first-person by 11-year-old Delphine, tells a politically charged tale in highly personal terms. That’s what attracted me to it, and the fact that I seem to be continually seeking books and media that I’d want my hypothetical children to read, to be be sensitive, informed, and politically aware.

Delphine and her younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, travel to Oakland for a month in 1968, to reconnect with their estranged mother Cecile (who goes by Nzila now). Within a few short pages, we understand Delphine’s position, a girl who has taken on responsibilities far beyond her years because of one parent’s absence. Vonetta is a performer who craves attention. Fern is vulnerable and innocent. Delphine shepherds both through social and emotional minefields — little realizing how much she also could use some love and guidance.

This would be enough for many a juvenile novel, but Williams-Garcia foregrounds this family drama against the broad backdrop of social justice. Almost by osmosis, the story introduces the reader to the racial and sexual politics of the time, to the Black Panthers, and the complicated social landscape that these young African American girls navigate. Through Delphine’s eyes, we learn different strategies for surviving a racist society. Back in Brooklyn, the girls’ grandmother Big Ma, who raised them with their father after Cecile left, takes an approach of accommodation and assimilation: the girls must always be on their best behavior, polite and unobtrusive, especially in the presence of white people. The Panthers and Cecile, however, are assertive. At the Panthers’ freedom school, children are taught their civil rights — lessons we hardly think are affecting cautious Delphine until she stands up to a shopkeeper who assumes the girls are thieves. Overall, the book deftly illustrates subtle shifts in Delphine, as she learns about and tries out other points of view and ideologies, coming closer to her Panther teachers Sister Mukumbu and Sister Pat.

Cecile, however, is the center of the novel as she is the central focus of the girls’ trip — and indeed, as her absence has been the central influence on much of the girls’ lives and experience. For most of the story, she is as mysterious to us as she is to her daughters. Why did this woman abandon her children? Is she just selfish, as Big Ma maintains? Slowly, we gain insight. After Delphine insists that they cannot eat Chinese take-out for another night and Delphine will cook for her sisters, Cecile relents and allows Delphine inside the kitchen, which she uses as a work space for her printing press. Here, Cecile comments that they have been fighting for freedom, while Delphine seems eager to put on a yoke again. In that simple line, we begin to grasp Cecile’s longing for self-determination in all ways, for herself as well as her daughters — but, failing her daughters, she’ll take it for herself. Later, when Cecile reveals more about her youth, we understand her even better. Here is a biological mother who isn’t willing to sacrifice all for her children. And, in the character of Delphine, we’re asked to reconcile our feelings for her with support for sexual equality as well as racial. It’s a delicate issue for any author to raise, let alone in a story for young readers, and Garcia-Williams handles it with great humanity. Cecile, a poet whose rejection of any servile position also led her to reject family responsibilities, is the counterpoint to Delphine, who up until now has accepted both her grandmother’s model of black womanhood and family ties with an almost Christ-like submission. Without simplifying the issues, the evolution of Cecile and Delphine’s relationship over the novel brings both closer to a place where responsibility to other people does not have to mean accepting a socially inferior position.

Did I mention the book is funny? While never shying away from the seriousness of the Panthers, racial injustice, and police repression, the characters are real people who do real and ridiculous things. It’s a pleasure to read. Much of the enjoyment comes from the kids’ imperfect understanding of Panther ideals, and the way Delphine comes to turn resistance techniques against the reigning power in her life — her mother. The story also gives us insight into the less dramatic moments of organizing and social movements: cooking free meals, folding newspapers, posting flyers. And the small moments that build relationships and seed political consciousness, like when “Mean Lady” Ming, who owns the Chinese take-out, turns out not to be so mean, but just a person trying to survive in an economically depressed neighborhood. A person not without compassion.

Highly recommended, for kids and adults.

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Book Review – American Born Chinese

American Born ChineseAmerican Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not a story about racism per se, but a story about the ideological toll of racism. There are three narratives, with three different tones, inter-cut with one another until the ending sews it all up. One follows Jin, a Chinese-American boy who moves out of a mainly Chinese enclave in San Francisco, and into a school where he is only one of two Asians in his class (soon one of three). This piece feels wholly realistic, and one can imagine that author/artist Gene Luen Yang drew a lot of it from personal experience. Some parts are funny (Jin’s parents are unfamiliar with deordorant, a major problem for their adolescent son on his first date), some parts are squirm-inducing (when a classmate asks Jin if he’s eating dog meat).

