Sunday, November 24, 2019

Losing My Cool by Thomas Chatterton Williams

This was a book that I read to prepare me for another book. Thomas Chatterton Williams’s recently published Self-Portrait in Black and White is being talked about a lot by folks who are interested in social issues centering upon race. I initially decided to read that book but I thought that his first book, Losing My Cool, first published in 2011, seemed like a prerequisite to reading the new work. Thus, I decided to read this book first. I thought this work was a fascinating account of the author’s early life that was also filled with insightful and important social commentary. 

This work is a memoir of the author’s life up until about the age of 23. It is also a scathing critique of what the author calls hip – hop culture. Williams paints a picture of this culture going far beyond rap music. He describes a world that is violent, anti – intellectual, anathema to normal and healthy relationships and incredibly harmful for those who participate in it.  Thus, the author argues that this culture has done great harm to both the American black community as a whole and to black individuals.

Williams’s father was black and his mother was white. He grew up in a middle class, mixed race, New Jersey community in the 1990s. He and his family viewed themselves as black.  During his teens and early twenties he was enmeshed in hip - hop culture.  Williams account of these years tells a story of a young man who excelled in school but who was pulled into a destructive and harmful youth culture.

The first part of the book describes what is was like for Williams when growing up. It was a moderately violent environment which the author found himself in. Crime was glorified. It was anti – intellectual world where the only acceptable culture was rap music and Black Entertainment Television. Young men and women entered into toxic and harmful relationships with one another that were characterized by each partner distrustful of the other and trying to assert a strange dominance over one another. Williams contends that this culture pushes young black people to embrace a terribly harmful but disingenuous persona that glorifies all of these self - destructive things. Counterbalancing this youth culture was Williams’s father, known as “Pappy”. The elder Williams was a fairly strict parent and highly principled man who is an intellectual and who revers books and learning.

Williams’s high grades got him into the highly prestigious Georgetown University. There he also found a hip - hop culture that he began to participate in. However, at this point he began to change. He started to appreciate culture beyond hip - hop, he began to embrace reading and started associating with people not immersed in self - destructive practices. He credits his father’s influence on his transformation. As this time some of his old friends began to be alienated from him due to these changes.  Williams eventually graduated Georgetown with a Bachelors in philosophy. He had changed a lot as he now embraced intellectualism and what I would call humanism. The book closes as Williams begins traveling to various places in France.

Toward the end of the book Williams writes a lot about society and philosophy. He brings thinkers such as Hegel to his observations. His criticism of hip - hop culture is withering. Williams goes on to talk about how too many young African Americans have embraced a group identity that is based this culture.  He argues that all this has lead to high levels of violence, incarceration and single parent families in the black community. He writes,

If you’re young and black today and lucky enough to get out and travel, see the world beyond your own little backyard, inevitably it is going to strike you that you have been lied to. You have been straight-up lied to, and not just in the most obvious way—not just by Robert L. Johnson and the propaganda organ of BET or by the spokesmen for stereotypes, the Busta Rhymeses and the Gucci Manes. It’s worse than that; the swindling has gone down far closer to home. You have been lied to by people you have known personally, people you have trusted, your friends and your neighbors, your older siblings and your classmates, your cousins and your lovers. Whether that lie is born of simple ignorance masquerading as arrogance—a seductive ignorance, yes, but still only ignorance—or, worse, actual malice, matters little at the moment of your realization. All that matters at that moment is the lie itself, this fiction that says that for you and your kind alone an authentic existence is a severely limited one. You have been lied to (and for how long?) and now you know that you have been lied to and you can’t deny it and you are naked.

One interesting argument that Williams makes that while white people listen to hip - hop and sometimes embrace some the trapping of the culture, they do so ironically. They ultimately do not take it seriously and thus do not fall into self - harmful patterns.  Williams says that African Americans generally take hip - hop culture seriously and actually modify their behavior based upon it. 

Williams does a lot more musing about group identity, how these group identities relate to our current times and how all this relates to his own life. Williams has a lot of opinions and this book is bursting with them. It is imposable to cover all the ideas that are presented here within one post. 

There are not a lot of harrowing passages in the book. While Williams describes an unhealthy cultural environment, he did not grow up in the worst areas. I should note that early in the book the author also tries to emulate the street language that he grew up with, the N- word is used throughout the text. This book is not for those who are easily offended.

I think as a cultural critic Williams is very often on target. The negative aspects of what Williams describes as hip – hop culture are convincingly laid out here. I think that this book illustrates a lot of truths but I have some additional thoughts on these issues. 

