Apr 18 2019

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad is a hell of a book. Like Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters, Whitehead’s book was published in 2016 and takes a slightly science fictional look at slavery in the United States of America.

Winters’ narrative brought slavery into the 21st century and imagined what the peculiar institution would be like in a world of smartphones and high-tech manufacturing. Whitehead leaves slavery in the 19th century, but imagines that the Underground Railroad was exactly that: a set of tunnels extending hundreds of miles through the earth into the wicked hearts of the slave states, capable of whisking runaways into completely new situations in new states. The one thing the stationmasters can’t do — besides survive, for some of them — is predict when the next freedom train is coming, or where it will go.

Whitehead opens his story with Cora, a slave, turning down an offer to try to escape. In the second sentence, Whitehead turns to Cora’s grandmother, how she was captured by Dahomeyans and sold several times on the way to Ouidah, a major slaving port in what is now Benin. In a crisp six pages, Whitehead lays out Ajarry’s life, how many times she was sold, what happened to her owners, how her three husbands went away — one was sold to a sugarcane estate in Florida (where he was surely worked to death), one passed from cholera, and one had his ears bored for stealing honey, “The wounds gave up pus until he wasted away” (p. 7) — and how four of her five children died before they were fully grown. Ajarry drew some conclusions and stayed on the Randall plantation in Georgia cotton country until the end of her life.

“Ajarry died in the cotton, the boils bobbing around her like whitecaps on the brute ocean. The last of her village, keeled over in the rows from a knot in her brain, blood pouring from her nose and white froth covering her lips. As if it could have been anywhere else. Liberty was reserved for other people, for the citizens of the City of Pennsylvania bustling a thousand miles to the north. Since the night she was kidnapped she had been appraised and reappraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale. Know your value and you know your place in the order. To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible” (p. 8)

Her granddaughter draws some conclusions, too. Here is Whitehead’s very next paragraph:

“It was her grandmother talking that Sunday evening when Caesar approached Cora about the underground railroad, and she said no.
“Three weeks later said yes.
“This time it was her mother talking.” (p. 8)

Cora’s mother escaped. She told no one of her plans, least of all her pre-teen daughter. Unlike most runaways, who were caught and then brought back to the plantation to be tortured and then executed for the edification of the other slaves, forced to witness the spectacle, Cora’s mother Mabel is never caught. The Randall plantation never hears of her again. Mabel’s escape leaves Cora isolated among the other slaves; Whitehead does not hesitate to depict how enslaved people turned on one another for slight advantages, how the brutal regime of the masters was replicated further down the hierarchy. Nor is he shy about how some people found joy in some things anyway, about how they did their best to live and love under a system designed to break them completely. Cora grows up angry at her mother for abandoning her; at the same time, though, Mabel’s escape demonstrates that freedom is a possibility.

When Cora changes her mind and accepts Caesar’s offer, they begin to plan their getaway. And none too soon. Not only has Old Randall passed some years hence, the son who inherited the half of the plantation that Cora labors on, and who does not try to wring every last penny of profit from the system, has reaped the reward of a life of dissipation in New Orleans. The surviving brother has no patience for the alleged softness of his sibling’s stewardship and proceeds with tightening the screws. Cora and Caesar plan carefully, and make their escape one night when all the factors seem to align for a good getaway.

But in the close-knit world of the slave cabins their preparations have not escaped everyone’s notice. Lovey, a friend of Cora’s, catches up with them in the middle of the fields and demands to be taken with them. She slows them down. The alarm had been raised earlier than they thought. Slavecatchers find the little group. Cora and Caesar get away, but Lovey does not. In the melee that leads to the pair’s escape, Cora kills a white boy. Now they will have a price on their heads, with death a certainty if they get caught.