A second plot line could almost be pulled from the funny pages, if it weren’t so glaringly racist. This one concerns blond, all-American high schooler Danny, who somehow has a Chinese cousin, Chin Kee (the resemblence to the racial epithet is deliberate). Chin Kee embodies every negative stereotype about Asians, speaking with an exaggerated accent and embarrassing Danny at every turn. It would be maddening, except that we know Yang must have something up his sleeve.

The third plot, which actually opens the story, is a wry retelling of the Monkey King myth, most famously recorded in Journey to the West but referenced in such works of high art as the Jackie-Chan/Jet-Li vehicle Forbidden Kingdom. (This movie is one of my guilty pleasures, cultural appropriation be damned.) Monkey is, well, what you’d expect from a mythological monkey — a bit of a wise-ass, a bit of a trouble-maker, kind of stubborn and kind of willful. Yang’s telling is bright and funny, and hits all the high points in a way that makes the story accessible to readers who aren’t familiar with the source material and the cultural context. This could have been a comic of its own, and I would have loved it. Woven together with the other two plots, it becomes a beautiful fable about accepting who you are and what the world expects of you — but not being limited by it. And not being a jerk.

I adore Yang for doing something compassionate and warm and funny and unique. This is not a story to learn about structural racism, or how stereotypes get ingrained in people to begin with; it’s a story about coping, and getting along in society where those stereotypes do exist. And not turning on each other or yourself.

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Book Review – The Shining Girls

The Shining GirlsThe Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For different reasons, neither time-travel stories* nor serial-killer stories hold much attraction for me.  Curiously, by combining the two tropes in The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes creates something that is more compelling than either.

Although we meet a wide range of characters in the decades-spanning story, the plot centers on Harper Curtis, a sociopath from Depression-era Chicago. Harper stumbles onto a House significant enough to deserve that capitalization. Its doors can open on any time in the House’s history, between the late twenties until 1994. While the House’s former occupant used this feature to make a pile of money gambling (like you do when you discover you can travel into the future and check box scores and lotto numbers), Harper uses it to stalk specific young women in different decades, take an object from their lives — like a cigarette lighter or a baseball card — and gruesomely murder them. Sharing the spotlight is Kirby Mazrachi, the one girl who survives Harper’s attack. Beyond the ridiculous conceit of the time-hopping House, Beukes otherwise plays it very straight and naturalistic, making the characters and historical world as real as possible.

Harper, ultimately, is little more than your standard boilerplate serial killer. Step 1) tortured animals on his parents farm. Step 2) graduated to maiming his brother. Step 3) murdered a small-time thug in Al Capone’s gang, and realized this is the kind of thing that turns his crank. Beyond that, his reasons for killing are not explored or explained — and probably shouldn’t be, for what he is. He’s the bad guy. He’s scary. Really scary. You win, Lauren Beukes. You can write a pretty f*cked up dude. But it’s the way he commits his murders and avoids capture that actually create interest and tension for the reader. A time-traveling killer can escape to another decade, can return to the crime scene days or years before the crime took place, can meet the victim as a child if he wants, or jump forward to after the crime and read the papers to find out how he did/should do it. Harper’s victims live sometimes generations apart (although all live in Chicago or nearabouts), and his evolving MO, from quick and vicious stabbing to elaborate arrangement of the victim’s internal organs, does not appear in linear fashion to the detectives on his cases. How could it all be the work of one man? And even if it were, how would they find him? None of the prime-time TV profilers I know would put it together, either.

Enter Kirby, whom Harper attacks in 1989, near the end of his career chronologically but just midway through a spree that only lasts months for Harper. On the slimmest of chances, Kirby survives. After two years of post-traumatic stress and knowing the man who hurt her is still out there, she decides to take matters into her own hands. Lacking the funds to hire a private investigator, she instead takes a journalism class at her college, gets an internship for The Chicago Sun-Times and attaches herself to Dan, a former crime reporter. He was demoted to sports when he started uncovering corruption in the police department. Under the guise of a journalist, Kirby gains access to old police evidence, news archives, lawyers’ offices, and prison cells, and slowly puts the puzzle together, linking the objects that Harper steals from each victim and leaves on another.

