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I was pretty sure that I was going to both enjoy and be enlightened by Trevor Noah's Born a Crime from the first few pages, which were fill of witty, pithy, yet accurate and often poignant observations such as these:

"The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all."

"The Zulu went to war with the white man. The Xhosa played chess with the white man. For a long time neither was particularly successful, and each blamed the other for a problem neither had created. Bitterness festered. For decades those feelings were held in check by a common enemy. Then apartheid fell, Mandela walked free, and black South Africa went to war with itself."

"Like indigenous peoples around the world, black South Africans adopted the religion of our colonizers. By “adopt” I mean it was forced on us. The white man was quite stern with the native. 'You need to pray to Jesus,' he said. "Jesus will save you.' To which the native replied, 'Well, we do need to be saved—saved from you, but that’s beside the point. So let’s give this Jesus thing a shot.' "

"For a long time I didn’t understand why so many black people had abandoned their indigenous faith for Christianity. But the more we went to church and the longer I sat in those pews the more I learned about how Christianity works: If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense."

Noah's book is part autobiography, part South African history, and part social and political commentary, wrapped up in just enough wit and comedic structure and timing to make it flow smoothly and swiftly, until all of a sudden you're brought up short with a 'wtf?' feeling as you realise the full meaning of what you've just read.

I've had a lot of respect for Noah's presence on TV as a successor to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. I now also have a lot of respect for him as an author - and as a man who lived through South Africa's troubled post-apartheid times and saw truths so clearly.

His account of his childhood, growing up as a child of mixed race, is lightly told, but horrifying. Under the segregation laws of South Africa, it was illegal for white people to have sex with non-white people; as a child of such a union, Noah was, as the title of the book says, 'born a crime.' His parents were not married - that would have been impossible - nor did they live together. Though his mother lived - quietly, secretly, illegally - in Johannesburg near his father's apartment, Noah could only spend time with his father in private.

"Where most children are proof of their parents’ love, I was the proof of their criminality. The only time I could be with my father was indoors. If we left the house, he’d have to walk across the street from us. My mom and I used to go to Joubert Park all the time. It’s the Central Park of Johannesburg—beautiful gardens, a zoo, a giant chessboard with human-sized pieces that people would play. My mother tells me that once, when I was a toddler, my dad tried to go with us. We were in the park, he was walking a good bit away from us, and I ran after him, screaming, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” People started looking. He panicked and ran away. I thought it was a game and kept chasing him."

But it wasn't just his father who could not acknowledge him publicly. His mother, a dark-skinned Xhosa woman, could not be seen with a 'coloured' - the South African classification for person of mixed race - child without everyone knowing she had committed the crime of sleeping with a white man.

"It was illegal to be mixed (to have a black parent and a white parent), but it was not illegal to be colored (to have two parents who were both colored). So my mom moved me around the world as a colored child. She found a crèche in a colored area where she could leave me while she was at work. There was a colored woman named Queen who lived in our block of flats. When we wanted to go out to the park, my mom would invite her to go with us. Queen would walk next to me and act like she was my mother, and my mother would walk a few steps behind, like she was the maid working for the colored woman. I’ve got dozens of pictures of me walking with this woman who looks like me but who isn’t my mother. And the black woman standing behind us who looks like she’s photobombing the picture, that’s my mom. When we didn’t have a colored woman to walk with us, my mom would risk walking me on her own. She would hold my hand or carry me, but if the police showed up she would have to drop me and pretend I wasn’t hers, like I was a bag of weed."

It was just as much a problem when his mother took him to visit his black relatives in Soweto. A coloured child in a black township was just as much a threat to his family as a coloured child in a white city.

"My gran still tells the story of when I was three years old and, fed up with being a prisoner, I dug a hole under the gate in the driveway, wriggled through, and ran off. Everyone panicked. A search party went out and tracked me down. I had no idea how much danger I was putting everyone in. The family could have been deported, my gran could have been arrested, my mom might have gone to prison, and I probably would have been packed off to a home for colored kids. So I was kept inside."

Noah's memories of his childhood make one thing perfectly clear - that he attributes much of his own character to his mother's independence and choices to live as far as she could outside the legal and social limitations imposed by South African apartheid.

"My mom raised me as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do. When I look back I realize she raised me like a white kid—not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.

We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited. Growing up in Soweto, our dream was to put another room on our house. Maybe have a driveway. Maybe, someday, a cast-iron gate at the end of the driveway. Because that is all we knew. But the highest rung of what’s possible is far beyond the world you can see. My mother showed me what was possible. The thing that always amazed me about her life was that no one showed her. No one chose her. She did it on her own. She found her way through sheer force of will."

Noah completed the book prior to his becoming an American TV host, and the book itself contains very little about his professional life, or how he made the transition from a teenaged boy hustling pirated CDs to get by, to a well-known and admired comedian and TV personality. Perhaps that's for another book.

This one is the narrative of a mixed race child growing up in one of the most oppressive and racist societies in the world, and surviving. And it's well worth reading.

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André M. Carrington's critical assessment of race in science fiction, Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction, looks both at what he calls "the whiteness of science fiction" and "the speculative fiction of Blackness," thus examining "racialized patterns in the production and interpretation of speculative fiction" from two complementary perspectives.

In his Introduction, Carrington identifies himself as a Black man who is both a fan of speculative fiction and an academic, a critic of the genre. As such, his chosen focus in this critical work is:

"... what speculative fiction, in the many ways we encounter it and embody it, has to say about what it means to be Black. It is also about how placing Blackness at the center of discussions about speculative fiction augments our understanding of what the genre might be and what it might do."

Rather than taking a survey approach, Carrington selects specific areas of the broad spectrum of works and activities that make up the culture of speculative fiction, and examines these as representations of 'the whiteness of science fiction' or 'the speculative fiction of Blackness.'

"Speculative fiction is as saturated with race thinking as any other variety of popular culture, and it tends to reproduce conventional understandings of race for reasons I explore in this introduction and throughout the book. By analyzing works that represent the production and reception of speculative fiction, I also demonstrate that race thinking is a salient factor in the way actors on the media landscape employ genre distinctions and reproduce genre conventions in practice. Ultimately, I hope to establish a basis in the interpretation of popular culture for a more expansive understanding of what it means to be Black. I also hope to encourage SF readers and critics to acknowledge that race matters in speculative fiction; whether we realize it or not, our engagement with the genre entails a variety of complex relationships with Blackness."

The first aspect of the sff culture that Carrington presents as indicative of the whiteness of sff is fandom itself, which he views through the lens of fan reaction to the 'career' of Black fan writer Carl Brandon - a creation of several fan/writers, primarily Terry Carr.

"I have used Carl Brandon as a lens through which to view a moment in the development of a community around speculative fiction and the creative use of media, and I have reasserted Brandon’s Blackness as an essential feature in my examination of this moment because the fake fan made his participation in the network of relations among fans notable through his self-identification as a Negro. Although Carl Brandon emerged to inoculate fans against the charge of racial exclusion, the fact that he did not exist and disappeared before another fan identified herself as Black left the presumptive Whiteness of science fiction intact. By understanding the means of producing Brandon’s Blackness, however, we can recognize its continuity with the race thinking in science fiction fandom, rather than treating it as a lacuna. Interpreting the first letter that firmly identifies Carl Brandon’s textual persona with Blackness requires us to invoke a chain of correspondence reaching back to August 1954. When Carr made a splash by identifying Brandon as Black, fans were already in the middle, not at the beginning or the end, of a long dialogue about the meaning of Blackness in their community. This dialogue looks backward to James Fitzgerald [the first known black member of sf fandom] and forward to the continuing work of the Carl Brandon Society."

Carrington also interrogates the whiteness of the idea of space travel, a key element of science fiction, through the singular presence of Nichelle Nichols both as Uhura and as a spokesperson for NASA.

"Because of the ways in which Black women have been marginalized in the production of popular culture, including the relative alienation of Black women from the SF genre’s conventional ways of envisioning race, gender, and sexuality, Nichelle Nichols, I argue, has yet to be recognized for her transformative contributions to the public interrogation of questions at the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and utopian discourse.

Carrington continues his examination of popular sff genre fiction, through a look at the various ways the Marvel Comics character Storm embodies representations of white ideas about Black womanhood. Staying within the graphic narrative genre, he also reflects on the brief career of Milestone Media, a black-owned comics publishing company, and particularly its flagship title, Icon, which he argues "positioned a highly intellectual Black female protagonist, Rocket, in a critical dialogue with comics fandom." In both examples Carrington situates his discussion of Blackness in speculative fiction, as represented by Storm and by the Black characters Rocket and Icon in the Milestone Media comic, in the midst of a genre that remains conspicuous in its whiteness.

Carrington returns to an examination of black representation in the Star Trek universe with his exploration of the Deep Space Nine character Benjamin Sisko. He places particular focus on the time-travel themed episode "Far Beyond the Stars" and on the novelisation of this episode by black writer Steven Barnes.

"The episode recontextualizes the television series, which was enjoying its sixth season at that point, by presenting a story within a story. Casting Avery Brooks’s Blackness in stark relief against the trenchant White supremacy of the mid-twentieth-century United States, the episode would raise troubling questions about the inspirational rhetoric of science fiction—and Star Trek in particular—by situating the dynamics of racial conflict squarely within the history of the genre."

In his final chapter, Carrington returns to fandom, and in particular the transformative activity of writing fan fiction. He selects as his point of examination the online archive Remember Us, which "catalogs representations of people of color in popular media through fan fiction, fan art, and music video, providing a space in which a variety of critical relationships to Blackness appear possible, now and in the future."

