Book Review: What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison by Camille T. Dungy

Lady, my one regret / is that we don’t have appetite enough / to make you break every damned plate inside this room.” As a person of color, I am undeniably drawn to works that discuss race in a way that does not skim over the harsh realities that we face every day. As someone who appreciates a little dark humor, I also appreciate a joke thrown in the face of a racist white person and I like imagining the sour looks on their faces. “The Preachers Eat Out” is the first poem I ever read by Camille Dungy, and it exemplifies what I like most about her style. Dungy manages to tie in racial themes, and tell stories not her own while still giving us true impressions of the people within the tales. Almost none of the people that she paints pictures of within her poems have names outside of the notes at the top of the poem, and she still gives us rich impressions of the characters within them.

We learn so much about the characters within “The Preachers Eat Out” just within the 14 lines. We know that the waitress who is serving them is not doing it because she isn’t racist – she is; she just wants the tips because she has children at home, presumably is a single mother, and needed tips in order to support them. She also breaks the plates, whether of her own volition or the restaurant’s, meaning that she works at a place that can afford to break plates and is therefore slightly upscale, meaning that the preachers have money enough to pay for a nice restaurant. She does the breaking behind the building however, meaning that she doesn’t want them to know she is breaking the plates, and is making an effort to be civil. The preacher also calls her ‘lady,’ which could be seen as either a measure of respect or disrespect, depending on tone, and makes it clear that he knows about her racist actions despite her trying to hide them

Dungy’s ability to call out racist actions in a subtle and artistic manner is a skill that I greatly admire. Someone who is not as familiar with the tensions that black folks face in the United States, or not as comfortable with seeking out material explicitly written about the struggles that we face, will find a book of poems such as Dungy’s much more approachable. Through Dungy’s poems, the statistics become not just statistics, but people. Though they are unnamed, the connections that Dungy sparks allow the reader to experience much more. One can read in a history book about the segregation of buses, but when reading Dungy’s “Greyhound to Baton Rouge” there is a much stronger feeling as the listener hears “Arm around his wife, the new father stood, / relieved to see his baby still sleeping. / Small piece.” Hearing the story of this small family, the tired mother, and the bus that was completely stopped because the driver refused to go on with a white woman holding a black child, brings things into focus for someone who might not have previously have understood how things were for the non-whites in America, and the racist attitudes that we face.

These two poems are some of the ones that stuck out to me the most of Dungy’s work, as they exemplify her talent for weaving a story into a lesson, and they are the ones that I enjoyed the most and feel I got the most out of. They taught me that it is possible to be both concise and yet rich in detail and that you can give everything and nothing away about the speakers and other participants in the action of the poem.

Another poem of Dungy’s that stuck out to me was “Requiem.” The idea of someone accepting their death, and being in love with their own crooked and broken bones; the horror of those surrounding them, witness to their untimely demise – it has a sort of macabre allure. I can identify with the speaker of the poem because even though I do not desire my own death, the idea of that moment – that teetering on the edge where one looks at everything around them in that final moment and finds it beautiful – is fascinating. I think that everyone is a little bit in love with death, and when Dungy’s line reads: “Will you believe me / when I tell you I had never been so in love / with anyone as I was, then, with everyone I saw?” I can’t help but think that, yes, I can believe that. As someone who has recently experienced the loss of someone who I know was suffering, I agree with the adage that death is much better for the one dying than for the ones left behind.

When the speaker in “Requiem” starts to talk about the woman who has witnessed her death, I can’t help but think about how well Dungy has captured this intrinsic human reaction. This other woman has no connection to the speaker, yet feels all of this grief, feels the pain that is what comes with the connection that humans have when life suddenly stops. Dungy shows us how as humans we react to death, how we see it, and how, while we cannot imagine life without it, we do not expect it. In the first stanza the speaker says: “I could have lived forever / under that sky.” And yet, when the speaker’s life does end, they accept that ending with love.

