Category Archives: american literature

What Is the Fourth of July?

2nd July 2015

Teaching American Literature has, in some ways, shown me how deeply patriotic I can be. In years past, I’ve touched on some of the reasons why. There are moments, in teaching my class, that I have to pause because the utter beauty of our nation’s hopes and ideals is so touching. Yet my consistent, analytical look at the important writings of our country also deeply saddens me, as I watch the ways in which previous generations and my own generation use them to their/our own ends.

The reality in our country right now is that many, many people glance briefly at words that we’ve fought over since our country’s inception (see my friend Ryan’s great post at The Signal Watch for a great look) and use them to oppress others and to justify injustice.

This Independence Day, while I will of course still be floating in a pool and drinking various frozen drinks and taking breaks for all-American foods like barbecue and apple pie (I’m only human, and Texas is hot), I’m also conflicted. In recent years, after too many incidents to count, of injustice and hate against our African-American citizens, we take blatant racism and still try to turn it away. We perpetuate violence against this community and then expect them not to react or to react only in ways which we decree acceptable, when, as Anne Braden, activist, said, “The battle is and always has been a battle for the hearts and minds of White people in this country. The fight against racism is our issue. It’s not something that we’re called on to help People of Color with. We need to become involved with it as if our lives depended on it because really, in truth, they do.

On July 5, 1852, a man named Frederick Douglass stepped in front of an audience and spoke these words in his much-anthologized speech, later published in pamphlets as “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July”, and in doing so validated Braden’s idea nearly a century before by asking:

Fellow Citizens – Pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessing, resulting from your independence to us?

and later:

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessing in which you this day rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not me…This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.

and last:

What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

I love this country of mine dearly. I’m proud, for so many reasons, to be an American, but I’m not inured to the racial injustices either. In a year when race-based violence has exploded, when a man can walk into a church and tell men and women he is there to kill them based on their race, when black churches receive threats and then burn to the ground, and we still deny race as an issue, we are ensuring that a vast majority of our population is still excluded from our celebration of liberty. When we value and fight tooth and nail to fly a flag that flew in our nation’s darkest hours instead of mourning for lives lost? We guarantee that we will remain segregated and fearful of one another.

I say all of this, not knowing what the answer is, not knowing how to help. But I say it because it must be acknowledged. Because to not acknowledge it is to be a silent supporter of the institutionalized racism so many of us fail or refuse to see.

Happy Independence Day. My hope is that we can come to love America and its ideals enough to tear away that thin veil and recognize our crimes, to realize that no nation is perfect, that our forefathers were conflicted, imperfect men as well, and that each generation makes a choice to fully embrace the love of freedom our country has come to signify.

As Douglass also points out, “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it.”


Further reading:

  • From 1995’s “America’s Long History of Black Churches Burning” – “It is worth observing that the absence of any organized conspiracy may make the phenomenon of church burning more, rather than less, disturbing. Far easier to abide the idea of a tight-knit group of racist fanatics than to accept the alternative that we live in a time when a substantial number of individuals, unconnected with one another or with organized white supremacist groups, regard burning black churches as a plausible act, worthy of emulation.”
  • From “Why Racists Target Black Churches”…during slavery, these churches provided more than just spiritual solace. They facilitated an explosion of black literacy in the South”
  • From “Why Racists Use Rape to Defend Racist Violence” – “It’s tempting to treat Dylann Storm Roof as a Southern problem, the violent collision of neo-Confederate ideology and a permissive gun culture. The truth, however, is that his fear – of black power and of black sexuality – belongs to America as much as it does the South.”
  • From “Thugs and Terrorists Have Attacked Black Churches for Generations” – “But today, as the nation mourns the victims of Charleston and awaits details about the perpetrator of the attack, black Americans will be most awake to the reality that there are bigots who want to see them dead. What they’re owed by their fellow Americans is vocal solidarity, so that they’re as awake to the depth and breadth of the belief that black lives matter.”
  • From “The Recent, Hateful History of Attacks on Black Churches” – “Churches have long been hubs of organizing and advocacy in the black community, which was one reason they were so often attacked during the civil rights movement. But the violence didn’t end there—attacks and threats against black churches and institutions still take place at a greater frequency than you might think.”
  • From “Black Churches Are Burning Again in America” – “Churches are burning again in the United States, and the symbolism of that is powerful. Even though many instances of arson have happened at white churches, the crime is often association with racial violence: a highly visible attack on a core institution of the black community, often done at night, and often motivated by hate.”