Through critical discussion of these specific topics related to speculative fiction in all of its manifestations, Carrington examines both the history - the past and present - of representations of race, and illuminates possible futures for inclusivity. As he concludes in his Coda:

"Much of Speculative Blackness has concerned how the entrenchment of speculative fiction in the norms of popular culture limits the meaning of Blackness in the genre, but in this work I am also constantly looking forward to what Blackness can do, with the aid of speculative fiction, to transform cultural politics."

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Many readers of speculative fiction have a conflicted relationship with H. P. Lovecraft. I'm certainly one of them. There's a power, an allure, to the Cthulhu mythos that's hard to set aside - yet there's also the pervasive racism that makes so many of the specific works that form that mythos so difficult to read.

Victor LaValle's powerful novella The Ballad of Black Tom is both a retelling of Lovecraft's short story "The Horror at Red Hook" and a response to its appalling racism. I'd come across some reviews of LaValle's piece some time ago, and decided to reread Lovecraft's story before reading the novella.

"The Horror at Red Rock" has been called by some one of Lovecraft's most overtly racist works. It is set in a part of Brooklyn that Lovecraft populates with a "hopeless tangle and enigma" of "Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro element," "unclassified slant-eyed folk," and "swarthy, evil-looking strangers." The protagonist is a police detective named Malone, who works the human smuggling beat in Red Hook, investigating "the organised cliques which smuggled ashore certain nameless and unclassified Asian dregs wisely turned back by Ellis Island." In the course of his work, he encounters a reclusive scholar named Suydam who seems to be unaccountably involved with the more corrupt and violent elements of Red Hook society.

In The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle inverts the characterisation of Red Hook, painting it as a vibrant multicultural community that suffers under the structural racism of American society and the callous brutality of the police, whose job it is to keep the people of Red Hook away from white New York.

The protagonist here is a young black man named Charles Thomas Tester, a hustler with a minor musical talent who skirts the edges of the occult world. Raised in poverty and always under the threat of race-based discrimination and assault, he accepts an invitation to play at a party being held by the eccentric and mysterious Suydam - and is introduced into the world of Cthulhu.

The general course of events outlined in Lovecraft's story unfold in similar fashion in LaValle's novella, but from the joint perspectives of Tester and Malone. A tragic act of police violence finally drives Tester to Suydam's side snd he becomes his primary lieutenant, Black Tom.

In LaValle's work, it is the promise of revenge for years of oppression by whites that draws members of the Red Hook community, including Tester, to embrace the worship of Cthulhu, and ultimately leads Tester to choose the end of human civilisation over the continuance of white supremacy. As Black Tom tells Malone at the climax of the story, " I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day."

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Nisi Shawl's novel Everfair is a steampunk alternative history set largely in Central Africa, in the lands known in our history as the Belgian Congo. Its point of divergence from history lies in the decision of the British Fabian Society to purchase land in the Congo from Belgium's King Leopold and, in partnership with African-American missionaries, attempt to establish a sanctuary country - Everfair.

Everfair the novel has a dual purpose (aside from entertainment, of course, which it fulfill quite well). First, to present the attitudes and actions associated with colonialism and imperialism in Africa (including cultural colonisation, shown most clearly in the efforts of the black missionaries, themselves both victims and perpetrators of the colonisation of the mind), and second, to interrogate the ways in which
steampunk as a genre fails to recognise the ways in which it creates nostalgia for the colonial project. Inmy opinion, it manages both of these quite well.

The inhabitants of Everfair the nascent country - and its enemies, the violent armies and rubber harvesters of King Leopold - together form a microcosm of the conditions of colonialism. White and privileged freethinkers from the Fabian Society, Europeans seeking riches or adventure, African-American Christians seeking a home in the land of their lost roots, labourers from Macao and the Indian subcontinent, escaped black slaves from Leopold's rubber plantations, and the indigenous Afrucan peoples to whom the lands making up Everfair actually belong - it falls to these peoples to defeat the Belgians, survive the first world war, and surmount the supremacist assumptions of the white "founders" of Everfair and the African-American Christian colonists (themselves internally colonised by the experiences of abduction and slavery) they partner with.

And there are all the lovely steampunk things - aircanoes, and motorised bicycles and boats, and mechanical prosthetic limbs for all those mutilated by the Belgians, or in the battles of resistance.

I am not, generally speaking, enthralled by steampunk, but the genre worked for me here, possibly because of the context in which it is situated - not privileged Europeans or North Americans off on adventures, but oppressed peoples fighting for their freedom, their culture and their lives.

The novel covers a rather large span of time,and has quite a large cast of significant characters, which necessarily limits some detail in characterisation and plot, but I did not find that the story suffered from this in any way. An engaging read.

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Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country is an episodic novel centred on the experiences, both mundane and supernatural, of a black family - Atticus Turner, his father Montrose Turner and his uncle George Berry - and their immediate circle of friends in mid-50s America. The family is based in Chicago, where George publishes The Safe Negro Traveling Guide, a fictional version of the historical Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual publication that listed businesses that served black travellers - gas stations, restaurants, hotels, private homes that rented rooms.

The novel begins with Atticus, a veteran of the recently concluded Korean War, driving north from Florida to Chicago in response to a strange letter from his estranged father Montrose. While the letter draws them into true Lovecraft country and a dangerous confrontation with supernatural powers, Atticus, Montrose, George and family friend Letitia handle these terrors with aplomb. What poses the greatest risk to them is the racism they encounter wherever they travel - from violent police and sundown counties to garages that refuse to even sell a new tire to a black man stranded on the road.

The Lovecraftian connection is firmly established in this first episode, as Atticus, George and Letitia trace the missing Montrose to a mysterious New England town called Ardham, where the woods are full of shadowy, threatening creatures and the town itself is a feudal fiefdom dominated by the scions of the powerful - and white - Braithwaite family, hereditary leaders of a cult of sorcerers. The connections between the Braithwaites and the Turners, central to this episode, surface again in the later stories.

The further adventures of Atticus and his family and friends in Lovecraft Country are varied, but as in the first narrative, the danger posed by the supernatural and horror elements they encounter pales in comparison to the repeated aggressions perpetrated by the white people around them.

Reading this as a white person, I was deeply struck by how fully Ruff portrays what I imagine the experience of being black in a world that oozes white supremacy and hatred of difference from every pore. From Letitia's experience in 'pioneering' - being the first black person to buy property in a white part of town - to Montrose's memories as a child survivor of the Tulsa riot, the litany of offenses underscores the message of Lovecraft Country, that the greatest horror is not the imaginary creatures that can spring from the mind of an author such as Lovecraft, but the fear and hatred that grows in the hearts of white America, a fear and hatred that Lovecraft also stands as an exemplar of.

Ruff makes the white reader think about the history of race-based contempt, humiliation and violence perpetrated on blacks in America. One chilling moment among many comes during the description of an ancestor's Book of Days - a ledger drawn up after the Civil War and freedom of what her firmer owner owed her. In addition to the cost of her stolen labour, Adah's ledger includes financial penalties assessed for violence suffered.

"For the penalties, Adah consulted her Bible. She charged twenty-seven dollars and twenty-six cents for each whipping, 27:26 being the verse in Matthew’s Gospel where the Savior was flogged. Her price for the most common of the “other” insults, twenty-two dollars and a quarter, was based in Deuteronomy."

I stopped reading to check the verse, knowing ahead of time what I'd find, hoping against hope to be wrong - but of course I wasn't.

As a white reader viewing black experiences through the imagination of a white author, I looked for reviews by black critics, to read what those who knew though lived experience what Ruff, and I, know only through exercise of imagination and empathy. Those I found were on the whole highly positive about the novel, including its portrayal of black experience in a racist society. [1]

I've read several of Ruff's books, and I think this is the best yet among those I've read. It's powerful, and it's compelling reading, and it's a damned good story.


[1] Reviews of Lovecraft Country
Aaron Coats, Chicago Review of Books
https://chireviewofbooks.com/2016/02/11/lovecraft-country-unearths-monsters-both-real-and-imagined/

Alex Brown, Tor.com
http://www.tor.com/2016/02/16/book-reviews-lovecraft-country-by-matt-ruff/

Edward Austin Hall, Seattle Review of Books
http://www.seattlereviewofbooks.com/reviews/caught-after-dark-in-lovecraft-country/

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An interest in eugenics is one of the dirty little secrets that many otherwise progressive figures of the past share with the kind of folks they would never join forces with under other circumstances. Progressive eugenicists talk about improving the species, conservative eugenicists talk about keeping the race (usually the white race) strong and pure, and free of the taint of lesser races, "weak genes" and deviance - notably sexual deviance. Both have used poor science and questionable rhetoric to advance their cause, and relied on such strategies as immigration barriers and forced sterilisation to carry it out. As Nancy Ordover notes in American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism,

"Early eugenics proponents, drawn from the ranks of scientists, politicians, doctors, sexologists, policymakers, reactionaries, and reformers, held that through selective breeding humans could and should direct their own evolution. ... The legislation they drafted, the interventions they backed, the medical regimens they prescribed stemmed from a belief that everything from intellect to sexuality to poverty to crime was attributable to heredity."

Ordover's book is an examination of the arguments and methods of American eugenicists. Writing about the appeal of eugenics in that country, she says,

"The long-lasting appeal of eugenics has rested on its protection of the status quo, on its emphasis on individual and group "failings" over analyses of systemic culprits and on its bedrock insistence on scientific/technological remedies over fundamental social and institutional change. It has thrived in times of mainstream anxiety over genuine or perceived gains of marginalized groups, making it an attractive tool for conservatives. And so decades after litigants and activists, doctors and attorneys proved that African-American, Latino, and Native American women and girls were being singled out for coerced, eugenically informed sterilisation procedures, Norplant began to be forced it on the same communities with the full force of the judiciary and the medical establishment and with the blessing of both conservative politicians and liberal organizations. After generations of queers resisting pathologisation, exactly 25 years after the Stonewall uprising, at the time of increased visibility in the political, social, and cultural realms, The Science of Desire [1] appeared on the scene to cast us as genetically distinct from the rest of humankind. Eugenics is, once again, making a very public ascent."

