The God Groove

By David Ritz

Howard Books, Atria | 2019

Reviewed by Herb Boyd

David Ritz

There is nary a rut in David Ritz’s The God Groove—A Blues Journey to Faith. Ritz’s path to the acceptance of God and a Christian baptismal is not an easy trek but it’s one eased by returning to the persons whose books he has ghosted.  Each one of them from Ray Charles to Jessie Colter gave him spiritual insights and nourishment as he struggled with his reluctance to complete this journey to faith.

Many readers who have diligently followed Ritz’s remarkable career as a ghost writer will remember some of the passages he uses to conform to his God groove.  It’s almost as if he did a search of his books to highlight where Charles, Marvin Gaye, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Little Jimmy Scott, Willie Nelson, Etta James, Mable John, et. al. addressed the subject of God, Jesus, and Christian life.

“Jesus came down to earth to get the blues,” King told Ritz. “God is the backbone of these blues we be playing.”

“God’s the timekeeper,” said Scott, who often sang behind the beat. “God’s behind the beat.”

Nelson, too, sang behind the beat, and he told Ritz he believed in reincarnation because it’s a beautiful belief. 

“So, you’ve augmented your Christianity?” Ritz asked.

“I haven’t stayed the same, if that’s what you mean,” Nelson replied. “Everyone changes.  Jesus was Perfect Man, but Jesus changed. The world changed him. That didn’t make him less perfect. Just made him human. So, the human and divine live together—least that’s how I see it.”

Interestingly, for all the time he spent with Aretha Franklin, neither God nor Jesus was mentioned and from their first meeting was even prevented from desiring to pray with her.  This, as is quite commonly known, led to rough moments between them that eventually ended badly.

Despite all the talk about God and Jesus with others, Ritz found it difficult to ascribe to the God groove, “And yet I kept listening to the people I admired most: musicians, whose voices it was my job to channel, even if I hadn’t yet fully admitted that those very voices were a conduit for a spirit whose source was divine,” he wrote.

Further complicating his journey to faith were the facts that he was a Jew, his family, his sexuality, and several addictions, including drugs and pornography.  Most unrelieved and troubling was dealing with his bullying father and cold mother, a reconciliation that took years of therapy and 12-step programs.

But writing, ghost writing was his salvation, and, as he confessed it, kept his “ego at bay.” Those books, including fiction amount to about fifty and counting because he seems inexhaustible in helping others tell their stories.  But now, in this engrossing and highly revealing memoir, he has delivered portions of his own life, which is just another beginning for a ghost who found his groove.

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A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers

Edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams

One World, Random House.  New York | 2019

Reviewed by Jan Alexander

Diverse American Nightmares

Victor LaValle

Victor LaValle, the multiple award-winning author of eight speculative novels, most recently The Changeling, often combines monsters and sorcerers with other horrors brought on by politics and technology. In his introduction to A People’s Future of the United States, though, he tells a tale that requires nothing magical, just a real-life terror that has visited many Americans; being stuck in a car with members of your own family and realizing that alien pods from Fox News have taken over their brains.

These days LaValle and a number of prominent writers, many of whom appear in this collection, have brought multiculturalism to the horror genre (along with a lot of literary genre-bending), and it turns out that even the right-wing, alien pod experience isn’t limited to white liberals

LaValle has a mother from Uganda and a white father from Syracuse, New York. They met in New York City in the late sixties and were married just about long enough to have him. Then, in 1995, LaValle had occasion to visit his mostly-absent-from-his-life father, who had moved back to Syracuse, remarried, and had another son, Paul, who was then 15.

LaValle’s stepmother was from the Philippines. The day he arrived in Syracuse, LaValle sat helpless as his father and his half-Filipino half-brother listened with rapturous ears to Rush Limbaugh spouting anti-immigrant and virulently xenophobic rhetoric on the car radio. LaValle worried about Paul growing up accepted by neither the white people whose views he espoused nor those who looked more like him; “a man without a clan” in America, thanks to the falsehoods with which he’d grown.

“What if it turns out all of us New York Times-reading progressives are living in a matrix that’s feeding us falsehoods?” an East Coast elite friend of mine pondered recently, in the midst of the kind of conversation that keeps all of us coastal progressives sustained through most of our waking hours. I thought of that question when I got to the part of LaValle’s introduction in which he does a bit of self- flagellating over his own false belief—before he saw the light on election night 2016—that the U.S. wasn’t a sexist place.