UPDATE: As I was searching for related articles, I see Slate’s James West Davidson had similar thoughts: “The Best Fourth of July Speech in American History”

Review: The Weirdness by Jeremy Bushnell

4th March 2014

pg1*I received this ebook from the publisher Melville House in exchange for an honest review.

Billy Ridgeway is a do-nothing. He works at a Greek deli when he can make it on time. He thinks his girlfriend may have dumped him, but he’s not sure. And the short stories he’s written are pure crap – he’s got a writeup in an NYC lit magazine to prove it. When the Devil shows up in his apartment with good, no, great coffee and offers to publish Billy’s novel if he’ll just do him a tiny favor, Billy isn’t even tempted. Ok, maybe a little. All he has to do is steal the Neko of Infinite Equilibrium, a cat statue, from a powerful warlock.

At first, Billy can’t be bothered. If he can’t even get his girlfriend to return his calls, how could he possibly face a warlock? But soon, whether or not Billy wants to help the Devil isn’t an option as he’s in up to his neck and discovers he’s a hell wolf and that his entire life up to this point has been a lie. As he races across the city, Billy learns a lot about what he’s capable of, and if he lives through this weirdness, maybe he’ll be able to do something after all.

The Weirdness is absolutely, positively one of the most original takes on the nearing middle age, suffering male writer bit. Because frankly, had this been another story about a guy who is too lazy to get off his ass and do something, I’d have hated it. Hell, I may not have even finished it. But Jeremy Bushnell manages to turn this story on its head in what should be the most ridiculous novel you’ve ever read.

Instead, Billy and his really lovely counterparts, specifically his best friend Anil, are people you feel for. They’re doing what they have to in order to make it. Maybe Billy hasn’t been doing his part, but he’s obviously unhappy. He has a job that is fine but isn’t a career. His writing isn’t transcendent. His love life…yeah, it’s not great. In a lot of ways, Billy has just shut down, and he can’t figure out how to restart until the Devil shows up. And ain’t that the way of things? Ok, maybe the Devil doesn’t really show up in order for you or me to get out of our funks, but it takes something pretty out of character or, in this case, out of this world.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

Review: Bossypants by Tina Fey

23rd October 2013

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I am a latecomer in terms of appreciation of the hilarity of Tina Fey. I once thought she really wasn’t all that funny. It took half a dozen episodes of 30 Rock (watched when all my other shows were off season) for me to appreciate it. But then? I couldn’t get over the wisdom of Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemon. I was spouting off Liz Lemonisms way too frequently.

So when I quoted her one too many times to my brother in a text, he asked if I had read Bossypants yet. Which, of course, I hadn’t. I promptly paid much more than I ever do for an ebook ($7.99, if I recall) and began reading. By afternoon, I was finished.

Bossypants is, as many collections of personal essays are, a bit all over the place. The writing isn’t phenomenal. There are moments when it isn’t even that funny, so don’t go in expecting early David Sedaris. That said, Fey’s story of her life prior to her run as Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live and Liz Lemon on 30 Rock is pretty special. It’s more of an insider’s view backstage those two shows than anything else, so if you aren’t familiar with either, then Bossypants may not be for you.

And she does bring the funny:

Q: Is 30 Rock the most racist show on television?

A: No, in my opinion it’s NFL football. Why do they portray all those guys as murderers and rapists?

*****

(By the way, when Oprah Winfrey is suggesting you may have overextended yourself, you need to examine your fucking life.)

*****

We began our breast-feeding journey in the hospital under the tutelage of an encouraging Irish night nurse named Mary. We tried the football hold, the cross-cradle hold, and one I like to call the Bret Michaels, where you kind of lie over the baby and stick your breast in its mouth to wake it up.

*****

Lesson learned? When people say, “You really, really must” do something, it means you don’t really have to. No one ever says, “You really, really must deliver the baby during labor.” When it’s true, it doesn’t need to be said.