Still, it wouldn’t be much of an Underground Railroad book if the characters were caught and brought straight back to their plantation, and indeed they are not. Cora and Caesar are out of the frying pan and into various fires, for each of the states Cora makes her way to has chosen to deal with slavery in a different way. In South Carolina, they find what appears to be an enlightened approach. Whitehead is having some ironic fun with history. South Carolina has been memorably described by Charles Pierce as “the home office of American sedition,” it was the first state to attempt to secede, and the first shots of the Civil War were fired there. Its firebreathing politicians led their state and nation into the conflagration, so to find South Carolina as the home of a near-socialist, scientific attempt at solving slavery is a satisfying twist. In Whitehead’s book, human property in the state has been nationalized. There are no more individual slaveowners; instead, the government has purchased all of them, provides housing and services, and arranges their labor. Public institutions also encourage enslaved women to be sterilized, and public health authorities are conducting syphilis experiments on enslaved men.

Cora and Caesar decide to take the next Underground train to wherever, but before they can flee a slavecatcher who also pursued Cora’s mother catches up to them. Cora makes it to the Underground, but has to leave Caesar behind. Her travels take her to North Carolina — where slavery has been “solved” by executing any black person who was in the state after a certain date — and then to Tennessee — where the slavecatcher who has been tracking her relentlessly since she left the Randall plantation captures here for a while — and finally to Indiana — where Cora finds a nearly utopian community of runaways, free people of color, and a few whites who extend protection and humanity.

Whitehead captures the feel of societies wrestling with a great evil that brings wealth and position to those in the dominant caste, societies taking what they have convinced themselves are more moral paths but failing utterly to see what matters most: that enslaved people are as human as those who are or would be masters. His spare prose is unsparing, and he’s also very good at showing how such a dehumanizing system hurts everyone involved. The Underground Railroad is no mere catalog of horrors, it’s a taut thriller of someone trying to escape not only the odds, but all of history. She has some allies, some hopes, and even to some extent the respect of her greatest adversaries. Will she make it to the end of the line?

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/04/18/the-underground-railroad-by-colson-whitehead/

Apr 17 2019

The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

I finished this book in two compulsive sittings, and if I’m being perfectly honest, I think I would have liked it better if I hadn’t had to break concentration a little past the halfway mark to go do life stuff. Because The Weight Of Our Sky is the kind of book that grabs you by the throat and suffocates you in its anxiety-laden embrace, just as effectively as the djinn that plagues our heroine, Melati Ahmad (tho in the reader’s case, this is hopefully a voluntary experience.) Breaking that spell then coming back to it makes for a weird readjustment period, tho I can absolutely understand some readers needing that break. I’m a fairly neurotypical person and even so, the immersive depiction of OCD is extremely harrowing. This is a book that 100% deserves the trigger warning that Hanna Alkaf begins it with: if you’re in a bad place wrt mental health a/o racism, TWoOS is more likely to exacerbate your symptoms than alleviate.

And that’s because it’s a shockingly honest, surprisingly liberal look at a real life event in Malaysian history. Melati is a 16 year-old Malay Muslim girl living in 1969 Kuala Lumpur. She loves Paul McCartney and music in general, and adores her single mom, who works as a nurse at Kuala Lumpur General Hospital. Melati is also hiding a secret from the world: she has an obsessive compulsive disorder that convinces her that her counting and tapping and rituals are the only thing saving her mother from a grisly death. Being the 1960s, treatment of OCD is iffy at best, and mental health awareness degradingly poor, so Melati learns to hide her symptoms even as she does regular battle with the djinn that she believes must be possessing her. Things are manageable… until the race riots break out and Melati is caught in a situation that would be overwhelmingly stressful even for people without mental health challenges.

Ms Alkaf presents a view of the horrors of the time with an eye at once unflinching and compassionate. She has clearly done her research, and I honestly feel bad for her having to state as such in her foreword. I suspect that that came about from needing to preemptively defend herself from critics at home — I want to believe that the general trend of Malaysian thought is towards inclusion and acceptance rather than tribalism and control, but I no longer live there for a reason.