In the first section of the book, Ordover traces the history, rhetoric and supposed scientific research that was a significant element of race-based eugenics propaganda and legislation. Beginning with early projects intended to keep America free from 'contamination' and 'protected' from the economic pressures of new immigrants, eugenicists sought to prove that Latin American, Asian, eastern and southern European, and North African immigration was a threat to a stable, healthy - and white - population.

"It was Charles Davenport of the American Breeders Association (and later cofounder of the American Eugenics Society) who first suggested ....[using] the Binet test to document the hereditary shortcomings of immigrants to the United States. In 1912 immigrants disembarking at Ellis Island became the first group in the country to whom the IQ tests were administered. ...[this] had a built-in class bias: only those who came steerage were subject to examination. According to his results over 80 percent of all Jewish, Polish, Italian, Hungarian, and Russian immigrants were 'feebleminded defectives'."

The 'research' was undertaken to demonstrate the supposed scientific basis for identifying immigrants, and people of colour, as well as other potential dangers to the idea of a 'superior' primarily Anglo-Saxon nation. As Ordover demonstrates, such supposedly scientific evidence was based on "... stereotyping physical and mental characteristics of outsiders and insisting on recognizable, undeniable, immutable differences between "inferior" and "superior" people. American eugenicists armed with charts, photographs, and even human skulls were there to provide the visual and mathematical support that rendered racism scientifically valid and politically viable."

Eugenicists also used such research to support legislation intended to control 'internal threats' to their ideal nation, such as the poor, the physically and developmentally disabled, the sexual outcasts, African-Americans, prostitutes, alcoholics, addicts, and convicts. Instead of looking at socio-economic reasons for the various inequities they saw, eugenicists sought all their answers in biology, heredity and population statistics. As well, the force of eugenically framed discourses was increasingly aimed at radicals and anarchists, seen primarily as coming from immigrant and other marginalised communities: "These "interlopers," along with American Blacks, were viewed as both contaminated bodies and contaminators of the body politic."

Ordover demonstrates clearly that the current rhetoric aimed at immigrants to America - framing them as intellectually deficient, violent, likely to end up on welfare, a threat to the safety of the state and the jobs of 'real' (that is, white working and middle-class Americans) - is hardly new, nor is the racist construction of American Blacks as lazy, violent, prone to criminal behaviour and lacking in 'white' virtues such as diligence, intelligence, honesty, good decision-making and perseverance. Rather, these stereotypes are the continuation of over a century of eugenicist propaganda.

In the second section of the book, Ordover looks at the ways in which the concept of biological determinism, which has been the basis for eugenicist assaults on the human rights of immigrants and people of colour, has been used both for and against the queer communities in America. She begins by discussing and critiquing research into biological or genetic 'causes' of homosexuality, from hormonal influences on the fetus during pregnancy to differences in brain structures, and noting how this research has been welcomed by segments of the queer community and their allies, as well as those who see 'sexual deviance' as something to be cured.

"The warm reception that greeted these hereditarian hypotheses ... raises two issues: what is it about causation theories that is so appealing to mainstream institutions and heterosexual America?what is it about the research that has so many in the queer community looking to it for deliverance? Mainstream media and its predominantly straight consumers look for a good story; if it holds an unspoken promise of curatives, so much the better. More than that, a focus on what causes queerness eclipses the larger question: who wants to know and why? Significant segments of the gay community, on the other hand, hold that causation theories can be honed into a strategic tool and integrated into a larger legal and political struggle. For many, there may also be personal attachment to biological explanations, a comfort in being able to tell straight family and friends that "we were born that way." The stakes are clearly different but there is a commonality here. Genetic promises have been embraced without interrogation by a community and a larger society eager to accept any quick-fix explanations (and consequent solutions) that modern science had to offer. Whether the hope was for an antidote for homosexuality or homophobia, this embrace typifies the science-as-Savior prism that has created so many determinist enterprises."

As she did in the section of the book dealing with race-focused eugenics, Ordover examines the history of the medicalisation of homosexuality and 'sexual deviance' and the impact of physicians and medical opinions on legislation and mandated treatment of 'deviants.' As it had been with immigrants and American blacks, homosexuality was seen as associated with an inherited tendency to 'degeneracy' and the goal of eugenicists was to eliminate such tendencies from the American gene pool.

"Beginning in the last decades of the 19th century, a flood of state sodomy laws were passed or amended to encompass a greater array of sexual practices. Doctors ... provided a legitimizing presence among lobbyists. There was a certain reciprocity involved as castration and like procedures were transformed from court-mandated penalty to medically endorsed treatment. Physicians saw their diagnoses legally sanctioned and thus their esteem and power consolidated. At the same time, the judicial system was able to mete out corporeal punishment while still appearing to have the best interests of the defendant/patient, the public, and the national gene pool at heart.

One of the most sweeping manifestations of this dynamic was the rash of sterilization statutes enacted by thirty states between 1907 and 1932. In almost every state that legislated sterilization, eugenics boards were convened. Essentially these were medical panels established to grant or deny doctors the right to sterilize anyone with a real or imagined physical or developmental disability. Usually these were prisoners or patients at hospitals or asylums and sometimes they were members of the public at large."

As Ordover notes, at the same time that the idea of sexual deviance as a product of heritable degeneracy was being used to establish court-mandated sterilisation of homosexuals, biological determinism was being adopted by early apologists as a defense of homosexuality.

"Lesbian and gay history is replete with champions who relied on evolutionary or biological arguments to agitate for our civil and human rights. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, for example, pursued this line in the mid 19th century. If homosexuality was recognized as inborn, he reasoned, gays could not be criminally prosecuted. Perhaps choice implied guilt, but the undeniable force of nature should not."

Unfortunately, as Ordover demonstrates, the history of homophobia suggests that focus on physical 'causes' of queerness, whether it be the search for the 'gay gene' or the idea that homosexuality (and by extension, transgender or genderfluid identities) is due to misfiring hormones or congenital abnormalities of the sexual organs, leads to more strategies on how to 'cure' sexual minorities of their 'deviance. Physical and chemical castration, sterilisation, surgical procedures on the brain, hormone 'therapy,' even fetal screening and selected abortion have been recommended, if not always carried out widely.

After examining the history of eugenist discourses and the effect these have had on legislative and other means of 'controlling' the health, purity and safety of the body politic, Ordover turns in the third section of the book to a closer exploration of the allure of the 'technological fix' - the widespread advocation of 'solutions' such as birth control and sterilisation - for eugenicists on both the right and the left. The goals, actions and politics of Margaret Sanger and her associates serve as a casebook study of the ways in which classism and racism influence the policies of the left as well as the right.

"Over the years, Sanger's work and the work of her ideological cohort refashioned eugenics rhetoric into the more palatable language of population control. Early eugenics attestations that society has a vested interest in which children were born of which women solidified in post World War II decades: the continuing investment in the techno fix as remedial to poverty in the United States and abroad, the singling out of entire regions for sterilization campaigns, and the resulting wave of reactionary legislation and welfare policies. Class bias, so central to eugenic policy (and a principal motivator for Sanger) came to the fore. This is not to say that class, in particular reliance on welfare, was a greater determinant than race, but rather that the invocation of economic rationales and the unchallenged vilification of the poor enabled eugenics to go unchecked and unnamed. Class is underscored here in an attempt to counter claims that Sanger and others were not eugenicists because they never publicly uttered racial slurs, and to highlight the vulnerability of low income women who found themselves snagged in various institutional nets (i.e., relief, Medicaid, welfare). An attack on the poor may have seemed more genteel and more viable than an openly racist attack on people of color but ultimately the same women were targeted."

Ordover goes on to document the ways in which poor black, Hispanic and indigenous women, as well as women with disabilities, were targeted by birth control advocates and by both private doctors and state laws which saw sterilisation as a way of reducing the numbers of 'irresponsible' and 'feeble-minded' women bearing children while receiving government assistance. The litany of cases of coerced sterilisation, sterilisation without consent, sterilisation without the knowledge of the victim is chilling, as is the record of forced or uninformed use of potentially dangerous hormonal contraceptives such as Depo-Provera and Norplant and the social and medical pressure in some situations to abort fetuses known to have genetic or other congenital defects. Nor has this latest thrust of eugenicist practice been limited to the United States. As Ordover notes, many foreign aid initiatives and pharmaceutical testing programs have distributed these contraceptives, from Depo-Provera to Quinacrine, to women in developing nations, often without full information on risks, and sometimes without the knowledge or consent of the women.

Ordover has delved deeply into the history of eugenicist theory and its reliance on scientific (or pseudo-scientific) research and technological solutions. In this treatise, she demonstrates the ways in which this continuing assault on the rights and bodies of peoples constructed as not only 'other' but as threats to the social, political, economic and physical health of the nation is manifest in current political, social and legislative action. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia - these are the theories underlying much of the rhetoric from both conservative and liberal camps, and as Ordover definitively shows, eugenics is a significant part of the praxis.

An important book, with much to say about the state of America (and by implication, other nations) today.


[1] The Science of Desire: The search for the gay gene and the biology of behavior, Dean Hamer and Peter Copeland, 1994.

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The subtitle of Margot Lee Shetterly's extensively researched book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, tells the reader exactly what she will find within its covers.

Shetterly is well positioned to tell this story, as the daughter of a black engineer who worked at NASA's Langley Research Center during the 60s and 70s. Her father knew some of the women who feature prominently in the book, her childhood was spent in Hampton, in the same neighbourhoods these women had brought their own families to a generation earlier. In her preface, Shetterly talks about her own memories if her father's work, and pinpoints the enormous importance of telling the stories of these women.

