New Titles: Black History Month
The Missing American
by Kwei Quartey
Fans of Quartey’s Darko Dawson series ready for another armchair visit to Ghana will be pleased to meet Emma Djan, introduced here in the same riveting blend of mystery a literary travel guide. After a horrifying #MeToo moment brings an abrupt end to Emma’s police career, she is taken on by a private detective agency.
Infatuated middle-aged widower Gordon Tilson sends money to a young Ghanaian woman he met online when she tells him her sister has been in a car accident. He then flies off to Ghana to meet her in person, only to find he has fallen prey to an online scam and subsequently finds himself caught up in the deadly world of sakawa, a bizarre underground of con men who believe themselves armed with special spiritual powers bestowed by fetish priests. Tilson’s son is concerned when he loses contact and reports the missing American to the police, who do nothing, so he employs Emma’s agency.
There is an amazing force to be reckoned with behind her veil of politeness, and readers will want to hear more from Emma. Unlike Mma Ramotswe in McCall Smith’s celebrated series, Emma experiences violence and encounters dangerous criminals, but, like her Botswana sister, she is driven by a determination to honor her late father and is surrounded by an equally appealing cast of characters. — Jane Murphy (Reviewed 11/1/2019) (Booklist, vol 116, number 5, p25)
Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do
by Jennifer L Eberhardt, PhD.
An internationally renowned expert on implicit racial bias breaks down the science behind our prejudices and their influence in nearly all areas of society and culture. MacArthur Fellow Eberhardt (Psychology/Stanford Univ.; co-editor: Confronting Racism, 1998) challenges the idea that addressing bias is merely a personal choice. Rather, “it is a social agenda, a moral stance.”
Relying on her neuroscientific research, consulting work, and personal anecdotes, the author astutely examines how stereotypes influence our perceptions, thoughts, and actions. Stereotypes, such as “the association of black people and crime,” are shaped by media, history, culture, and our families. A leader in the law enforcement training movement, Eberhardt recounts high-profile cases of police shooting unarmed black people, and she documents her own fears as a mother of three black sons. Though “more than 99 percent of police contacts happen with no police use of force at all,” black people are stopped by police disproportionately and are more likely to suffer physical violence. Only a tiny fraction of officers involved in questionable shootings are prosecuted, and convictions are rare.
Through her work, the author teaches officers to understand how their biases inform their interactions with the communities they are charged with protecting and serving. She shares informative case studies from her work with Airbnb and Nextdoor, an online information-sharing platform for neighbors, when bias among the sites’ users led to racial profiling and discrimination. Eberhardt also looks at bias in the criminal justice system, education, housing and immigration, and the workplace.
A chapter on her visit to the University of Virginia after the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville is, much like the book as a whole, simultaneously scholarly illuminating, and heartbreaking. Throughout, Eberhardt makes it clear that diversity is not enough. Only through the hard work of recognizing our biases and controlling them can we “free ourselves from the tight grip of history.” Compelling and provocative, this is a game-changing book about how unconscious racial bias impacts our society and what each of us can do about it. (Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2019)
All Blood Runs Red: The Legendary Life of Eugene Bullard-Boxer, Pilot, Soldier, Spy
by Phil Keith & Tom Clavin
This dazzling biography, drawing on the subject’s unpublished memoir, explores the incredible life and times of the first African-American fighter pilot: Eugene “Gene” Bullard. At 12, he ran away from Columbus, Ga., to escape the vicious racism of the early-20th-century South for France, the country revered by his formerly enslaved father.
He crossed the Atlantic straight into minor fame as a boxer in Liverpool and Paris, and experienced partial freedom from the scorn and hatred of whites. In WWI, he joined the French Foreign Legion, fighting for his adopted homeland as a pilot. After a brief interwar interlude as a nightclub band drummer, manager, and owner—rubbing shoulders with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, and Pablo Picasso, and spying on Germans for the French—he volunteered again with the French military when WWII broke out.
After being injured as the Germans advanced into France, military and consular personnel advised him to flee the country to avoid being executed by the Nazis. He settled in New York City with his teenage daughters and became variously a longshoreman, a traveling salesman of French perfumes, and an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center.
