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Posts Tagged ‘american history’

Goodreads tells me that I’ve read just four books since Gone Girl – nearly two months. And three of those I read in the last 10 days. Life gets busy sometimes. But I still managed to reach my original reading goal of 60 books for this year, and I just upped it to 70 (which, I realize, might be a couple of books too many).

On my reading pile for the next few days, I have Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, Paul Farmer’s Haiti After the Earthquake, and Jacqueline Winspear’s The Mapping of Love and Death. Although I didn’t love Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs (her detective), I liked her writing well enough to try another book. I was also influenced by other blogs which had nice things to say about the series.

I recently finished Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale (1953 – in which James Bond makes his debut)I am not a James Bond fan, and probably never will be. I just saw the book on the husband’s pile and thought why not. Though far less poignant, and certainly less intense, Casino Royale reminded me of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007). I also read Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West that chronicles Shin In Guen’s escape from one of North Korea’s infamous political prison camps. Although aspects of day-to-day life (or what passed for life) at the camp in many ways resembled that in concentration camps from half a century ago, Shin had no yardstick to assess the quality of his life – he was born in the camp, the product of a camp-sanctioned reward marriage. Camp life was mostly hunger, snitching, and survival.

…while Auschwitz existed for only three years, Camp 14 is a fifty-year-old Skinner box, an ongoing longitudinal experiment in repression and mind control in which guards breed prisoners whom they control, isolate, and pit against one another from birth.

Shin escaped by what one can only describe as a series of remarkably lucky breaks. While escape meant that Shin could finally get his hands on the grilled meat that he had dreamt of all his life, assimilation continues to be a struggle. Escape from Camp 14 is very different from the only other account of life in totalitarian North Korea that I have read – Pyongyang (2007), the account of a French-Canadian cartoonist/animator in the country’s capital.

But the book I have the most to write about is 102 minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers (2005) by New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn.

102 minutes

Over a decade later, the memories of that Tuesday morning are still raw, fresh, and excruciatingly painful, even for someone who watched the drama unfold on television half a planet away. Media – first person accounts, books, and the very graphic footage of the towers’ demise, as well as the transcripts of the 911 calls made by those trapped within, continue to grip our hearts with deep anguish. My interest in the book was purely to remedy my somewhat ignorant understanding of the events of the day, although I was aware that it would be a painful exercise. 102 minutes is not quite the account I was looking to read (which I would have realized had I paid close attention to the subtitle). Gleaned from interviews with survivors and rescuers alike, and from emergency radio, phone and email transcripts, 102 minutes is Dwyer and Flynn’s attempt to reconstruct what happened inside the towers after the planes struck them, from the time the North tower was struck at 8:46 am, to when it collapsed at 10:28 am (the South tower, though struck second at 9:02 am, collapsed first at 9:59 am), a total of 102 minutes. Dwyer and Flynn’s take is that, acts of tremendous valor notwithstanding, far more people died that fateful day than those who had to:

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City reports that 2, 749 people died in the attacks on New York. Of these, 147 were passengers or crew members on the two flights; in the buildings, no more than 600 people were on floors where the planes hit, close enough to be killed immediately. Another 412 of the dead were rescue workers who came to help. The rest, more than 1,500 men and women, survived the plane crashes, but were trapped as far as twenty floors from the impact. Like the passengers on the unsinkable Titanic, many of the individuals inside the World Trade Center simply did not have the means to escape towers that were promised not to sink, even if struck by airplanes.

Dwyer and Flynn argue that the fates of these trapped men and women were sealed years ago when the towers were designed – with insufficient stairways and inadequate fireproofing, and by the long-standing malaise that characterized the relationship between the Police and Fire Departments. The towers were not built for total evacuation, rather only for evacuation of the few floors that were affected by the fire with the assumption that the fireproofing would contain the fire damage, and any fires would simply burn themselves out. Even with the haze of shock, fear and confusion taken into account, “failures of communication, coordination, and command” doomed the lives of all those desperate men and women, and the heroic firefighters who rushed in to rescue them.

