Book Review: The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

November 22, 2020 Leave a comment
Cover of the book The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Summary:
Dr. Cone is respected as the founder of Black liberation theology. In this book first published in 2011 he explores the connections between the Jesus’s crucifixion and the lynchings committed by white Americans against Black Americans. He also explores in a forthright manner how Christianity is experienced and expressed in Black American churches and directly addresses the seeming contradiction of Black Americans embracing the faith they encountered initially through white enslavers.

Review:
I think it’s important before giving my thoughts on this book to establish for those who may web search their way here who I am. I’m a white, US American woman with the privilege of a Masters degree. While I don’t hazard to guess who Dr. Cone intended to write for, I will say I found both a greater understanding of the Black Christian church in the US and simultaneously called out as a white US American – a couple of times as a white woman specifically. If you are a white US American and not a Christian, this is still a relevant read for you. 79% of Black US Americans consider themselves to be Christian (Pew Research Center) – a greater percent than either US Americans overall or when compared to white US Americans alone. If we are to be good allies, it’s important to understand how this faith intertwines with the atrocious history and (Dr. Cone argues, and I agree with him, continued presence of) lynching in the US.

Dr. Cone gives context for how Black US Americans, especially those who are descendants of enslaved people, came to find and embrace the Christian faith. He also discusses some prominent white and Black theologians, highlighting the differences in how they addressed or, in the case of white theologians, failed to address systemic racism in the US.

I could not find one sermon or theological essay, not to mention a book, opposing lynching by a prominent liberal white preacher.

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I was particularly moved by the section that discussed how these theologians reacted to the 1963 Birmingham Baptist Church bombing, which resulted in the deaths of four Black girls – Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14) and Carol Denise McNair (11). Dr. Cone’s justified palpable frustration at the general lack of response even in the face of such clear evil was important to hear.

The title of the book alludes to the answer to a couple of questions I’ve heard people ask before – how is the Black Christian experience different from that of white Christians and how did the descendants of enslaved people come to embrace the faith of those who enslaved their ancestors? According to Dr. Cone, Black US Americans saw a fellow sufferer in Jesus and a clear connection between how he was crucified and how Black US Americans are unjustly treated. He also draws attention to how Black churches pay attention to different aspects of the Bible than what you might hear in white churches.

One cannot correctly understand the black religious experience without an affirmation of deep faith informed by profound doubt. Suffering naturally gives rise to doubt. How can one believe in God in the face of such horrendous suffering as slavery, segregation, and the lynching tree? Under these circumstances, doubt is not a denial but an integral part of faith. It keeps faith from being sure of itself. But doubt does not have the final word. The final word is faith giving rise to hope.

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Dr. Cone directly addresses the frustration of the white people who enforce segregation and lynching and Black people suffering from these things both laying claim to the same faith and how painful that is. My takeaway was that, rather than ask how white supremacists and Black US Americans can lay claim to the same faith, acknowledge that white supremacy is twisting the faith of white US Americans.

Hate and white supremacy lead to violence and alienation, while love and the cross lead to nonviolence and reconciliation.

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White supremacy tears faith to pieces and turns the heart away from God.

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Dr. Cone also dedicates space to Black women’s voices, and I was particularly moved by this part as it features Black women directly calling out white women as having the ability to bring change to white supremacy. I have so often heard the opposite, disempowering message that our options of action as white women are limited due to the patriarchy, but that is an overly limited viewpoint. While it is true the patriarchy limits us, we do have the ears of other white folks in a way that Black people often do not, and white women may have more influence over the men in our lives than we may realize. (When I say men in our lives I mean this in the most inclusive way possible – family members, sons, friends, colleagues, etc…) Black women in this book see and call out the power that we white women clearly have with specific examples of how white supremacy responds to perceived affronts on white women. If we have the power to cause harm to Black folks in this way, then we have the power to, at the very least disengage from it by not allowing our experiences to be used as the spark to start off the firestorm, but perhaps we can also use it to quench the violence to begin with. I think it’s important for those reading this not to mistake this as a call for white saviors but rather as a call for white women to cease (knowingly or unknowingly) inciting violence and to work against it. I think of it as the Bible says – take the log out of our own eyes first.

