Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Black On The Block

My local book club’s selection for April is Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City by Mary Pattillo. On April 22, at our meeting, Dr. Pattillo, a professor at Northwestern University, called in to the Marcus Book Store and we discussed the book via telephone. In her book, Dr. Pattillo, a sociologist, looks at gentrification in the North Kenwood-Oakland neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois from a different angle. Most of us know gentrification to be when more affluent people, usually white, move into a lower-income neighborhood, usually occupied by blacks or Latinos. This community is being redeveloped under the guise of beautification and improving living conditions. In this case, the new folks moving into NKO were the same color as the old residents—black. The enemies were not some whitey trying to change their way of life but middle and upper-class African Americans who were critical of their way of being.

As an ethnographer, as the kind of sociologist she is, Dr. Pattillo was aware of the changing neighborhood when she moved there. According to her, sociologists, if they are able, move into the neighborhoods of the people they are studying; they are participant observers and they write books on the topics. Dr. Pattillo had two neighbors on either side of her; two women. One was a banker, new to the neighborhood, the other, a part-time bus driver and long-time residents, with three generations living in her home. The two neighbors could not stand each other. The bus driver felt the banker snubbed and avoided her neighbors while the banker resented the frequent activity she observed going on in her neighbor’s front yard. Dr. Pattillo maintains that issues of class differences are not addressed in America. There are laws against racial and gender discriminations; there are none against class discrimination. Additionally class is the elephant in the middle of the room among African Americans, yet it is there stark and plain, and truth be told it always has been.

I brought up the point that before integrations, because of segregation, in some urban cities, black people of all walks of life lived together; there would be the doctor on the corner and across the street there was the factory worker. Did they not all get along? Dr. Pattillo had some thoughts on that assertion. Black professionals made their living from black people; doctors, businesses, ministers and teachers had a symbiotic relationship with people they served and they sometimes attended the same churches. But Dr. Pattillo cited the book, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City written in 1945and other accounts that revealed there was indeed some dissent. Better educated and more affluent blacks spoke disparaging about their poorer sisters and brothers. They felt they were embarrassing by the clothes they wore (head rags in public) or talking loud on the train. Northern Negros especially looked down at the newly arrived southern migrants, having disdain for their illiteracy and country acting mannerisms.

So, why would affluent blacks move into a lower-income neighborhood that has high crime rates and try to impose their wills on folks who do not want to be bothered with their uppity ways? Many blacks cite that they want to be a part of a black community, and they have a genuine desire to improve the neighborhood and improve the quality of life. So why no kumbuya? No gatherings around the bar-b-que grill? To further dig the knife in, these newer affluent residents began charter schools and privatization of other services. And guess what, Bay Bay’s kids could not get into their schools. The applications were akin to getting into an Ivy League school.

After living in the community for two years, Dr. Pattillo joined a board, one that tried to bridge the gaps. It has been a slow process but hopefully progress is being made. Our group enjoyed discussing this book, looking at gentrification in a new light, at how the dynamics surrounding this sensitive topic is not as simple as black and white.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Help.....Mississippi Goddam

The astounding singer, Nina Simone wrote the song, “Mississippi Goddam” in 1964 in response to the merciless 1963 killing of civil rights leader, Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi. The state of Mississippi, along with Alabama, were among the most egregious, hard-core, racist, states of the Union back in the day. It was as if the people of those two states never got the memo that slavery had ended; I have long been aware of this fact. It was with this awareness, that I read a new release, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, herself a native Mississippian. In this work of fiction set in 1963 and 1964, Stockett explores the complex relationship of black help, maids, or domestic servants and their white employers in Jackson. Skeeter, a young woman, just out of college and a budding journalist, comes home and discovers her beloved maid, Constantine, is gone and nobody can explain to her satisfaction what happened to her. In her search for Constantine, Skeeter looks hard at the inbalance in the lives of southern whites and the black people who serve them, some who live in extreme poverty. In a challenge from a New York editor to find something to write about that excites her, Skeeter decides to write a book, interviewing the black maids of her peers.

In The Help, the black maid/Miss Ann relationship is a convoluted union. It is also a symbiotic relationship; each needs the other. The white employers need someone to fix their meals, clean their house, wash their clothes and raise their children and the black domestic workers need employment to pay rent, buy food and other necessities of life. But I, who was born in the south and California raised, ask why would anyone need maid service eight to twelve hours a day, six days a week? If a woman is not working outside the home, why would she need full-time domestic help almost everyday of the week. Why do you need someone to fix you a sandwich in the middle of the day? Why can’t you teach your own children manners and change a diaper every once in awhile? To follow behind someone, cleaning up after them, fix all their meals, and oversee entertainment, including holidays, when these women would rather be with their own families? I asked my southern born and raised mother these questions and more; trying to grasp the understanding, to get into the heads of these spoiled, over-indulged white women, who I know not only existed in fiction, but in reality in 1960s Mississippi.

Mom explained that this was tradition, historical, no doubt a holdover from slavery, where as slaves, blacks waited on whites hand and foot, no matter their status. Mom went on to explain that white woman who were little better off than some of the blacks around them, hired black women to wash their clothes. That was the case in rural 1930s Arkansas where my mother was raised. Yes, there was racism and mistreatment of blacks in her rural Arkansas town, but the difference she saw in the women in her family, was that her family owned their land. They had as much or near as much and in many cases more than the many whites around them. They, and other black families such as them, were not subject to the harshness and cruelty that those who were sharecroppers and depended on whites for their every need.