Nothing can diminish the culpability of the hijackers and their masters in the murders of September 11, 2001, which stand beyond mitigation as the defining historical truth of the day. The ferocity of the attacks meant that innocent  people lived or died because they stepped back from a doorway, or hopped onto a closing elevator, or simple shifted their weight from one foot to another. That said, simply to declare that the hijackers alone killed all those people gives them far more credit as tacticians than they are due. The buildings themselves became weapons, apparently well beyond the designs of the hijackers, if not their hopes; so, too, did a sclerotic emergency response culture in New York that resisted reform, even when confronted again and again with the dangers of business as usual.

Dwyer and Flynn’s narrative certainly captures the alarm, the panic, the confusion of those wretched minutes, and its tragically cruel aftermath. While hundreds of people were desperately trying to reach 911 and family, and wetting handkerchiefs with milk and water from flower vases to help them breathe through the smoke, firefighters were rushing up in a misguided attempt to save them.

A firefighter’s turnout coat, pants, boots, and helmet weight twenty-nine and a half pounds. The mask and oxygen tank add another twenty-seven pounds, bringing the basic load to fifty-six and a half pounds. Firefighters in engine companies also carry fifty feet of hose, called a roll-up, with aluminum fittings on each end. That weighs thirty pounds, increasing the load to eighty-six and a half pounds…In the ladder companies, some firefighters carried an extinguisher and hook, thirty-eight pounds, while others toted an ax and the Halligan tool, an all-purpose pry bar, with a weight of twenty-five pounds. One firefighter from each unit also carried a lifesaving rope, 150 feet long and weighing twenty-two pounds. They all carried one or more piece of equipment: a radio, the Motorola Saber, which weighs one pound, seven ounces.

Battalion Chief Orio J. Palmer climbed 38 floors to reach the impact zone on the 78th floor of the South Tower, sometimes covering a flight of stairs in just  twenty-one seconds. Five minutes later the tower collapsed.

The Architectural Fact Sheet of the Freedom Tower at One World Trade center mentions safety features, including extra-wide pressurized stairs, additional stair exit locations at all adjacent streets and direct exits to the street from tower stairs, and a dedicated stair for use by firefighters.

Six more days, and six more books to achieve my goal.

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Race, in the end, was the most accurate predictor of an unwed mother’s parents’ response to her pregnancy; of society’s reaction to her plight; of where and how she would spend the months of her pregnancy; and most important, the most accurate predictor of what she would do with the “fatherless” child she bore, and of how being mother to such a child would affect the rest of her life.

– Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe Vs. Wade 

Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade is certainly one of the books I enjoyed most in 2011. Fessler, an adoptee herself, writes movingly about these women, using first-person accounts in many cases, to construct a tapestry composed of many heart-rending stories. I am fairly sure that it was while reading this book that I came upon a reference to Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe Vs. Wade, and added it to my TBR pile.

Wake Up Little Susie, written by Rickie Solinger, is more a socio-political commentary, a history of unwed mothers and the social construction of unwed motherhood in America, focusing on race-specific distinctions during the post-war, pre-Roe Vs. Wade decades, from 1945 to 1965.

Illicit motherhood in the pre-war years

What was lost could not be regained; what was acquired could not be cast off.

While single mothers weren’t uncommon before World War II, social attitudes towards these women and their fatherless children were excessively punitive. The mother was considered morally deficient and permanently ruined – her marriageability was not restorable, her sin was not pardonable, and her shortcomings were not rehabilitable. She was condemned to spend the rest of her life as a fallen woman, bringing up her illegitimate child. Children were not separated from their mothers. Single mothers were expected to keep their children, irrespective of race. The child of sin was also tainted by its association with its mother and was generally considered undesirable and unsuitable for adoption.

In the post-war years, the American Family Ideal began to be increasingly emphasized. Under this family agenda, which romanticized a two-child family that included a mother and a father, unwed mothers were perceived as a threat to the integrity of the family. With the family imperative requiring children to complete a family, (white) babies were almost suddenly in great demand to make whole the normative family. Solinger conjectures that other related factors might have contributed to this clamor for babies – rising infertility, or increasing acknowledgement of infertility. Babies became market commodities.