This book also includes some very meaningful explorations of the blues and Gospel music, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King’s theology. It ends with a call to address continued issues, especially as seen through the prison system. As a white woman who grew up rural poor with a large local issue when I was in high school being whether or not to bring in a prison as a source of jobs to an economically depressed area, I viewed this as yet another reason to address efforts toward our incredibly problematic private prison industrial complex in the US.

Through private prisons and the “war against drugs,” whites have turned the brutality of their racist legal system into a profit-making venture for dying white towns and cities throughout America.

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This clearly was a meaningful read for me, and I can easily see what an important read it is for my fellow white US Americans. It does not give easy answers for what to do, but it demonstrates how white supremacy hurts everyone and leaves one with an urge to be part of the change for good.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda

November 12, 2020 Leave a comment
Cover of the book The Girl from Widow Hills

Summary:
Olivia just wants to live a quiet, simple life as an administrator at a new rural hospital in the American south. She changed her name to leave behind her childhood notoriety as the little girl who was swept away by flood water when she was sleepwalking and was found days later in a drainage pipe. But when she resumes sleepwalking again and literally stumbles over a dead body outside her home, her past starts to come back to haunt her.

Review:
Those of us who grew up in the 90s were consistently regaled with the stories of the little girl Jessica who fell down a well and underwent a dramatic televised rescue in the 80s. I feel like this must be inspired by that story but with a lot of “what-if” questions tossed in. (Jessica herself has lived a very quiet life since the hullaballoo).

Olivia (the woman formerly known as Arden) is likeable yet has realistic flaws. She’s a well-rounded, real character. I especially enjoyed how she decides (early in the book) to buy a home away from the cookie cutter housing built for the hospital workers. The elderly man who sold it to her is also her neighbor, and they have an adorable relationship where they mutually care for one another. Her relationships with her coworkers at the hospital are also a realistic depiction of how she’s sort of part of the club of health care workers but not exactly one, as a staff in administration.

But what about the plot? I really enjoy how right away Olivia is an unreliable narrator to herself through no fault of her own – her sleepwalking. It’s easy to understand why she’s loathe to admit to the circumstances of how she finds the body on her land, and she also has some intense and legitimate questions about how much she can trust herself.

I can’t say too much about why I like this book so much without giving the twists away. However, suffice to say I found the twists interesting. The plot before the twists makes sense with the twist but also didn’t point so directly to it that I guessed it. While the twists solve the mystery, they also leave us with a main character who is still herself – flawed and yet likeable.

Recommended to thriller fans who like a flawed main character and would enjoy an adult (fictional) take on a little girl whose rescue gripped America.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: And Now She’s Gone by Rachel Howzell Hall

October 31, 2020 2 comments

Summary:
Grayson Sikes is a new private investigator and is taking on one of her first cases, but it’s looking for a man’s ex-girlfriend who doesn’t seem to want to be found. She’s not too keen on trying to find a woman who wants to be gone.

Review:
Do you love black-and-white film noir but wish there was a story with a woman PI? How about a Black woman PI written by an own voices author? How about we get some actual backstory on the PI to find out just why she’s so hard-boiled anyway? And how about a femme fatale is also a Black woman? Then this, my friend, is the book for you.

I was utterly delighted to have a noir with, for once, a different case of characters but that still fits the genre’s markers. There’s even an excellent scene of Grayson pensively taking in the LA skyline with a note that its rich colors are the result of wildfires. I am here for this!

