The Shadow King

By Maaza Mengiste

Reviewed by Brenda M. Greene

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The story of war has always been a masculine story, but this was not true for Ethiopia and it has never been that way in any form of struggle.  Women have been there, we are here now.
Author’s Note, The Shadow King

The year 1974 is symbolic of critical moments in the world and life of Maaza Mengiste, novelist, scholar and professor of creative writing at Queens College of the City University of New York.  Mengiste was born in 1974, the year that opens her recent novel of historical fiction, The Shadow King.  1974 is also the year that marks the end of the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie and opens her award-winning debut novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (W.W. Norton, 2011).

Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and lived in Nigeria and Kenya before settling in the United States.  Her recent novel, The Shadow King, as does Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, focuses on the impact of the war in the lives of Ethiopians and in particular, Haile Selassie.  The Shadow King recounts the story of the roles of Hirut and Aster, two Ethiopian women who played leadership roles in fighting Mussolini’s soldiers in Italy’s war of aggression against Ethiopia in 1935.

Works of historical fiction are expanding the western and post-colonial literary canon. As a genre, historical fiction has been critical in documenting and providing an authentic record of the lives and experiences of people in our history.  Historical fiction provides the sociological and historical moments in time that force one to look at multiple viewpoints, at contact zones that examine all of the forces in play..

The examination of these texts from varying lens enables the author to create literary texts that represent a more encompassing truth. More recently books such as The Underground Railroad (Doubleday, 2016) by Colson Whitehead, The Water Dancer (Random House, 2019) by TaNehisi Coates, Washington Black (Random House, 2018)  by Esi Edugyan, Homegoing (Random House, 2016) by Yas Gyesi and Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Penguin, 2019) by Marlon James have combined the genres of fiction, magical realism and speculative fiction to tell stories from the perspectives of those who have been subjected to slavery, racism, colonialism, and imperialism.   Mengiste’s novel adds to the increasing number of texts that blend genres to create historical narratives that complicate and deepen our understanding of history..

The Shadow King portrays two strong female characters who become soldiers in the war against Mussolini, thus defying the expectations of Ethiopian men and playing a pivotal role in the success of the war. Mengiste was motivated to write this novel by her grandmother who enlisted and went to war against Italy.  In writing this story, Mengiste fulfills a gap in European and African history.  Her novel reveals the interior fears, hopes and challenges in the lives of Ethiopians affected by war, and recounts the story of woman soldiers, a gap left off in historical narratives across the globe.  Mengiste’s historical and well-researched novel of Ethiopian history thus complicates European, American, African and world history..

Blending poetry and prose Mengiste takes the reader on a journey that is immersed in a theatrical production with prologues, interludes, choruses, and performances. As the novel opens, the protagonist, Hirut, is sitting in the Addis Ababa train station, reflecting on 40 years earlier, (1934) when she was the most trusted soldier of the Shadow King, the king who substituted for the Emperor during a significant portion of the invasion..

She is holding a box of letters, news clippings and photos collected by the photographer who captured her vulnerability while she was imprisoned and who documented the lives of the many Ethiopians, freedom fighters who resisted and were murdered because they were determined to withstand the aggressive forces of Mussolini.  The present intervenes and Hirut observes as “. . . a fist of sunlight bears through the dusty window of the Addis Ababa train station.  It bathes her head in warmth and settles on her feet.  A breeze unfurls into the room.”.

She regards the students who are marching against Emperor Haile Selassie and ponders: if Mussolini could not get rid of the Emperor, what do the students think they are doing?.

During one of the Interludes in the novel we witness Emperor Haile Selassie sitting in his mansion, listening to the opera Aida over and over again and imagining his country full of Aidas and desperate kings who are willing to leave their country in enemy hands.   Aida, a traitor to her people, is a “. . . a foolish believer in torn loyalties . . . “He reflects on her actions: “. . . What new ways will you find to keep your own people enslaved, he whispers.  Is it possible you do not know the duties of one born of royal blood? ” Selassie resolves that his soldiers will defy the enemy.  They will not be morally defeated by Mussolini. .

