Angel of Harlem- Kuwana Haulsey

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“Sometimes Harlem would just do that, you understand. It would open up and reveal itself in a rigorous display of scents, various and commanding, floating its sounds around and above you, where they swirled generously, like autumn colours. In  a while, you couldn’t tell what was what, really, or where the sensations came from.”- Kuwana Haulsey, Angel of Harlem

This is one of the most beautifully-written books I’ve ever read. Inspired by true events, it’s the story of Dr. May Edward Chinn, the first black woman physician in Harlem (in the 1920s). While reading the story, it’s natural to be amazed by how tenacious people can be, especially marginalized women.  Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about hearing about the first person to do something, to gain some sort of achievement. Even now there are always firsts but it’s not until I read this book that I thought more deeply about what being the first black female doctor in Harlem entailed. Not only is she black, she’s also a woman, so the question that entered my mind was this: How do marginalized people, women in particular, continue on despite society telling them from all angles that they are not supposed to be there?

The story begins with May’s struggles with education, and the barriers she faces from both black and white communities, and from her own father, who doesn’t understand why women need to be educated. He brings up the age-old discussion about how educated women won’t find men:

“Don’t no man want to marry someone got more education than them. Even those college-educated boys don’t want that. Can’t have two men trying to run the same house.”

I think of the genius this woman had, genius that wasn’t nurtured because the world she lived in did not make any room for her. This is a lady who became a doctor and yet was initially in a music program that she was forced out of due to racism:

“The music soothed me. In fact, it flooded me. Music became my joy, my spirit, the bulk and the width of my memories. The notes became integral to me in a breathing way, a way that only my mother’s presence had ever occupied my soul.”

Her foray into music was very important because she came of age during the Harlem Renaissance era. She becomes Paul Robeson’s accompanist and meets a lot of the Harlem Literati. I adore how Haulsey got Zora Neale Hurston’s  and Langston Hughes’ voices down so well on paper. It was interesting reading of a doctor who was in the Harlem Literati group, particularly because the Harlem Renaissance is often seen as a very masculine era, and the women in it were, until recently, not acknowledged as often as the men (see Cheryl T. Hall’s Women of the Harlem Renaissance). Hurston was an important voice in this book as a black female member of the Harlem Literati who also had her own struggles in education. Back then any woman who wanted to do something that was deemed “white” or “male” had a struggle on her hands, and tenacity was a must. So with her musical background, being accompanist for Robeson, and hanging out with the Harlem elite, how did she ever become a doctor?

“The only way a Negro woman had ever gotten inside Harlem Hospital was if she’d been shot, stabbed, beaten or poisoned. I think one or two may have been cleaners, but even those jobs were reserved for the Irish and German women who trekked over from Riverside and farther north up in the Bronx. I was the first. The only.”

Discussion between Zora and May: “First of all, I belong everywhere I am. That’s obvious. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be there. I figure it this way–I didn’t get into Barnard by accident. That being the case, I’m not gonna let anybody play me close. Especially not when the bottom line is that all they want to be is me anyway. They wish they had my nerve. They won’t admit it. Not in so many words. But a cat is still a cat, whether it’s got long hair or short.”

One dimension to the story that was helpful to me in understanding human nature was the story of May’s father, a man who had escaped from slavery.  If you think about the era this story was taking place in, and realize that in the 1920s the memory of slavery was very fresh, then you realize slavery  was the memory her father carried. It can’t have been easy for him to dream, therefore how could he see more for his daughter? His relationship with his daughter reminded me of that of James Baldwin and his stepfather, and how Baldwin was able to understand his step-father a bit better after he considered his life history and the society he was a part of.

 

My review doesn’t do the book enough justice. This is an amazing book written by an extremely talented writer. I’m so glad to have read it and I hope you will too.

 

 

A Mercy- Toni Morrison

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“In short, 1682 and Virginia was still a mess. Who could keep up with the pitched battles for God, king and land?“- Toni Morrison, A Mercy

It’s been a very busy month but I’ve somehow managed to keep my Morrison-a-month reading streak alive. It’s hard to say new things about Morrison’s writing in this review that I haven’t said in my others, but it’s a fact that Morrison always manages to bring a period of history to life, by not just using dry facts, but also by telling people’s stories, sharing their thoughts, and their experiences. I love stories about bravery and survival, and stories like this one show me how people have used their resolve and adaptability to survive.