"Building 1236, my father’s daily destination, contained a byzantine complex of government-gray cubicles, perfumed with the grown-up smells of coffee and stale cigarette smoke. His engineering colleagues with their rumpled style and distracted manner seemed like exotic birds in a sanctuary. They gave us kids stacks of discarded 11×14 continuous-form computer paper, printed on one side with cryptic arrays of numbers, the blank side a canvas for crayon masterpieces. Women occupied many of the cubicles; they answered phones and sat in front of typewriters, but they also made hieroglyphic marks on transparent slides and conferred with my father and other men in the office on the stacks of documents that littered their desks. That so many of them were African American, many of them my grandmother’s age, struck me as simply a part of the natural order of things: growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine."

So often, the face of science has been presented as that of a white man. To read the stories of these brilliant black women who persevered through the dual sets of assumptions they faced as mathematicians and engineers in a world where people of colour were associated with low or unskilled work and women with limited opportunities when single and even fewer when married is to understand how important it is to challenge that image.

Shetterly anchors her research into the hundreds of women, black and white, who held mathematical and scientific jobs at Langley on a narrative focused on the lives and careers of a handful of women: Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and others, all of whom worked in the all-female, all-black West Computing Unit at Langley. These first of these women were originally hired to meet the research needs of what was then called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) during World War II, but their role was to continue well into the age of the Moon missions.

While recognising the rare opportunities - and unusual economic security - that the growing airspace industry offered women, Shetterly does not ignore the gender politics involved. While the 'computers' - the women mathematicians who performed all the calculations on which the male scientists and engineers depended on to be able to do their work - were often as well educated and as skilled as the men entering the field of aeronautics, they were still women working in a male field where men were individually valued and encouraged to advance, and women were seen in the perpetual role of anonymous support from which it was hard to emerge.

"Seasoned researchers took the male upstarts under their wings, initiating them into their guild over lunchtime conversations in the cafeteria and in after-hours men-only smokers. The most promising of the acolytes were tapped to assist their managers in the operations of the laboratory’s valuable tunnels and research facilities, apprenticeships that could open the door to high-profile research assignments and eventual promotion to the head of a section, branch, or division. ...

Women, on the other hand, had to wield their intellects like a scythe, hacking away against the stubborn underbrush of low expectations. A woman who worked in the central computing pools was one step removed from the research, and the engineers’ assignments sometimes lacked the context to give the computer much knowledge about the afterlife of the numbers that bedeviled her days. She might spend weeks calculating a pressure distribution without knowing what kind of plane was being tested or whether the analysis that depended on her math had resulted in significant conclusions. The work of most of the women, like that of the Friden, Marchant, or Monroe computing machines they used, was anonymous. Even a woman who had worked closely with an engineer on the content of a research report was rarely rewarded by seeing her name alongside his on the final publication. Why would the computers have the same desire for recognition that they did? many engineers figured. They were women, after all."

After the war, the anticipated downturn in employment at Langley did not take place. While in so many other industries, the return of men from the war pushed women (particularly white, middle-class women who had not worked before the war) out of the jobs they had taken on and back into the home, such was not the case in the aeronautical industry. Driven by the Cold War, research into aeronautics and space flight, the Langley 'computers' had become an integral part of the research process.

"Black or white, east or west, single or married, mothers or childless, women were now a fundamental part of the aeronautical research process. Not a year after the end of the war, the familiar announcements of vacancies at the laboratory, including openings for computers, began to appear in the newsletter again. As the United States downshifted from a flat-out sprint to victory to a more measured pace of economic activity, and as the laboratory began to forget that it had ever operated without the female computers, Dorothy had time to pause and give consideration to what a long-term career as a mathematician might look like. How could she entertain the idea of returning to Farmville and giving up a job she was good at, that she enjoyed, that paid two or three times more than teaching? Working as a research mathematician at Langley was a very, very good black job—and it was also a very, very good female job. The state of the aeronautics industry was strong, and the engineers were just as interested in retaining the services of the women who did the calculations as the aircraft manufacturers had been in keeping the laundry workers who supported their factory workers on the job."

Along with the potential of stability in a well-paid professional field that allowed them to use their education and abilities, however, the Cold War also brought the chill of the "Red Menace" which was increasingly associated with any progressive political movement, including those advocating civil rights and racial equality. The politics of race that turned the NAACP into a suspect organisation were also a part of life at Langley for the black women and men who had found careers there. While the book's narrative line is primarily focused on the women of the West Computing Unit and the part they played over three decades in the advancement of air and space travel, Shetterly relates events in the lives and career experience at Langley of both black women and the few black male engineers to contemporary developments in the civil rights movement, placing their story within the cultural, political and legal shifts of their times.

This approach makes clear the ways in which the story of how these brilliant women mathematicians became central to the successful development of the space program was deeply entwined with international politics, national pride, cultural change and the push to end segregation in the American workplace. In tracing the shift from NACA to NASA, Shetterly's account also follows the changes experienced by the black women mathematicians who had built careers at Langley.

As engineering projects diversified and became more specialised, the women of the West Computing Unit were moved out of the pool and into the various departments and working groups. Once there, the contributions made by some led to advancement from mathematician to the more respected, more influential and more highly paid rank of engineer. But though few of the 'girls from West Computing' reached such rarefied heights, their work was an essential part of the R&D that led to the first Americans in space.

And this is the real importance of Shetterly's book, that it makes prominent the contributions of black women, that it presents them boldly. As Shetterly says in her Epilogue:

"For me, and I believe for many others, the story of the West Computers is so electrifying because it provides evidence of something that we’ve believed to be true, that we want with our entire beings to be true, but that we don’t always know how to prove: that many numbers of black women have participated as protagonists in the epic of America."

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Anyone approaching Robins in the Night by Dajo Jago with the expectations of reading a standard medieval fantasy will quickly find it necessary to revise their expectations. This is not a standard fantasy, and it's not just because the protagonist is a transwoman of colour. (But how wonderful it is to read a novel where the protagonist is a transwoman of colour.)

Robins in the Night is a post-modern, post-colonial fable that takes the Robin Hood mythos as a starting point for an examination of classism, sexism, racism, heterosexism, gender identity and the revolution of the commons. The setting is somewhat ahistorical - castles with dungeons and houses with indoor plumbing - and without strong indications of place - there's a town, a forest, another town that people are born in or visit or pass through, and an island or two which are foreign places that people come from or go to. The style, language and sensibility are very modern. And it is a lot of fun.

There are some awkward passages, some places where the narrative falters, or overreaches, but for the most part, it is a satisfying and often delightful story, told with humour and full of adventure, women with tons of agency, and the romance of two revolutionary women falling in love.

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Invisible 2: Personal Essays about Representation in Science Fiction, edited by Jim C. Hines, is the second collection of essays about the visibility - and invisibility - of people who are not straight, white, cis, nominally Christian, able-bodied, and most likely male in speculative fiction.

I haven't read the first Invisible collection, but I am certainly going looking for it now that I've read the second.

These are essays about never finding someone like yourself in the genre that you love, or only finding yourself rarely, usually as a side-kick or bit player, or maybe a villain, but almost never a real hero. Or finding only caricatures of people like you, stereotypical images that are almost as bad as never seeing yourself at all. And some stories about what it's like to find somebody like you, a fully realised character, a hero.

As Aliette de Bodard writes in her Introduction,

The trouble with stories, of course, is that they don’t exist in a vacuum. They are shaped, too, by the culture in which they were born—and worse than that, by the dominant culture. Stories tell you what to value, and what not to value—they teach you, over and over, that some people get to be heroes and some don’t. That some behaviours like violence are acceptable and heroic; others (like mothers sacrificing themselves to the bone year after year to raise their children) aren’t even worth a mention.

And stories, in the end, shape that dominant culture. Telling the same story that we ourselves have been told, over and over, erases all the others. It tells some people—those outside the dominant cultural paradigm—that they don't deserve to have stories told about them. That people like them never get their own books or their own stories; that they are not worth writing about; which a lesson no-one should have to learn.


These essays remind us of all the people who are all too often invisible in speculative fiction, the people we need to see if we are to have stories that reflect the breadth and depth of the human condition. The people represented - and representing - in this volume include people of colour - not just the generic Latin@, Asian, Black, Indigenous groupings, but Vietnamese and Puerto Rican and Japanese and Cherokee and other members of specific cultures who want to be seen for themselves, not as part of some general non-white conglomerate.

The people writing these essays are queer, and trans, and genderfluid, and asexual, and survivors of abuse rather than victims, and think that they deserve to have their stories told so that others, especially young people growing up without any one who shares their experiences around them, will know they have a right to exist, that they are not alone.

They are Jewish, and pagan, they are immigrants, they are older women, they are disabled and non-neurotypical, they are fat, they are people with life histories and experiences that lie outside the straight cis able-bodied white male paradigm that it so often seems our understanding of humanity is based on.

Some of them are even examples of that paradigm, talking about how they have come to treasure the stories that are not about them. And it's all good reading.

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Nnedi Okorafor's novella Binti is, like all of Okorafor's writing, a many-layered narrative that centres black peoples and black culture in a future that is much richer for it.

Contact and communication between different people is key in much of Okorafor's work. In Binti, she tells the story of a gifted young woman who breaks the traditions of her reclusive people to accept an invitation to study at a university renowned throughout the galaxy. But to reach Oomza Uni she must first navigate the human society of the Khoush, who are one of the dominant human cultures, and then survive an unexpected and tragic encounter with the Meduse, an alien people who are at war with the other known species in the galaxy.

Binti's cultural traditions and personal gift for bringing things into harmony allows her to become the first non-Meduse to communicate with the war-like species and reach an understanding of the reasons behind their aggression.

Backgrounding Binti's story and all the issues of contact interactions between peoples, traditions, cultures, and species are alluring glimpses of a fascinating future where mathematics and metaphysics overlap, and starships are grown from genetically modified shrimp. I find myself hoping that Okorafor revisits this future.