This is all by way of saying that A People’s Future of the United States is a book that shows us what horror looks like through the lens of a wide swathe of Americans. The stories are a crossbreed of literary fiction with science fiction and fantasy, but LaValle says that besides his familial encounter, the main inspiration for asking this diverse pool of to contemplate a personal vision of where American might be headed was Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

That book presents a wholly factual view of where the country has been from the perspective of women, people of color, the working poor, immigrants, and others whom mainstream history tends to consider irrelevant to the big picture.

A People’s Future tells 25 horror stories of a mostly dystopic future, envisioning the most horrendous outcome imaginable if you’re an immigrant, a person of color, LGBTQ, or in some cases just worried about how environmental degradation will destroy life as we know it or how technology will program our brains and our humanity. But you wouldn’t want to be part of the “mainstream” in these worlds either, however mainstream plays out.

LaValle writes that this is a book he wishes he could have given to his brother Paul that day, to help him believe that his bi-cultural life mattered.  That’s an optimistic view of the power of stories, but indeed, stories may be all we have to make one faction of a divided nation empathize with another.

Storytelling becomes the only possible chance of salvation in the very first tale, “The Bookstore at the End of America” by Charlie Jane Anders. A woman named Molly owns a sprawling bookstore on a hill right at the frontier where a California of the future meets the border of what America—no longer the United States of America—has become.

The bookstore has two sides and two identities. Those who enter from California find books of literature and poetry, women’s studies and queer studies, and classics going back to Virginia Woolf and Zora Neale Hurston. On the opposing side are books on religion, conservative history, self-reliance, romance novels, and macho writers like Faulkner and Hemingway “not to mention Ayn Rand.

People do buy actual books in this future world, because even though electronic books are available, “they might be plagued with crowdsourced editing, user-targeted content, and sometimes just plain garbage.”

Anders can be sportingly tongue-in-cheek describing the tattooed, technology-obsessed California customers who often identify as “they” versus church-going ladies from the America side; sometimes a stereotype is a window into a character’s soul. Molly’s aim is not so much bilateral diplomacy as just to keep everyone reading—but when a border clash breaks out, the bookstore becomes a fortress in which enemies huddle side by side, and the only mediation tool just happens to be a book club discussion.

Books are also the main event in “Read After Burning” by Maria Dhavana Headley, but in this story all books and all knowledge are contraband. It began, Headley writes, with a kind of apocalypse that involved “men hunched in their hideys pushing buttons, curfewing the country…. getting more and more angry and more and more panicked, until everyone who wasn’t like them got declared illegal.”

Every apocalyptic vision in this collection springs from something familiar. “It Was Saturday Night, I Guess That Makes It All Right” by Sam J. Miller plunges headlong into tech surveillance, exploitation at the hands of the gig economy, and queer politics. The narrator is a gay man working with straight man he desires. In fact, they sleep together in their truck when they’re on the road, because they install “phone cloners” on street corners throughout New York state for a privatized police force that pays them as contract labor and doesn’t want any unnecessary hotel expenses.

But what’s most crucial to the story is the secret resistance movement and its dozens of day-to-day rebellions. The characters are, as the narrator describes it, “planting the seeds of our own oppression, helplessly helping our enemies observe and entrap us, but spreading other seeds as well.”

More Orwellian in its view of gay oppression is “The Synapse Will Free Us from Ourselves” by Violet Allen. The story is set in a high-tech rehab center of sorts, a place where people with the job title of Adjustment Engineer are ostensibly assigned to deprogram gay subjects. The narrator, Daniel, is hard at work on a man named Dante, showing him romantic old movies to get him to fall in love with a woman wearing “very sexual high heels,” though he’s actually performing the high-tech brainwashing through a hologram of Dante.

“This is a good job. I am doing good work. I am a good person,” Daniel repeats so often we know he must be programmed too. As it turns out, this is advanced technology perpetuating a giant step backward in the human psyche.

The most painfully hilarious stories are Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Sun in Exile,” about government-mandated denial of a heat wave so hot “the air rippled like music…. Even the moon raised silver cancers on your bare back,” and “By His Bootstraps” by Ashok K. Banker. The latter is about a certain president who eats McDonald’s burgers and drinks Diet Coke, which seem like code words for “bad guy” these days.

The president has launched a classified project that’s supposed to combine a breakthrough in quantum time travel with a new development in genetic restoration. He expects the project to make everyone in America white “again”—but it turns out that the formula resets everyone’s genetic lineage back to their original code. Right before his eyes, the president’s secret service agents change into “a Havasupai in leggings, a loose long-sleeved shirt, and sandals made of yucca fiber,” and “a Karankawa Indian of non-binary gender.”