Keith vividly describes Bullard’s experiences—including his medal-worthy military exploits, the luck that allowed him to cheat death repeatedly, and the bizarre parallels between his life and the movie Casablanca. This may be a biography, but it reads like a novel. (Nov.) –Staff (Reviewed 09/02/2019) (Publishers Weekly, vol 266, issue 35, p)
Mighty Justice: My Life in Civil Rights
by Dovey Johnson Roundtree
The life of African-American civil rights lawyer Roundtree (1914–2018) is chronicled in this inspirational, history-rich memoir, a project coauthored by National Magazine Award–winning writer McCabe. Roundtree grew up in Charlotte, N.C., during the Jim Crow era: “Never for one moment of my life under Jim Crow did I grow accustomed to being excluded, banned, pushed aside, reduced,” she writes.
She recounts her time at Spelman College in the 1930s, when Atlanta was a “racial hell,” and tells of joining the newly established Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps during WWII, when she fought for the rights of black soldiers and attained the rank of captain. She later pursued a law degree at Howard University, where she was one of five women in her class; was sworn into the Washington, D.C., bar in 1951; and started a law firm.
In straightforward, somewhat dutiful prose, she covers her many transformative moments, including being in the courtroom as a spectator when Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned in 1954, and winning a critical travel-discrimination case in 1955 that helped end the segregation of bus passengers in America. This eye-opening, accessible book documents the life of a trailblazing human rights advocate. (Nov.) –Staff (Reviewed 08/12/2019) (Publishers Weekly, vol 266, issue 32, p)
Think Black : A Memoir of Sacrifice, Success, and Self-loathing in Corporate America
by Clyde W Ford
In this powerful memoir, Ford (Whiskey Gulf) tells the story of his father’s tenure as IBM’s first black systems engineer. Though he was recruited in 1947 by the company’s founder, Thomas J. Watson Sr., John Stanley Ford endured 25 years of racism from his white coworkers, who repeatedly tried to get him fired. “Like Robinson, my father had also stepped into a role elevating him as a symbol much larger than his individual self,” Ford writes.
Writing with a potent sense of outrage, Ford portrays his father as more conciliatory than he would have been when he himself was hired by IBM in 1971 and brought with him an African nationalist pride. Throughout, Ford details IBM’s racist history supporting both the Nazis and apartheid, and how his father, in his stoicism, fought back against the company’s racism (he obtained a document that contained answers to questions on IBM’s entry exam and gave it to black applicants).
Ford came to see his father as a fighter who made his life as a black man better. “Whenever I hear the blips and beeps, the whines and whirs of a computer,” Ford writes, “I recall what I learned from my father about these machines, about being a man who’s Black, and about being first.” Ford’s thought-provoking narrative tells the story of African-American pride and perseverance. (Sept.) –Staff (Reviewed 08/12/2019) (Publishers Weekly, vol 266, issue 32, p)
Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law
by Haben Girma
With wit and passion, Haben , a disability rights lawyer, public speaker, and the first deafblind person to graduate from Harvard Law, takes readers through her often unaccommodating world.
Born in the Bay Area in 1988, Haben spent summers in her family’s homeland of Eritrea, in the capital Asmara, where her deafblind older brother hadn’t been allowed to attend school. While living in the U.S. afforded her more opportunity, she missed out on assignments, jokes, and life’s nuances: “It’s a sighted hearing classroom, in a sighted hearing school, in a sighted hearing society. In this environment, I’m disabled.”
At a young age, Haben vowed to change that environment and pushed beyond her own comfort zones: dancing salsa, helping build a school in Mali, and climbing an iceberg. At Lewis & Clark College she advocated for a braille cafeteria menu; at Harvard Law, she developed a text-to-braille system, which allowed a second party to communicate details to her during classes, in court, and at a White House Americans with Disabilities Act celebration, where as guest speaker she was “starstruck around all these heroes who paved the way for Generation ADA.”
This is a heartwarming memoir of a woman who champions access and dignity for all. (Aug.) –Staff (Reviewed 04/08/2019) (Publishers Weekly, vol 266, issue 14, p)
Overground Railroad: The Green Book & Roots of Black Travel in America
by Candacy Taylor
Many African American families possess a cache of generational travelogues, packed tight and out of sight. These reminiscences, shared sparingly, if at all, do not for a moment romanticize the adventures of the open road.
They are nothing short of horror stories: The great uncle threatened at gunpoint and run out of a segregated sundown town; the father who racked up hundreds of miles to keep moving and avoid the potential indignity — or fury — of being turned away from lodging.