The book is set in the 17th Century in the Americas, in a place with a mixture of freeborn people, slaves, and settlers from different European countries. I rarely read about the Dutch in North America so this was an interesting perspective. I kept thinking about how stressful it must have been, and I was reminded of Marlon James’ “The Book of Night Women“, a book that showed me that among the different Europeans in the Americas there was also a racial hierarchy, and they had different ways of doing things, reacting to, and interacting with, each other.

One thing I thought about more this time were families and relationships that arose out of necessity.We have engaged Dutch girl Rebekka in the ship making friends with prostitutes and other women she would never have made friends with in Europe. We also see unrelated slaves forming a sort of family too. The New World is a strange place where different types of people are flung together, and it just seems like the women recognize their mutual dependency on each other, whether they like it or not. I felt the experiences and fears of the various women in this book were the strongest part of this story:

“Don’t die, Miss. Don’t. Herself, Sorrow, a newborn and maybe Florens- three unmastered women and an infant out here, alone, belonging to no one, became wild game for anyone. None of them could inherit; none was attached to a church or recorded in its books. Female and illegal, they would be interlopers, squatters, if they stayed on after Mistress died, subject to purchase, hire, assault, abduction, exile.”
There’s so much sadness in this book, and a sense of isolation. For myself, living in North America over 400 years after this book was set, it’s really difficult to imagine how life must have been like at the beginning of America’s history.

Love- Toni Morrison 

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“Young people, Lord. Do they still call it infatuation? That magic ax that chops away the world in one blow, leaving only the couple standing there trembling? Whatever they call it, it leaps over anything, takes the biggest chair, the largest slice, rules the ground wherever it walks, from a mansion to a swamp, and its selfishness is its beauty.”– Toni Morrison, Love

It’s almost September and I’ve managed to keep my Morrison-a-month reading streak alive. Eight Morrison’s later and she never fails to surprise me, even though these are rereads. I enjoyed Love, a well-written  book with a lot  of fodder for discussion. The strange thing is I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone mention it. I wonder why it doesn’t have the same appeal as some of her other books?

Love begins with our narrator introducing us to the coast community the book is set in; she talks about the past in nostalgic tones,  how things have changed, and how things haven’t changed. The main story itself is centered around the legend Bill Cosey, a black entrepreneur, and the women in his life who fight for his attention: his (very) young wife, daughter-in-law, grand-daughter and a few others. Even though Cosey has been deceased for a couple of decades, he is still a very strong, disturbing presence in the lives of these women.

This is a sad  story  of misunderstandings,  bitterness, cruelty, hurt and anger. The three women share a house and we aren’t sure why there is so much hatred between them.   Morrison reveals things slowly and in a non-linear manner, and I’m left wondering how on earth women’s lives can be fulfilling if they are centred solely around men, especially when this competition is encouraged, which, in this book, resulted in very strong feelings:

“Hate does that. Burns off everything but itself, so whatever your grievance is, your face looks just like your enemy’s.” 

“Finally they stopped, moved into acid silence, and invented other ways to underscore bitterness….Like friendship, hatred needed more thank physical intimacy; it wanted creativity and hard work to sustain itself.”

When it comes to Morrison’s writing, what stands out to me most are her descriptions of things, in particular how she uses colour; it’s often a short poetic respite from the tough subject matter she writes:

“Jade and sapphire waves fight each other, kicking up enough foam to wash sheets in. An evening sky behaves as though it’s from another planet– one without rules, where the sun can be plum purple if it wants to and clouds can be red as poppies.”

This was an emotional whirlwind of a book and Morrison takes us in so many different directions, down many paths of discoveries. There is plenty of food for thought in this one: families, their secrets and their hurts.

 “The problem for those left alive is what to do about revenge–how to escape the sweetness of its rot. So you can see why families make the best enemies. They have time and convenience to honey-butter the wickedness they prefer. Shortsighted, though.”

I’ll Never Write My Memoirs- Grace Jones

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“I decided from an early age that the best form of defense was attack. and that taking on the world and living life to the fullest was how I would deal with setbacks and problems. This means you leave behind quite a trail. What you do gets noticed.”- Grace Jones, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs

Grace Jones is a model, singer, actress, and many other things. She threw eggs at cabs in Paris that didn’t stop for her, hung out with Andy Warhol, lived as a nudist for a while, and is the kind of woman who will try anything once. Ms. Jones lives by her own rules, so I knew this book was going to be a fascinating read.

