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Is “This is America” the Modern “Invisible Man”?

“Shake him, shake him, you cannot break him For he’s Sambo, the dancing, Sambo, the prancing, Sambo, the entrancing, Sambo Boogie Woogie paper doll.” (Invisible Man by Harlan Ellison)


First, backstory:

There was one black boy in my elementary school. His parents came, at the invitation of my kindly first-grade teacher (who was also black), and taught us about Kwanza. It seemed marvelous; they had full costumes, the lighting of candles, eating of special foods, and there were stories. The whole thing seemed magical, and I was deeply impressed with my classmate, and that he got to participate in this incredible celebration.

Later, we had a visiting storyteller come by and tell us Anansi stories. The storyteller also wore the colorful South African-inspired clothes and had black skin, and that was fascinating, but I was focused on Anansi. She invited class involvement, and I was picked to play Tiger, a role I took deeply seriously. Tiger was strong, and fierce, and angry, but Anansi was clever, and trapped Tiger in a hole. This storytelling lesson inspired me to read many more Anansi stories as I got older, too. Anansi was clever, if not always kind, and he was an inspiration, how smart could beat strong.

While my school, over time, was minority-majority, there were very few black people; the main minority in my area was Hispanic. I learned about Crispus Attucks, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn and was troubled that these people, locked tight up in history books, resigned to the past, had been hurt, but proud that they had struggled and won, had finally been proven how right they were. The history was done; it was written down, final. Black people were free. I didn’t need to worry about it anymore.

I grew up thinking we were in a truly post-racial society; racism didn’t happen to me, or in my range of vision, so that meant it was done and gone.

I shake my head at my naiveite now. It’s embarrassing that I ever believed the world was so pure, that I was so insulated that I didn’t know I was insulated.

The scales of privilege didn’t start to fall from my eyes until I read Invisible Man by Harlan Ellison in high school. It shook me, deeply. I was very troubled that this man would be treated so unjustly in so many ways, again and again, based on the color of his skin. But still I didn’t connect that it was not just a history book, that it was a fact of life for real people living at that very moment. I asked my reading group, “What can we do? How can we, as people, fix this?”

I wanted to patch things up, tuck it nicely back into the history books. My classmate said, “I don’t think we can. All we can do is try.”

So, all that is to say: I know I’m not the audience for Childish Gambino’s This is America. I’ve seen some commentary that white people shouldn’t try to dissect and comment on the music video but “listen and learn.” And maybe that is true. I am trying, do try, to listen and learn. I admit my privilege and my shortcomings, but I also can’t help but react to the music video. It’s powerful, and it resonates. And all I can do is try.


Soaked with Symbolism

Maybe the first reason Childish Gambino’s music video reminds me of Harlan Ellison’s novel is because it shook me the same way. Neither experience—reading the book or watching the video—feels good. In fact, it’s revolting; I want to draw away from it. But at the same time, it echoes in my mind long after I’ve interacted with it. There’s an inherent push-pull, where I want to swim in the content more, but also hate how it makes me feel, hate the mirror it holds to the world.

Second, both are steeped with symbolism. Buzzfeed tries to break down some of it; even Forbes has chimed in with the dance-move call-outs. It all happens so fast it’s impossible to take in in one viewing.

But I haven’t seen anyone, yet, say that the music video has parts of Invisible Man in it.

Go read the book (or at least the plot summary). There’s too much for me to break down briefly, but the basics: It’s a symbolic, unusually-styled book about an unnamed black man and the many (many) ways he is abused by society, both writ large and personally. It is both subtle and not in its use of symbolism (the narrator, at one point, works for a company that sells white paint… paint so white it will get anything white – the way it’s meant to be, it’s implied).

At the time of first reading, I had to ask a teacher about the dancing Sambo doll in Invisible Man. From context, I knew it was racist somehow and some kind of mockery, but I didn’t know the cultural weight of it. Sambo was a word for a person of mixed (black plus anything else) ancestry. It’s a name that shows up all over the place for black characters and African Americans as a whole.

But the Sambo doll had more layers. The doll pranced and jived and looked happy for all the (white) children and doll-purchasers. It is based entirely on stereotypes and yet is seemingly innocent fun. It was the entire minstrel movement shrunk down and commoditized; you, too, children, can play with a Sambo of your very own! (The package instruction–“easy to work!”–also strikes me as insidious double-messaging.)

In the book, it’s repulsive that a black former activist has resorted to selling these racist dolls—it’s a repudiation of his prior interaction with the narrator and a meta-commentary on society as a whole. It makes the reader question: is the seller mocking the white people, for being so stupid as to think Sambo is a reflection of reality? Is the seller mocking the other blacks, for their participation in the system? Is he just out for money by playing on stereotypes? Has he betrayed the other blacks he used to work with?

Which gets me back to Childish Gambino: is he a living Sambo doll in the music video?

He dances with jerky movements (like a puppet doll might). He distracts the (white?) audience from all the chaos going on behind him. He smiles and japes like a minstrel act, while representing something deeper and more tragic. “Look at these great dance moves,” Gambino seems to say, “you don’t need to care about anything else. This is the only kind of black person you want to see, audience, so here I am, performing my tricks for you. You are so stupid you won’t see anything else.”