On that note, Grayson is not shy from telling it like it is. She’ll call out the wildfires. She’ll wonder if a witness is describing someone as disagreeable because she’s actually disagreeable or because that’s how Black women can be unfairly perceived. She’ll wonder if an ex-boyfriend really just wants his dog back or if it’s about control. She’ll wonder if the elderly neighbor lady is actually helpful or a busybody. Grayson’s questions are part of what makes her a good PI.

I do want to give a content warning that part of Grayson’s backstory includes both domestic violence and miscarriage [not a plot spoiler], so do please be aware if you prefer to avoid those topics.

Overall, as a fan of noir, I was delighted by finally getting some representation in this story. It both was fun to see and also made the story less predictable and more unique. More variety is a good thing! Pick this up if you love noir and want more or if you’ve never thought it was your jam because of the dripping masculinity. This twists expectations about gender in noir on its head.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

September 20, 2020 Leave a comment

Summary:
Member of the Potawatomi Nation and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer presents a series of essays on plants of North America, incorporating some memoirs from her life and her daughter’s recollections as well.

Review:
It’s difficult to describe how meaningful this book is. The description sounds so simple and yet, to me, it is a collection of scientific and Indigenous knowledge intertwined as near poetry. As an urban gardener who grew up rural among farms, I think of myself as plant knowledgeable, but I was humbled by this book. I also teach, and I found her ruminations on teaching and balancing teaching other people’s children versus your own to be beautifully honest. This book takes time to get through but because of the rich meaning in each essay. You find yourself wanting to savor it.

As a person who feels both spiritually and scientifically minded, this book spoke to me on a mind and soul level simultaneously in ways I cannot fully describe. I wish there was greater focus on teaching this way. I wish the two were not divorced from each other in our society. I think it would be healing to us all and to nature as well if they were not.

Allow me to try to pull out a few meaningful quotes to me by theme.

On morality, contentment, and consumerism:

Refusal to participate is a moral choice.

Transformation is not accomplished by tentative wading at the edge.

Balance is not a passive resting place.

In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition.

The consumption-driven mind-set masquerades as “quality of life” but eats us from within.

On teaching and being taught:

The professor made me doubt where I came from, what I knew, and claimed that his was the right way to think.

Teach any who will come.

I’d left my baby girls at home with their dad in order to introduce other people’s children to something they cared little about.

Facts about plants that fascinated me, include that a 3 sisters garden [growing corn, beans, and squash together the Indigenous way] yields more food than if you grew each alone, polycultures are less susceptible to pest outbreaks than monocultures, breathing in the smell of humus (the dirt, not the food) releases oxcytocin, and lichens are actually two beings together (a fungus and an alga). I also learned:

Sweetgrass thrives where it is used and disappears elsewhere.

Plantain is not indigenous but naturalized. It’s so prevalent and well-integrated that we think it’s native.

Estuaries can have the highest biodiversity and productivity of any method.

Forest ecologists estimate that the window of opportunity for cedars to get started occurs perhaps only twice a century.

I hope I have made you intrigued by this book. I loved it so much that I bought myself a copy after starting off with a digital library copy.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System by Cyntoia Brown-Long and Bethany Mauger

book coverSummary:
Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life in prison for a murder she committed at the age of sixteen. Her case became national news when celebrities and activists made the hashtag #FreeCyntoia go viral in 2017. She was granted full clemency after having served fifteen years, walking out a free woman on August 7, 2019.

This is her story, in her own words.

Review:
I think how people will respond to this memoir will depend a lot on what they believe justice to be. Do certain levels of crime deserve never-ending punishment? Can people change or be redeemed? Then there’s another level of do teenagers, people who are still growing and whose brains have not fully developed (brains do not complete developing until approximately age 25), deserve to spend the rest of their lives being punished for an act committed at this age? This memoir aims to be proof that people can be redeemed and, indeed, if we want people to change, they need to have hope that an end could be in sight for them.