My only quibble with the novel itself is that the climactic scene outside the van where Edgar lay felt more rushed than it should have been, and that was less a product of the narrative than of Melati’s interior process. We’d been so privy to her thoughts up till then that for her to suddenly discard thinking was a somewhat jarring experience. And it’s probably too much to ask for suggestions for a way forward at the end of the novel — the content otherwise is quite clear that all citizens should respect each other as equal contributors to progress and stability — but it did feel as if Ms Alkaf was content only to apply her critical eye to the past instead of the present, one sardonic sentence in the foreword notwithstanding.

Anyway, this is certainly one of the most important novels ever to come out of Malaysia and Ms Alkaf is a tremendous talent. I can’t wait to read more of her stuff.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/04/17/the-weight-of-our-sky-by-hanna-alkaf/

Apr 16 2019

All My Colors by David Quantick

Every aspiring creative knows that inspiration is that most fickle of creatures. The Muse will not be forced… but what if she does show up? And what if she’s out to get you?

Todd Milstead is an asshole. A literary wannabe who sponges off the fortune of his long-suffering wife Janis, his main asset is his eidetic memory, that he often wields as a weapon against the small circle of friends who gather to drink his booze for the price of putting up with his overbearing egotism. He’s amazed one night to discover that none of them are familiar with a book he can recite chapter and verse, a novel called All My Colors written by one Jake Turner. Turns out they’re not the only ones: no one he meets has ever heard of this book. When Janis has finally had enough and leaves, Todd, facing poverty and homelessness, decides to type out All My Colors and submit it for publication under his own name.

Despite a rough creative period, fortune seems to favor Todd. All My Colors is picked up, launching a suddenly sober Todd on a seemingly stratospheric trajectory. But he still can’t get over Janis, not because he cares about her but because he’s convinced she’s seeing someone else despite his own serial adultery being grounds for their divorce. Then the hallucinations start, and people around him keep dying in shockingly grisly ways. What is the truth behind All My Colors and how it’s been revealed to Todd, and what is the price he’ll have to pay for claiming it as his own?

This was a compulsively readable novel, which I found especially amusing given how compulsively written the book within the book was. Speaking of books within books, I enjoyed the literary gift box nature of this novel, and rated quite highly the excerpts included. Too many novels about fictional stories do a terrible job of convincing the reader that the subject matter is actually worthwhile: this is one of those rare books that creates a wholly convincing novel on which to hang its plot.

Thing is tho, I actually felt bad for Todd. I know he’s an asshole but he didn’t seem especially extraordinary in that respect to merit the treatment he received. But I suppose that is the point of the novel — or of any decent horror novel, really — that life can be arbitrary and unkind. It’s certainly the kind of book that will have you second-guessing where your ideas come from. In that respect, All My Colors is definitely more a book about every writer’s nightmares and less about a pompous jerk getting his comeuppance and taking his poor friends down with him in the process.

Interview with David Quantick to come soon!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/04/16/all-my-colors-by-david-quantick/

Apr 15 2019

Lost Kingdom by Serhii Plokhy

Having recently written a national history of Ukraine, Plokhy turns his attention to the history of the junior eastern Slavic nation, Russia. A fair portion of Lost Kingdom describes how and why my opening sentence would outrage Russian ideologues, rulers and historians. The titles of the book’s sections reveal important aspects of his argument: Inventing Russia, The Reunification of [Kyivan] Rus’, The Tripartite Nation, and so on.

“The Russian elites’ for the Kyivan inheritance developed from a largely dynastic and religious concept into an ethnonational one with the start of the modern era.” (p. ix) Then that ethnonational understanding morphed into a semi-open imperial one that accepted “today’s Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians along with imperial elites of non-Slavic origins that were Russified in political and cultural terms.” (p. ix) Then the Revolution came and tried to subsume the nations into a class structure, while simultaneously setting up polities that signified the nations’ importance. Contrarily, and also simultaneously, the USSR centralized power in Moscow to a far greater extent than the tsars had done and pursued Russification more stringently (and successfully) than the empire had managed.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 raised the questions of Russian nationhood and statehood anew, acutely. Coming up on 30 years later, the questions are still open. “Do Russia’s present-day political borders coincide with the borders of the Russian nation? The answer depends on the way in which Russian political and intellectual leaders and Russians in general imagine their nation. The question of Russian identity and its geographic extent is of more than academic interest, as it influences issues of war and peace along Europe’s eastern frontiers today and will influence them for generations to come.” (p. x) Russia’s is not the first empire to crumble, nor will it be the last, and other nations have faced questions of their imperial legacies and post-imperial roles, including what to do with people once considered part of the center who no longer want to be part (if indeed they ever did). “[B]ut what makes the Russian situation unique is that none of those empires shared common historical roots and myths of origin with their foreign subjects, as had been the case with Russia throughout a good part of its imperial history.” (p. xi)