I think that over the years, other youth cultures have been almost or as bad as hip – hop culture. For instance, I grew up with folks who embraced a kind of anti – social, fairly violent, heavy metal rock culture. People who engaged in it were just as anti – social and violent as the people that Williams describes. Decades after they first fell into it,  I know of several folks whose lives have been plagued by substance abuse and prison. I think that hip - hop culture is worse then some other youth cultures only because it is so much more prevalent. 

One  criticism I have here is that Williams seems to ignore the many people of color who partake in the trappings of hip - hop culture but do not internalize its negative aspects. Williams describes many white folks talking hip – hop culture ironically.  I think that many black folks do too.  I deal with a lot of people in their twenties. These folks are whites, African Americans and other non – whites. Hip - hop and the at least the superficial trappings of the culture is fairly popular with these many of these young people. Most of the younger folks who I know, be they white, black or members of other groups, like the music and play with a little bit of the culture but are not negatively impacted by it. This is the same as folks who listen to and sometimes play with the hedonistic and anti – social aspects of some rock music culture but who nevertheless lead ethical and responsible lives. Conversely, I know of one young white person, who unfortunately has been drawn into some of the negative aspects of hip - hop culture.  Though personal experiences are not proof, I think my experiences in this case reflect the reality of a large group of people who are not negatively impacted by this culture. I believe that as time goes by, more and more people will embrace this culture ironically much as folks have done so with the negative aspect of rock music culture.  I emphasize that I think that Williams does zero - in on serious and real cultural issues here, he just does not give enough credit to blacks and other people of color who have avoided the worst aspects of this culture. 

I also think that some of Williams criticisms apply to pop culture in general. For instance, he laments the fact that he and his friends knew so much about hip – hop music but knew nothing about other black dominated artforms such as jazz and knew nothing about black history. He later expands this to decry participants of hip – hop culture for their lack of knowledge about and history and culture in general. However, I think that this is an issue faced by many young people steeped in a lot of popular culture, not just those involved in this lifestyle. 

Williams is lively and bold thinker. This book has come under a lot of criticism.  He expresses a lot of opinions on controversial issues here. Thus, despite the fact that I agree with him on the majority of his points, I think that it would be impossible to agree with him on everything.  Either way, I think that anyone interested or invested in these issues would get a lot out of this book. In addition, this is such an interesting memoir filled with fascinating events and people. I have read both of Williams’s books now. Thus, I will post my thoughts on Self Portrait in Black and White soon. 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Insurrecto by Gina Apostol

Insurrecto by Gina Apostol was first published last year and has won multiple awards. Despite a few flaws, I found this to be an excellent book that incorporated many innovations and at times approached brilliance. Apostol touches upon colonialism, different perceptions of reality, the ways in which our personalities are constructed and more. She infuses all this with interesting and complex characters and plot threads. Apostol was born in The Philippines but now lives in America. She infuses a lot of American and The Philippine history and culture into this novel.

The plot of this book is difficult to describe because of its many layers. The story takes place in multiple time frames. Some of the timeframes exist within the book’s reality, other timeframes exist as film scripts that exist as part of the primary plot. The scripts are, in part, based on historical events but are, in part, fictional. The movie scripts also contain doppelganger characters that are kind of like fraternal twins existing between the realities. This all sounds confusing, but reading the book was not as confusing as all of this sounds. However, the threads were sometimes a little difficult to follow and I am glad that I read this book on a Kindle so that I was able to search for character and place names and go back and refresh myself. On one hand, this intertwining of realities often was interesting and innovative and fit into the novel’s theme perfectly. On the other hand, I did think that all this muddled book a little and that it marred some good character and plot development. 

The main plotline takes place in 2018. Two women set out on a trip across the Philippines from Manilla to Samar, in order to conduct research for a film. Chiara Brasi is the filmmaker and Magsalin is a translator and writer. Chiara is the daughter of the deceased art film maker Ludo Brasi. Ludo and Chiara are kind of stand - ins for Francis Ford Coppola and his daughter Sophia Coppola. Years earlier, Ludo made a Vietnam War film in Samar, a large island in The Philippines, called The Unintended. This all parallels Coppola’s Apocalypse Now which was also made in The Philippines. In the world of this novel, Coppola and Apocalypse Now also exist, but Ludo’s The Unintended is known as another, less commercially successful Vietnam War film. 

Magsalin is a woman born in The Philippines but who is now living in America who travels and lives in intellectual and cosmopolitan circles. She is hired by Chiara to assist her in the filmmaking. 

