Sunday 23 August 2015

Racism in Alive in America: Part Two

Part One of this piece appeared on Critics at Large on Sunday, August 16 and Part Two appeared on that site on August 23.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 
                                                   ― William Faulkner

Jim Grimsley's contention that “We reserve our special ideological fury for blackness” suffuses Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. If the tone in most of Grimsley’s How I Shed My Skin is a gentle wistfulness, the mood that percolates throughout Between the World is one of anger, desperation and fear, punctuated by flashes of love for his teenage son, Samori. Coates, the author of the memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, has written in the form of a letter to his son about what it means to be a black man in America today. “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.” The violence to which Coates refers encompasses slavery, the terror of Jim Crow, and police brutality right up to the present moment, much of it covered by Grimsley. But Coates’ prose has a much more personal edginess to it as he has internalized and lived that history. The power of his writing in part derives from his capacity to dissolve the distinctions between the past and the present where one seamlessly flows into the other. Read the lyrical passages in Between the World and Me where he urges his son to not only respect all other living human beings but also to extend it to individuals once enslaved.

Coates insists that no amount of false morality about “personal responsibility” on the part of African Americans can shield them from lethal violence. Right from the outset when he attempts to help Samori grapple with his feelings after the police officer in Ferguson who killed Michael Brown was not indicted, Coates refuses to comfort his son or the white reader for whom this book is really intended, with “praise anthems [or] old Negro spirituals.” “There is no uplifting way” to tell the hard realities about brutality in America. Instead of bromides about racial progress, he can only offer the need for struggle, as he sets out to explore the question of how to “live free in this black body” when “black people controlled nothing, least of all the fate of their bodies, which could be commandeered by the police; which could be erased by the guns, which were so profligate; which could be raped, beaten, jailed.” As a result of his own life experiences, he believed he was in a war “for the possession of his body, and this would be the war of his whole life.” This is not a book for those whose only touchstone for improving race relations is Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or for anyone who wants to see America through the prism of what Coates calls the “Dream” of “perfect houses with nice lawns.”

Sunday 16 August 2015

Racism is Alive in America: Part One

This piece originally appeared in Critics at Large and I am reproducing on this website because racism, albeit not the American expression, was an integral component on both volumes of That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War and The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden both published by Encompass Editions 2012 and 2013.

“The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals, if honest and industrious; and hence have a position and pride of character of which neither poverty nor misfortune can deprive them.” 
― John C. Calhoun, 1848
Some of the names will be familiar, some may not: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter L. Scott and Freddie Gray. What they all share in common is that they were unarmed black men who were either killed by the police or in the case of Martin, by an armed killer who was acquitted. Compound these individual killings with the June domestic terrorist act in Charleston, S.C., where a young white man motivated by sheer racial hatred executed nine black worshipers in an historic black church. The zealot left behind a manifesto that leaves little doubt that he was inspired by the Web site of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a prominent white supremacist group that has funded Republican contenders for the Presidency in 2016.

The current incumbent, Barack Obama, has belatedly become emboldened and retrieved his mojo in the twilight of his Presidency, particularly on matters of race. Where once he cautiously deployed the bully pulpit to speak about encouraging personal responsibility, he has now, in columnist Maureen Dowd’s words, “discovered a more gingerly voice.” Consider the following checklist: a searing speech on race relations and his moving rendition of “Amazing Grace” in the Charleston eulogy for the pastor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney. For the first time in American history Obama made a presidential visit to a federal prison to showcase the problem with sentencing policies that have filled the nation’s prisons with nonviolent offenders who are disproportionately African American. There he spoke with felons to say, “There but for the grace of God.” He also told the NAACP that African Americans were “more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, detained,” and more likely to be arrested. “They are more likely to be sentenced to more time for the same crime.” But his boldest comments occurred when he chose a podcast with comedian Marc Maron to address race relations. Although he said that they have clearly improved in our lifetime, he made it clear that “we are not cured” of racism “and it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public.” Slavery and Jim Crow discrimination cast “a long shadow, and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.” Obama’s impassioned remarks suggest that he is either in tune with the zeitgeist or he has been reading Jim Grimsley's courageous memoir How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood (Algonquin Books, 2015) and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ unflinching treatise Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2015). Although they are strikingly different in tone and style, they complement each other and offer insightful contributions to the conversation about race in America.

Sunday 2 August 2015

The New Cold War in Jason Matthew’s Palace of Treason

This review originally appeared in Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because I concluded my Soviet chapters in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) with a brief assessment of Vladimir Putin, a central character in the novel under review.

Novelist Jason Matthews. (Photo: Nicole Bengiveno / The New York Times)

“[Putin] was a natural conspirator who was concerned about one thing – sila – power, strength, force. It was having and keeping sila that everything else derived: personal wealth, Russian resurgence, territory, oil, global respect, fear, women.” 
–  Jason Matthews, Palace of Treason (Scribner, 2015)
In his debut thriller Red Sparrow, Jason Matthews introduced Dominika Egorova of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), one of the most intriguing heroines to grace the espionage genre. Courageous, a stunningly attractive former ballerina and capable of unleashing lethal force on anyone who presents a threat, Dominika is a synesthete endowed with the gift of seeing emotions as colours above the heads of those around her. (When I reviewed Sparrow two years ago, I mistakenly suggested that her synesthesia was a metaphor for heightened intuition. I have since learned that synesthesia is a neurological condition that may affect four percent of the population. Those who experience this phenomenon usually see colours in letters and numbers or associate sounds with colours, but in some rarer cases a synesthete can associate particular colours with specific people. The latter application is the most relevant to Dominika.) She is also a graduate of the Sparrow School, where male and female agents are taught advanced sexual techniques as an aid to seduction and recruitment. Dominika is recruited by Nate Nash, an internal-ops officers, also tasked with handling CIA assets. His aura is deep purple, one that is “warm, honest and safe.” But the increasingly reckless Nate breaks every rule of security by becoming involved with Dominika. In the sequel, Palace of Treason, Mathews provides sufficient back story so that anyone can enjoy this novel without having read its predecessor.