Subtly, the story becomes about more than horror and more than time travel. Using varying POV chapters — from both Kirby and Harper’s perspectives, along with a wide cast of other characters, including the other murder victims — Beukes creates a panorama of Chicago history as well as the history of women on the frontier of their gender. Harper is attracted to each of his victims because she is, in his mind, “shining.” While what makes someone worth of this description is never explicitly said, each woman pushes boundaries in her own time: one is an African American riveter during WWII, one is the first female architect in an all-male firm (plus she’s a lesbian plus she knows communists!), one is a transgender showgirl. Etc. Etc. Without being heavy handed about it, Beukes lets us understand the weight of history and societal structures hemming in her characters, while they at the same time display the pluck to challenge them. That goes not only for gender (obviously a major theme here) but also class and race. The two African American male characters in the story (one a drug addict, one a prisoner, albeit for a crime he didn’t actually commit) are stereotypical and pat, without offering much in the way of analysis. But the attention that Beukes gives to the circumstances and journey of the female characters shows a much fuller understanding of the ways and means people end up doing what they do. And when an author casually drops in lines about blockbusting and police torturing witnesses, I have to believe she has some lefty-social awareness. All of the POV characters are working people, struggling more or less to get through the day with their dignity, and occasionally to do some good in the world.

Kirby herself is a loveable badass. Socially awkward after her ordeal — described in detail in one nightmarish chapter — she barrels her way onto the newspaper staff, wearing punk rock tee shirts and plying the librarians to help her with day-old doughnuts. The comradely relationship she develops with Dan, who’s somewhere between romantic prospect and mentor, was the novel’s most compelling, and enjoyable, aspect for me. But that’s probably because I kept imagining Juan Gonzales of Democracy Now! in Dan’s role. Dan both tries to help her track down her almost-killer and to dissuade her; he both doubts her emotional stability and yet wants to give her the respect that she lost when she became a poor-little-crime-victim. Indeed, the women-pushing-boundaries theme is most evident in Kirby’s story. Most crime dramas sideline the victims (often women) while valorizing the police (often men) who hunt down and catch the bad guys. In making Kirby both victim and detective for this story, Beukes lets her protagonist maintain agency while still being vulnerable. We worry for her. A lot. And we wish we were as gutsy and smart as she is.

The utter failure of police to find Harper, of course, could be excused by the sheer inconceivability of time-traveling. What plausible character, other than Kirby, could believe it? But Dan’s disillusionment after his years on the crime beat, and the locking up of two young African American men for one of Harper’s crimes, offer an implicit criticism of the criminal justice system. One reason crime stories rarely work for me is they tend to read as pro-cop, pro-prosecutor, pro-prison, and pro-death penalty — neatly resting the problem on the shoulders of an individual criminal and his (it’s almost always a him, isn’t it?) bad choices, while offering the state and its justice system as the solution. In other words, the system works; the bad guys get their comeuppance; the good guys win. At the end, The Shining Girls did have a similar effect — I was far more worried about somebody taking out Harper than about someone making sure trans girls feel safe living openly or scientist girls are getting jobs and research money in equality with their male colleagues. Of course these problems are harder to resolve in a 400-page novel. They are also expressly political, while the conflict of would-be-victim versus sociopath is not.

Interestingly, the way Beukes handles the paradox problems with time travel also has an apolitical cast: Harper, in traveling through time, is entirely constrained by what he has done before (in his own past as well as the chronological past) and what he will do (in his own future and the chronological future). Harper closes all his own time loops; for instance, he travels back in time to murder the House’s original occupant, so that he can discover the body in the future upon his first entrance into the House (which he knows he will do, of course, because he has already done it). The fatalistic feeling that he can do no differently compliments his identity as a sociopath: there is nothing he, nor anyone else, nor community or society, can do about it. No one, and nothing, is to blame for his crimes. Unless you want to blame fate. Time-travel and serial-killer story turn out to be simpatico.

I can’t say, though, that The Shining Girls isn’t a page-turner. If it ultimately didn’t quite satisfy the political questions it raises, I nevertheless stand in awe of the pacing, characterization, and research that Beukes has achieved. After her last novel, Zoo City, and this one, I’m eagerly anticipating her next fiction.

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*Unless we’re talking Dr. WhoBack to the Future, or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Apparently there has to be an eccentric older man with a signature accessory and/or a teenage boy involved.

Book Review – The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The U.S. prison population has increased hundreds of times over in the past 30 years. In that time, since the end of the Civil Rights era, most Americans have continued to live and go to school in racially homogeneous neighborhood, and Africans Americans, as a group, continue to have worse health outcomes, lower educational achievement, higher unemployment, and less wealth than their white counterparts. And the vast majority of U.S. prisoners and ex-prisoners are people of color. What do we make of these facts?

As legal scholar Michelle Alexander lays out in this book, mass incarceration in the U.S. has maintained a racial caste system, replacing Jim Crow segregation, which in its turn replaced slavery. The “colorblind” system we have today allows hundreds of thousands of African Americans (as well as people of other races) to be legally discriminated against in the ways Jim Crow once allowed explicit racial discrimination: in housing, employment, and voting. In other words, you aren’t a racist if you discriminate against “felons”–even when “felon” de facto means a black man.