To me the most fascinating memoirs are those in which people have so many seemingly impossible  barriers to overcome, but somehow they do it. I’m drawn to the type of memoirs that show how the human spirit can overcome, whether the spirit is a quiet one, or a feisty one like Jones’. When I was much younger and watched documentaries on famous people’s lives with my family I never really understood why childhood was so impressed upon. I used to hear people say that you spend  your adulthood trying to reconcile and get over your childhood, and I never really understood what that meant until I was older. When I read the recount of Jones’ early life, I’m not surprised she ended up taking the unconventional route. Jones was raised in Jamaica by her sadistic step-grandfather, Mas P,  in an extremely conservative (Pentecostal) religious environment that basically sucked all the joy out of her. Reading about what she had to endure at the hands of Mas P was really disturbing and invites plenty of discussion on conservative religion and how stifling, controlling, and cruel it can be, especially to women and children. Constantly being monitored and not having the opportunity to have a real life, so it’s no wonder that when Jones left Jamaica for the US, she let loose and became a rebel of sorts:

“Jamaica is a land of growth–things grow so fast; it’s nature in spectacular, bewitching overdrive–so it is weird to be in a situation where spontaneous personal growth was frowned upon.”

The era she came up in was hard, especially as a black woman who, in her words, didn’t have a “wholesome” look. Jones worked hard! It’s amusing but also important for me to see how she demanded respect. This was such a powerful manifesto by a powerful woman who knows her worth:

“I had to be a bitch to maintain any kind of authority. Well, if I were a man, I wouldn’t have been considered a bitch. If I were a man, I would simply have been in charge, however aggressive and demanding I was. I wouldn’t have had other people running about filming things behind my back. A man putting his foot down is in control. It’s strong. A woman putting her foot down is out of control. She’s weak.”

I loved reading all the gossip and exploits. Maybe it’s just nostalgia speaking but celebrities back in the day just seemed to be more interesting than most of present day ones. And Jones met a lot of them. I laughed more than once. Jones is a funny lady and so candid at times. It’s really refreshing. She has her standards when it comes to entertainment and she strives to authenticity. She talks about the disco era and how, even then, she was picky about the songs she sang:

“Can you imagine me singing Boogie Wonderland? Preposterous. That song needs a twinkling Tinker Bell to sing it, and I’m much more of a witch with a smear of blood on my cheek.”

Reading this I got a similar feeling to when I was reading Questlove’s memoir a few years ago: Jones and Questlove are both people who have so much expertise and knowledge of their worlds, and have seen historical and technological developments taking place, so they are the perfect cultural critics. Jones’ insights on the gradual commercialization of the arts was really interesting:

“I am disco but I’m also dada. I’m a sensualist but also a surrealist. That underground spirit–from the Beats, hippies, civil rights pioneers, punks; from the experimental artists, technicians and designers–dissolved into what became known as independent, as alternative, and that’s become less and less subversive, and less resistant to a co-opting commercial pull.”

Jones names names (she called Kim K a “basic commercial product”), and at times she is quiet about which celebrities she’s talking about. Clearly so many female entertainers look up to her and try to emulate her, but unsurprisingly Jones isn’t too taken by the attention, because:

“It all backfired on me, because I set out to inspire other people, but those I inspire tend not to be inspired in that they do their own thing, but in that they do my thing, a little their way, but not too much.”

This will go down as one of my favourite memoirs ever! I for one am glad Jones did decide to write her memoirs.

Paradise- Toni Morrison

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They shoot the white girl first, but the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are 17 miles from a town which has 90 miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the convent, but there is time, and the day has just begun. They are nine. Over twice the number of the women, they are obliged to stampede or kill, and they have the paraphernalia for either requirement–rope, a palm leaf cross, handcuffs, mace, and sunglasses, along with clean, handsome guns.- Toni Morrison, Paradise

In my opinion Paradise is one of the most complex books Morrison has written, and possibly the one I’ve had the most trouble reviewing. This is my second reading of it and I feel I need at least a couple more before I truly get it; I’m happy with what I gleaned from it this time around, but to put it all down in words is still difficult.