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Jonathan Metzl's The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease is an examination of how institutionalised racism and social constructs of "abnormal behaviour" have influenced the changing psychiatric definitions of certain mental illnesses - specifically schizophrenia and the now out of fashion dementia praecox - and resulted in a situation in which "... African-American ​patients ​were ​'significantly ​more ​likely' ​than ​white ​patients ​to ​receive ​schizophrenia ​diagnoses, ​and ​'significantly ​less ​likely' ​than ​white ​patients ​to ​receive ​diagnoses ​for ​other ​mental ​illnesses ​such ​as ​depression ​or ​bipolar ​disorder."

In noting that black men entering treatment (voluntarily or otherwise) for mental illness are far more likely to receive a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia than any other racial group, Metzl argues that allthough "Everyday ​racism ​seems ​a ​reasonable ​explanation ​for ​these ​findings," the situation is actually more complex. In the preface to his book, Metzl states:
This ​book ​makes ​a ​broader ​claim: ​from ​a ​historical ​perspective, ​race ​impacts ​medical ​communication ​because ​racial ​tensions ​are ​structured ​into ​clinical ​interactions ​long ​before ​doctors ​and ​patients ​enter ​examination ​rooms. ​To ​a ​remarkable ​extent, ​anxieties ​about ​racial ​difference ​shape ​diagnostic ​criteria, ​healthcare ​policies, ​medical ​and ​popular ​attitudes ​about ​mentally ​ill ​persons, ​the ​structures ​of ​treatment ​facilities, ​and, ​ultimately, ​the ​conversations ​that ​take ​place ​there ​within.


Focusing on how the diagnosis of schizophrenia was used to classify people admitted to Ionia State Hospital in Michigan from the 1940s onwards until it closed as a mental institute in the late 1970s, Metzl examines the changing use of this diagnosis. Initially given primarily to nonviolent white criminals and distressed housewives - who were seen as ill but not dangerous - by the 1970s it was predominantly assigned to black men supposedly characterised by "masculinized belligerence."

In his book, Metzl looks at the origins and evolving definitions of schizophrenia in the context of social changes, and particularly racial politics and the civil rights movement in the USA, especially in Detroit which was part of the catchment area of Ionia Hospital. As Metzl notes:
American ​assumptions ​about ​the ​race, ​gender, ​and ​temperament ​of ​schizophrenia ​changed ​beginning ​in ​the ​1960s. ​Many ​leading ​medical ​and ​popular ​sources ​suddenly ​described ​schizophrenia ​as ​an ​illness ​manifested ​not ​by ​docility, ​but ​by ​rage. ​Growing ​numbers ​of ​research ​articles ​from ​leading ​psychiatric ​journals ​asserted ​that ​schizophrenia ​was ​a ​condition ​that ​also ​afflicted ​"Negro ​men," ​and ​that ​black ​forms ​of ​the ​illness ​were ​marked ​by ​volatility ​and ​aggression. ​In ​the ​worst ​cases, ​psychiatric ​authors ​conflated ​the ​schizophrenic ​symptoms ​of ​African-American ​patients ​with ​the ​perceived ​schizophrenia ​the ​civil ​rights ​protests, ​particularly ​those ​organized ​by ​Black ​Power, ​Black ​Panthers, ​Nation ​of ​Islam, ​or ​other ​activist ​groups.


As Metzl further comments in the preface:
As ​but ​one ​example, ​the ​title ​of ​this ​book ​comes ​from ​a ​1968 ​article that ​appeared ​in ​the ​prestigious ​Archives ​of ​General ​Psychiatry, ​in ​which ​psychiatrists ​Walter ​Bromberg ​and ​Frank ​Simon ​described ​schizophrenia ​as ​a ​"protest ​psychosis" ​whereby ​black ​men ​developed ​"hostile ​and ​aggressive ​feelings" ​and ​"delusional ​anti-whiteness" ​
after ​listening ​to ​the ​words ​of ​Malcolm ​X, ​joining ​the ​Black ​Muslims, ​or ​aligning ​with ​groups ​that ​preached ​militant ​resistance ​to ​white ​society. ​According ​to ​the ​authors, ​the ​men ​required ​psychiatric ​treatment ​because ​their ​symptoms ​threatened ​not ​only ​their ​own ​sanity, ​but ​the ​social ​order ​of ​white ​America. ​Bromberg ​and ​Simon ​
argued ​that ​black ​men ​who ​"espoused ​African ​or ​Islamic" ​ideologies, adopted ​"Islamic ​names" ​that ​were ​changed ​in ​such ​a ​way ​so ​as ​to ​deny ​"the ​previous ​Anglicization ​of ​their ​names" ​in ​fact ​demonstrated ​a ​"delusional ​anti-whiteness" ​that ​manifest ​as ​"paranoid ​projections ​of ​the ​Negroes ​to ​the ​Caucasian ​group."


Metzl further quotes Bromberg and Simon on the 'sypmtoms' of this protest psychosis: “antiwhite productions and attitudes. . . . It becomes apparent that the intellectual dissociation represents in part a refusal to accept the syntactical language of standard English. . . . Often the prisoners draw pictures or write material of an Islamic nature, elaborating their ideas in the direction of African ideology with a decided ‘primitive’ accent. . . . The language used may be borrowed from the ancient ‘Veve.’ . . . Bizarre religious ideas are Moslem in character, either directly from Mohammedan practice or improvised.”

Key to Metzel's argument is the fact that "... the ​rhetorics ​of ​health ​and ​illness ​become ​effective ​ways ​of ​policing ​the ​boundaries ​of ​civil ​society, ​and ​of ​keeping ​these ​people ​always ​outside." Marginalised groups have historically been characterised as more likely to be diseased or defective, either physically or mentally, and discontent with society or one's assigned status in it, no matter how merited, as a marker of mental health issues. Metzl lists some of the ways in which this has manifested or been observed with regard to both political dissidents and racialised groups, points particularly pertinent to an examination of the psychiatric labelling of black makes during the 1960s, a period of civil rights activism and black power movements that combined both political protest and a heightened presentation and awareness of racial discontents.
Scholars have long argued that medical and governmental institutions code threats to authority as mental illnesses during moments of political turmoil. Much of the best-known literature on the subject comes from outside the United States. International human rights activists such as Walter Reich have long chronicled the ways in which
Soviet psychiatrists in so-called Psikhushka hospitals diagnosed political dissidents with schizophrenia. Meanwhile, Michel Foucault often cited French hospitals as examples to support his belief that the discourses of the human sciences produce and discipline deviant subjects in the larger project of maintaining particular power hierarchies. Foucault also importantly developed a theory of "state racism," whereby governments use emancipatory discourses of what he called "race struggle" as excuses for the further oppression of
minority groups. Meanwhile, the Martinique-born psychiatrist Frantz Fanon called on his experiences in Algeria to describe a North African syndrome in which political and medical subjugation literally
created psychiatric symptoms in colonized subjects. Fanon's important schema, discussed at length below, focused on the ways in which racist social structures reproduce themselves not only in political or economic institutions, but also in the "damaged" psyches of people it needs to control.


As Metzl notes, however, the history of ascribing specific kinds of mental illness to black patients predates the civil rights movement by a considerable length of time. He notes the early history of the diagnosis of mental illness among blacks in America, which usually worked in support of
... existing beliefs [that] "Negroes" were biologically unfit for freedom. This troubling argument emerged from the work of American surgeon Samuel Cartwright, who wrote in 1851 in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal that the tendency of slaves to run away from their captors was a treatable medical disorder. Cartwright described two types of insanity among slaves. Drapetomania resulted when "the white man attempts to oppose the Deity's will, by trying to make the Negro anything else than 'the submissive knee-bender' (which the Almighty declared he should be) by trying to raise him to a level with himself, or by putting himself on an equality with the Negro." According to Cartwright, such unnatural kindness led to a form of mania whose sole symptom was the propensity of slaves to run away. Similarly, dysaesthesia aethiopis, which is Cartwrights term for the "rascality" and "disrespect for the master's property" that resulted when African Americans did not have whites overseeing their every action. Cartwright theorized that both conditions resulted from biological lesions and he advised treating both with whipping, hard labor, and in extreme cases, amputation of the toes.


Metzl includes in his arguments a brief overview of the development of the understanding of schizophrenia as a mental illness. Originally known as dementia praecox, one school of researchers characterised the disease as "... a biological illness caused by underlying organic lesions or faulty metabolism ... [that] resulted from irreversible biological changes..." Others theorised that dementia praecox "...was not a biological disorder, but was instead a psychical splitting of the basic functions of the personality." This splitting "...was accompanied not by violence, but by symptoms such as indifference, creativity, passion, and even fanaticism." This theory led to the use if the term schizophrenia, from the Greek words for "split" (schizo) and "mind" (phrene).

Metzl notes that the differences in theorising about praecox as opposed to schizophrenia resulted in the condition being interpreted very differently based on the psychiatrist's beliefs concerning its etiology. Those who followed the idea of schizophrenia as an illness of personality instead of biology tended to describe patients in terms that "...remained largely, though by no means entirely, free of connections to violence, invasions, crime, impurity, and other eugenic staples." Patients with schizophrenia were in general not seen as dangers or as threats, but as persons needing nurturing in order to find the "sensitive and tender nature" hidden behind a patient's "cold and unresponsive exterior." Leading clinicians "... advocated teaching patients how to function as adults through activities that substituted 'objective The reality for phantasy' such as occupational therapy, physical exercise, and the encouragement of participation in 'dances, concerts, and other opportunities for social contact.' "

Those who understood schizophrenia to be essentially the same as the organically caused dementia praecox, however, were more likely to see it as a racialised disease:
... in 1913, Arrah Evarts, a psychiatrist from the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C., wrote an article in the Psychoanalytic Review titled "Dementia Praecox in the Colored Race" in which she described dramatic increases in the illness in "colored" patients.

