Category Archives: Books

The Other Side of Paradise, in plain view

2009-05-16-OtherSideof-Paradise-author

2009-05-16-OtherSideofParadisePoet Stacyann Chin’s memoir, “The Other Side of Paradise” (Scribner, 2009), is a coming-of-age story.  It’s a tale of growing up never fitting in, not with family, not with social structure.  It’s also about living in Paradise (both literally and figuratively), but never feeling as though Paradise’s bounty is available for you.  Ultimately, however, the book is about discovering that no man (or woman) is an island in regards to pain and loss…and joy.

A one-time performer on Def Poetry jam, Stacyann Chin’s upbringing was enough to seal in insecurities, and yet, she kept trying to break out beyond her circumstances.   She was born on Christmas Day in Lottery, Jamaica, and systematically denied by both her mother and father, something she  struggled with throughout her childhood.   Stacyann grew up in the slums of Jamaica that tourists never visit, and she suffered abuse that no girl should ever have to suffer at the hands of family… always dreaming of the life of the fortunate ones, always dreaming of being safe and happy.

“The Other Side of Paradise” is a fresh, poetic read that balances images of hope in trying times and the darker side of Paradise.   

Below, Stacyann Chin performing “Untitled” on Def Poetry Jam.


Light: On the South Side…Grit and Gold Lamé

I, for one, have stared for more than a moment at the forgotten, peeled paint on the side of the 408 Club building over on 79th Street (just East of King Drive).  In mid-seventies hipster font, the ad reads “Sheba Disco”, apparently some sort of disco club.  I’ve wondered what manner of elephant bells and Quiana was to be found there in its heyday. 

In the mid-’70s, photographer Michael Abramson set his viewfinder on the South Side of Chicago, specifically the many clubs and lounges that served as Hothouses of street fashion (among them, the legendary High Chaparral and the Showcase Lounge). They reflected where blues, soul and disco collided:  a dream of grit and gold lamé.   

Those photos have been compiled in Light: On the South Side, which is set for a November release by local label Numero Group.  The package also includes a 17-track vinyl-only comp entitled Pepper’s Jukebox, featuring various local juke joint luminaries including Bobby Rush and Little Mack. Cratediggers, this one also includes the one-time cockroach of Chicago 45rpm collecting: “I’m a Streaker, Baby” by Arlean Brown.  Remember that one?  Couldn’t even give that one away, it was so plentiful.  Anyway, check out the photo gallery, above (from the forthcoming book).  Be inspired.  Jive on.

 photo by Michael Abramson224_x600_cl_light18


Sweet Flypaper of Life: 1950s Harlem in Black & White

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Picture it.  I’m in high school, late for the morning bus, desperate for something to read during my lengthy commute.  On my Grandmother’s disheveled porch, I find a slightly sunfaded paperback.  The book is Sweet Flypaper of Life, with text by Langston Hughes and photography by Roy DeCarava (1955).  I toss it in my backpack, completely unaware that:

1. My life would never be the same… I would see the world differently from that day on.

2. That paperback was (at the time) thirty years old and worth nearly 100 bucks.  I would only discover its value when I attempted in college to upgrade for a hardcover.  Apparently, it’s an exceptionally rare book.  And I threw it in my backpack.  Did I mention it rained that day?

About the book:

Essentially, the Sweet Flypaper is written from the point of view of an older woman in Harlem who is a fixture in her community.  She introduces us to each person in her world.  We’re let in on their struggles as well as the hard-fought victories in their lives.  The Langston Hughes’ text is accompanied by a memorable photo essay by Roy DeCarava.

DE_Carava_the_sweet_1How I love this book.  It captures a time on the cusp of the Civil Rights Era: a time steeped in the Electrified Delta Blues, in Joe Louis Fights, in Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn, in Miller High Life, in Dixie Peach pomade.  It captures something so timeless that it stays with you…. always.  I recommend you discover a copy of your own, but until you do, enjoy the pages I reproduced here for you. Jive on!

De_carava_the_sweet_2


Blackness…Finally Forgivable?

from the Stop Smiling Blog….

A Pugilist’s Pardon, Once Unforgivable

blog-johnson1It’s Jack Johnson, 1 — Scooter Libby, zero. Senator John McCain delivers some straight talk we can believe in with the announcement this week that he is seeking a presidential pardon for the late Jack Johnson, the nation’s first black heavyweight boxing champion, who he “feels was wronged by a 1913 conviction of violating the Mann Act by having a consensual relationship with a white woman” (read more about the story at AP); STOP SMILING featured Johnson on the cover of our Boxing Issue back in 2005, timing with the release of Ken Burn’s extraordinary documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. The final bell will be rung by President Obama.