Kidane, the husband of Aster and one of the major leaders of the resistance, knows that the Italians are determined to declare their first victory in Adua, the city where they were first defeated in 1896.  He is fighting for Adua, for it symbolizes more than a place.  He will not allow the Italians “. . .  to rewrite history, to alter memory, to resurrect their dead and refashion them as heroes.”.

The Shadow King provides the story of the Italian invasion from the inside out.  It expands the narrative from the perspective of those Ethiopians who were on the ground while highlighting cultural norms and traditions, class divisions and the allegiance and loyalty of Ethiopians to their nation and their emperor. This is a story that many have not heard. Mengiste does an excellent job of situating the reader during the conflict from the Ethiopian gaze.

Maaza Mengiste, born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is a novelist and essayist. Her debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, was selected by the Guardian as one of the ten best contemporary African books and named one of the best books of 2010 by Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe and other publications. Her fiction and nonfiction can be found in The New Yorker, Granta, the Guardian, the New York Times, BBC Radio, and Lettre. Mengiste is a Fullbright Scholar and professor in the MFA Creative Writing and Literary Translation program at Queens College of the City University of New York.

Brenda M. Greene is Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature and Professor of English at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.

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Sophisticated Giant—The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon

By Maxine Gordon

University of California Press

Reviewed by Herb Boyd

Dexter Gordon

As we seek some solace from the menace of the coronavirus, noted music critic Howard Reich, in view of our inability to venture out for entertainment, has weighed in with his top jazz films to fill the terrible void. Topping his list is “Round Midnight,” the 1986 film starring saxophonist Dexter Gordon. This notice comes just as I’ve finished reading Gordon’s autobiography, and it’s so cited in this fashion because Dexter never completed what his widow finished.

Consuming her extremely absorbing account of her husband’s bountiful life and her relationship with him, I was reminded of the process Ekwueme Michael Thelwell used in completing Stokely Carmichael’s (Kwame Ture) book, Ready for Revolution. That collaboration, like the one between Dexter and Maxine, began and ended as the essential voice was no longer there. But, in both cases, Ture and Dexter left behind enough for their partners to weave into the published product, which each does deftly.

In the Afterword of Sophisticated Giant, Maxine’s son, Woody Louis Armstrong Shaw III, summarizes his mother’s varied and productive career, noting that she, “is one of our leaders, an ingenious organizer, administrator, and manager of often irreconcilable and inconsolable minds and moods, a patron of unforgiving truths and hard-won justice, a lover and believer in human dignity and the power of beauty of Spirit.”

She is also, we might add, a gifted storyteller, historian, and a most astute sentinel of jazz.

The book unfolds in a chronological fashion, hewing close to Dexter’s early musical odyssey, highlighting his teen years with Lionel Hampton’s band, and following his adventurous days and nights through a veritable who’s who of jazz; and you’ll need a map to locate him during his musical flights around the globe. 

Farah Jasmine Griffin, in her concise Foreword points out how Sophisticated Giant differs from such books as Sidney Bechet’s Treat it Gentle, Charles Mingus’s Beneath the Underdog, and Miles Davis’s autobiography with Quincy Troupe, because of Maxine’s voice, which “like a carefully woven thread, crafts a coherent whole.&rdquo

Again, like Thelwell, when Maxine allows Dexter to speak without intervention, the passages are in italics and taken verbatim from his notes or letters. In this regard you gather some idea of Dexter’s own ability with words—and they often emerge with the same lyrical quality he displayed on this tenor saxophone—or how they blend almost imperceptibly with Maxine’s

This ability began when she worked organizing Dexter’s career that gradually morphed into being his lover and wife.  Maxine handles this evolution with care and sensitivity, though there are times when she appears deeply concerned about violating some provisions left by Dexter not to reveal a “lost decade,” one filled with jails, drugs, and troubled affairs, both professionally and romantically

Above all, Dexter was a musician of extraordinary vision and performance, and Maxine delivers this with all the gusto of a fan, and some of these moments are so breathtaking that even when she was not there, they come alive with energy and insight. 

