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REVIEWING

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

By David W. Blight

Simon & Schuster | 2018

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

David W. Blight

Frederick Douglass was one of the most remarkable figures of the 19th Century. This new biography by David W. Blight about the runaway slave, Frederick Douglass, who became one of the most effective, accomplished voices against slavery, hammers home that notion.

Blight, a noted Yale University history professor, knows the importance of a black man rising out of bondage to proclaim the cruelty and immorality of slavery by appealing to the conscience of America. Douglass, with the experience of oppression, gets the stellar precision of a master biographer determined to place the life of this political firebrand in proper historical context, into the complicated mix of slavery, the abolitionist movement, the Civil War and the Reconstruction.

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As the celebrated writer Joyce Carol Oates once wrote in her book, Soul at The White Heat: “Biography is a literary craft that, in the hands of gifted practitioners, rises to the level of art.” Blight’s masterful biography of Douglass accomplishes that high standard. There have been many books about the life and times of this man. Of that number, William McFeely’s 1991 biography stands out from the pack, although some critics noted the University of Georgia professor seemed to discredit him with inferences of taboo sexuality, personal defects, and controversial opinions.

Why is America so bewitched with this black orator with the wild mane of hair, tall in stature and booming voice? Why the canonization of this historical figure? Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey on a tobacco plantation in eastern Maryland, he witnessed the torment of slavery daily. He knew the dream of freedom was only reserved for white souls in these times. However, the rebellious slave, disguised as a sailor, fled slavery for the shelter of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on Sept. 3, 1838, to set about the quest of bringing others out of chains.

Reflecting back on the journey to freedom, Douglass realized the most significant event in August 1834 when his master loaned him out to Edward Covey, “the nigger breaker,” with a reputation of making slaves docile. The young Douglas, proud and strong, refused to let Covey strip and whip him. He realized the other blacks would be looking, for he was their shining example.

“I had reached the point, at which I was not afraid to die,” Douglass later noted. “This spirit made me a freeman in fact, while I remained a slave in form.”

Fearful that the slavers would capture him, Douglass settled among the free Black community, changing his name from Frederick Bailey to Frederick Douglass, named for a leading character in a Sir Walter Scott tale. He embraced the abolitionist movement, especially the writing of William Lloyd Garrison but repudiated the aims of the American Colonization Society, which promoted a goal of resettling blacks to Africa.

Crowds turned out to see this man of moral resistance. White women, such as activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were mesmerized by Douglass: “He stood there like an African prince, conscious of his dignity and power, grand in his physical proportions, majestic in his wrath, as with keen wit, satire and indignation he portrayed the bitterness of slavery.”

Blight is careful to detail the many challenges confronting the abolitionist movement and the depth of racist principles of slavery engrained in the young American democracy. Douglass traveled around the nation, getting the secondhand treatment from inferior humans in dirty train cars and screaming mobs surrounding the courageous spokesman. In one instance, he was knocked out by irate bigots chanting “kill the nigger,” pounded in the face and breaking his hand.

In 1845, Douglass published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which put him at risk of the slavers who wanted to put him back in captivity. With his wife, he escaped to England for 21 months. When he returned, he founded his own newspaper, The North Star. In 1848, he warned Washington about expanding slavery in the West.

Douglass was not afraid to speak truth to power. Read the words from his speeches and become transfixed at the power and timelessness of his commentary.

On Blacks and America: “There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution.”

On the character of slaves and their detractors: “No people are more talked about and no people seem more importantly misunderstood. Those who see us every day seem not to know us.”

On slavery: “I expose slavery in this country, because to expose it is to kill it. Slavery is one of those monsters of darkness to whom the light of truth is death. Expose slavery and it dies.”

During his time, Douglass met with everyone he could, even if he didn’t agree with their policies.  He also befriended allies, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and abolitionist John Brown, who plotted to invade the South, freeing slaves and raid plantations to mount a widespread rebellion. Douglass knew Brown’s plan would fail.

Blight notes authorities found documents linking Douglass to the crushed defeat of Brown’s raid, so the activist fled to England and only returned after the heat was off. He supported political causes, hoping the Republicans, including Abraham Lincoln, would stop the slavery plague. During the Lincoln presidency, Douglass and the president would meet three times at the White House, forming a bond of mutual respect. At the third meeting after the Second Inaugural, Lincoln spotted Douglass in a crowd of whites and greeted him warmly.

