Nonfiction from the African Diaspora

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Nonfiction from the African Diaspora

Apr 22, 2012, 12:38 pm

Unless I'm mistaken, I have not found a group that focuses on this topic. If no one objects, I would like to start a thread in this group for historical and narrative nonfiction written by and about members and communities of the African Diaspora, rather than creating a separate group.

I'll start by posting reviews of several books that I've read lately.

Edited: Apr 22, 2012, 12:42 pm

Panther Baby by Jamal Joseph

Note: This review contains numerous spoilers and detailed information about the author's life and the history of Black Panther Party. Anyone who is seriously thinking of reading this book may want to skim it, or skip it altogether.

This gripping and inspiring memoir begins in New York City in 1968. Eddie Joseph, a 15 year old boy being raised by his doting and deeply religious grandmother, excels in school, but his experiences as a young child make him aware of the racial turmoil that exists within and outside of his "up south" community in the Bronx. As a first grader, he innocently kisses a white girl on the way home from school, and her parents then forbid her to ever speak to him again. During a summer trip to visit his grandmother's relatives in rural Virginia, he bloodies the nose of a white bully, who turns out to be the son of a local Ku Klux Klan leader, and he is forced to take the first bus back to New York after several KKK members pay a less than cordial visit to his aunt's house that evening.

Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination in May of 1968 radicalized many young blacks in America, and young Eddie was no exception. The Black Power movement had been gaining in strength and importance since 1966, when Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) chairman Stokely Carmichael first used the term to describe an alternative movement to Dr. King's Civil Rights movement, one which emphasized black solidarity in order to achieve political equality and socioeconomic independence. After seeing the Black Panthers on television, he is attracted by the young men wearing berets and leather jackets and toting guns, as they defiantly protest California legislators and policemen who wish to take away their constitutional right to bear arms. Eddie then decides to join the organization, along with his closest friends.

Eddie adopts the name Jamal, and becomes a devoted and respected young leader within the New York City chapter of the Black Panther Party. His youthful exuberance and radicalism is both encouraged and tempered by several older Panther leaders, most notably Afeni Shakur, one of the most influential women in the organization, whose own fame would be superseded by that of her son Tupac. The Panthers serve a vital purpose within black communities in the city, providing free breakfast and after-school programs for school children, distributing food to needy families, organizing tenants in substandard and unsafe housing to stand up for their right to live decently, combating the influx of illegal drugs in the community, and aiding individuals in need of medical care or legal aid, while distributing literature and eliciting donations to support their activities. Although many Americans viewed the Black Panther Party as a dangerous and subversive organization, liberal whites and Jews including Jane Fonda, Norman Mailer and Leonard Bernstein recognize their good work, and hold fund raising parties in their name.

The Panthers' more radical activities, particularly in Oakland and Chicago, come to the attention of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who proclaims that "{t}he Black Panther Party without question is the greatest threat to the internal security of the country." Local police, aided and encouraged by FBI agents, begin to crack down on Panther chapters throughout the country, raiding local Panther offices and engaging in shootouts with them, which include the notorious assassination of Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton, who is shot to death at night, unarmed, as he sleeps alongside his pregnant girlfriend.

In April of 1969, Jamal and 20 other Panther leaders, known subsequently as the Panther 21, are arrested and charged with conspiracy to bomb several public building and to commit murder. The case draws local and national attention, as most blacks and liberal whites believe the charges are without merit. Jamal is eventually freed after several months of imprisonment along with several others, and the remaining incarcerated members of the Panther 21 are acquitted of all charges by a grand jury, which needed only 45 minutes of deliberation to find them free of guilt.

Jamal resumes his activities in the Party, but finds that the organization, both locally and nationally, has been fractured, due to the FBI's successful efforts to infiltrate the organization. This sowed widespread distrust and dissension within the Party, particularly between its West Coast and East Coast sections, and culminated in a split between Eldridge Cleaver, who favored revolution and violence, and Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, David Hilliard and others, who preferred to focus on community development and education. As a result, the local chapters' positive influences on the community wane in the early and mid 1970s, and the influx of illegal drugs, along with the migration of middle class blacks from inner city communities, increased unemployment, and cutbacks in city programs due to the worsening recession, decimate the inner city neighborhoods of New York City and most American cities.