She was not there when Dexter and Wardell Gray recorded “The Chase,” but she has heard it enough and up close replicas of it on many occasions as she listened to Dexter in concerts, in their homes and the hotel rooms of the world.  One of the most rewarding chapters in the book is her discourse on the recording industry and how jazz musicians were often at the mercy of companies, promoters, and agents. 

Here is how she discloses some of the dealings in her chapter entitled “Business Lessons”: “According to the Copyright Act of 1909, the term of a copyright was twenty-eight years with a renewal term of an additional twenty-eight. In other words, Savoy Music owned all rights to Dexter’s compositions for fifty-six years from the first recordings of his compositions in 1945. That gave them rights until 2001, eleven years after Dexter’s death.” He died on April 25, 1990.

Maxine does a thorough job of chronicling Dexter’s relations with Blue Note Records, his off and on, up and down affair with Francis Wolff and Alfred Lion. Even so, there was a basic respect and admiration that obtained and endured between them. 

The world, particularly the jazz realm, was stunned when Dexter was nominated for the leading actor in “Round Midnight,” and even Maxine muted her enthusiasm in the run-up to the nomination, guarding against disappointment. She provides readers with dramatic moments behind the scenes that occurred with the making of the film and the exciting experiences of being back in Hollywood whereas a child Dexter first encountered the world of film.

Scattered throughout the book are remarkable photos that accentuate the text, none more memorable than one by Herman Leonard at the Royal Roost in 1948, where Dexter is enveloped in a penumbra of smoke, the personification of the hipster he was.  Poignant, too, are Maxine’s reflections and memories of Dexter’s long stints and love for his residences in Denmark and other parts of Scandinavia, especially the club dates with sidemen who were not always equal to his status of proficiency.

Often at the close of his letters, Dexter wrote “Very Saxily Yours,” and Maxine has lived up to his salutation in more ways than one. This is a tale well told--and it swings.

—Herb Boyd is a frequent contributor to The Neworld Review

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New Orleans Griot: The Tom Dent Reader

Edited by Kalamu Ya Salaam

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

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Who was Thomas Covington Dent? Renowned poet and writer Kalamu Ya Salaam, once an apprentice of the artist, calls Tom Dent “the single most important New Orleans writer of all time.” He was a master poet, historian, fiction writer, essayist, playwright, and critic.

With a firm commitment to his influential mentor, Salaam scoured the Dent literary estate from the Amistad Research Center located on the campus of the Tulane University in the Crescent City. The result, New Orleans Griot: The Tom Dent Reader, is a superb tribute to the writer (1930-1998), greatly supported by a bevy of letters, interviews, notebooks, and photographs.

Dent, the son of the president of Dillard University (1941-1969), grew up in an upper-class environment, surrounded by the perks of privilege and influence. He possessed a restless spirit that separated from his clan. Early on, he was gifted with a critical, analytical eye, His time at Morehouse College only stoked his intellectual curiosity, such as when he was puzzled in his literature studies, only to find Shakespeare, Hemingway and Faulkner as topics. There were no black texts or writers.

“We are children of insecurity, worry and tension, and we would wish nothing better than to get away from it all,” Dent wrote in an editorial back then. “This is the younger generation of America today. It is sadly lacking. Maybe someday we will wake up and lead the world. But now there is hardly a chance of that happening. We are too tired.”

Again, that restlessness led him to two years spent in the U.S. Army and left him on a search for his identity. He wanted to be a writer, so he came to New York City. The first job in Harlem was writing for the now-defunct New York Age and eventually he ventured down to the Lower East Side, where artists, musicians and writers lived due to the low rents

In his element, Dent felt at home there. He mingled with the writers and artists in the coffee shops, eateries, poetry readings, and jam sessions. A regular in the neighborhood, he attended the workshops of Umbra in 1960, where he met writers such as Calvin Hernton, David Henderson, Joe Johnson, Askia Muhammed Toure, Lloyd Addison, Lorenzo Thomas, and Archie Shepp. This was Dent’s introduction to the Black Arts Movement.