The fact of the matter is that no one but Cyntoia, God, and Johnny Michael Allen know what truly happened that night. Cyntoia has never denied killing Johnny but has maintained it was in self-defense. The only facts that we know are that she, a sixteen-year-old who had been being sold for sex by her pimp, was picked up by Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old, and brought home with him, and they were alone in his bedroom together. Both potential stories told by each side are possible. It’s possible he brought her home for sex, like Cyntoia says. It’s possible he brought her home in an attempt to take care of a teenager he found living on the street, like Johnny Allen’s family says. Regardless, Cyntoia ended up killing him. The memoir dances around exactly what happened, with Cyntoia describing him picking her up and bringing her home but then describing the night as a red haze with no details. Was that to protect a guilty conscience or to protect details that would hurt Johnny Allens’ family that no one really needs to know? It’s very hard to say. But in a way I think this is appropriate because Cyntoia admits that she killed him, and the true point of the story is first, how did this girl end up here and second, can she be redeemed?

How she got here contains two of the more interesting aspects of the memoir. First, the school to prison pipeline is painfully obvious in Cyntoia’s story. She originally was placed in a gifted class, acted up some (didn’t get along with the teacher) and was downgraded. She started to be told over and over again she was bad. It was all downhill from there with her hanging out with the crowd of kids who were always in trouble and being constantly told she was bad and not listened to. The police were even called on her at school for her not wanting to give the teacher her purse in detention. If we want our children to rise to their potential, having school tied to prison in the way that it is is not the solution, and treating children like they’re “bad” when they’re just children who mess up sometimes is sending them a clear message that many children will just accept or fail to.

The other issue that came up during one of Cyntoia’s trials is that her birth mother admits to drinking alcohol while she was pregnant, and some doctors have diagnosed her as having fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. This is relevant, because fetal alcohol spectrum disorder can cause poor judgment, hyperactivity, poor reasoning, and problems in school. It seems, given both doctors’ testimonies her birth mother’s admission, and Cyntoia’s own perspective that this sad tale is likely, therefore, partially entwined with alcohol abuse. Cyntoia herself states multiple times that she doesn’t know why she has tended to act so impulsively. This could partially help explain it and be another of the many tentacles of how alcohol impacts our society with poor outcomes and violence.

Cyntoia ultimately chooses to have faith that she could possibly be redeemed and decides, even if she can’t be, she doesn’t want to waste her life. She goes to a unique program available in her prison that allows her to go to college. She pursues self-improvement and mentorship of others, and she works to help young girls who have also been trafficked like she was. (It is not a question that Cyntoia was trafficked as she was underage and had a pimp). Cyntoia attests much of her self-improvement to her new-found faith that she solidified after meeting her now-husband via letters in jail. (He felt called to write to her). A spiritual practice is important for anyone to have a well-rounded recovery, and I think it is also significant that the school that offered the college program inside the prison was also a religious school. I am glad for her that she has found comfort and faith, but I also hope it’s not too entwined with her husband and is her own source of strength. While healthy relationships are important, and it’s nice to share a faith, it’s also important for that strength to come from oneself and not from relying upon another fallible human being.

Overall, I think this shows a personal look at the school to prison pipeline, the potential impact of alcohol on a child’s life, and how redemption could look. It’s important to come into this book with an open mind and a willingness to not crave more than Cyntoia is willing to share, nor to think that this book will reveal all the truth or all the answers.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Book cover depicting a Black woman's face set against a starry sky.Summary:
Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.

When the autopsy of Matilda‘s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.

Review:
I went into this book hearing it was a space opera take on the American antebellum south with queer characters, written by a Black American author. That was an apt description, but what I didn’t know was that Aster is neurodiverse, and that was the finishing touch that really sent me over the moon about this book. So let’s talk about Aster first.

