Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Gays in the African American Community

Hope those who celebrate had a Merry Christmas and a Happy Kwanzaa! And I hope everyone is looking forward to a fabulous New Year's Eve and 2016.

On Tuesday January 19th, please join me for our discussion of E. Lynn Harris' controversial I Say a Little Prayer. Harris, who died  unexpectedly in 2009 at age 54, was a publishing phenomenon: by the time of his death he had  had 10 consecutive books on the New York Times best-seller list, and had sold 4 million copies of his novels.

Harris's work was notable for its upwardly mobile African American characters, many of whom were gay or bisexual. I Say a Little Prayer looks at an issue of continuing relevance: the role of gay men and women in  the black church. Chauncey Greer is a believer, a faithful member of his local church, and a mostly out gay man. Although he is accepted by his pastor, when Bishop Upchurch, a conservative televangelist shows up, Chauncey and the other gay congregants decide to take a stand against Upchurch's anti-gay preaching and politics.

Here's what surprised me about this book; although there is definitely some homophobia, and a lot of hypocrisy about sexuality in general, there is a lot more acceptance of gayness than I would have expected. Chauncey's co-workers, sister and pastor all know that he's gay, and don't have a problem with it. His parents aren't thrilled, but they continue to support and love their son. When the church music director organizes a "Day of Absence" for churchgoing gays and gay supporters, over a thousand people participate.

It's this complex portrait of the contemporary black community that made Harris so popular. Rather than the competing stereotypes of African Americans as either sex crazed thugs or  mindlessly emotional holy rollers, Harris' characters embody both spirituality and sensuality. There are plenty of sexy characters in Harris' books, and most of them are sincerely devout churchgoers.I think Harris' world reflects the nuanced reality of African American life in the 21st century far more accurately than many supposedly "mainstream" writers.

Agree? Disagree? Let's talk about it on January 19th! We've still got a couple of copies here at the 2nd floor desk, and it's a quick read. Hope to see you soon!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Black Colleges, Black Panthers and Black Broadway

Great discussion of The Turner House Tuesday night! Sadly, Angela Flournoy did not win the National Book Award for fiction Wednesday, although Ta Nehisi Coates did win for nonfiction!

Some news...

Our next meeting won't be until January 19th, when we'll be discussing E. Lynn Harris' I Say a Little Prayer. Copies have already begun arriving, (sadly, they did not get here in time for our discussion Tuesday.) We have copies on hold for AAL at the 2nd floor desk; call us at 847-448-8620 or just stop by.

I often run across books which would make great discussions, but there just aren't enough copies in the library system to do it. Here are a few recent titles I highly recommend...

Where everybody looks like me : at the crossroads of America's Black colleges and culture
Historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, have long been the bedrock of black culture, graduating heroes like Toni Morrison, Thurgood Marshall,  Oprah Winfrey, and Martin Luther King Jr. But the 104 HBCUs are under siege: funding cuts have forced universities to send home thousands of students, dozens of college presidents have been ousted from their jobs, criminal investigations have been launched, conservative legislators have schemed to shut down schools, and overworked faculty have feuded with bureaucrats. Chronicling this near breaking point for black colleges, Where everybody looks like me presents a compelling, tightly woven story of the challenges faced by HBCUs.

In this comprehensive history of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party (ILBPP), Chicago native Jakobi Williams demonstrates that the city's Black Power movement was both a response to and an extension of the city's civil rights movement. Williams focuses on the life and violent death of charismatic leader Fred Hampton,  who served as president of the NAACP Youth Council and continued to pursue a civil rights agenda when he became chairman of the revolutionary Chicago-based Black Panther Party. Framing the story of Hampton and the ILBPP as a social and political history and using, for the first time, sealed secret police files in Chicago and interviews conducted with often reticent former members of the ILBPP, Williams explores how Hampton helped develop racial coalitions between the ILBPP and other local activists and organizations.Williams also recounts the history of the original Rainbow Coalition, an alliance of working class blacks, Latinos, and white Southerners, to show how the Panthers worked to create an anti-racist, anti-class coalition to fight urban renewal, political corruption, and police brutality.
In this timely new book, Tim Wise explores how Barack Obama's emergence as a political force is taking the race debate to new levels. According to Wise, for many white people, Obama's rise signifies the end of racism as a pervasive social force; they point to Obama not only as a validation of the American ideology that anyone can make it if they work hard, but also as an example of how institutional barriers against people of color have all but vanished. But is this true? And does a reinforced white belief in color-blind meritocracy potentially make it harder to address ongoing institutional racism? After all, in housing, employment, the justice system, and education, the evidence is clear: white privilege and discrimination against people of color are still operative and actively thwarting opportunities, despite the success of individuals like Obama. Is black success making it harder for whites to see the problem of racism, thereby further straining race relations, or will it challenge anti-black stereotypes to such an extent that racism will diminish and race relations improve?