He is arrested again, as he and other Panthers attempt to break up a local drug den by armed force, and he receives a 12 year sentence. He serves the majority of his prison time at Leavenworth, the largest maximum security federal prison in the United States, alongside the most dangerous of criminals, many of whom will never see leave the prison alive. He begins to study and read intensely, writes several plays for fellow inmates, and obtains a bachelor's degree from the University of Kansas, graduating summa cum laude. Upon his release in 1987 he moves back to New York, where he reunites with his wife and children. He is hired by Touro College as a professor and counselor, writes several screenplays, which win several awards and earn him a fellowship in playwriting, and is subsequently hired to teach screenwriting at Columbia University, where he continues to work as a professor in the School of Arts.

Panther Baby is a fascinating account of a remarkable life, which kept my rapt attention from the first page to the last. Joseph is a gifted writer, and this book provided me with a succinct yet excellent insider's analysis of the Black Panther Party, the life of a former Panther, and the measure of this inspiring man. This is one of the best memoirs I've ever read, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Apr 22, 2012, 12:41 pm

An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie

This unique and highly entertaining travelogue begins in the west African country of Togo in the late 1950s, as the teenage author recuperates from a near fatal illness. Kpomassie, an avid reader, is enthralled by a book that he discovers at the town's evangelical bookshop, The Eskimos from Greenland to Alaska, with its descriptions of vast territory devoid of trees, eternal cold, hunters clothed in animal skins, and a society that valued the child above all else, which contrasted sharply with Togo's elder dominated society and its numerous tropical forests, blistering hot beaches, and dangerous snakes. He soon decides that his destiny is to travel to Greenland, instead of fulfilling his father's promise to entrust him to the healers that saved his life.

Kpomassie slowly makes his way to Greenland via the countries on the west African coast, France, Germany and Denmark, aided by relatives and benefactors who are impressed with and fond of the soft spoken but determined young man. He finally arrives in the southern Greenlandic town of Julianehåb, eight years after he left Togo, and is warmly welcomed by the town's Inuit and Danish inhabitants, who are entranced by the gentle black giant.

Kpomassie's descriptions of the different cultures in Greenland, the people he meets, and the unique if not exactly palatable cuisine are entertaining, often warm and humorous, and always evocative and pointedly descriptive. He becomes disenchanted with the culture of southern Greenland, and slowly travels to the even more isolated northern regions, in order to seek the true Inuit people that he read and dreamed about.

An African in Greenland is an improbable and unforgettable work of travel literature, which is easily my favorite in this genre. I suppose that my ultimate compliment is that it made me eager to accompany Kpomassie to Greenland, despite its brutal climate and horrid cuisine.

Edited: Apr 22, 2012, 12:46 pm

Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero by David Maraniss

Roberto Clemente (1934-1972), the first Latino superstar of professional baseball played in the United States, was elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame soon after his tragic death in a dangerous and overloaded airplane on the last day of the year, en route to bringing earthquake relief supplies from Puerto Rico to Nicaragua. Clemente died as he lived, a man who passionately loved his countrymen and fellow Latinos regardless of their skin color, particularly those who didn't have the opportunities he did.

He was in the twilight of his career at the end of the 1972 season, having collected his 3,000th hit on his last at bat as a Pittsburgh Pirate, an accomplishment that only 10 other men had achieved before him. He was finally at peace with himself, after suffering innumerable slights and insults throughout his career, by managers and fellow players who didn't understand or appreciate him, racial segregation and deplorable living conditions during spring training in Florida, and sportswriters who twisted and phoneticized his Spanish-flavored words in demeaning and hurtful articles. He led the Pirates to two World Series, and was respected and feared as one of the most dangerous clutch hitters in baseball, who ran as if he was being chased by demons and threw out runners regularly from his right field position due to a strong and deadly accurate arm. A complex man who wore his emotions on his sleeves, he would regularly berate and harangue reporters for seemingly innocent questions, yet he would routinely sign autographs for his fans long after his teammates had left the ballpark, and gave freely of himself to anyone he could help, including the poor of San Juan and surrounding towns in Puerto Rico and fans who he embraced and treated as if they were his own family.

Clemente spent his winters playing in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean and Latin America while other major leaguers were resting, to give back to those Latinos who could not see him play in Pittsburgh, and to honor the Latino players that came before him but could not display their talents in the United States, due to their skin color or language barrier. He worshiped his wife, children and parents above all else, and never forgot or forsake his roots as a kid growing up in a poor town outside of San Juan. He was beloved by fans of all races and backgrounds throughout the United States, for his skill, passion for the game, and the love he gave to every fan that supported him. (As a side note, he was one of my favorite players as a kid, along with Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Bob Gibson, and my friends and I would routinely mimic the neck stretches he did before every at bat.)

