Category Archives: Book Reviews

Black Picket Fences.

In Chicago, neat rows of distinctive bungalows line the streets in many neighborhoods (known collectively as the Bungalow Belt). Many of these homes were built in approximately the 1910s and 1920s.

On the Southside, a good number of these homes have been suffering a disturbing fate: as longtime owners age, their children have been selling/losing the family homes at an alarming rate. This trend began over a decade ago, (long before the current economic crisis) and continues, creating a perfect storm of community erosion. Once proud manicured blocks are now marred with boarded up windows and overgrown shrubbery. The homes that families worked for a generation to own are being lost in a period of a few years (in some cases, even less). Some are being lost due to the monetary strains that owning an aging home can create, others are being lost because the younger generation doesn’t value the home (particularly its location in the heart of the city). What is being erased is a seldom told story that author Mary Pattillo-McCoy attempted to document in her 1999 book, Black Picket Fences.

According to the author:

The goal of Black Picket Fences is to richly describe the neighborhood-based social life of a population that has received little scholarly or popular attention—the black middle class. The black middle class and their residential enclaves are nearly invisible to the nonblack public because of the intense (and mostly negative) attention given to poor urban ghettos. Substantial downward mobility signals that there are systematic obstacles to ensuring [a] transfer of class status.

Due to the proximity of these Black Urban Middle Class neighborhoods to other neighborhoods, their survival is directly linked to the survival of Urban residents in more impoverished areas. To be clear, the Black Urban Middle Class is most cases are by no means rich. Many are teachers or plumbers, or other hard working folks. But due to proximity, their dollars positively impact all the communities around them: some are small business owners, and many have the expendable income to support various charitable endeavors and local initiatives.

But the younger generation of more mobile Blacks is leaving the cities in droves, and in many cases, is more reliant on credit than ever before.  This is partly what attributed to the recent dip in the average median net worth for Black Households (the typical black household had just $5,677 in wealth (assets minus debts) in 2009)

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I have said repeatedly that I think “escaping” the problems of the city by moving outside of its limits is doing a disservice to so many people (including ourselves).  The strong, vibrant, creative communities we dream about require a commitment to build it. There’s nothing but opportunity in empty storefronts and two-flats. What do you want to see?

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Hey, White Girl! Susan Gregory’s Chicago Story

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The intersection of race and class. In Chicago. In the late 1960s.  That’s the backdrop of a memoir (rather cheekily) titled “Hey, White Girl!” written by Susan Gregory (Norton, 1970). 

In the book, teenage Susan transfers from well-heeled, suburban New Trier High School to attend infamous-even-then Marshall High School on Chicago’s West Side for her senior year.

What’s notable about this book is that save certain specificities (slang, style of dress, et al), the story would probably play out identically today: that’s how little race and class lines have shifted since then in the Windy City.

There are many notable moments in the book: some poignant, some funny, some perfect slices of Sixties Chicago.

“What jam can I mash on you?” the disc jockey asked… The words, the phrases were endless.  But I learned them, and slowly they became my own…

…A “humbug” was a fight. A “box” was a record player.  “The hawk” referred to the wind… Marshall and WVON helped me build my vocabulary.   — from Hey, White Girl

Find a copy, if you dare.  Definitely worth the search.  It’s wild.


Another Beautiful Struggle

the-beautiful-struggle-198x300“We took comfort in the rebel music that was pumped into the city from up North. Hip-Hop was the rumble of our generation, unveiling all our wants, fears, and disaffections. But as the fabled year of ’88 came upon us, we saw something more in the music, a deeper thing that interrogated our random lives and made us self-aware. We needed 1988, like the mariners of old needed the North Star. I needed a text for understanding my present crack-addled world; Bill needed some conception of a future.”

— from The Beautiful Stuggle, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ autobiographical ode to black manhood (and the struggle to reach it and to cultivate it) is the premise for The Beautiful Struggle (Random House, 2008), a title hip-hop heads might recognize from a 2004 Talib Kweli album.  The album popularized a phrase from a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech, in which he stated:

“We must move past indecision to action. Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response.”

In the Beautiful Struggle, Coates’ father is larger than life, both Black Panther & Vietnam vet, publisher and cultural historian, trying to raise up seven children in an era when crack created a desert tooled for the destuction of a whole generation.  A book that is both a love note to hip hop, a battle cry, and a tale of rising up, A Beautiful Struggle is beautiful to be sure.


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!

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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)

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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.