 Broadway musicals are one of America's most beloved art forms and play to millions of people each year. But what do these shows, which are often thought to be just frothy entertainment, really have to say about our country and who we are as a nation? The Great White Way reveals the racial politics, content, and subtexts that have haunted musicals from Show Boat (1927) to The Scottsboro Boys (2011).   Presented chronologically, The Great White Way shows how perceptions of race altered over time and how musicals dealt with those changes.  New archival research on the creators who produced and wrote these shows, including Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim, and Edward Kleban, will have theater fans rethinking  how they view this popular American entertainment.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Does a Home Make A Family?

A family home is more than just a building; it can represent the hopes, fears, and memories that make a family a family. In The Turner House, Angela Flournoy skillfully traces the web of love affairs, betrayals, accidents, crimes and disappointments that have molded the Turner family, the 13 children of Francis and Viola Turner of Detroit. Francis has died, and a bedridden Viola does not realize that the family home has lost much of its value. Each sibling deals with this crisis differently, and each must come to terms with a problematic family legacy.

In this video for Well Read Black Girl , Flournoy reminds us that everyone needs to forgive their parents at some point to become a full fledged adult. Please join us this coming Tuesday November 17th, (the day before the National Book Award ceremony!) at 7 pm at Evanston Public Library as we discuss this beautifully layered novel. Call 847-448-8620 or stop by the 2nd floor desk to get a copy.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Isabel Wilkerson speaks next Monday at Evanston Township High School

if you're a fan of The Warmth of Other Suns, I have very exciting news: author Isabel Wilkerson will be speaking at ETHS next Monday night November 16th, 7:00 pm! The event is free and no tickets are required. (Although I would suggest arriving early).

Friday, October 23, 2015

This Fall in African American Books, Movies and Stage...

Hot discussion this past Tuesday on Medical Apartheid! One thing is clear: many African Americans of various ages and backgrounds feel deeply mistrustful of the American health care system. Stay tuned for more EPL health literacy programs in the near future.

titleWe'll be moving back into fiction for our next two discussions. On November 17th, we'll discuss Valerie Flournoy's The Turner House, a novel treating some of the same issues we wrangled with in Family Properties; African Americans who discover that their property has not accumulated the wealth they thought it had. Yet this is  also a rich story of African American family life in all its complexity, with brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles squabbling yet generally supportive of each others' needs and eccentricities. The Turner House is a National Book Award finalist.

We're skipping December (too much holiday shopping!) and will pick up again January 19th with I Say A Little Prayer, E. Lynn Harris's marvelous novel about a gay man confronting homophobia in the black church. I've been wanting to discuss a Harris book for ages, and this is one of his best.

titleFinally, February 16th we'll be teaming up with the KeepinitReal nonfiction group to read My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me, the memoir of a German-African woman who discovered that her grandfather was the notorious Nazi commandant featured in Schindler's List. How do you deal with the knowledge of such ultimate evil in your family tree, especially when that evil was directed at people who look like you?


In other news: be sure to catch the Chicago International Film Festival's Black Perspectives series, starting this weekend! Saturday night 10/25, pioneering black director Charles Burnett will be on hand  to present his classic To Sleep With Anger, starring Danny Glover.


If you missed Gem of the Ocean at Court Theater, you have another chance to see an August Wilson play next month. Joe Turner's Come and Gone is on stage at Depaul Theatre School November 6th-15th, with previews on the 4th and 5th. Tickets are only $5-$15!