Are Gambino, and the dancing school children with him, a reflection of the commoditization of black bodies, black culture, the way the Sambo dolls are in the book? Is Donald Glover/Childish Gambino the rich sellout Sambo-dancing his way to the American public, tricking us white idiots into swallowing the message we don’t want to see?

Invisible Man ends with the character on the run, chased by both one of his black former friends and an angry crowd. The book ends in darkness, counterbalancing the electric lights of the beginning. This is America ends similarly, the fear etched in Childish Gambino’s eyes as the people who ignored him, looked past him, didn’t see him, finally do—and want to kill him for it.

 

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Review: Do I Make Myself Clear?

Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well MattersDo I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters by Harold Evans
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Questions for Mr. Evans’ editor:
1) How intimidating was it to edit a book about quality writing? That must have been a great deal of pressure! The horror, had you let slip an errant comma! So I’m sure you paid quite close attention to the book. Which leads me to ask…

2) How hard was it to deal with someone so pugnacious that he collected, for years, sentenced he found abhorrent solely so he could one day combine them into a book to tell people they were so very wrong? I get it, they are good examples to illustrate his points. I am just guessing at the type of person Evans must be to have that kind of intensity.

3) can you explain to me why you would let Evans write a book about writing—presumably targeted to those who don’t write and/or read well—with such high-minded jargon? I mean, I’m a pretty consistent reader, and I’m a writer and editor—what I’m saying is I know words, and yet the “expensive” 10-dollar words Evans used caused even me to pause. If I didn’t read it easily, how could you expect the non writer to breeze through that horrible introduction?

4) How did you ever let the man publish so much political dreck? Honestly, it’s a problem. If he had wanted to write a book about politics and his opinions, he should have done so. But he didn’t. He wrote about writing, and I wanted to read about writing, so why is so much of the book NOT about writing?
Think of it this way: if you pay for a basketweaving class, would you get annoyed if the teacher spent most of the class droning on about how much he hates a particular pizza joint? Of course you would! That’s not why you’re there and he’s wasting your time.
See, editor, I think easily a third of this book is unnecessary political sniping. I want that shorter book, not this one.

That’s why I had to bail on this book. I can’t even tell if there is good advice in it. There very well may be, but it’s not really a book about writing. It’s a book about one man’s snobbishness, vanity, and dislike for the current political situation. It’s bloated and… well, not particularly clear.

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To the Bride Who Loves My Wedding Dress

I’ve decided to donate my wedding dress to Brides for a Cause, which will support women’s charities but also gives me a way to share the love encapsulated in my beautiful, knee-length, swooshy, wonderful dress with the world. I included this note to the future happy bride in the box with the dress; I don’t know that the charity will pass it on, but I needed to write the words regardless.


Dear Bride–

I hope this dress gives you the joy it gave me. I love the way it sparkles, how soft the satin feels on my skin, the flounce of it as I walked and danced on my wedding day. And it has pockets, can you even imagine?!

I felt out-of-this-world beautiful in this dress, and smiled like my face would rip. A dress that has that power shouldn’t be hidden away in a closet; it needs to share its love with the world!

So I am honored to pass this dress to you. Look at how it makes your legs look long! I wore bright yellow heels and loved being able to show off that shock of color. This dress is made for dancing, because I believe weddings are made for dancing, but is also good for gorgeous lounging and stately emotional walks down the aisle.

Here is the dress. Make beautiful memories with it.

Yours,
-M

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Review: Persepolis Rising

Persepolis Rising (The Expanse, #7)Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Because the last book seemed like a solid wrap-up, I went into Persepolis vaguely confused: what else is there to talk about?
Hoo boy, I’m glad I found out. James S.A. Corey managed to yet again take everything you know about the universe and spin it on its head. There were so many parts of this book where I gasped aloud. Oh no! How will our heroes overcome THAT?!
The biggest difference is this book has been set 30 years in the future from the last one. I don’t think that change was necessarily required, but it did open up a lot of new plotlines. Our crew has aged together, and what does that look like? How has Medina Station developed? What are the politics of so many colony worlds?
It’s a lot to take in, but you will be so glad you did!

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Review: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English DictionaryThe Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Professor and the Madman wavers between pleasant and prolix. I guess I should have predicted a book about the writing of the most famous dictionary ever known would tend toward magniloquence (yes, I had to look that up in the OED), but the writing is so overstuffed with words that it leans toward purple prose.
Winchester is fond of showcasing his own vocabulary by using words with similar meanings all strung together. An example from a random page: “An asylum was to Doctor Johnson no more than a sanctuary, a refuge.”
He also is big on adding imaginary details, such as the sputtering of candles and the whistles of Guy Fawkes fireworks. This kind of “detail” is added with such a heavy hand that it becomes clear a lot of the book is less fact than prettily constructed/reconstructed ideas of what maybe the facts could have been.
As another reviewer noted, there was a great deal less about the actual construction of the OED than I would have liked, and a whole lot more going on and on and on about how tragic Dr. Minor’s life must have been… despite only some sketchy real details. I guess you are welcome to pity a lunatic who murdered a man, even while he is well-cared-for and given extra privileges the other asylum-folk did not have, but the whole of his life seemed very humane and civilized to me—and he was unquestionably a danger to others, so what else of a choice was there? (I even found myself wondering if a modern-day Dr. Minor would have been given the same care. My conclusion: probably not.)
The story is also told in leaps and starts, flitting around to whatever part seems best for Winchester rather than a logical unspooling. That’s fine, but also detracts some from the book’s nonfiction standing and makes it tricky to follow in points.