Portraits of past presidents now depict tribal chiefs. It’s one of the few stories in which present-day fears trans mutate into a beautiful, harmonious world. Even guns have been outlawed.

Empathy is everywhere in this luminous collection, though as with all such stories it’s hard to imagine there will be readers among the U.S. residents who, if they were to venture into Charlie Jane Anders’ bookstore at all, would stay on the American side. It seems a given that the ideological civil war taking place under our noses today will have long-term repercussions.

We might survive the outcome; in another story included here, Omar El Akkad’s “Riverbed,” a traumatized immigrant offers a rather spot-on description of the U.S. as adept at “surviving its endless self-inflicted wounds.”  On the other hand, there are stories here warning us that those wounds could take the form of a planet on fire, a plague, or an end to human reproduction.   Read these fantasy tales for a totally terrifying reality check.

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So Many Angels: A Family Crisis and the Community That Got Us Through It

By Diana Stelfox Cook

She Writes Press

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

Diana Stelfox Cook

This Was No Big Apple

All it took was a single phone call, and Diana Cook’s seemingly perfect marriage was over. Her husband, a grade schoolteacher and hockey coach, called to say that he was in jail for attempted solicitation of a fourteen-year-old boy over the internet.

All at once all hell breaks loose. What to tell her two young boys? What will her friends say? Will he lose his job? Will he go to jail? How could he do something like that?

But the worse was soon to come. After picking up her sons and after telling them that, “Boys, Dad and I had a big fight, and he’s not going to come home tonight,” the phone rings.

“We had been home an hour when the ringing phone startled me. I saw the Boston Globe on the caller ID screen, and I was stunned. I picked up the phone, and said “Hello,” and a reporter barked at me, “Would you like to comment on your husband’s arrest?”

A few minutes later the phone rang again, only this time it was from a reporter from a local television station.

Now it was time to call for help. First, it was Marylee. Then her friend Patty showed up “at seven in the morning with the local paper in her hand. Jed (the husband) was on the cover.” Soon her house “was full of friends who had brought food and stopped by to see what they could do.”

One of the things they tried to get Diane not to see, as she sat on her couch crying: Don’t look out the window! “I ignored them,” she wrote. “I felt compelled to look. I was shocked and totally unprepared for what I saw: every local media outlet had sent a truck… There were more than a dozen giant news vans parked on both sides of my usually quiet suburban street.”  

I was immediately drawn into this often-sad tale, and not just because of the ease of writing in this memoir and first book.

I am a New Yorker. The Big Apple. Something like what happened to her, and the uproar that it caused in my neck of the woods would have been buried in a paragraph on page 20 the next day, if at all, unless the perpetrator was a well-known celebrity. Then the tabloids would have a field day.

Cook had many problems to overcome, but was able to put her new life in order. But just when things had settled down and she was working full time, and caring for her two young boys, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Still, through it all she learned that, even in her darkest moments, she was not alone. Her community was there to help her and the boys. This is a book well worth reading, especially for us big city types. We have a lot to learn from it.

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Looking for Lorraine

By Imani Perry

Beacon Press | 2018

Reviewed by Kalamu ya Salaam

We’ll Understand Her Better, By and By


What makes anyone want to write? Especially stage plays, for which there is not a ton of money to be made nor easy fame to achieve. Moreover, in our Anglo-centric culture there are serious literary mountains you’ll be required to surmount, and, if not surmount, at the very least you will be compared to and contrasted against thousands of years of drama going back to the ancient Greeks. I mean, why even try?

Early in my career as a dramatist, I remember being accused of Brechtian tendencies. This was before I had even heard of Brecht and at that time was oblivious to his work and influence, or so I surmised. The paradox is that we often are committed to ideas we were not the first to think of, even though we may have come to those ideas based on our own thinking about things.

That’s because life is life, and we should not buy into the false notion that any individual, or any particular culture is the origin of a specific idea when the idea may be common to different people at different times. Yes, our articulation may have particular wrinkles, but the fabric as a whole is common to many.

But while there are commonalities to the human condition, there are also distinctive particulars into which perceptive writers are able to plummet and bring specific observations to the surface of their times. Lorraine Hansberry was one of only a handful of writers, of any culture and any time period, who had relevance in both her time period, as well as for decades and decades after her death.

I believe her lasting impact is precisely because although she wrote about her people and their experiences, she was not searching solely for immediate impact. She seemed to be searching for answers to the eternal conundrum: what are we here for and what does life mean? Her search started at home and included the people surrounding her life, but her vision was stretching out into the vastness of human life and struggle.

