Friday, May 15, 2015

Dorothy West and class, color, and the black bourgeousie

Dorothy West is something of an anomaly: a peripheral figure in the Harlem Renaissance, she published only 2 novels: The Living is Easy in 1948 and this month's AAL choice The Wedding in 1995.

Although a generation younger, she hung out with Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen,  roomed with Zora Neale Hurston, and traveled with other black writers to the Soviet union to film a documentary on black life in the United States. Unlike Hurston, whose work focused on the rhythms and folklore of  rural African Americans, West wrote about the black middle class, especially the conflicts based on skin color hierarchy. In her New York Times obituary, Ms West is praised for her, "brisk narratives, an eye for detail and wit [used] to explore the aspirations of well-to-do blacks and the interplay of race, class and intraracial tensions in America".

Like Colson Whitehead's Sag Harbor, The Wedding focuses on an exclusive African American community on the east coast. However, the central theme running through the novel is class and color: extended flashbacks describe the struggles of the family ancestors, whose goal was usually to "bleach" out the family line. As Shelby, the blond, light skinned youngest daughter plans her wedding to a white jazz musician, she must face up to generations of familial and community expectations, and reconcile them with her own desires and sense of identity.

Please join us for the discussion this coming Tuesday May 19th, 7:00 pm at the Evanston Public Library. Call 847-448-8620 to have us hold a copy of the book for you.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Jessye Norman: Standing and Singing for over 50 years

Jessye Norman is one of several internationally acclaimed African American opera singers: Kathleen Battle, Denyce Graves,  Grace Bumbry, Shirley Verrett, Leontyne Price. Like them all, she acknowledges a debt of gratitude to the legendary Marian Anderson, whose historic performance at the Lincoln Memorial, (after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to sing at Constitution Hall) was a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights struggle.

Like Anderson, Norman is a pioneer;  the only African American woman to sing the great Wagner roles on the international opera circuit. Her 1969 operatic debut, as Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhauser was highly significant, since it challenged Wagnerian ideals of female "purity". Although Grace Bumbry had earlier played the sultry seductive "bad girl" Venus in the opera, the notion of a black woman as Wagner's Teutonic, virginal heroine was harder for some to accept. Yet Norman triumphed in the role both in Europe and nearly 20 years later at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Norman is not one to dwell on past slights, (although an incident with CBS' Morley Safer still rankles). Her memoir Stand up Straight and Sing! reveals a consummate artist with a staggering work ethic: she never arrives for a performance less than several hours in advance, and she rarely sings in a language she has not intensively studied and learned to speak fluently. And although she rarely refers to politics, it is clear that she views her role as an ambassador for American and specifically African American culture with great pride

Join us as we discuss this fascinating artist and activist at this month's African American Lit discussions, Tuesday April 21st, 7:00 pm. in the Small Meeting Room of Evanston Public Library. Copies are available at the 2nd floor desk: call 847-448-8620.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Black History books every month

I expect many of you will be attending the April 4th reading of The Piano Lesson, here at Evanston Public Library, part of Goodman Theater's August Wilson Celebration. One of the wonderful aspects of this series, and of reading the plays together last year at the Library was that it brought together such a diverse group of people to read and discuss African American literature.

Luckily, you have a variety of opportunities to read and talk about African American themed books here at EPL! In addition to our own AAL group, the GLBT, graphic novel, and history book groups will all be discussing black themed works over the next few months...

(Copies are available  at the Readers Advisory desk on the 2nd floor a month before the discussion; to register or reserve a copy call 847-448-8620 or register online.)

GLBT Book Discussion: Sister Outsider

Ttitleuesday, April 14, 7 pm, Small Meeting Room, Main Library
Greg Salustro , former Evanston Arts Commissioner, and chair of “Reeling 32”, Chicago’s LGBTQ annual film festival leads a monthly discussion of books and plays by or about members of the gay/lesbian/bi/transgender community. The sixth title is Audre Lord's, Sister Outsider, a collection of fifteen essays written between 1976 and 1984  which explore and illuminate the roots of Lorde's intellectual development and her deep-seated and longstanding concerns about  the concept of difference—difference according to sex, race, and economic status. These  the essays stress Lorde's oft-stated theme of continuity, particularly of the geographical and intellectual link between Dahomey, Africa, and her emerging self.