“Here comes my friend,’ the president said and asked Douglass whether he liked his speech. “There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”

Although Douglass called Lincoln “a man of the people,” he acknowledged the self-made man was basically a politician determined to keep the union together at all costs. “He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men,” Douglass remarked in an 1876 speech. “He was ready and willing at any time during the last years of his administration to deny, postpone and sacrifice the rights of humanity of the colored people, to promote the welfare of the white people of his country.”

Douglass also counselled several other presidents from Andrew Johnson to Benjamin Harrison. He tirelessly crisscrossed the country, advocating economic equality, self-help, racial pride and political equality. The leader paused to write two more versions of his life, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).

Other achievements of Douglass were noteworthy: assistant secretary on the U.S. Commission to Santo Domingo, president of the Freedom’s Savings Bank, U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia, and U.S. Ambassador to Haiti.

In one of his last address, after talking with journalist Ida B. Wells, a weary Douglass spoke against lynching and mob rule: “Put away your racial prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over and another, recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and . . .your Republic will stand and flourish forever.”

Following attending a women’s rally with Susan B. Anthony on Feb. 20, 1895, Douglass collapsed and died of a heart attack. The nation mourned as he was buried in Rochester, New York.

Upon learning of Douglass’s death, young leader W.E.B. DuBois remarked in 1895 that he was a true statesman, and “a man, who being in a position to lead, leads.”

In conclusion, Blight’s memorable account of an exceptional American who survived and thrived during a perilous time in our history, is peerless. It’s a beautifully executed document in terms of scholarship, research and narrative, worthy of the mythic man.



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REVIEWING

Black Power and Palestine—Transnational Countries of Color

By Michael R Fischbach

Stanford University Press | 2019

Reviewed by Herb Boyd

Michael R Fischbach

Almost simultaneous with the news that Marc Lamont Hill, a CNN commentator and professor of media studies at Temple University, had been fired by the US cable network shortly after delivering a speech at the United Nations on the occasion of its International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, I received a book, Black Power and Palestine—Transnational Countries of Color, from a former university colleague.

During his speech Professor Hill, in a reference to the geography of Israel or historic Palestine, called for a “free Palestine from river to sea.” This prompted an immediate response from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the group interpreted the words as the extermination of the state of Israel. Later, Hill apologized for the comments and insisted that he wasn’t calling for the destruction of Israel.

Hill’s situation would have been perfect fodder for Michael R. Fischbach, the author of Black Power and Palestine. Hill’s comments, however, he meant them, evoked a longstanding issue between Blacks and Jews, and Fischbach, with a focus on Black Power, traces the origins of the problem. In his Prologue, the author notes that, “Much has been written about the black freedom struggle, yet black Americans connection to the Middle East conflict, and the ways it affected them, and their conceptualization of identity and agency have largely been overlooked.”

With Fischbach’s thorough probe and analysis, that oversight is no longer neglected, and his merging of Black Power and the Middle East crisis adds an additional perspective on the relationship among Blacks, Arabs, and Jews.  Essential to Fischbach’s search for seminal moments in this scenario is the role of Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Most are informed of Malcolm’s affinity to Muslims and that plays a critical role in countless number of Black Americans identifying with the plight of the Palestinians.

Malcolm’s influence and his ideas of self-determination were adopted by the Black Panther Party, and Fischbach carefully charts this evolution, with a very engaging discussion on Huey Newton and how his views on the Palestine struggle changed over time, modified by global and internal party developments. Politics, color, conditions, and the general revolutionary fervor of the 1960s had a great impact on African Americans identifying with the Palestinian struggle for liberation. They saw the oppression and brutality in Israel as very similar to their own, and this made it easy for the members of SNCC to align the civil rights movement with the situation in the Middle East.

No discussion about Blacks and Jews is complete without considering those in the Black community who have been unwavering in their support of Israel. And Fischbach is equal to the task as he chronicles the role of the NAACP and other African Americans, who have worked in concert over the years with their Jewish brothers and sisters in the fight for civil and human rights. Obviously, these members of the Black middle class and bourgeois organizations were opposed to the more radical and militant elements of the race and placed their resources and commitment to mainstream Jewish organizations, given their financial and moral support. As Fischbach concludes, the division between these segments are like “a veritable fault line separating the two approaches to securing a just future for black Americans.”