In postwar society, which glorified couples, marriage, children, families, and conformity, this prospect [of a large number of ruined girls and women] would not have been a happy one.

Adoption of these babies offered a happy solution.

White girls

A white unwed mother in the post-war years usually had one of two options – she could try to obtain a therapeutic abortion, which required her to be declared psychologically unfit to be a mother, or, as was more common, disappear into a maternity home for the duration of her pregnancy. Few chose to endure pregnancy and childbirth alone or surrounded by disapproving family. A few kept their babies. After the war, psychological explanations became common to account for pregnancies that were the result of unhealthy non-marital relations that many women engaged in. An unwed mother was considered neurotic, often the result of an unhappy home environment, specifically because of mothers who were “insufficiently deferential wives”. However, her neuroticism was treatable as long as she followed the prescribed course of action: “casework treatment in a maternity home, relinquishment of baby for adoption, and rededication of the offending woman to the marriage market”. Her marriageability now restored, she could now the leave the home as a lady. Not only had she provided a baby to an eager childless couple, she was herself available to play the role of a wife and mother in a legitimate American family. (These were the expectations, but the reality was certainly much more difficult, and these birth mothers no doubt endured long-term psychological consequences).

Black girls

Most black families, on the other hand, accepted the pregnancy and the resulting child. In any case, most maternity homes did not welcome black girls, and there was hardly any demand for black babies in those early years. While a white unwed mother, the treatable neurotic, occupied a state of shame, Solinger writes, the black unwed mother was stereotyped as the wanton breeder, who was not as much shamed as she was blamed for rising welfare costs, population explosion, juvenile delinquency in inner cities and other social issues. The black single mother did not have a chance for redemption. Black illegitimate babies did not evoke any tenderness in the public either.

Black illegitimate babies, like their mothers, aroused the anger and racism of white, taxpaying public, while white illegitimate babies, if not their mothers, aroused the public’s compassion and their interest in seeing these children well placed.

Not only were black mothers regarded as unrestrained breeders, they were deemed calculated breeders, making a “career out of illegitimate childbearing”. Solinger writes that, “Despite the fact that by 1960, a growing percentage of white unwed mothers and their children required such aid, and despite the fact that most black women with illegitimate children did not receive ADC [Aid to Dependent Children], ADC was, in the public consciousness, a black-identified program…In addition, the most persistent charge against ADC was that these benefits were incentives for black women to have illegitimate children. In short, white politicians and taxpayers claimed that black women used their bodies in ways that were morally and fiscally destructive to the nation”.

Unwed mothers as aggressors against society

By the 1960s, the rate of illegitimate childbearing showed no sign of slowing down. Public discourse shifted to use new language to talk about black and white unwed motherhood. As in the previous years, the metaphors used were racially distinct and radically different. White girls were labelled the rebels, the sexual revolutionaries. However, not all of them were privileged co-eds, or revolutionaries, and were simply girls in trouble with little or no resources. Black girls, were the breeders, the population bomb, and many representatives of the public advocated birth control to be used to halt excess reproduction in them.

“Unacceptable” rates of black illegitimacy became a powerfully convincing explanation for unacceptable welfare expenditures, unacceptable demographic changes in the big cities of the United States, unacceptable levels of juvenile delinquency and poverty.

This is where the book leaves us, in the mid-1960s, with female reproductive activity linked to social problems. I spent a good part of the last six weeks on this insightful book. The Girls Who Went Away was from a white perspective, as far as I can remember, and it was refreshing to learn about the experiences of girls whose skin was colored differently. As with other works of non-fiction, I hope this book is historically accurate.

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Black history month may have come and gone, but April is still a good time to read Coming of Age in Mississippi: An Autobiography by civil rights activist, Anne Moody. Originally published in 1968, this unsentimental portrait of growing up in racist Mississippi is at once distressing and inspiring.