The only comparable situation in contemporary Europe would be if England is compelled to give up rule over Scotland. Even there, the English debt to the Scots is nothing like the Russian relationship with its Kyivan inheritance. The English did not justify centuries of conquest as the regathering of the Scots lands, as Russian rulers did with Rus’.

Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/04/15/lost-kingdom-by-serhii-plokhy/

Apr 14 2019

The Everlasting Rose (The Belles #2) by Dhonielle Clayton

So on the one hand, I didn’t get anywhere near as mad at this second (final?) book as I did at its predecessor, The Belles. There were still a few moments of “oh, come on” but they faded into insignificance next to the real problem with this book: it feels entirely rushed. It’s not even a matter of pacing, tho events are compressed into a rather short span of time, it’s just that things don’t feel properly explored or are just stated plainly instead of built up to. For all its first person narrative, it’s not a whole lot more than “and then this happened, and then this happened.” There’s some real potential in the throne room climax, but the fact that I can barely even remember, less than a day since finishing the book, what happened after is hardly a testament to how interesting the rest of it proved to be.

Which is a shame, since Dhonielle Clayton’s world-building is a lush, wonderful thing. It’s just that very little of it feels thought through. If it doesn’t advance the plot, then there’s barely any explanation: it’s very “here are superficial descriptions of cool things!” There were also a few points in the book where I couldn’t tell whether she was paying homage to other books in the genre or just ripping them off. And I couldn’t take the Iron Ladies at all seriously. While I was intrigued by their philosophy and would like to learn more about how they control the madness that supposedly descends upon the Gris, I thought their hierarchy suspect and their calls and responses absurd, as if they were trying far too hard to look important.

And this is an entirely superficial complaint, but wtf is with that cover? The Belles had such a gorgeous design, and while I’m glad they kept the same model, bronze on navy is just so blah. I get that they’re going for something more “serious” but dullness doesn’t have to signify import. Which is also a problem I had with the content of the novel: it never really resolves the moral dilemma of beauty that it promised to in the first book. Sophia is clearly a monster and while The Everlasting Rose details the battle against her, it’s entirely flat when it comes to exploring the significance of her kingdom’s obsession with physical appearance. This is a shame, because this was a very promising series that turned out to be as shallow as anyone who judges a book by its cover. There was so much that could have been explored in the world of Orleans, but instead we get this weirdly rushed-feeling coda. It’s so ironic that a book seeking to question the value of beauty should turn out to be so shallow, in the end.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/04/14/the-everlasting-rose-the-belles-2-by-dhonielle-clayton/

Apr 07 2019

Head On by John Scalzi

Head On follows Lock In as a near-future, science fictional mystery in a world in which a pandemic (“Haden’s disease”) has killed many millions of people and left millions more alive and conscious, but with no control of their voluntary nervous system, locked into themselves. A crash research program has delivered enough advances in the understanding of consciousness and brain-computer interface, among other fields, that people who are locked in can use a neural net to direct an anthropomorphic surrogate. In the book, these are called “threeps” and the people who have survived the disease are often called “Hadens.”

Chris Shane, Haden, FBI agent, and beloved only child of a wealthy African-American family returns as the first-person narrator of Head On. The novel’s plot concerns a new professional sport called hilketa. The name comes from the Basque word for “murder,” and it’s a game that would not have been possible before the development of threeps because the object is to remove the head of an opposing player and transport it across the goal line or, failing that, to kick it or throw it between the goalposts. All the bodies on the field are robotic, so losing a head isn’t a huge deal. At least it’s not supposed to be. During an exhibition match, a player’s threep is victimized for the third time in the same game, and that player — a Haden whose body is located far from the field — dies.