Paradise tells the story of the black town of Ruby, Oklahoma, founded by former slaves who find themselves rejected both by white people but also by lighter-skinned black people (“Us free like them; was slave like them. What for this difference?”). Ruby was created to insulate the townspeople (as much as possible) from Out There, the outside world:

Out There where your children were sport, your women quarry, and where your very person could be annulled…

Since reading Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, I’ve been curious about the founding of black towns.Through this fictionalized account I was able to think more about how black towns were formed (the “why” is easy enough to guess at), but it’s also clear to see that towns like these, often founded with high hopes,  are definitely not utopian.  Ruby ends up becoming quite insular and patriarchal, and full of strife not only due to inter-generational quarreling, but also because of the women in the Convent. Throughout the book independent women, such as the women living in the Convent, are met with ridicule, scorn, hatred, and fear. The Convent is a haven, a refuge for  women who have experienced trauma and hardships in their lives, and a place where women are enterprising and self-sufficient. The Convent women actually benefit the town, but all that labour and kindness  is taken for granted and unappreciated in the end. It’s practically a witch-hunt where strong, independent women are the scapegoats when things aren’t going well:

So, Lone thought, the fangs and the tail are somewhere else. Out yonder all slithery in a house full of women. Not women locked safely away from men; but worse, women who chose themselves for company, which is to say not a convent but a coven.

Morrison is one of the best at illuminating  different aspects of African-American history with human stories. This always helps me  appreciate the history even more and also think of the people involved, not just the bare facts and figures that we are often fed when we are taught history, so much so that we often feel removed from it. Definitely recommended for those who enjoy challenging reads!

 

 

Jazz- Toni Morrison

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“I’m crazy about this City. Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In the top half I see looking faces and it’s not easy to tell which are people, which the work of stonemasons. Below is shadow were any blasé thing takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women. A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things. Hep. It’s the bright steel rocking above the shade below that does it.”- Toni Morrison, Jazz

Wynston Marsalis said, “Jazz is a conversation, but a nuanced, swift, and complicated one”  , and over time I’ve come to learn and understand this too. What’s even more interesting to me is how  the improvisation in jazz  can be applied to life.

The story  starts with Violet, a woman in her 50s, mutilating the corpse of teenager Dorcas, the former lover (and murder victim) of her husband, Joe Trace. From this passionate scene at Dorcas’ funeral, we get a very emotional story which seems to be an improv, with the story lines reacting both with the city’s surroundings but also with history and personal stories.

To me, the city backdrop and how Morrison works that into her story, is the best part of the book, in particular when the city is contrasted with the rural areas the main characters grew up in. The city carries with it its own energy and I felt it held a lot of hope and promise for people who had survived slavery and life in the countryside. Moving to the city and encountering a whole new lifestyle was a huge turning point in these people’s lives, and I like how Morrison shows that a change in scene can change everything, similar to her approach in Tar Baby;  love is different in the city and in the countryside:

“Little of that makes for love, but it does pump desire. The woman who churned a man’s blood as she leaned all alone on a fence by a country road might not expect even to catch his eye in the City. But if she is clipping quickly down the big-city street in heels, swinging her purse, or sitting on a stoop with a cool beer in her hand, dangling her shoe from the toes of her foot, the man, reacting to her posture, to soft skin on stone, the weight of the building stressing the delicate, dangling shoe, is captured. And he’d think it was the woman he wanted, and not some combination of curved stone, and a swinging, high-heeled shoe moving in and out of sunlight. He would know right away the deception, the trick of shapes and light and movement, but it wouldn’t matter at all because the deception was part of it too.”

The first time I read this I was quite frustrated by the character of Joe Trace; male violence is always difficult to read about, and it’s even more difficult when you know the perpetrator doesn’t get the necessary punishment. Yet, and I’ve seen again and again with Morrison (and this is one of the things I admire about her the most), she is able to relay the facts in a non-judgemental way, and somehow she allows us to feel some sort of compassion.

Apart from Dorcas, the murdered teenager, the character who I felt for  most in this story is Violet. This is a lady who was clearly depressed and searching for something in life. At the age of 56 she said ,”I want some fat in this life.” This is a lady who experienced childhood tragedy, worked hard, was misunderstood,  betrayed by her husband, and became the subject of gossip by her neighbours:

“This notion of rest, it’s attractive to her, but I don’t think she would like it. They are all like that, these women. Waiting for the ease, the space that need not be filled with anything other than the drift of their own thoughts. But they wouldn’t like it. They are busy thinking of ways to be busier because such a space of nothing pressing to do would knock them down. No fields of cowslips will rush into that opening, nor mornings free of flies and heat when the light is shy. No. Not at all. They fill their minds and hands with soap and repair and dicey confrontations because what is waiting for them, in a suddenly idle moment, is the seep of rage. Molten. Thick and slow-moving. Mindful and particular about what in its path it chooses to bury.”