It is an admirable lesson that Dungy is giving us about how death is not something that one should fear, but something that happens when the time should come, and yet again we have her artistry shining through as she does it in such a subtle way, enchanting us with words.

I learned a lot about how to write from Dungy, as she writes many poems from a third person point of view and masterfully presents the characters that appear in those poems without going into arduous detail. It was not until I read several poems by Dungy written with such provoking figures that I even realized how many of my own poems were written in the first person. Overall, the lessons that Dungy teaches throughout the book are ones that I think anyone and everyone would benefit from, and I highly encourage people to read her works.

 

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

Book Review: So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo

The world is fraught with racial tension, and has been for a long time now. Having meaningful discussions about race is important because they are the first step towards creating real and positive change. Unfortunately, many people struggle with finding the language needed to communicate with one another, which is why I consider So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo to be such an important text. Written by a queer woman of color after my own heart, So you want to talk about race should (in my opinion) be mandatory reading for anyone and everyone, whether or not they think that they have all the answers already[1] or find themselves lost in the minefield that is discussing the need for racial justice.

So you want to talk about race isn’t just about getting people of all races to be nice to one another, this book was written for those with the goal “to fight the systemic oppression that is harming the lives of millions of people of color,” (p. 30). Throughout the text, Oluo stresses how we can only truly fight against racism by pushing back and dismantling the systemic nature of racism in our society. The book undoubtedly centers the conversation around people of color, but also takes the time to address white readers of the text and let them know how they can contribute and where they need to step back and evaluate their own actions and inactions. Reading it as a person of color, I found the sections where Oluo calls out to the POC reading the text extremely validating and in some places informative as well.

So you want to talk about race is broken up into an introduction and seventeen chapters, each of which seeks to answer a question about how to discuss race, including “What if I talk about race wrong?” “Is police brutality really about race?” “What is cultural appropriation?” “I just got called racist, what do I do now?” and ending with “Talking is great, but what else can I do?” Each section breaks down the question, and many of them even include numbered and bolded lists of explanations, responses, actions and possible next steps depending on the situation about how we can individually contribute to overall change.

In a particularly poignant section of the book we as readers are asked to evaluate our own privileges, and how they impact how we see and interact with the world. Oluo tells us to focus on how these privileges have affected us, despite any disadvantages we have. For myself, I had to temporarily set aside my marginalized identities (such as being a queer woman of color among other things) and examine how growing up reasonably comfortable, attending good schools, my college degree, my ability to attend grad school, etc. has contributed to how I formulate my space in the world. While I had done similar exercises in the past I particularly appreciated it within this book, as it has offered me ways to see this exercise of empathy in a new light.

Many times, when people talk about race the conversation stops at black people, but more and more often I encounter books like So you want to talk about race that address the particular struggles of the many other people of color in the united states that are more invisible, such as Asian folk, particularly those who do not fit in to the model minority myth,[2] something that in fact gets an entire chapter of its own.

Week before last, when I reviewed Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist by Franchesca Ramsey I mentioned that within that text the author used humor to discuss tough racial issues. So you want to talk about race is different in that it isn’t a particularly funny book. Undoubtedly there were times that I laughed, and nowhere was there a space that was unnecessarily heavy; however, given the topic, there are some portions of the book that are hard to read, and I’ll freely admit that I had to set it aside a few times. That said, I do highly recommend this book as a solid grounding space for people new to race discussion and a good refresher for those who do have more experience with fraught racial discussions. Like I said before, this book really should be mandatory reading, so the sooner you get a chance to read it the better!

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

[1] Which I simply don’t think is possible anyway, since there is always more to be seen/known beyond what we humans are capable of.

[2] While the point of this review is obviously to get you to read this book, if you are unfamiliar with the model minority myth, this video is a good place to learn more about it in the meantime before you get your hands on So you want to talk about race.