The death could hardly come at a worse time for the North American professional hilketa league. This particular match is an exhibition for potential investors who might take the game global. Chris Shane’s parents are there, as potential owners of a future Washington, DC franchise. Suddenly, the league looks really bad when it wants to look really good. The PR people panic and pull the online stats of the dead player; now it’s starting to look like a cover-up. Chris is at the game as an adviser to his parents — and Scalzi gets in a few jabs about how wealthy, privileged people are likely to treat threeps — and so he is on the scene early after the player, Duane Chapman, dies. Then one of the PR people really panics and hangs himself; or does it just look like he did?

Head On, like its predecessor, zips along with the mystery getting deeper and more dangerous before Chris and his partner, Leslie Vann, begin to make sense of what’s happening and have a chance against the people who stand to profit from the aftermath of Chapman’s death. Here’s what I said about Lock In being harder to write than it appears: “[Scalzi]’s also doing a number of things that are more difficult than they look, and at least as difficult for an author to pull off as something that is more ostentatiously ambitious. First, near-future science fiction is tricky; there are lots of ways for it to go wrong, not least of which is getting overtaken by events. Second, it’s funny, and funny amidst murder and mortality walks a narrow balance beam. Third, he’s writing a police procedural in a science fiction setting; he has to keep on the right side of the conventions of both genres for the story to work. …”

I raced through Head On in about a day and a half, so he clearly got the balance right for me. The machinations made sense, as did the motivations. I was surprised by some of the violence in the story, but that is as it should be. Bad things are seldom telegraphed in real life, there’s no reason why near-future crime should be any different. I don’t think that Scalzi would kill off Chris or Vann, but other characters (with the possible exception of Chris’ parents) are not under authorial protection, and the antagonists have shown from the beginning that they are indifferent to people’s lives when scads of money are involved.

Along with Scalzi’s trademark snappy dialog and fast reversals of positions, there’s also a good look at corruption in business in general, and sports in particular. Many thousands of people get emotionally attached to their teams. Some dozens make vast sums of money off of that attachment, and some of those people are not particularly scrupulous about what it takes to keep the money flowing.

Will Chris and Vann find and catch the culprits in time? Only if they keep their heads on.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/04/07/head-on-by-john-scalzi/

Apr 07 2019

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

Oh gosh, how to properly review this book without spoilers? It doesn’t help that the library copy I borrowed told me exactly what myth the entire narrative was hung from before I’d even turned on my Kindle. Let me just go over the synopsis before delving into my (likely unpopular) opinions.

Gretel is a 32 year-old lexicographer searching for the mother who abandoned her half her life ago. Sarah raised Gretel on the river Isis, in a boat house, educating her on encyclopedias but also wrapping her in made-up words of their own. They and their fellow river people were haunted by a Bonak, as the two women called it, a nightmare creature that rose up out of the water to steal game and children. Gretel’s search for Sarah involves looking for Marcus, the boy who lived with them for a brief time while they were hunting the Bonak. Along the way, she meets Roger and Laura, parents whose teenage daughter ran away shortly before Marcus showed up in Gretel’s life.

The family relationships were well-depicted, from Gretel dealing with the aging, demented Sarah, to the toll that waiting for Margot has taken on Roger and Laura. Everything Under was also a fascinating look into the life of people who’ve rejected the trappings of modern civilization, not trusting the police and happy to live rough if need be. It reminded me a lot of Fiona Mozley’s Elmet tho wasn’t, IMO, as successful a book overall. For the most part, I enjoyed the prose and the way bits of the myth were adapted and strung throughout the text, but I did feel that things got a bit self-consciously literary in places. And speaking of Fionas, I did very much feel for the fictional character in EU, which brings me to my spoilertastic discussion.