Aster is clearly autistic. (I am using this language, rather than person-first based on the wishes of the overall autistic community). Being autistic is just a part of who she is at her core of her being. It’s not perceived as something to be overcome or a superpower. There are parts of her autism that are strengths and parts that are weaknesses. Her ability to learn in-depth about plants and their healing powers is a strength and her tendency to take people literally and miss the point is a weakness, but only in situations where others aren’t considerate of how she perceives the world. When they are considerate and think about how to frame what they say in a way Aster will understand, it is totally fine. I loved everything about Aster. I want more books starring people like her with the representation handles so smoothly.

Other representations that exist in the book in beautiful ways include, but are not limited to: asexual, bisexual, trans*, lesbian, and a wide variety of abilities and disabilities.

The intermingling of spaceship and Antebellum American south was heartbreaking. Imagine everything about how Starship Enterprise is largely a utopia and turn that on its head, and you have the MatildaIt’s not that systemic inequality is not already clear to me, but I do think depicting it on the confines of a spaceship heightens the awareness of it seeps throughout everything.

The mourning of a child’s murder is not one of my moods, so please do not dismiss it thus.
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Although I think it should be obvious from the fact this is telling a story of the Antebellum south in outerspace, I do want to give trigger warnings for rape, abuse, violence, executions, and torture (all things that of course happened in the Antebellum south and anyplace with systemic inequality).

Everything about this was simultaneously richly imagined and depicting the diverse world we really do live in. I thought this was gorgeous and hope to meet Aster again (or someone like her) in future worlds by Rivers Solomon.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: White Ivy by Susie Yang

Book cover for White Ivy, featuring a Chinese woman from the nose down.Summary:
Ivy Lin isn’t sure of much of what she wants and never has been except for one thing – she wants Gideon Speyer. She fondly remembers his birthday party when she was 14 that she sneaked out to attend. Her parents pulled her away, sent her to China to visit relatives, and had moved to New Jersey by the time she got back. As an adult first grade teacher in Boston, Ivy runs into Gideon’s sister once again, and while she’s uncertain about what she wants most of the time, she immediately begins the work to get to be around and date Gideon. But does she really want only Gideon?

Review:
I went into this thinking it was a thriller based on the blurb that I saw – I wrote a different one for you that I think more accurately reflects the book. I would call it a contemporary story of the dark directions life can go when facing systemic and internalized issues. I would call it most comparable to Valley of the Dolls only featuring only one main character instead of many.

This is a strong own voices book. The issues Ivy faces as someone who immigrated at a very young age (and also spent some time being raised by her Grandmother in China waiting for her parents to send for her) were touching and felt real. The representation of systemic racism Ivy faced was subtle but woven throughout her life in such a way its insidiousness came across.

The author is also unafraid of pointing to the issues in the Chinese immigrant culture as well, particularly at the negative response to mental illness. This of course is not an issue limited to Chinese immigrant culture – I struggle to think of a culture that handles it well. However, I mention it as a way to say that the author did not present Ivy’s Chinese immigrant family as perfect. Rather, the problems in that family and in the broader culture as a whole twisted together to lead her down her path.

I don’t think this book is getting as much buzz as it should be. It’s a fun, different take that also brings diversity to the genre of contemporary women’s fiction. (I dislike calling it that but also there’s not a better term I’m aware of the communicates the genre I mean).

If you like reading contemporary women’s fiction with a twist of thrills (but not too many thrills), give this a chance. Especially if you’re looking to diversify your reading list or simply to find a Chinese-American leading character.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom

17339177Summary:
Corrie Ten Boom and her family of watchmakers (she was the first licensed woman watchmaker in the Netherlands) are known for their work in the Dutch underground, both hiding Jewish people and doing organizing work for the underground. She and her sister Betsie did this work with their father. She and Betsie were in their 50s during this work. All three of them were ultimately arrested, and Corrie and Betsie were ultimately sent to the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp. Corrie survived and started a home to help people refind their footing after the War.

Review:
This was one of my favorite books as a little girl. I had a fascination with WWII (still do) and was utterly enamored with Corrie. I distinctly remember that the paperback book I read was borrowed, but am uncertain if I borrowed it from my grandmother or from the church library. In any case, I decided it was high time I re-read this favored book as an adult and see if it withstood my now adult sensibilities. It certainly did.