*****

I have a suspicion – and hear me out, ’cause this is a rough one – I have a suspicion that the definition of “crazy” in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.

The only person I can think of that has escaped the “crazy” moniker is Betty White, which, obviously, is because people still want to have sex with her.

*****

At times, such as in the last bit of dark humor, Bossypants seems to bemoan the fact that women in television haven’t come all that far, but by virtue of Fey’s prominence (and I would include Amy Poehler here), it’s evident that the strides, though small, are being made. And I plan to review Mindy Kaling’s book tomorrow, a similar book but one that varies in pretty significant ways, i.e. generational differences. [Tip: Everyone I know who has read this has raved about the audio, and as I could hear Tina Fey’s voice as I read, I can imagine it’d be a pretty good listen.]

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

Review: Shake Down the Stars by Renee Swindle

8th August 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the author Renee Swindle in exchange for an honest review.

It’s been five years since Piper Nelson’s daughter died, but she’s coping worse than ever. Her mother and sister are so absorbed in the sister’s celebrity wedding, they don’t have time to notice Piper’s pain. Her ex husband has moved on, and the loss seems to sever her last connection to her daughter, adding to her sorrow.

Her job as a high school teacher suffers as Piper begins drinking more and more to stave off the pain. And like many addicts, she’s hurt too many people by the time she reaches the end of her descent to know where to turn. Help comes in the unlikely form of Selwyn, whom Piper meets at a disastrous engagement party for her sister and her sister’s pro football fiance. Not put off by Piper’s anger and addiction, he instead offers her support and friendship.

She knows she needs to change, but how do you move on from such a loss? How do you shut it away when others are ready to pass over it?

Though Shake Down the Stars could easily have been a depressing or morbid book, Renee Swindle writes a book that feels incredibly realistic and respectful. Addiction is never demonized but written about with understanding and empathy. Swindle also respects that loss looks different to different people and that the reactions to death can range as widely as the people that death affects. But Piper can’t see that in her grief, and the family dynamics and her eventual recognition of them is just as pivotal to her story.

Piper learns to find joy and laughter again through unexpected relationships, including other addicts who walk the same road she does. Yet never does Swindle brush over Piper’s pain, making for a book that can cause laughter and tears sometimes on the same page.

ZZ Packer, author of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere says it best, calling Shake Down the Stars “a rich, savvy exploration of the many kinds of love, loss, and dysfunction that can unearth us or save us, bedevil us or deliver us.”

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

Review: Loteria by Mario Alberto Zambrano

9th July 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the publisher Harper in exchange for an honest review.

Mario Alberto Zambrano opens his novel with a description of lotería, a game similar to bingo. As he says, there “are fifty-four cards and each comes with a riddle, un dicho. There is a traditional set of riddles, but sometimes dealers create their own to trick the players.” When the listeners determine the card the caller describes, they cover it.

As the title of the novel and each chapter is representative of an aspect of the game, it’s relatively easy to link the chapters and the story they tell to the card, yet the “riddle” aspect of the game becomes much more complicated as Luz, the main character, tells her story.

Her sister Estrella is in ICU; her father is in jail, and Luz doesn’t know where her mother is. A ward of the state, she begins her journal with a sketch of la araña – the spider – describing the spiders that crawl up the walls of the room where she is staying, a place away from her family. Though it’s evident that something traumatic has happened (Luz won’t talk to anyone but her journal), Zambrano doesn’t let on, only revealing more of Luz, her family, and her tale as each card is called at the start of a chapter.

My only complaint is that Luz, writing in her journal, doesn’t tell her story in linear fashion. At times, it’s difficult to link when and where a specific event took place, and thus I felt distanced from her story. The big reveal is also confusing in the telling, yet the significance of what is happening and its effect on Luz is all too clear.

Several people on Goodreads complained that the use of Spanish was a stumbling block for the story, but I loved it. This is the story of a young Mexican American. How else could her story be told? She isn’t fluent in the language of her mother and father, but she knows the language of lotería.

Mario Alberto Zambrano’s debut novel is a quick read, and the format dares the reader to read just one more set until the final card is played.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.