 History Book Discussion: Forever Free

Wednesday, April 15, Small Meeting Room, Main Library
The South surrendered precisely 150 years and six days prior to when we’ll meet to discuss the emancipation of the slaves and the complex legacy of what followed in Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction, by Eric Foner.  Foner, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, is generally considered to be the leading historian of Reconstruction.


League of Graphic Novel Readers: 21

Friday, April 17, 7pm, Comix Revolution, 606 Davis Street (map)

21: The Story of Roberto Clemente is a biography of the first Puerto Rican baseball star, from his impoverished childhood to his athletic accomplishment and his humanitarian work. Copies of 21 will be held at the Reader's Services desk on the 2nd floor and will be available for purchase at Comix Revolution.  

 History Book Discussion: Devil in the Grove

Wednesday, June 17, Small Meeting Room, Main Library
Before Thurgood Marshall would argue Brown v. Board of Ed in front of the Supreme Court that he would go on to join, he led the legal defense of four young black men falsely accused of rape. Gilbert King's Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, a gripping account of that case, was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.

 History Book Discussion: Family Properties


Wednesday, July 15, Small Meeting Room, Main Library
Chicago became the most segregated city in the north as a result of a complex system of legal discrimination and financial exploitation.  In Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America, historian Beryl Satter tells the story of this system and those who fought it, including her father, in this fascinating mixture of urban history and family memoir.


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

If Lincoln Had Lived...

Greetings! Next week we'll be taking on the somewhat weighty appearing, (but actually fairly lightweight) Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, (plenty of copies still available at the 2nd floor desk).

It's a twisty alternate history mystery based on the premise that Lincoln, having survived the assassination attempt of 1865, is impeached for threatening to overthrow Congress. His best chance for political survival rests with Abigail Canner, a sharply intelligent free black woman and lawyer hopeful, who guides the president's legal team (against their will ) into unraveling a nest of conspiracies and murders involving the cream of Washington society.

Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is a potboiler, but it is based on some historical truths: Lincoln was accused of illegally overriding Congressional authority and of violating constitutional principles such as habeas corpus and press freedom. Also, as the novel makes clear, many of his primary accusers were the so-called "radical" Republicans: led by Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, who stood for true equality for African Americans and who felt Lincoln was failing in his responsibilities towards the freed slaves by not protecting them from white Southerners. Abigail and the other black characters are torn: do they support "Father Abraham" who ended slavery, or his opponents who were more actively pushing for black civil rights?

George Muschamp as Thaddeus Stevens and Erin Wilks as his biracial housekeeper companion Lydia Smith, as portrayed in Thaddeus Stevens:The Play

Author Stephen Carter has some great discussion questions on his website. I look forward to discussing all this and more with you next Tuesday March 17th, at 7:00 pm, in the Small Meeting room of the Evanston Public Library. Call 847-448-8620 to reserve a copy, or just come up to the 2nd floor.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

AAL Winter/Spring Selections

Greetings! Looking forward to seeing everyone next Tuesday February 17th for our discussion of the Harlem Hellfighters!

Here's the schedule of our upcoming discussions for AAL, (all discussions meet in the Small Meeting room of the Evanston Public Library at 7 pm on Tuesdays):

Tuesday, March 17 The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, by Stephen Carter

In an alternate history novel, Lincoln escapes assassination by John Wilkes Booth only to face impeachment, and Abigail Canner, a young black woman involved in his defense, helps investigate the murder of the president's counsel.


Tuesday, April 21 Stand up Straight and Sing!, by Jessye Norman

Jessye Norman, one of America's most admired and decorated singers tells her inspiring life story, from the segregated South to the world's greatest stage.She recalls in rich detail the strong women who were her role models, from her ancestors to family friends, relatives, and teachers. She hails the importance of her parents in her early learning and experiences in the arts. And she describes coming face-to-face with racism, not just as a child living in the segregated South, but also as an adult out and about in the world.

Tuesday, May 19 The Wedding, by Dorothy West

titleIn the 1950s, a girl from the black bourgeoisie in Martha's Vineyard announces her engagement to a white musician. The novel follows the impact this has on her family and the community around them.  Dorothy West's crowning achievement, this is a wise and heartfelt novel about the shackles of race and class we all wear and the price we pay to break them. It is also an unforgettable history of the rise of the black middle class, written by a woman who lived it.