.... Evarts linked the appearance of praecox in these and other patients to the pressures of freedom - pressures for which "Negroes," she argued, were biologically unfit. Speaking of slavery,
Evarts wrote, 'This bondage in reality was a wonderful aid to the colored man. The necessity of mental initiative was never his, and his racial characteristic of imitation carried him far on the road. But after he became a free man, the conditions under which he must continue his progress became infinitely harder. He must now think for himself, and exercise forethought if he and his family are to live at all; two things which has [sic] so far not been demanded and for which there was no racial preparation. It has been said by many observers whose words can scarce be doubted that a crazy Negro was a rare sight before emancipation. However that may be, we know he is by no means rare today.'


However, as the clinical use of the diagnosis of dementia praecox declined and the conceptualisation of schizophrenia as a disease of personality became the prevailing one, this tendency toward a racialised diagnosis declined. As Metzl points out, "Prior ​to ​the ​civil ​rights ​movement, ​mainstream ​American ​medical ​and ​popular ​opinion ​often ​assumed ​that ​patients ​with ​schizophrenia ​were ​largely ​white, ​and ​generally ​harmless ​to ​society."

As the civil rights movement and other events highlighting the unrest among black people in this the U.S. entered the consciousness of the public and the psychiatric profession alike, a shift began to appear in the perceptions of mental illness. Metzl notes that the release of the revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-II) in 1968, on which many symptoms of mental illness were seen as maladaptions to the patient's environment, both reflected and in some ways codified an understanding of schizophrenia as a violent disorder commonly seen among black patients. By the 70s, anti-psychotic drugs marketed for treatment of schizophrenia were often advertised with imagery that suggested angry black men, inner city tensions, or "primitive" thought processes - the latter imagery often suggesting or openly using traditional African art or artefacts.

In examining the language used to discuss research into psychiatric conditions beginning in the 60s, Metzl observes that "... data analysis suggests that authors of research articles in leading psychiatric journals preferentially applied language connoting aggression and hostility to African Americans during the 1960s and 1970s. The spike in such associations raises the specter that the DSM-II codified ways of talking about blackness in addition to talking about mental illness. To be sure, the DSM claimed to seek neutrality. But, in the real world, doctors and researchers used the manual’s charged language to modify, describe, and ultimately diagnose the category of black under the rubric of the category of schizophrenia."

This developing construct of schizophrenia as a disease of blacks led into madness by hostility and delusions triggered by the "antiwhite" ideas of prominent black leaders was not limited to psychiatric circles. Increasingly during the 60s, the media began using the imagery of schizophrenia and psychosis to discuss racial unrest among blacks in America.
For instance, an electronic newspaper archive search for articles with the terms schizophrenia and schizophrenic in combination with terms such as Negro, racial, civil rights, and, by comparison, with Caucasian, feminism, and Equal Rights Amendment, reveals a series of significant numeric trends starting in the late 1950s. As but a few examples, the electronic archives of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune show the terms Negro plus schizophrenia or schizophrenic returned 36 results dated 1930 to 1955 and a staggering 259 results dated 1956 to 1979. A search for Negro plus paranoid or paranoia similarly returned 12 results dated 1930 to 1955 versus 358 results dated 1956 to 1979. Caucasian or white plus schizophrenic or schizophrenia returned no results from 1930 to 1955 and only 1 from 1956 to 1979, and feminism or women’s rights plus schizophrenia or schizophrenic returned no results from 1930 to 1955 and 10 results dated 1956 to 1979.


Metzl goes on to note the way in which this imagery of schizophrenia was used to differentiate between "good" blacks, who did not raise anxiety in mainstream, white, society, and "bad" blacks, who were angry and appeared poised to destroy the social order: "Schizophrenia also provided a framework for dividing civilized blacks from unruly ones, the Martin Luther Kings and Jackie Robinsons who espoused nonviolence from the LeRoi Joneses, Stokely Carmichaels, and Rap Browns who did not."

During this period, the black press, and black leaders and theorists, also adopted the psychiatric imagery of schizophrenia, but for them it was seen in reverse. Rather than categorising the revolutionary black man as violently mentally ill, and his protest, his frustration and his anger as the symptoms of his disease, black writers saw the situation of a black man living in a white supremacist society as the cause of a kind of survival schizophrenia and revolution the healthy road to a cure. "In their pages, schizophrenia also became a rhetorically black disease. But, instead of a condition caused by civil rights, schizophrenia resulted from the conditions that made civil rights necessary. Civil rights did not make people crazy, racism did. Instead of a mark of stigma, schizophrenia functioned as a protest identity and an internalized, projected form of defiance."

It is when Metzl turns his attention to his historical research into the medical files of hundreds of patients at the Ionia State Hospital, originally known as the ​Michigan ​Asylum ​for ​Insane ​Criminals, which operated between 1885 ​and ​1976, that we see the real-life consequences for black, primarily male patients.

In looking at the charts of schizophrenic patients from earlier time periods, prior to the beginnings of the civil rights movement, he found that these patients were not seen as particularly violent. While a minority of patients were described as hostile, suspicious or paranoid, these patients were most frequently described as confused, withdrawn, and cooperative. Further, differences between the symptoms of white and black patients with schizophrenia were for the most part insignificant; black patients were more likely to be suspicious, white patients to be suicidal.

Further, it was the assumption that patients, even those remanded to the Hospital because they were classified as criminally insane, were to be treated with the eventual goal of recovery and release. "During the first half of the twentieth century, the idea that even criminally insane persons might improve with treatment and return to their lives functioned as a viable concept. The goal of institutions such as Ionia was not merely to warehouse people, but to recuperate them."

In examining the medical records of Black men admitted in the 50s and early 60s and diagnosed with various personality disorders, Metzl observed that these diagnoses were often changed to one of schizophrenia in the late 60s and early 70s, even though the other contents of the records made it very clear that there had been no change in their symptoms, no new manifestations of disease. Despite the move toward deinstitutionalisation of the period, which led to the downsizing and eventual closing of many hospitals for the mentally ill, these black men were considered dangerous and were among the few patients kept in custody. Indeed, when Ionia Hospital was finally closed, this same group of black men were transferred to another facility for the dangerously insane. At the same time, white women who had been admitted with diagnoses of schizophrenia were being re-diagnosed with depression and released to the care of their families.

Metzl makes it clear - and quotes extensively from representative case files in so doing - that the black men in treatment at Ionia Hospital were not healthy persons unjustly confined. Rather, he is exploring how the ways in which the assessment of the men's condition, and their prospects for release, were affected by changing ideas about blackness, illness and violence.
This is not to suggest that many of the men did not suffer from debilitating mental anguish—indeed, the men lost lives and dreams and loved ones, and were often deeply in need of treatment and care. But the associations implied by that anguish changed over time. In institutional terms, “Negro symptoms” such as hallucinations, delusions, and violent projections came to mean different things. ... Thus did African American men at Ionia develop schizophrenia, not because of changes in their clinical presentations, but because of changes in the connections between their clinical presentations and larger, national conversations about race, violence, and insanity.


Metzl concludes with a brief exploration of the way in which imprisonment has replaced commitment to care facilities for those who enter the justice system with a mental illness.
Many mental-health professionals feel that something is deeply wrong with a system that incarcerates so many mentally ill persons, or that posits prisons as primary treatment centers. The illnesses themselves too often become life sentences. Symptoms so frequently get worse, and the prison rhetoric of containment precludes improvement, recovery, or reintegration. We are not apologists for crime. Yet, most mental-health providers believe that even nightmare scenarios, in which mental illnesses contribute to criminal acts, demonstrate the importance of treating such illnesses proximally, in the community, rather than distally, after the deed is done.
...

The notion of recuperation fell by the wayside as hospitals became prisons. Sentences grew ever longer, moats deeper, and barbed wire sharper. Empathy gave way to fear, fear to anger, and anger ultimately to indifference. “Everything changed when mental health was taken over by Corrections” was a refrain I heard again and again during oral history interviews with staffers who worked at Ionia during the transition to Riverside. “Corrections told us to stop caring for people,” an elderly gentleman who worked as an attendant told me, “even though in some cases we had these people in the hospital for years. Corrections made clear that our job was just to keep them quiet. No one gave a damn about their needs."


This is a difficult but important book, especially in the current rising wave of racial unrest that may well presage a second wave of revolutionary human rights activism among people of colour. One of the most important take-aways from this book for me has been how psychiatry and white fear interacted to reinforce the caricatured social image of black people as violent savages - which is the exact racist imagery that both triggers and is used to excuse the violence against black bodies and black lives we are seeing all around us. This is one part of how these images gain credence and blot out the truth.

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Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown is a most delightful debut novel. This combination of Regency romance and historical fantasy works very well, and the grounding of the characters and story in the midst of Britain's colonial project, complete with trenchant observations on matters of race, gender and class gives the narrative depth and - odd though it may seem to say - realism.

Zacharias Wythe, the new Royal Sorcerer, is beset with difficulties. The magical power available to Britain's thaumaturges is dwindling, no one has been able to contract with a new familiar in years, the Crown is badgering him to help a foreign ally deal with a rebellious group of - perish the thought - female magicians, the circumstances of his accession to the post have left many of the Society of Unnatural Philosophers suspicious of him, his predecessor is haunting him, he is suffering from a strange malady, and someone is trying to kill him. Oh, and he is the only black freed slave to ever have become a thaumaturge, in a land where the practice of real magic has traditionally been restricted to gentlemen - that is to say, men of family, breeding and wealth, the cream of British society, and unquestionably white.

But there's worse in store for Zacharias, when he learns that the only person who may be able to help him resolve these problems is Prunella Gentleman, a young woman of mixed English and South Asian heritage, who has the potential to become the most powerful sorceress in all England - if only it were permissible to teach women the use of magic.