All in all, an okay book and an acceptable diversion, but it says something that I preferred the cannily selected dictionary entries at the start of each chapter over the actual chapter in several spots!

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Review: The Dispossessed

The DispossessedThe Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My first thought after finishing The Dispossessed was, “damnit, why aren’t science fiction novels considered book club reads?” Because all I want to do after reading this is talk to someone else who has read it!
The story follows a man who lives in a purely socially communistic planet who is striving to achieve his purpose in life: create the grand unifying theory of synchronicity in physics. To follow the ideals of his people, he finds himself traveling to the nearby capitalistic planet, showcasing the ways in which neither society—and perhaps no society anywhere—is the paradise it may seem from the outside.
The writing is complex and that makes the book a little challenging at first, but it quickly absorbs you into its ideas. And it is mostly a story of ideas more than actors, though there are many.
So I wish I had someone to talk through the ideas with, such as:

  • -how many other fiction novels include a reference to breast feeding? Is this inclusion because LeGuin is observant or because she is a woman?
  • is pure social communism desirable or possible?
  • how are we like the capitalistic society? Is that good or bad or both?
  • is time a straight line, a circle, or something else?
  • where can I get a decorative mobile like the one hanging in Shevek’s and Takvar’s rooms?
  • the concept of having the only one name is fascinating, but has its challenges. Would it be worth it? Total individualism?
  • the description of Shevek and Takvar’s relationship is beautiful without seeming much like a romance. How is that different from other writers? Genres?
  • how does the structure of the story (the back and forth of the narrative) impact the unfurling of the story as a whole?
  • how should we view Shevek’s assault on the woman in Nio Essa be viewed? Cultural misunderstanding? Mistake? Rape attempt?
  • is the possessiveness and control over women’s bodies an innate part of a capitalistic society or is it just an outgrowth of the way ours (and therefore Le Guin’s) was shaped?

Get to reading, kids. There’s a lot to discuss!

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Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

  1. I’m starting to think any book under the genre of “literary fiction” has to meet one of three definitions:
    1) Has a plot that is mostly some kind of allegory but when you get down to it really just means nothing much happens.
    2) Include detailed but detached and unexciting descriptions of sex. This shows you, the writer, and you, the reader, are adult, and have had sex, but that you totally don’t care about it.
    3) Steals ideas from science fiction without any of the important science and plausible future parts of science fiction, thus keeping the genre “prestigious,” unlike the genre or pulp fiction the ideas originated in.

Never Let Me Go manages to hit all three definitions. Bravo. Much like an Oscar-winning film can never be a comedy, it seems an award-winning literary fiction can’t have anything happy in it.

Never Let Me Go has an entrancing and incredibly detailed narrative form; the main character, Kathy, is conversational and rambling, like she’s telling you her story as she takes you on a long winding drive through the English countryside. She gets introspective, and the story ebbs and flows with her memory, darting off on little tangents as she tastes the memory on her tongue.

Other reviewers praise this novel as a meditation on the human condition. I see it more as a story about a mean girl at boarding school who no one bothered to intervene against and a bunch of people who have absolutely no agency. What happens in the book? Absolutely nothing. Much of the story is told in the past tense, but even then, the characters had very little action. It’s like watching a high school class on an over-hot day; sure, little dramas flare up, but nothing really happens and it won’t matter at all by the next day.

Some people–I imagine folks who aren’t familiar with good sci-fi or movies like The Island or Gattaca or Star Wars or Jurassic Park or shows like Dark Angel or Star Trek–praise this book for its content about clones. But–*yawn*–that “twist” was screaming from very early on and utterly unsurprising, and moreover, utterly undeveloped. As I said, it is as if Ishiguro wanted to take the ideas of sci-fi without dirtying his hands with actual science fiction. He hand-waves away all the pertinent questions about how this works or why the clone people are totally fine it with all and do nothing to resist. Even perfectly mundane questions like ‘what does a carer actually do?’ and ‘are clones different from regular humans at all? 4 kidneys, perhaps? Spider-silk milk? Need special injections to avoid the Anything at all?’ are never even broached. (Personally I choose to believe clones had multiples of desirable organs, accounting for the ability to donate multiple times without dying.) So for fans of sci-fi, the book doesn’t really contribute to the conversation about the ethics of cloning at all. The only “new” thing is that the clones are uncaring about the whole thing, and even that is just sort of a shrug and a “just because.”

The book was very well-written but disappointing. It never did anything with the story. Also, the author uses the phrase “completely daft” a few too many times. Daft indeed.

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