Tuesday, June 16 Stokeley: A Life, by Peniel Joseph

titlePreeminent civil rights scholar Peniel E. Joseph presents a groundbreaking biography of Stokely Carmichael, arguing that the young firebrand's evolution from nonviolent activist to Black Power revolutionary reflected the trajectory of a generation radicalized by the violence and unrest of the late 1960s. Fed up with the slow progress of the civil rights movement, Carmichael urged blacks to turn the rhetoric of freedom into a reality, inspiring countless African Americans to demand immediate political self-determination 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Democracy Abroad. Discrimination at Home: Black Soldiers During The Great War

This month we'll be looking at the story of the Harlem Hellfighters, one of the most decorated American army units in World War I. Originally the 15th New York National Guard, and limited to white officers and given menial tasks, the unit of New York born soldiers were exposed to the full brunt of Jim Crow racism during their training in Spartanburg South Carolina. Ironically, this experience may partially account for the Hellfighters legendary discipline.

"What separates a soldier from a civilian is discipline — the notion of mental control and the notion of restraint,"says Max Brooks, author of a graphic novel history of the unit. "I don't think any soldier, short of a samurai, has shown more restraint than the Hellfighters at Spartanburg."

Renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment, the Hellfighters went on to be come one of the most feared and respected American units, earning the French Croix de Guerre for 171 members, and one for the unit as a whole.

Yet despite their bravery, and the adulation they received from France, the Hellfighters returned to the same racism they had left behind, culminating in the riots of the Red Summer of 1919.

Join us Tuesday February 17th as we discuss, A More Unbending Battle: The Harlem Hellfighters' Struggle for Freedom in WWI and Equality at Home . Unfortunately, we are low on copies, so I've also pulled 4 other books on the Hellfighters which you can read instead (ignore the "checked out" message: these are on hold at the 2nd floor desk):

by Bill Harris

By Stephen Harris.
by Patrick Lewis
by Max Brooks, (this one's a graphic novel!)

aaannnddd...what an excellent time to check out the wonderful 2 part documentary. ..
 To reserve any of these materials, call us at 847-448-8620. See you on February 17th!

Monday, January 19, 2015

August Wilson's last, as timely as ever

This Monday, January 19th, we discussed our final August Wilson play, Radio Golf. Written in 2005, shortly before Wilson's death, it draws together themes and characters from the previous 9 works in the Century Cycle: allegiance to community values versus individual success; choosing the future over the past; and the crushing weight of racist history that continues to burden African Americans well into the 21st century.

 Indeed, although it appeared 10 years ago, the conflicts in Radio Golf remain disturbingly current: gentrification, corruption, police violence. When mayoral candidate Harmond Wilks refuses to censor his speech demanding accountability for police killings of unarmed black men, we know he will lose, and we hear echos of contemporary protests like BlackLivesMatter and We Charge Genocide.

Although there are far fewer dramatic moments in Radio Golf than in some others in the cycle, it is permeated by a profound sadness. Aunt Ester is dead, her house will soon be demolished, and the rich culture of the Hill District which we have come to love over the past 9 plays is fading away. Black characters like Harmond, Roosevelt and Mame have moved into the middle class, but at a price: they have lost touch with their communal roots.

No need to lose touch with the world of August Wilson just yet! This March and April, the Goodman Theatre is hosting a Chicago celebration of Wilson's work, including  free staged readings of all 10 plays in the Century Cycle. The Piano Lesson will be performed at the Evanston Public Library on April 4th at 3:00 pm. Other Evanston events include a panel discussion April 7th at Northwestern on Wilson's work in St Paul, led by Professor Harvey Young; and actor/playwright Ruben Santiago Hudson performing Wilson’s autobiographical play, How I Learned What I Learned, March 30th also at Northwestern.

Thanks to all who have shared this marvelous year-long reading experience, especially Tim Rhoze, the original organizer; and our wonderful actors and discussion leaders: Twyla Abercrombie, James Alfred, Ron Conner, Aaron Todd Douglas, Jacqueline Williams, and Harvey Young. What a year it has been!