“Umbra was the incubating experience for me in terms of the workshop and the interaction among creative people,” the writer noted. “It represented a very high amount of creative energy over a two or three year period.”

His New York journey ended when his Lower East Side neighborhood was flooded with heroin and drug sales became rampant. No resident there was safe from crime. Dent wanted to get out of the area and that escape was provided by his father, who invited him to come back home to New Orleans.

Once in New Orleans, Dent discovered the Free Southern Theater troupe, who was rehearsing daily but desperately needed funds. He felt attracted to the theater’s members, such as Roscoe Orman, Gil Moses and Denise Nichols, along with the concept of liberation theater. The FST developed “some good material,” a lot of poetry and a short plays. In 1965, it was invited to some towns in Mississippi and Texas, and later the annual Southern Christian Leadership convention in Charleston.

Later, the FST evolved through some tough financial times and several productive tours into a more effective organization, BLKARTSOUTH, with funding to meet its operational costs in 1969. Still, Dent lamented: “It was like an opportunity to act out that dream with real money, at any cost. It related to what the NY supporters (who had never been to New O) imagined what the work of theater to be….It didn’t build anything, it didn’t leave us with anything and it cost more than we had.”

Throughout the civil rights era of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s, Dent always found time to write and promote a Black aesthetic. He was leery of rhetoric, dogma or revolutionary posturing. “We should settle for nothing that Black people didn’t feel was natural to them, that was foreign to our lifestyle, that did not have a use or usefulness to our lives.”

Salaam the editor was very careful in showing all phases of his literary career, selecting the complete range of his excellent work in essays and criticism. He included Dent’s superb one-act play, “Ritual Murder” and a fine collaboration with Salaam, “Song of Survival.”  His poetry books, “Magnolia Street” (1976) and “Blue Lights and River Songs” (1982) showed generous amount of intelligence, insight, political and cultural wit, humor, and candor.

Witness Dent’s perceptive analysis into such topics as jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, the mythic New Orleans, the fun and frolic of Mardi Gras, black music in the local night spots, Paul Robeson, and the hip days of New York City’s Lower East Side in the early bohemian 1960s. It was to Salaam’s credit that he added a full bibliography of his drama, poetry, articles, essays, reviews and co-authored work.

How did Tom Dent describe himself? “I am introverted, ambitious, envious, egotistical, cautious, methodical, and dreamy,” the writer noted in his unpublished “Emotional Autobiography.”

Salaam’s New Orleans Griot: The Tom Dent Reader captures the spirit and creative process of this exceptional writer and activist. His collection of memories, words and images showcase the significance of Dent to the legacy of the Crescent City and African American culture. This book is a riveting, informed, and entertaining experience that would complement any library.

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Why No Confederate Statues in Mexico.

By Ishmael Reed

Baraka Books | 2019

Reviewed by Jerry W Ward, Jr

Ishmael Reed’s Moral Compass

Ishmael Reed

Many American thinkers have tried, by way of philosophical essays, jeremiads, reflections on habits of the heart and soul, provocative manifestos, and open letters, to improve our nation's debatable social contracts and fragile moral compass. Indigenous victims of imperial genocide; enslaved persons and  slavery' s  enemies;  poets and writer of many colors;  advocates for equity, human rights, and social justice; clergymen and clergywomen; and a small number of elected  officials—all of them , the dreamers  and the doers have participated in moral and ethical warfare. Fighting.

Since the mid-twentieth century, Ishmael Reed has been deep, abrasive, and didactic, an iconoclastic champion of what is "good" and a formidable critic of what is "bad" in domestic and transnational affairs.  Reed is a fighter, a battered but undefeated fighter.

Why No Confederate Statues in Mexico is a compelling record of his place in literary histories and moral struggles. It is a feast one consumes with grains of pepper and salt.