Book Review: Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist by Franchesca Ramsey

Like many black girls in 2012, I loved the video Shit White Girls Say…to Black Girls, posted on the channel Chesaleigh. It was funny and on point, and to be honest I forgot about it within a year or so, too busy living my own life to pay much attention to the internet. Meanwhile Franchesca Ramsey was living her life, which I had the pleasure of reading about in her new memoir Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist. This memoir chronicles the rise to fame that Ramsey underwent after her video went viral and the many ramifications of becoming, as she says, an accidental activist.

I have so many feelings about this book that it is hard to begin, but I have to say that what most struck me was how easy a book this is to read. The marginalization and othering of minoritized groups can be a distressing topic, and while it is one that I consider to be worthwhile, it can take its toll. While I have not watched many more of Ramsey’s videos beyond “SWGSTBG” and a few episodes of her and MTV’s web series Decoded I can tell from this book alone that Ramsey has the exceptional quality of disseminating and explaining simply concepts that are not-so-simple. She does so throughout the text, using her own missteps and sometimes cringeworthy actions and experiences to show the reader where she went wrong and how we can use those experiences to better our own lives and everyday reactions. The book alternates between showing what to do and what not to do in a way that is hilarious but in no way cheapens the importance of the topics discussed. Ramsey throws plenty of shade at her former self, in no way absolving her actions of their impact, but instead showing us how we can be better.

One topic she discusses at length is how there have been numerous accounts of what she at times calls “black-lash” of fellow black people who thought that she betrayed them with her handling of certain events. The first instance of this was after her interview with Anderson Cooper about the “SWGSTBG” video, and how she felt “crushed” by what people were saying to her, and it was only because of the people who were willing to help her discover her mistakes and where to do better that she was able to become the activist that she is today.

Toward the end of the book, Ramsey has a section dedicated to eulogies for phrases that should no longer be uttered, and while it was hilarious, I also liked the section because it does a very good job of explaining why said pieces of rhetoric are outdated or just plain wrong, and how their impact can be remarkably harmful. Each phrase is bolded, followed by three separate points: where it is commonly heard, why it needs to go, and a comeback for those who respond. A couple favorites of mine among those that need to be laid to rest are “It’s just a joke” and “Well, I don’t see color”, both of which have funny but thoughtful explanations for why those lines of thinking are inherently flawed.

As someone who is also in an interracial relationship, I particularly appreciated Ramsey’s chapter about her relationship with her husband (who is white) and how other people have reacted to it. In the vein of people’s reactions to things that aren’t their business, another favorite chapter of mine chronicled the best and worst ways to end a friendship with someone, particularly as it pertains to Facebook. Sad drama mask icons denote a scale of one to five in terms of how much drama one faces by unfriending the group of people described, and at the end of it all Ramsey even includes a flowchart that is not only funny but practical.

I could go on and on about my favorite parts of the book (which, let’s be honest, is most of the book) yet I want to take a step back and refer to chapter four, where Ramsey calls back to her relationship with her hair through the years, and references an (unsourced) quote, which is “Be who you needed when you were younger.” That simple message, more than anything, is what gets to the heart of this book. As a memoir reflecting on past mistakes, Well, That Escalated Quickly is inherently a volume of information that would have been incredibly useful for a younger Franchesca Ramsey, and is therefore an excellent resource for young folk everywhere.

I’ll admit that this book isn’t for everyone. It takes as its premise that the reader is curious and open toward being an activist in their own right, and the style of humor is brash and unflinching, which I liked but I know might throw some people off. That said, I wholeheartedly believe this book to be an excellent resource, especially for those that are at entry-level for activism, and are eager to learn but aren’t quite sure where to start. And even if you have started, there is always room to improve.