In the opening pages of her meticulously examined history, “Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America,” Candacy Taylor relates one of her own family’s hard-won testimonials. It’s a memory so specific yet strikingly familiar.
Her stepfather Ron, then a child, rides in the back seat of the family car — a shiny, fully loaded 1953 Chevy sedan. When a sheriff orders his father to the side of the road, the day shifts from bliss to dread. The questions land fast: “Where did you get this vehicle? What are you doing here?”
The father’s answers, rehearsed and ready, are all fiction: It was his employer’s car, and he’s a hired driver. His wife is the employer’s maid.
“Where is your chauffeur’s cap?” the sheriff demands.
Ron’s father gestures to a hook above the backseat. “Until that day, Ron never paid attention to that cap,“ Taylor writes, “but now he realized that it wasn’t just any hat. It was a ruse, a prop — a lifesaver.”
During the Jim Crow era and beyond, travel for African Americans was frequently yoked to humiliation or terror. Black travelers knew that even a simple road trip required props and a plan. Part of that essential prep included “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book,” a travel guide first published in 1936.
Taylor’s new book revisits the nesting stories behind the “Green Book,” which helped black tourists navigate racial minefields implicit in a road trip — whether across counties or cross-country.
Distributed by mail order and sold by black-owned businesses, the “Green Book” listed black-owned (or black-friendly) hotels, tourist homes, restaurants, nightclubs, haberdasheries, hair salons, barbershops and attorneys’ offices. It afforded black travelers the “courage and security” to pass through unknown territory.
Publisher Victor Hugo Green, a black mail carrier in New York with a seventh-grade education, said he’d come to the idea while observing a Jewish friend consult a kosher guide to plan a vacation in the Catskills. Taylor, however, suspects a more complex origin story. Green, who also managed the career of his musician brother-in-law, had no doubt absorbed stories about the travails of securing safe accommodations on the road; those anecdotes would have been influential as well.
Green teamed up with fellow postal worker George I. Smith to create the guide. “The first edition was only ten pages,” writes Taylor, “but it was a mighty weapon in the face of segregation.” Green’s brother, William, later joined Victor and his wife, Alma, to produce the guide out of their Harlem home.
At the outset, 80% of the listings were clustered in traditionally African American communities, including Harlem, Chicago’s Bronzeville and Los Angeles’ black enclaves stipulated by racial housing covenants and held in place for decades by redlining. The “Green Book” became a trusted brand and an emotional touchstone due to Green’s vision, grit and stamina and the guide’s consistency and reliability.
Taylor assiduously retraces the “Green Book’s” history, from 1936 to 1967, and the Denver-based writer and photographer embarked on her own cross-country road trip seeking what remains. This was a grueling, faith-testing journey of loss and heartbreak that enlarges and shapes her book’s vision. After three years of scouting nearly 5,000 locations named in the guide, she learned that fewer than 5% are still in operation. Many of the early buildings in black communities have vanished, about 75%, she reports, “destroyed in the name of urban renewal.”
In scope and tone, “Overground Railroad” recalls Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns,” which explored the waves of the Great Migration as many African Americans moved during the 1900s from the rural South to Northeastern, Midwestern and Western cities.
Taylor creates a vivid, multi-voiced travelogue, drawing on interviews, archival documents and newspaper accounts. Historic photographs provide context. Her contemporary images drawn from her travels — landscapes of boarded-up or graffiti-laced wastelands, empty vistas where sites once stood — also play a dynamic, before-and-after role in storytelling. At its center, the book is a nuanced commentary of how black bodies have been monitored, censured or violated, and it compellingly pulls readers into the current news cycle.
While “Overground Railroad” honors Green’s prescience within the context of the country’s cycles of racism, Taylor asserts that the “Green Book” was never overtly political. It did, however, provide an alternative approach to creating a resilient social network. In this, Green’s dream provided a way to work within the system, to manifest one’s own aspirations.
Taylor draws a compelling map connecting the legacy of institutional racism — decades of government disinvestment, redlining and the fight for adequate schools — that has left neighborhoods as discards or afterthoughts. She advocates for readers to use these stories as inspiration to actively build on the foundation Green laid.
The “Green Book” was never a money-making venture. “The reward was so much more valuable than money,” Taylor writes, “because [with] every business listed he may have saved a life.”
Review by Lynell George, The Los Angeles Times January 10, 2020