As chapters 2-4 lay out, the criminal “justice” system allows law enforcement and prosecutors the power to decide who is targeted for questioning, searches, arrests, stiffer charges, longer sentences, and harsher penalties almost entirely at their own discretion. This might be fine if police and prosecutors had no preconditioned racial stereotypes, and weren’t susceptible to the same coded messages in political speeches and mass media as all of us. Try this thought experiment: picture a drug dealer. What race is the person in your head? If you are like most Americans, you picture a black person. Yet public health studies show that white and black Americans use and sell illegal drugs the same amount. But white Americans are several times less likely to be searched and arrested, and even if they are, at every step of the legal process, whites fare better than blacks facing prosecution: they are more likely to receive bail, face fewer and lesser charges, and receive less severe penalties. Yet racial bias is virtually un-proveable and un-challengeable in an individual’s particular case. Racial profiling is legal, and as long as an officer or prosecutor isn’t stupid enough to say out loud that they hate black people, no legal challenge is possible on the grounds of race. At the same time, the federal drug policy — less a response to a truly rising epidemic than a tactical political move — makes drug sweeps a profitable for law enforcement, by tying federal funding to numbers of drug arrests and allowing the seizure of property involved in drug trafficking. Chapter 4 describes in detail the daily struggles this system creates for the individuals caught up in it, even after formal release. The label “felon” legally locks a person out of social assistance programs like public housing, welfare, and food stamps, and saddles them with debts associated with their own arrest, trial, and incarceration–not to mention experiencing the shame and social exclusion that comes along with the stigma of criminality.

Despite the insistence of prime-time TV, mainstream news, and the sincere belief of cops and friends of cops I know, I stopped believing that the legal system existed to stop crime and protect ordinary people a long time ago. I could cobble together some statistics and studies to support my cynicism, but with this book, Alexander has made the argument more cogently and comprehensively than I ever could. What the system is about is preserving a status quo, tamping down rebellion, and keeping working class people divided along racial lines so we don’t unite along class lines. As Alexander lays out, the three systems of racial control in the U.S. — slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration — in their inception were ruling class reactions to multiracial threats: colonial rebellions of indentured servants, white and black; working class Populists in late 1800s who attracted both poor white farmers and black Americans to their platform; and popular social movements that emerged through the 1960s and ’70s to challenge the prevailing order. In each period, liberal leaders betrayed the movements that initially gave them power, by eventually siding with the conservatives who used race to drive a wedge through a class-based challenge to their authority: racism was written in the Constitution through states rights and the 3/5 compromise; Populists accepted segregation and made the poor white southerner their sole constituent; and Democrats embraced the War on Drugs and tough-on-crime approaches with as much gusto as Republicans.

Alexander makes the critical point that none of these systems was solely the product of racial hostility. Slavery and Jim Crow were primarily systems of managing black laborers; mass incarceration manages the black unemployed, whose labor is no longer critical to profits in a service economy where manufacture has become global. These systems were and are able to exist not because the majority of Americans are KKK-card-carriers, but because of profound and widespread racial indifference — i.e., not hostility to people who are different, but simply unconcern. In describing the breakdown of multiracial alliances and the rise of each racial caste system, she echoes W.E.B. Du Bois in describing the psychological wage of whiteness; with the beginnings of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, working-class whites, without winning any radical change in their social standing or additional material security, accepted the “racial bribe”: you may still be poor, you may still have to work for a boss, you may still have no control over your own life, but at least you aren’t a n**.

The last chapter is the most important, in my view, wherein Alexander points the way forward. She is realistic that dismantling mass incarceration will take a massive, grassroots movement; it cannot be litigated or legislated away. It has be explicitly talked of as a social justice issue: activists cannot simply speak of the economic cost of imprisoning millions of people, for instance, or the latent racism in the system will simply mutate into another form. It has to involve people of all races and become consciously class-based–all of us or none of us, with the us encompassing white, black, Asian, Latin, and others. She includes a particular call to racial justice activists and organizations to rethink civil suits and affirmative action as the frontiers of advocacy. Affirmative action, she argues, has in fact allowed the system of mass incarceration to flourish: so long as individual African Americans attend Ivy League schools, head corporations, and even get elected President, Americans at large can believe that racism is no longer an issue, while the system on the whole continues to lock most African American families into a permanent undercaste. Heady and controversial stuff, and I challenge any and every American read and contemplate that analysis and the facts assembled in this book.

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