Looking for Lorraine is important because it gives particular context to the life and literary work of Lorraine Hansberry. Imani Perry is an inventive writer, and more importantly, an honest writer. Rather than veil her investigation in some mystical connection to Ms. Hansberry, at each phase Perry is honest and articulate in making clear what her investigation reveals not only about Lorraine Hansberry but also what her search reveals about Perry herself as the biographer.

Perry drew extensively on the New York City Schomburg Research Center Hansberry archives, and I found her notations both brutally honest and often intimately striking, particularly with regard to Hansberry’s personal life. One impression about Robert Nemiroff, Lorraine’s husband, was noteworthy to me.

Nemiroff was an indefatigable caretaker of the Hansberry legacy. In 1984 I wrote a short appreciation of Lorraine Hansberry’s work and encouraged my readers to delve into a deeper re-reading beyond Hansberry’s major work, A Raisin in The Sun. In preparation for my essay, I contacted Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry’s former husband, and he was both extremely helpful and very forthcoming in offering his personal views and insights. It was obvious to me that there had been a deep love between him and Lorraine Hansberry.

I found myself a bit taken aback when I read “On March 10, 1964, Lorraine and Bobby obtained a divorce in Juarez, Mexico.” Why? Somehow, over a half century after her death in 1965, I too felt protective of Lorraine Hansberry and wanted only the best for her. My instinctive view was that the best did not include divorce, which was a reality in her life.

Based on my brief contact with Nemiroff, I believed their love was a deep love; I never thought about them separating, even though they had long been divorced when he and I conversed. His serious caretaking for her work and legacy, obviously was greater than the separation of divorce.

Perry does not delve into the impact of Hansberry’s divorce and focuses instead on Hansberry’s work and activism throughout her brief 34-year lifetime, concluding as she struggled to survive a terminal illness. Rather than speculate about what she doesn’t know, Perry instead sticks to the facts she has uncovered and the documentation she successfully searched through in preparing a well-researched book. This biography successfully illuminates Hansberry’s friendships and associations with major figures such as W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, and Nina Simone. While not exhaustive, this 200-page biography, is instead both factually informative as well as sensitively rendered.  

Lorraine was a first in many ways, and in other ways she was more than a first. In the community of Black artists, she was simply Lorraine. As the first Black woman playwright to have work featured on Broadway, she was referred to both formally as Ms. Hansberry as well as sometimes in a most familiar way as “sweet Lorraine,” signifying both respect and affection. But beyond being “first Negro to. . .” Ebony magazine material, Lorraine Hansberry was also a political radical. She was totally committed to being both a witness of the turbulent times within which she was born, and an activist committed to fanning the flames of social struggle.

Imani Perry’s wonder-filled biography is accurately and prophetically subtitled “The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry.” There are indeed those for whom writing is a means to work at making life better than the world into which the writer is born. Writers who are resolute about helping to create not only a different world but indeed a world that approaches, even if it and they never achieve that goal: a world better than what surrounds them. Lorraine Hansberry was such a writer, and Imani Perry helps us see Lorraine for the committed artist that she was.

Kalamu ya Salaam is a new writer for the Neworld Review

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The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea

By The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea

Oxford University Press

Reviewed by Jerry Ward

David Ritz

Lebron's eloquent meditation on how to locate #BlackLivesMatter in the narratives of African American intellectual history illuminates several problems. First, it’s no easy matter to explain how writers and their works play sundry roles in #BlackLivesMatter, as well as in multiple transnational movements.

In the 21st century, political and social movements are unstable, and they encourage us to be skeptical with regard to efforts to explain them.  Consider also that literary works are indeterminate and placing them in the contexts of time-bound movements only increases our sense of uncertainty and baffling entanglements. The placement activates interdisciplinarity.  There's no formula for choices among analytic methods and competing methodologies, for how one might arrive at precise descriptions of relationships between the motions of everyday events and the material stasis of a printed text or the more challenging forms of interactive "texts" associated with social movements.

Black lives matter, because life matters.  But a scholar who is committed to continuing a fundamentally absurd  "conversation" with non-black Americans finds herself or himself making "life" a problem; she or he repeats the crisis of the intellectual in a new key, repeats either the defensive posture of James Weldon Johnson or the confirmative posture of Langston Hughes, and repeats the serious laughter of ambivalence. 