How does a reviewer observe due diligence in commenting on Reed's life and multiple achievements? One notes how apt is Wendy Hayes-Jones's notion that Reed is an "erudite pugilist punching out rounds of words interlaced with the bookish military strategist planning his next move to outwit the enemy." (See "Ishmael Reed: Fifty-Eight Years of Boxing on Paper. On the Aesthetic Legacy of Ishmael Reed. Ed. Sami Ludwig.  Hamilton Beach, CA: World Parade Books, 2012)

How does one make a fair but trenchant evaluation of a conscientious sorcerer, a Neo-Hoodoo priest, an iconoclast whom certain feminists crucify as hyper-masculine (toxic) misogyny personified? How does one coordinate his depictions of American and world histories with his unique logic and calling out of our nation's hubris, yearning to be fascist, and uses of imperial desires? It is a daunting task to account for Reed's fiction (expanded by drama, music, and film) and non-fiction from 1968 Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down to 2019, the most recent collection of essays and journalism. Several book-length studies of Reed offer clues about the required thinking, but actual assessment is a dim glow in a tunnel of a future.

Background and underground work must be done. If one had world enough and time, it would be ideal to measure Why No Confederate Statues in Mexico against a chronological re-reading of

Sufficient world and time are hard to come by.  One must improvise, hoping that one's grasp of Reed's moral compass is accurate.  American cultural literacy has reached a nadir, understanding rhetoric has grown impotent, and the probability of anxious misreading is enormous.

Reed is not an anachronism.  His moral compass ensures that we will be tutored by his ethical discourses, his testimony about and indictment of the American people in Why No Confederate Statues in Mexico.  He is a pre-future sage who speaks to us with the authority of an Old Testament prophet. Fame has given Reed a few material rewards, but the reward he most deserves is knowing, within his lifetime, that his uncanny intelligence succeeded in making the divided peoples of the United States a bit more honest about who and what they are.

Why No Confederate Statues in Mexico is a relentless mirror that forces us to gaze upon ourselves in 2019 and to ponder that the absence of Confederate statues in Mexico highlights the inerasable presence of those statues in our fights with revitalized racism and white supremacy, with the fact that the American Confederacy lives in a Brazilian town  [[see https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/gq8ae9/welcome-to-americana-brazil-0000580-v22n2 ]]  We cannot excuse ourselves from our histories with the bad faith of  post-whatever  ideologies so assiduously cultivated by the super-rich and hegemonic international cartels.

Reed's essays compel us to deal with (1) our land of fluid identities, (2) culture in general—especially to what Reed contends is the brilliant performance and bad history of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, (3) politics or the tragedy and travesty of government and the rule of law, and (4) culture as theatrical.

Reed makes good use of his stern journalism and moral compass to remind us again and once more again that the historically situated insights of David Walker, Frederick Douglass,  Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, Toni Morrison,  Michelle Alexander,  Tommy J. Curry and other moralists who compete for our attention are as crucial, as necessary as air.

At end of decoding Why No Confederate Statues in Mexico readers will either absorb the lessons with gratitude or reject them with howls of execration. Reed does not pander; he challenges us to maximize our critical thinking to discriminate among what he gets right, what he gets half-right, and what he gets wrong.  His new essays are solid in their depiction of what Simon de Beauvoir brilliantly named the ethics of ambiguity.

Only the most perverse readers can fail to profit from the sweeping motions of Reed's moral compass.  And most readers, I suspect, will get the point of so typical an assertion as the latest shedding of light on the "tangle of pathologies in the white community is to be encouraged.  Better late than never. Maybe no longer will the white community be treated as Lake Wobegon, with the black community as a sort of waste disposal across the tracks for the country's social problems." (p. 265)

This assertion ought to guide us in understanding that none of our ethnic communities are free of pathologies.  We are all—yellow, black, brown, white and red—afflicted with pathologies, and our most prudent course of action is to perpetually write and fight for the uncertain remedies that may in time the future will provide reasonable or rational or pragmatic cures for our human conditions.

— Jerry W Ward, Jr. is an occasional contributor to The Neworld Review

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