The last section before the acknowledgements is a glossary for those who might be unfamiliar with certain terms, and is as informative as it is funny, and includes the message (under the word “woke”) that “’Getting woke’ should be a moment on your journey, because we never stop having our eyes opened to experiences that we don’t have because of our own privilege or biases,” (p. 240). So keep learning, and if you want my advice, start with this book.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

Book Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

As with many of my interests these days, I first came across Trevor Noah via YouTube. More precisely, through a YouTube video embedded in a New York Times video. Upon watching the video I laughed more than I had in a long time. The fact of the matter is that I don’t remember which video it was because I laugh that hard at almost everything of his that I watch. His comedy has the excellent quality of being both hilarious and full of depth.

For those of you who are unaware of whom I am talking about, Trevor Noah is a comedian from South Africa who currently hosts The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood is his autobiography which touches upon major and what may appear to be minor episodes of his child and young adulthood, including the crime of his own birth.

The book opens with a excerpt from the the South African Immorality Act of 1927, which existed “To prohibit illicit carnal intercourse between Europeans and natives and other acts in relation thereto.” As the son of a black mother and a white father, Noah’s birth was inherent proof of his parents’ illegal actions. Throughout the text Noah describes his experience growing up as apartheid was crumbling and he himself did not fit in anywhere. This is something that Noah discusses at length, by describing how he does and does not fit in the categories that had been created for South Africans.

As a mixed race person myself, I particularly enjoyed reading Noah’s description in chapter two regarding why the systems of societies based on institutionalized racism proved not only unjust but also unsustainable due to the fact that race-mixing proves that the races can and want to mix and that “[b]ecause a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.” (p. 21)

What I took most to heart from this book was Noah’s dedication to his mother, to whom the book is dedicated. As someone who is very close with my own mother I always enjoy texts that explore the parent-child relationship. Their relationship as described in the text is different from my relationship with my own mother to be sure, but I was reminded of my mum as Noah described his upbringing in chapter five saying that his mother “raised [him] as if there were no limitations on where [he] could go or what [he] could do. When [he] look[s] back [he] realize[s] she raised [him] like a white kid—not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was [his] oyster, that [he] should speak up for [him]self, that [his] ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered” (p 73) which is exactly how I feel that my mother raised me.[1]

Although Noah was born over a decade before me in a country and an environment that is half a world away from my own, I feel a sort of kinship with him after having read this book. Not only that, but I find myself more informed after having read about his experience, not just because of what the book itself contains, but also the curiosity that it has instilled in me to do further investigation into the history and culture that are presented in the text.

Each chapter is prefaced with a small description, never more than a page and a half, sometimes only a paragraph, that gives a perspective outside of the flow of narration throughout the autobiography. The narrative voice is still Noah’s, but these prefaces give a distanced perspective, sometimes providing historical context, and sometimes adding to the winding narration by giving a slightly different viewpoint from the main text.

Despite the comedy present through every inch of this book, there exist nuance and meaningful life lessons on every page. That is not to say that I necessarily agree with everything presented in the text, but the narration provided me with enough food for thought that I was able to question my beliefs and re-adjust my thought processes to allow for the new information obtained from both the text and my resulting outside research. I know for a fact that this is a book that I will re-read many times. I’ve already gone over it twice, some passages more than that. I have 23 post-it notes from my first reading alone, which took me less than 24 hours, I was so enraptured by the text.

All told, I highly recommend this autobiography as a must-read, for everyone, but especially to those who find themselves in want of something that while light-hearted gives serious food for thought, and what USA Today calls “A soul-nourishing pleasure,”[2] something that I wholeheartedly agree with.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Talia

[1] Note: It has been pointed out to me that this sounds like I believe that white parents tell their kids that they can succeed, whereas black parents do not, which is not what I meant at all. What I am trying to get across (and what I think Noah is trying to get across) is that due to systemic racism and oppression, limits are put upon children of color in order to protect them from harsh realities, which can damage their ability to aspire to great heights. My mother always acted like “can’t” was a swearword in our house, but many kids are told that they cannot do something, simply because their parents are concerned that an unjust system would cause them pain, both emotional distress and physical harm.

[2] This is according to the blurb on the cover of my book.