Moody’s story begins on a Mississippi plantation around 1944, with the almost four year old author watching her parents leave for the fields every morning. Her parents separate not long afterwards and her mother struggles to put a roof over their heads and a loaf of bread on the table, as she ekes out a meager living as a waitress or housekeeper. Frequently pregnant, or between pregnancies with her new boyfriend, Raymond, the author’s mother is often sad and emotionally unstable. Raymond’s family never accepts her mother, ostensibly on account of her being dark and their being a high yellow. As in much of the world, there are caste systems within caste systems and bubbles within bubbles.

Although always aware of the color differences between her own family and the whites they work for, Moody becomes cognizant of the implications of being black at about seven years of age.

…not only were they better than me because they were white but everything they owned and everything connected with them was better than what was available to me.

Moody begins paid work at nine years of age, sweeping porches and later graduating to babysitting and housekeeping. On the other hand, her step-father, an ex-soldier, struggles to find a regular source of income.

White businesses in town employed Negroes as janitors only, and there was never more than one janitor in any single business. The Negro man had a hard road to travel when looking for employment. A Negro woman, however, could always go out and earn a dollar a day because whites always needed a cook, a baby-sitter, or someone to do housecleaning.

While this meant that black women often had a more reliable source of income, being The Help meant that you had to deal with white prejudice (sometimes white friendliness too), subtle Klan threats, or with your white master’s advances.

I had never heard of a single affair in Centerville between a Negro man and a white woman. It was almost impossible for such an affair to take place. Negro men did not have access to white women. Whereas almost every  white man in town had a Negro woman in his kitchen or nursing his babies.

A straight ‘A’s student and eighth grade’s homecoming queen, Moody enters high school and learns how the daily life of blacks is fraught with danger as she hears about black men being killed for getting out of place. She experiences a new fear, “the fear of being killed just because I was black”. She resolves to stand up for her rights and leaves home at fifteen , “sick of selling my feelings for a dollar a day”.

I was fifteen years old when I began to hate people. I hated the white men who murdered Emmet Till and I hated all the other whites who were responsible for the countless murders…. But I also hated Negroes. I hated them for not standing up and doing something about the murders. In fact, I think I had a stronger resentment toward Negroes for letting the whites kill them than toward the whites.

Writing about her own feelings of anger at fellow blacks’ seeming apathy, and their real fear of white fury, and white animosity towards blacks,especially insubordinate blacks, Moody paints a picture of the desperate life in the 1960s, towns seething with passionate hatred and shaking with palpable terror.

Moody’s real involvement with the civil rights movement begins when she wins a basketball scholarship to the highly ranked Tougaloo College, and gets involved with various organizations involved in the movement, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Moody evolves from being a discontented high school student to a passionate and vocal supporter of the civil rights movement and becomes what she calls a professional agitator, participating and leading demonstrations, rallies, and sit-ins. Before she turns 23, she becomes a prominent agitator, gets arrested, gets blacklisted by the Klan and eventually becomes dispirited with what seems a hopeless battle. Towards the end of the book, she reaffirms her life’s mission knowing that she can never really leave the Movement.

Coming of Age in Mississippi  is not only the personal history of a civil rights activist, but a lesson in American History, a lesson in courage and persistence, and the story of how a people fought to make their dreams happen. “We shall overcome some day”, they said, and they did.

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In one North Carolina courthouse, there was a white Bible and a black bible to swear to tell the truth on.

Warmth of Other Suns

When author Isabel Wilkerson said ‘epic story’, she wasn’t kidding. It took me eight weeks to read this book from cover to cover, and I usually tend to give up if I think a book is taking me too long.

As an aside – I used to be the type that had  to finish every book that I started, until I decided that life was too short to be spent on books I found too hard to read, even if most of the world thought otherwise. And so, I have a small list of nemesis books – books I started, many times in some cases, and was never motivated to finish, or even proceed beyond page 21. So, that’s my policy. I try, but not too hard.