Black Power and Palestine, as the title suggests, is centered primarily on the 1960s and the 1970s when the contention was extremely intense with the war in Vietnam and the Six-Day Arab-Israeli conflict solidifying the ideological tendencies among Black Nationalists and radicals. But, in his Epilogue, Fischbach brings the ordeal up-to-date when a young African American activist visits the West Bank, and despite the terrible conditions the Palestinians were enduring, she witnessed evidence of their concern about the racial atrocities in America—she saw a painted sign in tribute to Trayvon Martin, who was killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch guard.

Professor Hill’s situation is a current indication that Black Americans must tread carefully when taking a position on the turmoil in Israel. I will never forget my trips to Israel and Lebanon with Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) in June 1979, with Jack O’Dell and Jackie Jackson, Jesse’s wife. Fischbach in his recounting of this trip brought back memories of meeting with Yasir Arafat and our travels to Beirut and to the camps in Tyre. I would make a similar trip with the Rev. Al Sharpton and while in the Gaza Strip we met with Arafat and later with Israeli leader Shimon Peres. Unlike the militants of the 1960s, it was necessary for us to meet with both sides.

I’m submitting this article to the Neworld Review whose publisher was my editor, who assigned me two stories on Blacks and Jews in 1989 and 1995, each of which induced a number of letters, pro and con to The Crisis.

If Black Power and Palestine fails to stir up things, it will be due mainly to Fischbach’s fair and balanced discussion. Throughout the book he maintains a clear-eyed approach to an often complicated and provocative issue.  This book should be a worthy addition to the growing canon of African American literature because it presents a lens through which to view a topic that heretofore has been practically ignored. Fischbach has framed the subject in a passionate and meaningful way for anyone interested in a deeper understanding of the relationship between Blacks and Jews, whether at home or abroad.

Herb Boyd is a frequent contributor to the Neworld Review



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REVIEWING

Circe

By Madeline Miller

Little, Brown and Company | 2018 | 400 pages

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

Madeline Miller

Of the season’s new books, Circe by Madeline Miller taught my eye   because of its attractive jacket cover. I recognized Circe’s name as among the Patheon of Greek gods and goddesses but didn’t remember exactly which one she was.

Circe, as it turns out, was a witch who lived mostly alone on the island of Aiaia; she was the daughter of Helios and the nymph Perse. In the Odyssey she turned Odysseus’ men into pigs, but more about that later…

Usually I read history. When I read fiction, I prefer realistic stories, so to delve into a book of fiction, supposedly narrated by the goddess Circe, was a bit of stretch for me, however, not far into the book I was hooked and remained enthralled until the story’s end.

Circe had unusual powers. She was banished to Aiaia for the offense of pharmaka—she gathered flowers, herbs and roots and ground them into potions, which she used to turn lower gods into monsters and humans into lesser mammals. Jealous of the nymph Scylla, she turned her into the monster who hid in the cave on one side of the straits, across from the whirlpool Charybdis, and devoured sailors who passed through. Threatened, Zeus banished Circe to the deserted island, where she continued to ply her craft, tame wild beasts and crossed paths with some of the most famous figures in Greek mythology—Hermes, Athena, Dionysus, Achilles, Daedalus, Heracles, and, of course, Odysseus.

She witnessed her sister Pasiphae, queen of Crete, giving birth to the Minotaur.

She lived in lovely home on Aiaia, possessed a loom made by Daedalus, and had pet lions as her favored company, hiking about this paradise, gathering herbs to use for her spells. It’s probably not hard to see why Ms. Miller picked her to narrate her story and why it appeals especially to women—how wonderful it might be to command the winds and, above all, to be able to turn offensive men into pigs!

One of the things I noticed was neither Circe nor any of the other characters in the book ever seem to be cold, even when washed ashore or nearly drown, but then being cold must be a characteristic reserved for humans alone.

I am reminded there was a time when Greeks sincerely believed in this panoply of gods and goddesses. From them, we inherited some of our deeper understanding of psychology—the word itself from Psyche and the Oedipal complex from Oedipus. The Romans likewise admired them and renamed the gods, giving them Latin names, but when their practical mentality won, they deemed all this so much poppycock and were rudderless until Constantine established Christianity as the state religion in the Fourth Century AD, which scholars like Gibbons deemed the death blow to the Roman Empire.