The Ten Boom’s family commitment to not only do what is right but also to discern what that right thing might be is incredible. Corrie’s ability to be peaceful and not embittered after the War and everything she went through is also amazing. She is honest about who it was more difficult to forgive than others, and how she found the ability to. I believe any reader will be fascinated by the beginning of the book, which details how her family lived as watchmakers in Amsterdam, how they began hiding Jewish people, and how they came to largely run parts of the underground in Amsterdam. The sections about her capture and imprisonment are remarkable for their combination of honesty about the suffering combined with clear forgiveness and lack of bitterness for her captors.

When He [God] tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself. (86% into the digital edition”

Corrie also demonstrates a viewpoint of both the body and soul needing to be cared for in order for the human being to be completely well and whole. She notes both when a German captor is clearly well cared-for but wanting in soul care and when a prisoner is happy in the soul but wretched in the body, noting neither is as God intended.

Corrie’s commitment to peace is also seen following the war when she establishes and runs a home to help all people (no matter which side they were on) find their way again after the war. Truly an inspiration in peace work. It’s also inspiring that she didn’t find this labor until she was in her 50s. An indicator that our calling may not fully come until later in life.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Black Literature on Opinions of a Wolf

24 Black Lit Books Opinions of a WolfI have always been committed to reading from diverse authors. I think it’s important for reading to not only be fun but also to broaden my worldview. Additionally, I like to vote with my dollars (or my advanced copy request at NetGalley or my hold request at the library) to help make it clear that diversity matters.

I have made it clear on Instagram that I support Black Lives Matter, but for those who don’t follow me there, I wanted to also make it clear here. I thought what better way than to provide you with a list of books I’ve previously read and reviewed on this book blog by Black authors to help you support the Blackout Bestseller List movement started by Amistad Books. “Saturday June 13 – Saturday June 20, we encourage you to purchase any two books by Black writers.” (source)

The list will be title, author, genre, who I recommend it to, and buy it link. The title will link to my review. If I’ve only reviewed it in short form on GoodReads, it will link there.

List is presented alphabetically by author last name.

Categories: Reading List

Book Review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

April 18, 2020 1 comment

colorpurpleSummary:
Alice Walker’s classic about Celie and her life in the deep American South between WWI and WWII. The simplest plot summary is the survivor of both rape by her father and a forced loveless marriage who then finds love with her husband’s mistress, Shug Avery. But it’s so much more than that.

Review:
For Black History Month in February I thought it was high time I got around to reading The Color Purple, which is also hailed by many of my friends and fellow members of the LGBTQ+ community as a classic for us as well. When I saw Audible had the audiobook version read by Alice Walker herself, well, it was a sign, and it was time.

I had always hesitated to read it because the plot summary made me not sure the book would work for me. Rape and incest are plots that I struggle with as is cheating in a marriage. But this book surprised me. It told what needed to be told about Celie’s childhood without dwelling on it too much or in a sensational way. And by the time Celie and Shug were getting together, I was rooting for them. Because how much of a real marriage is it when neither partner wants it?

There are many strengths to The Color Purple, but three things really stood out to me. First, it helped me to see the gray areas of people’s lives and experiences and how not everything is as clearcut as it might at first seem.

Second, the way Celie’s voice in the writing grows and changes as she grows and changes and then how the letters from her sister come in midway making it partially an epistolary novel – it’s incredible.

Finally how it explored the American “justice” system and its real impact on people’s lives and how often responses to crimes are racially motivated. It wasn’t preachy but it was very moving.

The only reason I’m not rating it at 5 stars is because, for me, it was not a life-changing book. I enjoyed it, and I respect it. However, I know for many others it is a life-changing book, and if you have been on the fence about reading it, I encourage you to do so.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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