The need for power, to order someone around old enough to be your mother or grandmother—or your daughter, to feel superior was something ingrained in the white women in The Help. Some of them were so hateful and mean-spirited, who would have their help jailed for the smallest infraction; the help was at the mercy of these white employers who would not hesitate to lie, if crossed. Oh, Mississippi Goddam.

It is my love of southern literature that I was able to read this book that is getting many rave reviews by critics. I, a child of the south, writer, family historian, and keeper of southern stories, appreciates a well-written, good story and Stockett is a good storyteller. When one of my sister reviewers became immediately offended by the book content and the dialect of the mostly uneducated black women, I was eager to read and see for myself. There were many uncomfortable moments, as I expected there would be, but all in all, the cumulative value of the book is an admirable contribution to the tomes of the “new southern literature.” If anything, this book opens up the dialogue, which has already began-- if the discussions online and on blogs are any indication, between black women; southern born and northern born, and with white women, especially those southern raised, and presents an opportunity to talk about this elephant in the middle of the room in this Obama era. Maybe black women and white women, and all women can come together in sisterhood now that the stigma of segregation no longer exists--- oh black women will still be working in white homes, and there is still an unequal balance of privilege and poverty; but maybe those who are privileged will look to those who are not, as human beings with the same desires and sensitivities as they. Mississippi goddam no more.


Dera Williams
April 17, 2009

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Finally...My Favorite Books in 2008

Well, here it is April. Spring is here and flowers are blooming and I am just getting around to presenting my list of favorite reads of 2008. I don’t know why it took me so long but it’s done. My favorite was Song Yet Sung by James McBride. Brilliant writer, beautifully told story of slavery on the Eastern Shore.

Here is the link to my list on

For a view of my other listmania lists:


Friday, April 3, 2009

Second Quarter 2009 Reading Challenge

Well, I read 23 books for the APOOO First Quarter Reading Challenge that ended March 31. Out of those 23, 11 books were challenge books. Now, what defines a challenge book? It depends on each individual reader. It can be your regular reading list of books you plan to read. It can be a number of books you are trying to get off of your to-be-read pile, that some of us are shamed to admit how many books we have in our possession. QQ. Or challenge books can be books that are truly a challenge. It could be that book that you have picked up and read five pages and put down at least ten times. You know the one, that Toni Morrison book, or that book that while it gives good historical or sociological information , reads too much like a college text book with graph, states and pages of bibliography. Can we just say it is kind of intimidating?

I am going to take the easy route and list my books for the month of April with a few books that have been lag over for several months. You know, the books you never get to and never seem to make a carryover. Also, the book that I have put off for several reasons, too thick (BABs), too academic, slow moving. Let’s just say they are all challenge books. So here we go.

April Reading List

Tall, Dark, Westmoreland- Brenda Jackson
The Help – Kathryn Stockett (Vine review) (APOOO buddy read)
Rampart Street- David Fulmer
The Other Side of Paradise (Vine review)
Mixed Blood (Vine review)
Make You Mine- Nobia Bryant (AdC review)
Up at the College- Michelle Bowen (APOOO review)
Black on the Block- Mary Patillo (Marcus BOM)
Murder, Mayhem, and a Fine Man- Claudia Birney- (WOW BOM)
The Women- Hilton Als
The Ties that Bind- Bertice Berry
God Only Knows- Xavier Knight
Flannery: Life of Flannery O’Connor
Dying for Revenge- EDJ
Schae’s Story- Angelia Menchan

So, that is 15 books right there.

Now for the continuous lag/carryovers

Dare- Abriola Adams
Dreaming in Cuban- Cristina Garcia
The Ladies Detective Agency- Alexander McCall
Outside Child- Alice Friedman Up
All Aunt Hagar’s Children
Cion- Zake Mda
Wicked Ways- Donna Hill
Ugly Ways- Tina McElroy Ansa
Taking After Mudear- Tina McElroy Ansa
Brass Blue Ankles
Lady Sings the Cruels- Eric Pete
Just To Good to Be True- E. Lynn Harris
Dying for Revenge- EDJ

True Challenge Books (I want to read but I dread getting into because they might be slow, BAB, or academic-like)

Hemingses of Monticello- Anne Gordon-Reed (this is a must read- a National Book Award winner
Like a Mighty Stream- Patrik Henry Bass- (Black History Read that go carried over)
The Island of Eternal Love- Diana Chiavano
Miracle at St. Anna- James McBride – have had this for six years
Strangers in the Village- Farrah Griffin
All Aunt Hagar’s Children – Edward P. Jones
The Audacity of Hope- Barack Obama- I really do want to read about my President
Palace Council- Stephen L. Carter
On the Laps of God- Robert Whitaker - This is about the Elaine Riot in 1919 that happened in Phillips County, Arkansas, my father's hometown.

And then there is my big pile of to-be-read; much too numerous to even count, let alone mention the titles. Let’s see how many I get through by June 30.

See what others are reading the Second Quarter 2009 African American Reading Challenge.

Happy Reading!