Aaannnddd, Raven Theatre is doing a highly acclaimed musical, Direct From Death Row; The Scottsboro Boys, in which the 9 young black men accused of rape in the 1930s, "return from eternity to our stage, where they keep their story alive through songs, a magic act, skits and soft shoe - all to convey the tawdry show that their case became".Scottsboro Full cast

Keep reading!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Beyond the Tuskegee Experiment: Mistreatment of Blacks in the American Medical System

Most of us have heard about the notorious Tuskegee experiment, in which African American men were duped into letting doctors study the progression of their untreated syphilis . However, medical researcher Harriet Washington carefully documents how the callous use of black bodies both living and dead as research subjects goes all the way back to slavery times, and continues today in research on prisoners, institutionalized children, and Africans.

As with several other books we've read for AAL, this is a long and at times harrowing depiction of atrocities. To focus our discussion a bit, and make it easier for those who don't have time to read the entire book, let's concentrate on chapters 1, 2 , 10, 11, 12, 13, and the Epilogue, "Medical Research with Blacks Today". And, if you're really short on time, the above video interview with Ms Washington covers the major points.

Some questions to think about: does the history of medical mistreatment explain why African Americans have such disparate health outcomes from other Americans? Or is health care discrimination still going on?

Getting subjects for medical experiments is always difficult, and frequently involves either coercion, or financial compensation. But is it ethical to persuade  poor people to undergo medical tests because they need the money? And if not, how should medical research be conducted?

Are African Americans overall more distrustful of medical science than other groups? If so how do we fix this? Should this be covered in medical education?

What can or should the medical establishment do to correct or atone for these past mistakes and abuses? Do individual medical schools, clinics or medical journals bear any responsibility?

If you haven't already seen them, I highly recommend the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Pact, and Black Man in a White Coat for more on African Americans in the medical profession. Aaaannnddd...Wednesday night, (the day after our discussion) the History Book Group is discussing Remedy and reaction : the peculiar American struggle over health care reform.

See you this Tuesday October 20th at 7pm, Small Meeting Room on the 1st floor of the Evanston Public Library.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

A King, a Saint or a Traitor? MLK's Last Year

This Tuesday September 29th, AAL will be discussing Tavis Smiley's Death of a King, an eye-opening behind the scenes look at the travails, struggles and failures of Martin Luther King's final year. Given the hagiographic tone of most popular treatments of King, complete with the sanctification of his January 15th birthday, few remember that towards the end of his career, King's legacy was far from assured. Accused of being a communist and traitor by the FBI, and of being a sellout and an Uncle Tom by the newly militant Black Power movement; his fervent, outspoken critique of the Vietnam war lost him key allies. President Lyndon Johnson felt betrayed, and many of the core Civil Rights leaders: Adam Clayton Powell, Bayard Rustin, and Roy Wilkins feared that King had weakened the movement by expanding his vision to include anti-war and anti-poverty efforts. Plagued with depression and self-doubts, King turned to alcohol and adulterous liaisons.

How did such a reviled, controversial and at times self-destructive figure become America's patron saint of racial understanding? Smiley's answer is to show the warmth, strong faith and devotion to the down and out which kept King going in the face of unimaginable pressure. His description of King's respectful and open hearted conversation with a group of young prostitutes who had been heckling him is reminiscent of Pope Francis' bypassing photo ops with world leaders to break bread with the homeless.

Yet Smiley argues that King’s radicalism toward the end of his life has been papered over, while King himself has been reduced to “an idealistic dreamer to be remembered for a handful of fanciful speeches”. How well do most of us today know the "real" King as opposed to the tolerant, peace loving, icon trotted out every January 15th?

In his January 2015 essay "Time to Take Back Martin Luther King Day", Rick Cohen argues that "This year, more than any in recent times, the onus on all of us should be to take back Martin Luther King Day from the emphasis on top-down, one-day, feel-good volunteer fix-up projects and refocus attention on strategies and actions to address racial inequity and injustice today...In 2015, we should all be showing courage to analyze, address, and attack overt, structural, institutional, and implicit racism on the day on which we all too often miss the point of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy by making his holiday one that doesn’t forthrightly address issues of race".

Is Cohen right? Join our discussion this Tuesday!