David Maraniss does an excellent job in honoring and fully describing Roberto Clemente, a complicated and imperfect man who continues to be viewed as a hero in Puerto Rico, other countries in Latin America, and the city of Pittsburgh, as a pioneer who overcome physical pain and personal strife to become one of baseball's greatest and most beloved figures. However, the book was overly repetitive and about 50-100 pages too long, which diluted its impact somewhat. Despite this, I would highly recommend this book, certainly to baseball fans but also to anyone who would enjoy a well written biography about an influential and beloved man.

Apr 22, 2012, 12:46 pm

Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, a native Texan who graduated from Harvard in 2000, moved to Harlem two years later to pursue professional opportunities in New York City. In 2004 she wrote an article about her experiences living there, and was encouraged to write this book, which is named after a 1948 essay by Ralph Ellison about the psychological and existential aspects of life in Harlem.

Rhodes-Pitts introduces us to several of her older neighbors, who have experienced the dramatic changes of this now resurgent section of Manhattan that counts Bill Clinton and other whites as new residents. Despite these recent changes, a culture of respect and camaraderie, based on mores of African Americans who migrated to New York from the Jim Crow South decades ago, still exists. We also learn about past residents of Harlem, including familiar ones such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Marcus Garvey and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and less well known but no less important figures, including George Young, whose bookstore was known as the "Mecca of Literature Pertaining to Colored People", and Victoria Earle Matthews, the founder of the White Rose Home, which aided female emigrants establish a foothold and learn basic skills necessary to survive in a metropolis that existed beyond the imagination of the daughters of slaves and sharecroppers.

The book is divided into thematic chapters, which include the literature of Harlem, the neighborhood as a place of refuge, written signs and messages with overt and hidden meanings, and past and current efforts to keep the neighborhood from becoming gentrified or unduly commercialized.

The book ends with the author's observation of the African American Day Parade in Harlem, which serves as a celebration of life in the neighborhood but also as an account of the tension and stress that exists there, as peaceful residents are caught between hostile city police officers and young men who seek an outlet for their passions and frustrations.

Harlem Is Nowhere does not provide a comprehensive history of the neighborhood, particularly its founding and the story of the people who lived there before the Great Migration of blacks from the South in the early 20th century, and the personal stories are limited to the sections where the author has lived and knows best. Several key aspects of Harlem life are also excluded, most notably key figures in the entertainment industries of jazz and modern dance, and the vibrant nightlife at legendary spots such as the Cotton Club and Minton's Playhouse. However, the book does serve as an appealing and interesting set of observations about the famous and every day people who have influenced and contributed to the life of Harlem over the past century.

Apr 22, 2012, 12:49 pm

Seeing Patients: Unconscious Bias in Health Care by Augustus A. White III, MD

Dr. Augustus A. White III, the son of a physician in segregated Memphis, graduate of Brown (undergraduate degree in psychology), Stanford (medical school) and Yale (residency), Vietnam War combat surgeon, renowned orthopaedic surgeon and researcher, first African American to chair a department at Harvard Medical School, and former master of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Society at Harvard, has a most impressive résumé and interesting life story. Fortunately he shares his life with the reader in the first half of this outstanding book, and he is a surprisingly gifted story teller, with a style that I found completely captivating. He encounters racial prejudice along the way to the top, but handles these obstacles with grace and aplomb, in keeping with his upbringing in the African American middle class community of Memphis who nurtured and praised him while stressing him to be humble and grateful for the gifts and opportunities he had been given. He was also taught to be a role model for others, and as he became a respected professor at Yale and Harvard and a fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons he used his position to advocate for greater representation of racial minorities in medical schools and orthopaedic residency programs, and to address the inequalities in health care and medical outcomes that minorities, the women, elderly and other populations continue to experience in the United States.

In the second half of the book, Dr. White describes some of the findings outlined in the landmark book Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care, published in 2001 by the Institute of Medicine, which was influenced by several studies that demonstrated that stark disparities in health care outcomes based on race, ethnicity, gender and age exist for different health conditions, even when factors such as health insurance and socioeconomic status were controlled for. Hispanics and African Americans received adequate pain control far less often than their white counterparts; women with heart attacks characterized by severe blockage of blood flow were nearly twice as likely as men to die afterward, and women with heart disease are far less likely to be accurately diagnosed by their doctors (as their symptoms are more likely to be attributed to stress) and receive standard of care treatment such as angioplasty, bypass surgery, and cholesterol lowering drugs; and elderly people, particularly women, are far less likely to be offered kidney transplants for renal failure, even those who are in good health.