Jazz is an emotional and a very beautiful read. Toni Morrison’s writing style is.

 

Some jazz for you:  Art Blakely and the Jazz Messengers: https://youtu.be/ynZDm50EgBY

Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo- Ntozake Shange

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“Streets in Charleston wind the way old ladies’ fingers crochet as they unravel the memories of their girlhoods. One thing about a Charlestonian female is her way with little things. The delicacy of her manner. The force of ritual in her daily undertakings. So what is most ordinary is made extraordinary. What is hard seems simple.”- Ntozake Shange; Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo

What a beautiful, lyrical book. A tribute to black women trying to find themselves, black women who are trying to live outside the box, clearly not an easy feat.It’s a very honest book about three sisters, Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo from Charleston, South Carolina. The book seems to be a patchwork of all sorts of things, such as poems, journal entries, letters from the traditional mother with unconventional daughters whose life trajectories end up being so different from hers, and even some great recipes. The inclusions of all these things made the book into a very sensory, rich experience.

My favourite sister was Indigo, the youngest, whom we unfortunately only meet at the beginning of the book. Indigo talks and communicates with her dolls. She’s a reminder of those people who see the world in a different way, who are perhaps misunderstood by others because of it. I found her to be a very beautiful spirit:

“The South in her, the land and salt-winds, moved her through Charleston’s streets as if she were a mobile sapling, with the gait of a well-loved colored woman whose lover was the horizon in any direction. Indigo imagined tough winding branches growing from her braids, deep green leaves rustling by her ears, doves and macaws flirting above the nests they’d fashioned in the secret, protected niches way high up in her headdress. When she wore this Carolinian costume, she knew the cobblestone streets were really polished oyster shells, covered with pine needles and cotton flowers. She made herself, her world from all that she came from.”

The other sisters, who are older and living away from home, have a lot more than Indigo to contend with, it seems. Sassafrass is a weaver and a writer who is in a very tumultuous relationship with her boyfriend, Mitch.Reading the part about weaving gave me an a-ha moment of sorts:

“…because when women make cloth, they have time to think…So Sassafrass was certain of the necessity of her skill for the well-being of women everywhere, as well as for her own. As she passed the shuttle through the claret cotton warp, Sassafrass conjured images of women weaving from all time and all places…”

One of my favourite sections regarding Sassafrass was when Billie Holliday’s ghost comes to talk to her about the blues and to encourage her to keep writing:

“Who do you love among us, Sassafrass? Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Freddie Washington, Josephine, Carmen Miranda? Don’t you know we is all sad ladies because we got the blues, and joyful women because we got our songs?”

The last sister, Cypress,  is a dancer. Her story seemed to be the most complex to me:

“Cypress was always smiling. She had made amends with her living, and thoroughly expected everything to happen to her, given time and the way her luck ran. She was round and sturdy, but elastic like a gathering of sunflowers in a balmy night. Cypress liked sweet wine, cocaine, and lots of men: musicians, painters, poets, sculptors…photographers, filmmakers, airplane pilots.”

The book contained lots of conversation about art and black spirituality. The art discussion in particular was interesting, given the eurocentrism of art, and the microaggressions in the art world (“You don’t need all that ethnic flourish, Leroy, you are too good to work in the Negro idiom.“)

I don’t think I can write a review that does this book any justice without a reread but I will say that as a black woman this touched me deeply, and it showed me how difficult it is sometimes to live outside of the box particularly when so much is expected of you. I think this book respects individuality and honours our journeys into becoming the women we were meant to be. I’ve been reading a lot of books by black women and the commonality is that  they present us with  multifaceted black women with deep thought lives who have to struggle more than most, but manage to do so. The exploration into the lives of these women was wonderful. This is a book I’ll definitely be rereading.

“Where there is a woman there is magic. If there is a moon falling from her mouth, she is a woman who knows her magic, who can share or not share her powers. A woman with a moon falling from her mouth, roses between her legs and tiaras of Spanish moss, this woman is a consort of the spirits.”