David McKenzie's Book List
Randall Robinson, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks
This book is an argument for reparations. Randall Robinson takes a somewhat circuitous route in arguing that the income gap between African Americans and whites is caused by slavery and that a debt is owed. Ultimately, he argues that the debt should take the form of lost wages as recompense.
The Reparations, long assumed a backwater of civil rights, was pushed out again by Robinson and other writers. Robinson's work combines an impassioned pleas with good reportage and statistics to make his case.
Those within the movement have taken Robinson's book as a bible of sorts and he his lucid and sometimes convincing argument has been reaching many outside the flock. Most Americans, when polled, do not support the idea of reparations. One of his harshest critics has been David Horowitz, who published "Ten Reasons why reparations for blacks is a bad idea for blacks-and racist too." Horowitz maintains that even the title is racist and that the ideas behind reparations are flawed and dangerous. Supporters of Robinson, and there seem to be a growing number, say that he merely wants to create an honest discourse and that the effects of slavery are far from over.
Randall Robinson comes clos to a book that effectively combines personal narrative, policy argument and anecdotal evidence. He falls short by going on some random tangents that do not move along his argument.
An expanded version of Horowitz's criticism
A legal interpretation of Reparations
A response to Horowitz
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1951)
It goes a long way back, some twenty years. All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. So starts Invisible Man, the novel that explores the search of one man for his humanity. Long before the cliff notes of Ellison's seminal book were published, the book spoke about the difficulties of Americans finding their identity in the context of race and society. The book traces the life of an African American from his struggles at a school in the South to his move to Harlem, where he is exulted as a leader for a communist like radical group, 'the brotherhood.' The character of the book is first convinced of his worth in their eyes, but he realizes again that he has been duped, "I thought they accepted me because they felt that color made no difference, when in reality it made no difference because they didn't see either color or men."
Invisible Man was generally praised when it first was published. There was some criticism of his thinly veiled criticism of the communist party. There was also a lot of reviews that are somewhat painful to read considering the racial attitudes of the time. For example, Saul Bellow wrote the same year it was published, "There is a way for Negro novelists to go at their problems, just as there are Jewish or Italian ways. Mr. Ellison has not adopted a minority tone. If he had done so, he would have failed to establish a true middle-of-consciousness for everyone."
This book is important to read over many non-fiction books of a similar subject. Though Bellow shows us his racist attitudes of the time, he is right in one sense. Ellison illuminates us about race and conflict within black society, but his book transcends this. He unveils a atomization and confusion of American Society as a whole.
A summation of Kaiser's review
A cotemporary review
Ida B. Wells Barnett, On Lynchings
Ida B. Wells Barnett was a voice beyond her time. A tireless advocate of civil rights in an America that was not ready to face the injustice of racism. On Lynchings is a compendium of her work as a journalist in the harshest of conditions.
In the post Civil War period black Americans were emancipated on paper, but often not in practice. The years of reconstruction and on produced some of the worst years for the civil rights movement. With a substantive rise in equal rights came a rise in organized racism. Lynching became the most horrifying and symbolic action of these groups. In her pamphlet 'A Red Record', she writes, " Emancipation came and the vested interests of the white man in the Negro's body were lost. The white man had no right to scourge the emancipated Negro, still less has he a right to kill him."
Her writing is significant in its subject and its reporting. She knew that to get her message out, she had to maintain the truth and not skew issues to suit her needs. She would sourced certain white Southerners that she might have disdained, but she new the society at the time would take it more seriously. Her reporting of the horrors of lynching is graphic and unblinking. More recently, she has become considered as a leading feminist figure (See Joanne M. Braxton: Black women writing autobiography).
Ida Wells Barnett was the daughter of slaves and she spent a lifetime trying to end the vestiges of her past. In 1893, three of her friends fought against a mob that tried to destroy their business. They were arrested, but a lynch mob abducted and murdered them. Wells Barnett, who wrote under the pseudonym 'Iola' began an editorial campaign at the Memphis Free Speech, where she was working. She continued her quest, through all of her life as a journalist and political activist. She was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people (NAACP).
A review of her biography by C. Du Bois
Stanley Crouch, Notes of a Hanging Judge
The title 'Notes of a Hanging Judge'aptly sums up this book of essays and reviews by Stanley Crouch. Crouch took the title froma pirate turned judge who would gleefully hang his former compatriots for piracy. In his collection of works, mainly from his days as a staff writer at the Village Voice in the 70s and 80s, Crouch takes to task what he sees as the failures of the civil rights movement. He uses tight prose and acid humor to tear at the black nationalist movement, Jesse Jackson and even filmakers (Spike Lee, who he calls 'a minaturist in more than size, his vision is small and lacks subtelty.' Ultimately, Crouch says that his book is about the 'Age of Redifinition', where the roles or race, racism, sexism and secual orientation are redifined.