There are two scripts for Chiara’s film, one written by Chiara and one written by Magsalin. One script, or at least part of it, as is told throughout the course of the book, takes place in the 1970s and is about Chiara’s father Ludo, her mother Virginie, and his father’s mistress, a Filipino schoolteacher named Caz. Ludo’s suicide is a major point of the film.

The other script, takes place in 1901. It concerns events that occurred during The Philippine–American War. This conflict occurred after America seized the Philippines from Spain. Philippine rebels, fought the American military for years in an attempt to gain independence. During the conflict, an incident known as the Balangiga massacre occurred. During that time a unit of 48 Americans soldiers were ambushed and killed by villagers in the town of Balangiga in Samar. In the ensuring months the Americans retaliated and burned Philippine villages and killed thousands of innocent Filipinos. There is not a lot of controversy about these events, the United States Army official account acknowledges that atrocities occurred and multiple American officers were and court martialed and found guilty of committing war crimes. The movie script centers on the American unit and the Filipino villagers involved in the initial attack. 

The book is in some ways written in a postmodernist style. That is, cultural references, both highbrow and lowbrow are constantly being thrown at the reader. References to great literature, art, the Bible, etc., abound. The story is also infused with popular culture and history. References and commentary on topics such as Elvis Presley, Mohamed Ali, the war in Afghanistan, etc. abound. All this ties into the book’s themes. The rapid fire throwing all of these elements into the mix reminds of the novels of Thomas Pynchon or Salmon Rushdie. I generally like this style when done well and I thought that it was well done here. 

There is a lot going on in this book. There is a moderate amount of political and historical undertone. Events about the Philippine – American War and the Balangiga massacre are tied throughout the narrative to other American actions especially during the Vietnam War. The underlying message is that the United States has acted like an imperial power throughout history to the detriment of much of the world. This brings up a few issues. First, I think that if a literary work, and I think this book can claim literarily status, becomes too in -your - face political, it detracts from the work. On the other hand, I think that a moderate amount of political and social commentary do not mar a novel. In fact, some great fiction, dating back centuries, has incorporated this kind of underlying theme. I find that while this novel may skirt the line a little bit, Apostol keeps it subtle enough not to distract from her art.

The second issue is the politics themselves, I cannot tackle the entire broad subject of American foreign policy over the past one hundred and twenty years within this post. However, I will mention that I think that American actions on the world stage need to be examined and at times criticized. There have clearly been times, such as during the Philippine - American War, that American actions have been unconscionable and atrocities were committed. Likewise motives for American intervention throughout the world have not always been entirely pure. However, the United States and other democracies have also had an enormously positive impact upon the world. I believe that the positive effects have far outweighed the bad stuff. It is hard to pigeonhole the precise political beliefs that Apostol espouses as this is fiction, but I sense that Apostol’s message is a little too simplistic in reference to these issues. With all that, one gets the sense from this book that Apostol loves and is fascinated by American culture. It brims over in almost every page. In addition, Apostol does not demonize individual Americans, for instance American soldiers at Balangiga are flawed but generally humanized. 

I would describe the primary theme of the book as postmodernist. I should note that I have criticized postmodernism when it is applied to politics, ethics and social issues. The postmodernism here is more about commentary on the human experience. I actually like books that play with these concepts in this way. What I mean by postmodernism is that the novel is full of different and malleable points of view as symbolized by the two film scripts. Also the tendency for Apostol to throw out a plethora of cultural and historical references at every turn supports the postmodern themes. We are reminded on multiple occasions that there are conflicting historical claims about the Balangiga Massacre. Different characters living in different times seem to have doubles.

Chiara’s film is described as,

It will be set in 1901, or maybe 1972, or maybe 2018, in any case not quite her father’s ’ 68 — no one will be the wiser . There will be unapologetic uses of generic types, actors with duplicating roles. Anachronisms, false starts, scarlet clues , a noirish insistence on the pathetic pursuit of human truths will pervade its miserable ( quite thin ) plot , and while the mystery will seem unsolved , to some it will provide the satisfaction of unrelieved despair.

I think that the above quotation encapsulates very well the picture of life that this novel tries to build and is key to understanding the book’s themes. There may be as reality out there, but everyone perceives it differently. The reality is also often bewildering as it consists of so many different things. 