But with The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, I persisted. It might have taken me a while to read the book, but that was only because I was trying to take in the details and imagine a world, and a people in my head. Before I moved to the United States, I was told by many that the country had ‘no history’, because it was relatively new and did not possess the historical richness that other parts of the world, say Europe or even India, had in plenty as evidenced by their castles, collosuems, and other remains of ancient (really ancient) times. Apparently, contemporary history does not count as ‘real’ history to many. However, I find modern history fascinating – as it is ‘lived history’ it is more ‘certain’, it is easier to relate to and understand. And, there are stories (if we can get to the storytellers before they become history themselves). Little details make up the big picture, and suddenly events past are playing out in your head.

…it is the larger emotional truths, the patient retelling of people’s interior lives and motivations, that are the singular gift of the accounts in this book. With the passing of the earliest and succeeding generations of migrants, it is these stories that have become the least replaceable sources of any understanding of this great movement of people out of the South to the American North and West.

Wilkerson has done a masterful job. She employs three protagonists, who fled the South at different times of the Migration, had varied personal motivations, and struggles during and after their resettlement in the North and West, and uses their accounts to chronicle the Great Migration, which lasted over half a century and saw six million southern blacks leave the South and Jim Crow. Personal stories are powerful – they vividly illustrate individual fears, hopes, dreams, successes and struggles in a manner that no abstract account can. Millions of such stories made up the Migration, and are a part of the story of the making of Modern America.

Wilkerson begins during Reconstruction, when slavery was abolished (in name) and an explicit caste system was created in its place (much of this is reminiscent of the caste system that existed, and still exists to a certain degree, in India; and the black experience can be likened, to some extent, to that of the Dalits in India. City dwellers, such as me, can often be ignorant of the egregious discrimination  practiced in the name of caste in other parts of the country, as I realized when I read Untouchables. Indeed, Wilkerson herself alludes to the similar Nazi treatment of the Jews when she talks about the black-white relationship in the early 20th century. People everywhere are really the same). The symbiotic relationship that often existed between white masters and black slaves, gave way to extreme persecution and domination of one race by the other. Large scale migration is attributed to ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors, and one can think of several reasons that might have propelled the southern blacks out of the South and to the American North and West, which Wilkerson collectively calls the Kinder Mistress.

Let’s not fool ourselves. We are far from the promised land, both North and South. In the South, we still confront segregation in its glaring and conspicuous forms. In the North we confront it in its hidden and subtle forms.

The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Restrictions based on color of skin were just one of their concerns.

In the receiving cities of the North and West, the newcomers …had to worry about acceptance or rejection not only from whites they encountered but from the colored people who arrived ahead of them, who could at times be the most sneeringly judgmental of all.

At least they had their lives. And so they persisted in unfair circumstances, in crowded colonies, with rampant crime, and exposure to drugs. Wilkerson also addresses the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. In the past, the dysfunction of urban cities has often been blamed on the poor, uncouth, uneducated migrants. However, recent research, Wilkerson says, indicates otherwise, that migrants (southern blacks) tended to be better educated, likely to be and remain married, more likely to raise children in two-parent households, and more likely to be employed than northern blacks.

In cases where things went awry, it turned out that the longer the migrants were exposed to the northern cities, the more vulnerable some became to the troubles of the preexisting world they entered.

Resettlements change lives and large scale resettlements change the course of a country.

***

The conductor called out the name of the station and the city, and after so long a ride through the night and now into day, some passengers from the South gathered their things and stepped off the train… “Newark”. It sounded so tantalizingly close to “New York”, and maybe, some assumed, was the way northerners, clipping their words as they did, pronounced New York. It was confusing to have their intended destination preceded directly by a city with such a similar name and with an identically named station. And as they had been riding for as many as twenty-four hours and were nervous about missing their stop, some got off prematurely and, it is said, that is how Newark gained a good portion of its black population, those arriving in Newark by accident and deciding to stay.

Over half a century later, during my first ever train ride to New York City, I would make the same mistake. After all, ‘Newark Penn Station’ sounds remarkably similar to ‘New York Penn Station’ to the foreign ear, whether you were from the South or from India.

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