In his work with the Oliver Wendell Holmes Society and his colleagues at Harvard, Dr. White and others advocated for the teaching of culturally competent care to medical students, in an effort to encourage physicians to evaluate and understand their own biases, so that they could provide each patient with the highest standard of care possible. He recognizes that most physicians genuinely care for their patients and want to give their best effort toward them, but cultural biases and personal factors that affect the patient-doctor relationship can impede the task. He injects personal vignettes and stories of others, which made me think about the families that I've taken care of who I haven't liked or communicated well with in the past, and understand that often I did not give them the same level of care that I did to families and children that I closely bonded with, regardless of their race or ethnic background.

The book closes with a section of practical suggestions for patients and physicians to use to better communicate with each other, and a list of national standards to ensure that every patient receives culturally competent health care.

Seeing Patients is a superb biography about an amazing man, a call to arms to ensure that all patients are treated fairly and equally, and a guide to aid health care providers and patients communicative effectively and respectfully to each other. I intend to encourage all of my colleagues, and the residents, medical students and physician assistant students who rotate on our service to buy and read this book, which jumps to the top of my short list of books that every health care provider should read. In addition, I think the lay reader would also enjoy and benefit from this book, as all of us have to encounter a health care provider who may or may not be respectful toward us at some point.

May 7, 2012, 3:54 pm

Thank you so much for giving us all this information. Several of these are unknown to me and I'll definitely add them to my list.

Jun 1, 2012, 12:52 pm

Thanks for posting these Darryl! I'm going to post some comments on a few books, though I'm afraid I haven't put as much time into them as your reviews.

First up is Waiting til the midnight hour by Peniel E.Joseph

I listened to the Griot audio version of this book, narrated by Beresford Bennett. It provided what I was looking for, a broad overview of the black power movement.

This book covers covers primarily the 1960s & 70s , which is basically the beginning of my life. It is helpful to me that the author grounds his discussion of black power in the context of the thread of separatism/nationalism that runs through African-American experience in the US, as well as in the beginnings of the non-aligned movement of newly independent African and Asian states that began in the 1950s with the Bandung conference in Indonesia. Thus, while "black power" is a term coined by Stokely Carmichael in the 60s while he was a part of SNCC & the Civil Rights movement, the concept of black nationalism historically precedes the Civil Rights movement and black power is separate from (or perhaps in dialog with) the civil rights movement.

In the history books black power comes chronologically "after" the civil rights movement, but on reading this book I'm beginning to think of it more as part of an ongoing dialog about how African-Americans claim their place, not just in the US, but in the wider world as well.

Edited: Jun 1, 2012, 1:05 pm

This isn't a review of Malcolm X: a life of reinvention by Manning Marable , but some impressions in case I want to come back to this book again. Marable has done his research well, but I found the writing a little dry.

I was struck anew? again? by how young (15-16) Malcolm Little was when he left school & moved to Boston, where he was basically on his own.

I'm puzzled and intrigued by what seems to me to be a contrast between a rhetoric that promotes violence as a response to racism and actions that, while they may be confrontative (is that a word?) aren't violent, while critiquing the nonviolent civil rights movement for being too concilatory.

Appalled by Malcolm's attitude towards his wife & women (though I understand it was common at the time.) Also appalled by the fact that NOI paid him no salary so he had no financial independence from the group, and by the violence NOI turned on members who didn't conform to expected behavior norms.

The depiction of Malcolm's relationship with Elijah Muhammad and various members of NOI is much more detailed here since Marable had access to NOI's files. (The only other bio I've read is the autobiography which Haley wrote.)

And yes, there is more info on the assassination, who the gunmen actually were, as well as writing that intimates the police were complicit by their absence from the Audobon.

I continue to be impressed by Malcolm X ability to absorb new ideas and change his stance on his religious and intellectual beliefs.

Jun 2, 2012, 8:23 am

Thanks for posting your reviews, Ardene. I should finish Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention tomorrow, and I have Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour in my ever growing pile on unread books. Hopefully I'll get to it later this year.

Jun 24, 2012, 5:52 pm

Thanks for all the recommendations! Will definitely look up some of these.

Jan 8, 2015, 1:07 pm

Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward

Finalist, National Book Critics' Circle Award for Autobiography (2013)


My rating:

From 2000 to 2004, five Black young men I grew up with died, all violently, in seemingly unrelated deaths...That's a brutal list, in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it's a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time.