The interplay between Zacharias and Prunella is delightful, as they move from teacher and student to allies, friends, and more, and as they slowly discover each other's magical and personal secrets.

Deceptively light in tone, this is a story about two outsiders who will come together to save their nation, but in doing so, begin a process that may change it utterly.

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Roxane Gay's collection of essays, Bad Feminist, expertly navigates the intersections between feminism and racism. In many of these essays Gay performs a kind of doubly focused analysis - in exploring issues from the desire for happy endings to the nature of rape culture through cultural elements - books, television and film, pop music, celebrities, art - she also critiques these cultural elements from these intersectional perspectives.

Other essays are personal, indeed intimate narratives about being a black woman, a child of immigrants, in American society, a woman trying to separate the mythology about being a feminist from the reality.

I'm not entirely sure why Gay calls herself a "bad feminist." In one of her more personal essays she says:
At some point, I got it into my head that a feminist was a certain kind of woman. I bought into grossly inaccurate myths about who feminists are—militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, humorless. I bought into these myths even though, intellectually, I know better. I’m not proud of this. I don’t want to buy into these myths anymore. I don’t want to cavalierly disavow feminism like far too many other women have done.
In the same essay, she talks about feminism as a performance she is failing at, harkening back to comments in another essay about Judith Butler's theory of gender performance and extending that to performance of a feminist identity:
I am failing as a woman. I am failing as a feminist. To freely accept the feminist label would not be fair to good feminists. If I am, indeed, a feminist, I am a rather bad one. I am a mess of contradictions. There are many ways in which I am doing feminism wrong, at least according to the way my perceptions of feminism have been warped by being a woman.
She goes on to list ways in which she "fails" at being a feminist - liking the colour pink and rap culture, wanting a partner and a child, not understanding cars, negotiating relationships that don't seem sufficiently independent and egalitarian... And all I can think is, where did we, the generation of feminists that went before her, go wrong that she has this doubt about her feminism.

She adds:
Maybe I’m a bad feminist, but I am deeply committed to the issues important to the feminist movement. I have strong opinions about misogyny, institutional sexism that consistently places women at a disadvantage, the inequity in pay, the cult of beauty and thinness, the repeated attacks on reproductive freedom, violence against women, and on and on. I am as committed to fighting fiercely for equality as I am committed to disrupting the notion that there is an essential feminism.
And this us where I find myself saying to her, Girl, this is what makes you a feminist, and a good one. We are all human, and making certain choices in one's private life has nothing to do with fighting for a society in which all people are free to make any of those same choices without gendered baggage and fear of performing one's role wrongly - in which liking pink, or understanding cars, or wanting a family, and feeling like being taken care of, is entirely a matter of personal taste and interest and desire, and not a marker of maleness or femaleness.

Because in what she writes, Gay is a very good feminist indeed, and her insights into our society and culture are very much worth reading.

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Earlier this month, I learned of a free giveaway offer for Chesya Burke's new novel, Strange Crimes of Little Africa, which will be coming out from Rothco Press on December 1st. I was lucky enough to be one of those who received a no-strings-attached electronic ARC, although in the interests of full disclosure, the publishers did ask after the fact if I would be willing to post a review. Since I do that for almost all the books I read, that's no problem.

Strange Crimes of Little Africa is set in 1926, in Harlem, in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance and the flowering of jazz. The protagonist is Jaz Idewell, a young black woman studying anthropology at Barnard College. Jaz is bright, sure of herself, and proud of her position in Harlem society as the daughter of the first black cop in New York, a man that her neighbours look up to and respect. Inspired by her father's profession, she has an interest in criminology, and even fancies that she might become not just a lady cop, but a detective.

She has a good life. Her best friend is fellow Barnard student Zora Neale Hurston (yes, that Zora Neale Hurston) and she has loose connections to other members of the Harlem Renaissance. She's connected, happy, and even the white professors and cops in her life seem to like her.

Then it all begins to unravel when she finds herself witness to the discovery of a body long-hidden, and realises that the dead man is her uncle, missing for 15 years. In her desire to solve the mystery of what happened, and clear the name of her cousin, arrested for the murder, Jaz, with Zora at her side, will explore the dangerous corners of Harlem life and discover hard truths about herself, her family, and the society she lives in. This is not just a historical murder mystery, this is also the nuanced and poignant portrayal of a young woman forced to suddenly grow up and see the world as it is, not as she wants it to be.

Burke has talked about the research she did to make the setting as historically accurate as possible. By making Zora Neale Hurston, who was indeed studying anthropology at Barnard in 1926, and well-known black numbers boss "Madame" Stephanie St. Clair and her enforcer "Bumpy" Johnson, characters in the novel, Burke both enhances the realism and gives us a rich perspective on urban black life in the 1920s in America.

I want to talk a bit about how reading this book affected me as a white woman. As I've mentioned above, Jaz Idewell is intelligent, courageous, caring, a bit inclined to jump to conclusions and charge right into situations, and more than a bit naive. She's flawed - which makes her human - but she's interesting and admirable, which makes her a great character, and one that I found very easy to identify with. But the world that Jaz lives in is a world full of both casually personal and crushingly systemic racism and sexism, and to the best of my knowledge, Burke doesn't sugarcoat it.

So as a white reader - or at least, this white reader -proceeds through the book, identifying with Jaz, and getting a second hand look at the treatment Jaz receives as a black woman, everything from the daily microaggressions to the huge and heart-breaking events of intentional cruelty, there's a buildup of resentment, frustration and rage.

This is something that I've experienced before, this fierce and honest generosity on the part of an author that allows me to see, at a remove but still from the inside, a form of oppression that's not something I experience myself. I've seen it in the work of Walter Mosley, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Thomas King, Leslie Feinberg, and others. And I do believe that Burke intended this for her white audience, and I hope others will embrace this as I have tried to, as a gift of sharing experience and a path to understanding.

Strange Crimes in Little Africa works on many levels, as a mystery, as a rite of passage narrative, as an introduction to a vibrant place and time in American history, and as a meditation on what it was - and still is - like to be a black woman in America. And it's clear that Burke has at least one sequel in mind.

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Lawrence Hill's latest book, Blood: The Stuff of Life, is a meditation on the cultural and personal meanings of blood. An essential part of our anatomy, it is perhaps the only internal aspect of our physical beings that almost all of us, at some time or another, will see outside of its natural place. And it has come to mean so many things in addition to simply the red fluid that is so much a part of what keeps us alive.
It’s hard to imagine a single person in a school, restaurant, theatre, hockey arena, hospital room, or bookstore who does not have a set of personal stories about blood. Maybe it was the blood of a distant ancestor, persecuted because his or her blood was deemed to be impure. Maybe it was a grandfather who fell under the blade of a farm instrument and bled to death in the fields. Maybe it was an aunt who donated plasma weekly for decades, or a sister who won international attention for designing a more effective way to kill cancerous white blood cells before they multiplied madly and killed the patient. Maybe something happened to you in the blood lab, or in the operating room, and lodged so deeply in your mind that you have passed the story along to every single family member. Blood keeps you alive, for sure. Yet, the very blood in your veins and arteries can suddenly betray you. One day you feel healthy and have just hiked up a mountain with the person you most love in the world, and the next day what you thought was a routine blood test tells you that you have prostate cancer and had better decide, pronto, if you’re going to opt for surgery or radiation, or tempt the gods by doing nothing at all. Blood is the lubricant of our bodies and the endlessly circulating river supplying oxygen and nutrients to our cells. But it is far more than a sign of your physical health, or an omen of your mortality. It has the potential to reveal your most hidden secrets: How is your cholesterol level? How much alcohol have you consumed? Have you been snorting cocaine? Are there any other residual traces that might scare off an employer, or lead a life insurance company to deny your application? What has been the average amount of sugar in your blood over the past ninety days? Did you cheat in that Olympic marathon race? Are you the father of that child? Blood won’t tell all. But it can tell enough to get you in a whole lot of trouble.
Hill's book is exhaustive in its examination of matters of blood, from traditions of blood sacrifice to the gods to blood donation policies to blood as a marker of race. But while the range of topics mentioned is vast, one might wish for a fuller examination of them. In being encyclopedic, Hill has sacrificed depth of analysis. For example, in one section devoted to discussing blood as a symbol of honour and sacrifice, Hill covers Aztec religious sacrifices, Japanese seppuku, and honour killings of women in just a few pages, providing the literary equivalent of sound bytes on each, but little background or individual context.

It's an idiosyncratic book, organised as much by Hill's musings about blood and his life experiences, as it is by generally accepted themes associated with blood. I enjoyed much of it, though there were times that I wished Hill had spent more time on a topic, and other times when I thought he went into too much detail for something that seemed to me to be a relatively tangential aspect. But it's also a very personal book, and in many cases the amount of space given to an issue seems at least in part determined by the strength of its meaning in his own life.

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Franz Kafka once wrote: "I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us."

Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book, Between the World and Me, is such a book. It is framed as a message to his son about his own experiences, thoughts and perceptions of race and racism in America. A message written at a time when the experience of race and racism is front and centre in American culture, as it was for James Baldwin when he wrote, as part of The Fire Next Time, "My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation." An attempt to explain how the past became the present and what that may mean to the future.

But where there was hope mixed in with the history and the horror in Baldwin's message, Coates does not see through to or articulate a better future when he considers what it is his son is seeing today.
I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of a road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.
What Between the World and Me really is, at least in the eyes of a white woman who is not the audience Coates has foremost in his mind, is a hammer aimed at the cold stone heart of racism in North America, a howl of rage against the inequities of centuries of abuse, another tear in the flood of salt soul water that has poured from the black bodies beaten, raped, tortured, shot, hanged, denied, defamed, derided, devalued, disappeared.
Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. “Slavery” is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, hold her mother a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved. She can hope for more. She can imagine some future for her grandchildren. But when she dies, the world—which is really the only world she can ever know—ends. For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation. It is the never-ending night. And the length of that night is most of our history. Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains—whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.