I’m not usually sensitive to instances of the “bury your gays” trope but holy shit, people! All the queer characters go insane, die or both, while the presumed straights just go about living their lives. I mean, LITERALLY ALL OF THEM. I don’t need my protagonists to have happy endings, but when all the minorities in a book do nothing but suffer, I have to give that book some serious side eye. Sure the rest of the cast isn’t exempt from hardship, but you cannot tell me that any of their fates are more bleak (granted, Charlie does get the short end of the stick there but he’s just the one character, who is also, essentially, a plot device.) I get that Daisy Johnson was trying to update the myth for the modern era, and here’s a proverbial star for trying, but come on. Representation isn’t enough if the end result is still othering.

And while I appreciated the metaphor throughout, you can’t tell me that the Bonak was anything but a fucking alligator.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/04/07/everything-under-by-daisy-johnson/

Apr 06 2019

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

Good grief, what an annoying novel. It starts out okay: Rae “Sunshine” Seddon is a fairly ordinary baker in a magical post-apocalyptic world who makes the mistake of driving out to the family cabin by the lake by herself one night. She’s subsequently abducted by vampires and manages to escape, which is only the beginning of her ordeal. Essentially, she discovers that she can draw on sunlight for strength to do magic, helpful when fighting vampires, as she must eventually do. Interestingly, she feels a lot of post-traumatic stress and guilt for destroying vampires, as she’s quite a gentle soul who doesn’t eat meat and who equates violence with darkness. All she wants is to go back to a normal life of working in the cafe and limiting her exposure to vampires to the penny dreadfuls she reads and the sites she visits on whatever nonsense word Robin Mckinley came up with for the internet.

And that’s pretty much all the good stuff. If this were the first in a series, I’d probably be kinder about a lot of it and particularly the way it ends, but it’s meant to be a standalone. Which makes the way it’s written an absolute nonsense. While I was intrigued by the essentially urban fantasy setting, I found the gouts of info dumping extremely annoying. I’m a longtime reader of fantasy and sci-fi, so info dumping doesn’t usually bother me, but it was info dumps about things that did not matter. There were pages and pages on cross-breeding but no explanation of what was up with Mel, for example, or the goddess of pain. And way too much made no sense, such as why Sunshine would give the knife to Con when it was obviously hurting him but was also supposed to protect him at the same time? That ending was especially outraging. I want answers, damn it.

I also thought it was weird as hell that Sunshine didn’t feel any conflict, much less guilt, about wanting to bone the vampire, considering that she already has a boyfriend (and not even taking into account how physically repulsive she finds said vampire.) I’m not one for overwrought love triangles, but a moment of “gee, maybe this isn’t right” would have felt more realistic than less. It’s weird, but up till around that point, I was rooting for her, then she just got annoying. I hardly base my like or dislike of a character on their sexual continence but I felt that something changed in the writing at that point, about two-thirds of the way into the book. From there on, there was just too much repetitive, neurotic living in Sunshine’s head, on top of the info dumping, resulting in long passages of nothing interesting happening. It was great when stuff did happen, but getting to each point was such a struggle of me trying to power through my boredom.

Anyway, there’s a bunch of good stuff in it, particularly in the first two-thirds, but way, way too much unnecessary prose that doesn’t explain half the phenomena. Tiresome.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/04/06/sunshine-by-robin-mckinley/

Apr 05 2019

Border by Kapka Kassabova

I’ve been to this border before, though I’ve never been to the particular corner of Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece that Kapka Kassabova visits. “But the initial emotional impulse behind my journey was simple: I wanted to see the forbidden places of my childhood, the once-militarised border villages and towns, rivers and forests that had been out of bounds for two generations.” (p. xvii) She grew up in Bulgaria in what turned out to be the waning years of Communism, though nobody knew it at the time. Her family emigrated to New Zealand three years after the changes, just as she was beginning her university studies. While in New Zealand she published two collections of poetry; she moved to Scotland in 2005.