Sorry for the digression…

Circe, this woman, this goddess, who stood against the world, had a weakness for morals, and when the sole ship among those that had set sail from Ithaca, landed on Aiaia, Odysseus and his men were exhausted and battle-weary. At first Circe turned his men into pigs but when he came and requested the she reverse this spell, she compiled and fell into love with him. They lingered with her for a season before setting out once again for Ithaca; by then Circe was pregnant.

I think the last section of the book may be Ms. Miller’s construction. After a difficult pregnancy, she gives birth to Telegonus. Finding that Athena wants to destroy him she does all in power to ensure his safety

Not wanting to spoil the story for those of you interested, I’ll only say that, when grown, despite Circe’s objections, Telegonus sets sail for Ithaca to find his father, and from there interesting events ensue.

I felt empowered reading Circe. When finished, I missed its characters. What better recommendation is that?

Jane McCabe is the associate editor of the Neworld Review and a frequent contributor.

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REVIEWING

The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood

By Dr. Tommy J. Curry

Temple University Press

Reviewed by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

When errors thrive dangerously in the wilderness of discourse, it’s judicious to issue a writ of coram nobis. In his timely book The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017), Dr. Tommy J. Curry, Professor of Philosophy and Africana Studies at Texas A & M University, issues such a writ and makes a sterling contribution to intellectual history.

One can't praise the excellence of his anatomy of dilemmas, however, without noting the bane of academic writing. For a writer to be deemed serious, worthy of attention, in academic territory, she or he must use jargon, the very language of the tribe that itself nurtures error.

Curry isn’t culpable, and is, to be sure, not complicit. He’s quite aware of what might be called the rhetorical traps of the academic writing and publishing. A small number of scholars have published scathing critiques of those traps, but their criticisms have yet to be digested by their colleagues, who hold fast to conservative definitions and standards of excellence; and by publishers who insist that civilization will be annihilated if the standards aren't preserved.

Curry provides an essential insight into the situation that metaphorically incarcerates his project in the concluding chapter:

“Black males are not thought of as sociological beings that have existential relevance for theory. Because theory is the abstraction from the empirical—the attempt to establish the idea as causally related to actual phenomena—there is the risk that theory will remain disconnected from the world and from the relations the selves in that world share. Sometimes the idea becomes self-justifying and thought of as determining the phenomena from which it was initially derived. This is the problem with Black masculinity. It is an idea that obscures how Black males actually live and die in the world.”

The situation is systemic, and it’s not a matter of historical accident. It’s a matter of Western intention, malice, and denial. It’s an act of courage for Curry to have written The Man-Not by using the tools of the system to demystify and deconstruct the system. Nevertheless, in the chaos of actuality and cognition, systems do not die; they merely change their costumes. There is no exit from existential absurdity, despite belief (usually religious) that a better world will arrive in time.

Curry’s research is impeccable but not immune to criticism from those who count how many demons dance on the head of a pin, who are determined to find methodological flaws in the exposition of his argument or who experience fear and trembling when a writer forces them to dive into a truth. Curry enlightens us well in his chapters on historiography; sexual victimization of the Black male; the political economy of misandry, class warfare, and disciplinary propagation of mythology; eschatological dilemmas; the delusion of hope and the necessity of coming to grips with what is anti-ethical.

In the epilogues, he’s appropriately forthright about his intentions: “This book not only endeavors to think differently about Black men and boys; it endeavors to establish a genuine theoretical orientation to their study and, thus, to escape—to reach beyond—the thinking and thinker of this time.”

His fulfillment of his intentions is commendable.

The Man-Not’s a theoretical orientation that ought to be transported into praxis, an effort that would empower parents (who harbor no academic pretentions and who try to be pragmatic) to share his ideas as terms of engagement with their daughters and sons, to use his ideas as weapons. That’s a dream too long deferred. Nevertheless, critics and teachers who have a genuine investment in social justice and human rights activism should dare to “translate” many of Curry’s ideas into accessible forms (genres) needed in the pedagogy of the oppressed. Such “translation” would be the highest tribute one might accord to the legacies of Langston Hughes, Mary McLeod Bethune, Fannie Lou Hamer, and W. E. B. DuBois.



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