Apostol also seems to be suggesting that people are constructions of the kaleidoscope culture and experiences that they live through,

It is not an uncommon condition, this feeling of being constructed out of some ambient, floating parts of a worldwide emporium

This is a thought - provoking and enjoyable novel. I found almost every page to be interesting. I thought that it was a bit flawed as the characters and plot were often developing and headed toward interesting places but seemed to get sidetracked by the disjointed nature of the story. Nevertheless, I found this to be a satisfying read. It was also fun despite some of its tragic plot points, I would recommend book to anyone who likes modern literature.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Women of the Republic by Linda Kerber

Women of the Republic by Linda Kerber is an examination of the legal and social changes that a certain group of women experienced in The American Revolutionary era. I read this book because I had heard that, along with Revolutionary Mothers by Carol Berkin, this was the best source on women’s roles during The American Revolution. My commentary on Berkin’s book is here. Folks who are familiar with my blog know that The American Revolutionary era is a lifelong interest of mine. This work was first published in 1980. I found that this book was very different from Berkin’s work. I thought that it was less engaging but well researched and informative. 

I noted above that this book only covered a certain group of women because, unlike Revolutionary Mothers, Kerber only covers white women living in Continental, and later independent America. There is nothing here about black, or Native American women.

Kerber first covers the role that these women played in colonial and early American society as well as during the Revolution. Women, before the Revolution, were considered apolitical and were expected to follow their husbands’ lead but stay out of all public debates and discussions. Starting in the years before the Revolution, this began to change. Women began to participate in anti - British boycotts and took part on campaigns to produce goods in America instead of importing them from England. Once the war started some women began to be more  involved in politics. Women also took over the management of property, farms and businesses when their husbands went off to war. 

According to Kerber, before the Revolution, if women engaged in political conversation it was frowned upon. The author details how even political themed letters between Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren were derided and caused a bit of a scandal.

Kerber spends some pages exploring Coverture Laws. These laws viewed married couples as one person. Though interpreted differently in different colonies and states, these laws basically had the effect taking any property that a woman brought into marriage and, with some limitations, gave control of it to the husband. If the wife outlived the husband, control of the property was supposed to revert back to her. Other laws only allowed a wife to inherit about one third of a husband’s property, or what today would be considered joint property, after his death.

Kerber goes into great detail explaining these laws and exploring multiple legal cases that led to their evolution during The Revolutionary Era. She concludes that the situation become less advantageous for women during this period. Though I usually find interest in most things I read, I must admit to finding this part of the book a bit tedious. 

Kerber also explores divorce during this era. As local governments were mostly in the hands of the rebels, local politicians wanted to encourage women who sympathized with the rebellion to divorce their loyalist husbands.  This helped to loosen up divorce laws and customs in some places. 

An important concept that is explored is the idea of The Republican Mother. During the years of the Revolution and afterwards, the idea developed that women can have political opinions and that they should be educated. This was so that they could raise good sons and keep their husbands’ worst impulses in check. Though this represented some progress for women, this idea also perpetuated the concept that men’s and women’s spheres were different and that women’s roles was still restricted to the home. Kerber makes honest arguments, while she points out this lack of progress she also speculates that deeper social change might have actually opened the door to the negative outcomes that occurred during the French Revolution. She writes,

Women could be encouraged to contain their judgements as republicans within their homes and families rather than to bridge the world outside and the world within. In this sense, restricting women’s politicization was one of a series of conservative choices that Americans made in the postwar years as they avoided the full implications of their own revolutionary radicalism. In America, responsibility for maintaining public virtue was channeled into domestic life. By these decisions Americans may well have been spared the agony of the French cycle of more blood and produced a political system more retrogressive than had the American war. Nevertheless, the impact of many of these choices was to inhibit the resolution of matters of particular concern for women. 

Another interesting concept was the debate as to what women should actually learn. There was a particular concern that reading fiction was bad for both sexes but particularly bad for women. Some beloved that fiction, even when it had a moral behind it, led to sloth and debauchery. Many advocated that women should instead read history. Kerber explored various angles to this debate. 

This book is somewhat scholarly and is detailed and theory driven. I would say that those who are very interested in the evolution of women’s rights in both social and legal spheres during this era would be interested in this. The book is nothing like Berkin’s work, which explored very diverse groups of women as well as individual women. 

This book has a fairly narrow range. It digs into a lot of detail within that range. At times, even for a reader who is interested in these subjects, it might get a little dull. Thus, Revolutionary Mothers will be better choice for many readers. With that, this book is educational and sheds a lot of light on the subjects that it covers. It also seems to be well researched. I recommend this to this who are very interested and who wish to go deep into to these subjects.