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe was published in 2017 and tells of her travels on the Black Sea coast, in the plains of Thrace, and in the various mountain ranges that shape the borders among Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece. For Kassabova, the valleys and villages are often dark and mysterious places; she begins the book with what she describes as an uncanny experience, there are strange longings, the evil eye, old rituals still observed, death in the forest, and plenty of odd intimations. It’s an altogether different kind of journey in the Rhodope mountains than what Tim Moore enjoyed on the final legs of his bicycle ride along the length of the Iron Curtain. Moore’s was a late spring and early summer of increasing warmth and long uninterrupted stretches of good riding. It’s also quite different from what Patrick Leigh Fermor found in the later stages of his walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul. Of course three quarters of a century elapsed since Fermor’s visit, time enough for most of the horrors that Kassabova describes to have come and gone, but in The Broken Road the landscape itself seems different. Fermor’s is a land of sun and good company; Kassabova’s is one of dark woods, fog, caves and people who are often good company but nearly as often harbor worrisome secrets.

Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/04/05/border-by-kapka-kassabova/

Apr 04 2019

The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein

In The Color of Law Richard Rothstein lays out the case that segregated patterns of residence in every part of the United States are not the result of impersonal market forces, not just the result of patterns of individual choices among large numbers of people, but are instead the result, often the intended result, of policy and political choices at every level of American governance. The choices were made throughout the post–Civil War history of the United States. Very often these choices were made in opposition to existing law, up to and including defiance of Supreme Court decisions, not least by government institutions themselves.

Including lax oversight of predatory lending that targeted African Americans (Rothstein tends to write the term without a hyphen) in the run-up to the Great Recession, these choices continued through 2008. Including choices about zoning, school locations, industrial development and other details of local government, de jure discrimination against African Americans by public bodies very likely continues to the present day.

Although the problem of discrimination is by no means relegated to the past, Rothstein draws on the historical record to make his arguments. In a few instances, he supplements that with material from interviews that he has conducted, to add lived experience to the documentary evidence that he is supplying to buttress his contentions. Right away, he demolishes the idea that discrimination is in any way a regional issue, limited to the states of the old Confederacy, or perhaps those plus a few border states. His first chapter is titled, “If San Francisco, then Everywhere?” and his thesis is that if a city that’s regarded as one of America’s most liberal was the scene of official discrimination, then chances were good that it was practiced practically everywhere. I knew from reading Sundown Towns and numerous other books, even riffs on H.P. Lovecraft, that discrimination was everywhere.

In subsequent chapters Rothstein shows how public housing, mostly starting with housing for defense workers during World War II was built on discriminatory foundations. A recurring motif of the book is unoccupied units in designated white areas, and overcrowding plus above-market costs in black areas. That happened in publicly built developments and in private developments that had public support through infrastructure and preferential financing. Basically, anywhere that housing was built, African Americans were systematically kept out, steered toward sub-standard locations, packed into smaller areas, only offered rents that could only be covered by increasing the number of people living in a particular dwelling, zoned into areas bordering industrial sites, pushed out of mixed neighborhoods by the targeted construction of parks and highways, and more. The list of lengths to which white people were willing to go to make sure they did not have to live with or near black people is long and appalling.

Nor did the white people stop short of terrorism. This often had the support or at least the acquiescence of local police. Many years after we moved away from a Chicago suburb, my mom said to me that when we moved there, she was told that there weren’t any black families in town because if any tried to move in, their house would catch fire and the volunteer fire department wouldn’t come. Terrorism worked, too. Decades after white riots kept black people from moving in, Cicero, Illinois is still more than 95 percent white.

Rothstein’s final chapters consider what ought to be done to remedy this legacy. He does not come to any firm conclusions about specific actions, but he rightly asserts that the most important first step is for white Americans to know and acknowledge the truth about how state power has been used, and is being used, to discriminate against fellow citizens.

As a book, The Color of Law tends towards the dry. Hyperbole would not serve him, bare facts are enraging enough. Rothstein is not a synthesizer and storyteller as Isabel Wilkerson is in her brilliant work on the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns. He is a lawyer laying out his case. It’s not an enjoyable book, it’s just a terribly important one.

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