To understand what Lebron and other black thinkers are engaging, one might first read Simone de Beauvoir's meditation on freedom in The Ethics of Ambiguity (1948) and digest her conclusion that if each person did what she or he must, "existence would be saved in each one without there being any need of dreaming of a paradise where all would be reconciled in death."  She did not have an answer, but she did map the chaos that Lebron has chosen to play within.

Lebron provides a succinct analogy which casts light on this problematic complexity. "Much like the way a corporate franchise works, minus revenue and profits." He contends, "#BlackLivesMatter is akin to a social movement brand that can be picked up and deployed by any interested group of activists inclined to speak out and act against racial injustice." Brands can be discarded in our increasingly disposable societies, and activists rarely have consensus about objectives.  There is a similar situation in death-bound literary and cultural studies.  Scholars tend to "speak out" or eagerly interrogate diverse aesthetic and ideological features of a text, but for many of them a praxis of "acting out" is an unacceptable option. They insist their insights are not political, and it isn't hard to see why they should do so.  

Does a full professor actually want to have a productive, mutually enlightening conversation with a janitor?  Unless the professor has the bravery to put mind and body within the range of contention, as did Walter Rodney and as Angela Davis continue to do, the conversation will be endlessly delayed, and the interrogation will endlessly retain its safe, academic characteristics.

Most scholars avoid the risks that Lebron confronts as he makes a survey of struggles native to African American intellectual history created by black lives from the 18th Century to the present. As he argues with philosophical alacrity that a politics of love, derived from works by James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr., should be deployed in the combat zone of continuing manifestations of race-specific injustice. 

Lebron's aptly-titled five chapters are clues that even the blind might see: 1) "American Shame and Real Freedom"; 2) “Cultural Control against Social Control: The Radical Possibilities of the Harlem Renaissance"; 3) "For Our Sons, Daughters, and All Concerned Souls"; 4) "Where Is the Love? The Hope for America's Redemption"; 5) "The Radical Lessons We Have Not Yet Learned."  He nails the coffin with "Afterword: Nobody's Protest Essay," affirming his affinity with Baldwin.

Lebron deals with the idea that #BlackLivesMatter illuminates why it is fruitful to situate the relevance of Richard Wright's ideas about life, for example, in multiple contexts, including the dead end of being locked up in love with Baldwin and King.

Many non-black thinkers and their black allies dream that accepting the slavery of love is necessary in order to have a redemptive conversation with moral realignment and the civic virtue of national salvation. Wright instructs us to segregate airy dreams from the dead flesh of nightmares that torment contemporary lives.

Lebron struggles mightily with such discrimination but he ultimate chooses to genuflect before the altar upon which integrity of personhood rests. As he tries to transubstantiate his anger into something "more intelligent and precise,” he feels obligated to assert that, "we are not in the corner and our backs are not up against the wall.  We are free to move how we want so we should make the most of it, with charity and grace"  

One is left to wonder if the "we" included in #BlackLivesMatter is identical with the "we" self-consciously excluded from it.  And one quakes with curiosity about what logic authorizes Lebron to proclaim, "White Americans have, in one crucial respect, a more acute moral vision than many are prone to credit them with. They know, more surely than black Americans, that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice." I suspect the logic is a disease for which we shall never find a cure within the black/white binary. Black moral vision has never been myopic.

Wright's relevance is a rhizome. The relevance that grows in the thinking of King and Baldwin are plants of a very different species.  One  has to speak about Wright’s works in terms of humanity’s  global concerns, in terms of issues that expose the historicity and limits of #BlackLivesMatter, alternative visions of world order, an expanding gap between wealth and poverty, hunger, vexed  ecological choices, power, and the desire of some persons to be "gods." 

Wright addressed such issues and others in his fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. Wright scholars continue to make inquiries about how the content and forms (rhetorical structures) of his works provide equipment for thinking, acting and living in the present, for ongoing examination of the arc of ethics and morality that is a primal element in his works. 

Their efforts are supplemented by inquiries made in American Studies, in social science disciplines, in detailed studies of how people read and employ reading. It is essential that Wright’s legacy be evaluated  from the  perspectives of many contexts, that we strive to construct holistic explanations (and agonize that literacy pertaining to history, cultures, and social movement is slowly declining among American citizens), that the legacy not be endlessly betrayed by the Judas-kiss of Baldwin’s "Everybody's Protest Novel."  In short, it’s my affinity with Wright that leads me to swear that The Making of Black Lives Matter is an excellent book for reinforcing judicious skepticism.  Read it.

Jerry Ward is a sometime writer for the Neworld Review

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