Really? What’s McCain’s motivation? I remember an audio piece produced by my friend Kabuika for Vocalo.org in which an eleven year old kid asks Black Journalists if they think McCain is afraid of Black People (after McCain declined an invite to a Conference of Black Journalists in 2008).

McCain, Afraid of Black People? by Kabuika

So, what is McCain’s Motivation for pushing to pardon somebody who’s been dead sixty-0dd years?  Like the classic Tootsie Pop commercial, the world may never know


Achy Obejas presents her “Ruins”

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“Achy Obejas writes like an angel: flush with power, vision and hope … one of the Caribbean’s most important writers.”

Junot Diaz, author of Drown, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Achy Obejas, author of “We Came All the Way From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?” and “Memory Mambo” (stories of Cuban Americans in ruinsChicago), spins disjointed dreams into tangible things through her poetry and prose. And come this month, the Chicagoan has released another book of dreams, entitled “Ruins”.  “Ruins”, set to be released on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, bears echoes of Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” reset during the “special period” in Cuba.  The main character is “Usnavy”, a dig on the American military’s longsuffering relationship with Cubans.  A Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, Obejas feels she will eventually leave Chicago to settle permanently into Cuba (she left with her family when she was six).  She recently told Cafe Magazine, “I live in Chicago, with an ever-diminishing Cuban-American community and far from the Miami epicenter. I am much more interested in being a part of a post-revolutionary Cuba than the diasporic community, which will most likely follow historical pattern and be absorbed into the U.S. mainstream as another immigrant (no longer exile) community.” for more on Obejas and “Ruins”, click here.



I am Not Sidney Poitier

not-sidney-poitier(Graywolf Press, 2009)

I was, in life, to be a gambler, a risk-taker, a swashbuckler, a knight. I accepted, then and there, my place in the world. I was a fighter of windmills. I was a chaser of whales. I was Not Sidney Poitier.

–from I Am Not Sidney Poitier

This is not a full review… that, my pretties, is still to come.  This is just a heads up on “I Am Not Sidney Poitier”, a forthcoming (May ’09) novel by Percival Everett.  According to the publisher, Graywolf Press:

“Not Sidney Poitier is an amiable young man in an absurd country. The sudden death of his mother orphans him at age eleven, leaving him with an unfortunate name, an uncanny resemblance to the famous actor, and, perhaps more fortunate, a staggering number of shares in the Turner Broadcasting Corporation.

Percival Everett’s hilarious new novel follows Not Sidney’s tumultuous life, as the social hierarchy scrambles to balance his skin color with his fabulous wealth. Maturing under the less-than watchful eye of his adopted foster father, Ted Turner, Not gets arrested in rural Georgia for driving while black, sparks a dinnertable explosion at the home of his manipulative girlfriend, and sleuths a murder case in Smut Eye, Alabama, all while navigating the recurrent communication problem:

“What’s your name?” a kid would ask.

“Not Sidney,” I would say.

“Okay, then what is it?”

Sounds like summer reading to me…..


Book Review: More than just Race

(Norton Press, 2009)

more-than-just-race

According to William Julius Wilson, author of More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (in stores March 2009), “the disproportionate number of low-skilled black males in this country is one of the legacies of historical segregation and discrimination”.  This statement cuts cleanly the notion that class-ism is the new racism.  Racism’s shockwaves have not yet subsided.  The book’s title alludes to the notion that race for race’s sake is not the virus plaguing America: it is “structural forces” (that is, individual decisions and “the machinery” (law, policy, and institutional practices).

In this book, Wilson essentially alludes that when the fight for integration took precedence over the fight to end impoverished conditions, neighborhoods (and people) suffered dramatically.  They still do.

Class-ism is not the new Racism.  It has lingered with us since Jim Crow and was, perhaps, the heavyiest load of old guard racism.  In More than Just Race, Wilson quotes the late black economist Dr. Vivian Henderson as saying thirty years ago that “racism put blacks in their place, but changes in the modern economy make the place in which they find themselves more and more precarious”.

After the election of Obama, news sources nationwide asked, “It racism over?  Is this the earmark we’ve all been looking for?”  Wilson responds with this book.  Race alone is no longer the issue that divides us.  It is no longer nearly that simple.