Jesmyn Ward, author of the National Book Awrd winning novel Salvage the Bones, was born in the Mississippi Gulf Coast town of DeLisle in 1977. Like many African Americans in that region her parents were poorly educated with only high school diplomas from poorly financed and largely segregated schools, and that combined with the lack of good jobs in the region for those without higher education, or for most blacks regardless of their level of education, condemned them to a series of low paying jobs that kept them in poverty and put a great strain on their marriage. Ward managed to escape this trap due to a lawyer that her mother worked for as a maid, who paid for her education at an all-white private school that was vastly better than the public school in DeLisle that she had been attending. She performed well there despite frequent racial harassment from her fellow students, and she was accepted to Stanford University, where she received her bachelor's degree, and the University of Michigan, where she earned a master's degree in fine arts. After years of struggling to find a good job that would take advantage of her education and writing skills she eventually found a publisher for her first novel, Where the Line Bleeds, which was set in a Mississippi Gulf Coast town ravaged by Hurricane Katrina whose African American residents struggle to overcome poverty, racism and drug addiction. She was subsequently chosen as a writer in residence at the University of Mississippi and during that time she wrote Salvage the Bones, which significantly elevated her career. She accepted a teaching position at the University of South Alabama, and she is now an associate professor of English at Tulane University in New Orleans.

In addition to overcoming poverty and racism, Ward also had to deal with alcoholism and depression, due in large part to her family's struggles in DeLisle, her inability to find a decent job, and especially the loss of the men in her life. Her father divorced her mother after she gave birth to their fourth child, and his lack of income and presence in their lives left her, her three siblings and her mother financially distressed and emotionally wounded. In 2000 her brother Joshua was killed, and subsequently four other young men in her community died, of different causes, over the next four years, which was devastating to her and her community.

In Men We Reaped, Ward describes the often difficult lives of these five men and their sudden deaths, in an effort to eulogize them, to tell the story of herself, her family and those closest to her, and to help those of us who didn't grow up under those oppressive circumstances, including myself, understand why men like these made the choices they did, the devastating consequences that resulted from them, and how their failed lives adversely impacts their communities, and ultimately all of us.

Edited: Jan 8, 2015, 2:53 pm

Thanks for this post! I just wishlisted this book b/c of it.

Mar 21, 2015, 9:25 pm

I am putting it on my wishlist as well

Feb 21, 2021, 5:44 pm

>1 kidzdoc: Replying and hope this reactivates the group! Nigeria's Book of Firsts and Nigeriana quotable Quotes has lots of info relating in particular to Nigerian historical & pioneering events and the book of quotes has some great quotes by erudite Nigerians

Jul 15, 2021, 9:22 am

The Cause of Freedom: A Concise History of African Americans by Jonathan Scott Holloway


My rating:

Being American is, in part, an act of declaration, rooted in the principles that guided the establishment of this country and that have been rearticulated at different moments in its history: a faith in the idea of freedom and a pledge to respect liberty and justice for all. Relatedly, being American means, for many, membership in a community of citizens who believe in the rights of assembly, speech, and unfettered access to the ballot box. With an unsettling consistency, however, being American has also been defined in a negative way: not being black.

Dr Jonathan Scott Holloway, the current president of Rutgers University, my undergraduate alma mater, and the first African American to serve in that capacity in the school's 255 year history, is a U.S. historian and university administrator who was educated at Stanford and Yale, and taught and served as dean of Yale College and provost of Northwestern University before being chosen to lead Rutgers last summer.

in The Cause of Freedom, Dr Holloway provides a compelling and very readable account of the story of this country's Black residents, dating from the first known arrival of a Black man to this country in 1528, when Estevanico, a Moroccan member of the Spanish Narváez expedition, was one of four survivors who landed on the west coast of Florida, to the initial importation of slaves to Jamestown in August 1619, through to the Black Lives Matter movement. His primary aim is to determine what it means to be an American, a question that can have different answers depending on the respondent's ethnic and religious background and personal and family history in this country.

The book highlights the historical moments, themes and individuals, White and Black, who played major roles in the history of people of African descent in this country, with a particular focus on the Civil Rights Movement and the post-Civil Rights era, along with the Harlem Renaissance and the two most important public intellectuals in early 20th century America, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. From my past reading I was familiar with most of the information in this book, but there was also plenty that I didn't know, both about the people within it and information about those who I thought I knew.

The Cause of Freedom is an absolutely superb and essential addition to the written history of African Americans, which has 150 pages of text and can easily be read in one day. It would be an outstanding book for high school and college students to read, along with anyone else within and outside of the United States who desires a primer and a start off point to learn more about this perpetually timely and important topic.