Stanley Crouch can be best understood as a protege of Albert Murray, the iconic figure that took on Black Power and subsequent definitions of 'blackness.' Their relationship both professionally and personally fostered a style in Crouch that both imitates Murray's style and emulates his viewpoint. But unlike Murray, most of Crouch's work was done in weekly journalism. The reporting gives his work immediacy. But the freshness of his reportage lends a dated feel to some of his work and much of it seems less timeless than Murray's.
Crouch's tenure at the Village Voice is also important because it exposed him to ideas he might not have worked with. Crouch's exploration of the Gay and Feminist movements explicitly shaped his opinions and material.
Crouch's critics frequently criticize his personality and his work in the same breadth. They go hand in hand. Some say his work is too judgmental and skewed towards skewering the left. His caustic approach in his writing is certainly not for the faint of heart.
Notes of a Hanging judge is a interesting portrait into the mind of a contrarian. The often superb writing can be overpowered by a sometimes too judgmental outlook.
Robert Boynton's profile of Crouch in the New Yorker
For some of Crouch's more recent work
Crouch's columns in Slate
The Uber link page of Crouch
Henry Louis Gates, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man
Most of Henry Louis Gate's writing in this book appeared in the New Yorker. And the style of the magazine is evident. Gates writes fluently in each of these profiles that fit in into the milieu of the New Yorker. The profiles are of seven influential black men (James Baldwin, Albert Murray, Anatole Broyard, Bill T. Jones, Louis Farrakhan, Colin Powell and Harry Belafonte). When taken as a whole the book forges a fascinating portrait of some of the most notable men of our age. Gates explores the complexities, the "paradox" of being a black man in America.
Henry Louis Gates' position as one of the best-known intellectuals in American afforded him astonishing access to some of the most celebrated figures in the country. But often his insight comes from friends of the subject (as is often the style of a profile), rather than from the subject itself. It is unclear whether he always hits the mark, but it is certainly beautiful writing.
The title of the work comes from a poem by Wallace Stevens (Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird). Gates maintains that black men in America have to decide which identity to align with. He says that there is no such thing ultimately as a dancer, general, religious leader or actor who just happens to be black. Their black 'identity' is central, but this identity is always complex and should not be typecast.
His writing is readable and beautiful, a true master of the profile.
A biography of Henry Louis Gates
Excerpts from the book
Henry Hampton, Judith Vecchione et al, Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years 1954-1965
Eyes on the prize is a 6 part series on America's civil rights movement. The series chronicals the small and large victories and defeats of the movement for equal rights in America. It starts with the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, that brought the attention of the country to the South. It ends with the signing of the voting rights act into federal law by Lyndon Johnson. A second series chronicles 1964 to the 1970s.
Henry Hampton and his team were universally acclaimed for their work, winning most of the highest awards in broadcast journalist. The documentary came at a time when the memory of the civil rights movement was fading in America for many and distant to a younger generation. The series has become a standard in schools, libraries and colleges.
Eyes on the prize proves that television can be a more than worthy outlet for journalism. When the documentary was broadcast in 1987, much of the footage had not bee seen before. The producers used the shocking footage of brutality in the South with superb interviews of both the giants of the movement and the ordinary people affected. The film forum put in a paid notice in the New York Times when he died, "Henry brought to the craft of film making the conviction of the educator, the eye of the artist, the subtle intelligence of the historian, the determination of the inspired messenger."
The PBS outline of the programs
An obituary of Hampton
Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans
Albert Murray exploded onto the literary scene with The Omni-Americans in 1970. The collection of essays starts with a call for integration, arguing that, "The so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other." He goes on to take a scalpel to all of those who he sees as trying to define a 'blackness' or a 'whiteness' in America. The KKK, the Black Panther's and Black Nationalism, none are spared.
With the publishing of The Omni-Americans, Albert Murray quickly became one of the leading thinkers in America. But his path to that point was a long one. He was in his forties when he wrote the book, after a long stint in the military. Murray attended the Tuskegee institute and for a long time had a close friendship with Ralph Ellison. But while Ellison's work faltered after early successes, Murray started late, but was relatively prolific. He later became one of the champions of Blues. . As Duke Ellington wrote, "He is one of the unsquarest people I know.'
The book was published right at the height of the Black Power movement. Murray saw the movement as a sham and, significantly, was not afraid to take them on. He writes with such honesty, that many of his opponents were unsure of what to say to him.
Review of Murray in Salon
An excellent Q&A with Murray about Ellison, Jazz and writers
A selection of is work from Random House