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In Black London: Life before Emancipation, Gretchen Garzina looks at the history of black people in England, a history that - despite the common belief of many - stretches back for centuries. In her Introduction, Grezina sets out her intention to document the black presence in England which, as stated in a quotation from scholar Peter Freyer, 'goes back some 2,000 years and has been continuous since the beginning of the sixteenth century or earlier.’ Grezina goes on to identify the scope of the sources she draws on:
While nearly five centuries have passed since the beginning of that continuous presence, a vivid trail of diaries, memoirs, public records and pictures remains. The satirical prints sold by seventeenth-, eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century booksellers still appear in shop windows on the King’s Road and in Bloomsbury; the dozens of novels containing black characters from the same period are still in many libraries. My task in this book is to reconstruct London, and indeed the entire country, by altering our vision.
Beginning with the presence of black entertainers and servants in the courts of Queen Elizabeth, and the slave trade which she supported - although she also expressed concern at the number of black people entering England, slave or free, who threatened the livelihood of white Britons - there have been black people living and working in Britain. What Gerzina achieves here is to paint a detailed picture of their lives, of the range of black experiences, from honoured courtiers to enslaved workers.
... once the lens through which we view the eighteenth century is refocused, the London of Johnson, Reynolds, Hogarth and Pope—that elegant, feisty, intellectual and earthy place of neo-classicism and city chaos—becomes occupied by a parallel world of Africans and their descendants working and living alongside the English. They answer their doors, run their errands, carry their purchases, wear their livery, appear in their lawcourts, play their music, drink in their taverns, write in their newspapers, appear in their novels, poems and plays, sit for their portraits, appear in their caricatures and marry their servants. They also have private lives and baptize their own children, attend schools, bury their dead. They are everywhere in the pictures we have all seen and the pages we have turned. They were as familiar a sight to Shakespeare as they were to Garrick, and almost as familiar to both as they are to Londoners today.
Grezina also explores the legal cases touching on the issue of the legitimacy of slavery in Britain, illustrating the slow evolution in law of abolitionist ideas. She spends considerable time on the 1772 Somerset v. Stewart case which, despite its narrow applicability - resolving only the question of whether one man, James Somerset, was to be considered slave or free under British law - became a significant precedent and influenced the politics of slavery far beyond the effect specified by the judge, William Murray, Lord Mansfield (who was the great-uncle and guardian of Dido Elizabeth Belle [2])
All over Britain and America, slaves, abolitionists, lawyers and judges cited the Somerset case as ending slavery in Britain, a precedent which many saw as applying to America as well: slaves who crossed into free states with their masters, even temporarily, tested the legality of slavery. Despite Mansfield’s many pains to reassert the deliberate narrowness of his decision, he seemed powerless to stem the tide of misinterpretation, demonstrating ‘a legal world where things are not what they seem, a world of deceptive appearances and unforeseen consequences’.... Despite the decision, slaves were still sold and sent out of the country for years afterward, often quite openly.
As unrest grew in the American colonies, British colonial governors began to offer escaped slaves and freedom in return for enrolling in the British armies. These freedmen fought for the British side and after the Revolution, many - though not all - were evacuated, along with other British Loyalists. Ironically, many of these free blacks sailed alongside white Loyalists departing for other British colonies with their slaves. In all, approximately 14,000 free blacks were transported to Nova Scotia, Jamaica, St Lucia, Nassau and England. Unfortunately, the British Empire was not prepared for such an influx of free black displaced British citizens.
Up until 1783 Britain’s black population consisted mainly of servants and former servants, musicians and seamen. Suddenly, with the end of the war with America, England felt itself ‘overwhelmed’ by an influx of black soldiers who had served the loyalist cause and who crossed the Atlantic for their promised freedom and compensation. Refugees from slavery shuttled between the West Indies, America, Canada, Europe and Africa looking for freedom, homes and work in a western world still financially dependent upon slavery and the slave trade. There was, it seemed, no safe harbour, no one to trust, no way to escape the effects of the African diaspora and 250 years of the triangular trade.
British response to the increase of the black population was, ultimately, to try to get rid of it. Grezina details the disastrous history of the scene to resettle as many blacks as possible from Britain to Sierra Leone, noting that "From beginning to end, even with the most altruistic and charitable of motives, England’s involvement with the Sierra Leone colony had involved intrigue, greed and poor planning." After suffering years of mismanagement, chaos, and neglect, the situation in the colony finally began to improve with the arrival of a second group of black settlers from Nova Scotia.

Ironically, once the government plan to send blacks from Britain to Sierra Leone was embarked upon, the momentum of the abolitionist movement in Britain began to build up speed. In the last section of her book, Grezina examines the key events marking the movement's progress, ending in the adoption on March 25, 1807, of a bill stating that as of 1 January 1808 the slave trade was to be ‘utterly abolished, prohibited and declared to be unlawful’.

Grezina's work is well- and widely-researched, highly readable, and full of detail that brings to life both the experience of black people in the heart of England and the struggle for freedom.


[1] Peter Fryer, Black People in the British Empire: An Introduction
[2] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dido_Elizabeth_Belle

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Samuel Delany's memoir, The Motion of Light in Water: East Village Sex and Science Fiction Writing 1960-1965, is as much an exploration of memory and the processes of representation of both memory and thought as it is traditional (or rather, non-traditional) memoir. As Jo Walton says in her review,
The first time I read The Motion of Light in Water, Delany had been one of my favourite writers for at least ten years, but in that time I had known almost nothing about him. I remember going “Wow” a lot the first time through. I was expecting an autobiography that covered 1960-1965 to talk about how he wrote the spectacular early novels, and it does, and wow. But also wow, he’s black, wow, he’s gay, wow, he’s dyslexic and most of all, wow, in writing an autobiography he’s examining the entire concept of what it’s possible to remember and retell. This isn’t a memoir like Pohl’s The Way the Future Was which is essentially a charming retelling of fascinating anecdotes. This is a memoir that questions the very possibility of memoir, a memoir that makes you feel as if you’ve been turned upside-down and the contents of your brain and your pockets have all fallen out and been rearranged in different places. It questions the concept of memory and the way we remember and rearrange and reassess, and the way we make our own lives into stories. [1]
Delany begins by talking about his father's death - an event which falls near the beginning of the chronological period covered by the memoir. It's clearly significant moment for him - but as soon as he has penned the story, he speaks of the unreliability of his memory of it, of how in a later set of biographical notes prepared for researchers writing about his work, the factual details he includes about this event are incorrect, even to the age he remembers he was and the year in which his father died.

Having made this initial point about the unreliable narrator - a theme he refers back to and riffs upon throughout the work - Delany proceeds with his story, which is that of selected incidents in the life of a young gay (although not yet identifying as such despite an awareness of homosexual desire since early adolescence) black (but just light enough to pass sometimes as white) middle-class man growing up in New York who wanted to be a scientist but became a writer, who married young because of a pregnancy from his first heterosexual experience with a gifted young poet, Marilyn Hacker (who miscarried shortly after their marriage).

Delany is frank in discussing all aspects of his life - emotional, intellectual, creative, sexual. He and Marilyn had an open marriage, in which both had other relationships with men and women, sometimes sharing lovers, and for a period of time living in a triad with a young working class man. Their friendship and shared intellectual delight in literature was ultimately not sufficient to make their marriage work for them, and the memoir ends with Delany, having turned in the manuscript of his classic novel Babel-17, leaving Marilyn in New York as he heads off to spend seven months in Europe.

There is so much packed into this narrative - not just the key elements of Delany's life and his development as one of the great writers of his time, but also social history, sociological observation, meditations on race, gender, intimacy, commitment and representation... It's a rich and valuable work.

True to his argument that memory is fluid and personal, Delany intersperses his recollections with selections from Marilyn's poems written at the time, thus declining to privilege either his memories or his chosen mode of expressing them. As he notes at one point, after a section of the memoir in which he attempts to record every detail he remembers,
But no simple, sensory narrative can master what it purports—whether it be a hitchhiking trip to Texas or the memories that remain from such a trip twenty-five years later. That age-old philosophical chestnut, the Problem of Representation (in its twin forms, the Problem of Verification and the Problem of Exhaustiveness) makes mastery as such a non-problem, with no need of haute théorie. Theodore Sturgeon’s fine insight is perhaps germane here: the best writing does not reproduce—or represent—the writer’s experience at all. Rather it creates an experience that is entirely the reader’s, forged and fashioned wholly from her or his knowledge, of her or his memories, by her or his ideology and sensibility, and demonstrably different for each—but which (according to the writer’s skill) is merely as meaningful (though not necessarily meaningful in the same way) as the writer’s, merely as vivid.
As Constant Reader is surely aware, Samuel Delany is one of the writers I have the highest regard for, and whose works I consider to have had a significant influence on my own development. Reading his thoughts about his life at the time he was writing the early works that influenced me the most was a fascinating experience. I'm thinking that once I finish my Hugo reading, I need to revisit those books.

[1] http://www.tor.com/2010/01/07/the-whole-notion-of-autobiography-samuel-delanys-lemgthe-motion-of-light-in-waterlemg/

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In "Let's Play White," a collection of dark fantasy and horror short fiction, Chesya Burke "weaves African and African-American historical legend and standard horror themes into stories that range from gritty subway gore fests to a sympathetic take on zombies.[1]" The stories explore not only issues of race, but also of power, need, loss, and all the other darker elements of human existence to create fiction that is more than simply macabre. These stories grab the reader and demand that she think about where the horror comes from, and why. As the blurb on the publisher's website notes,
White brings with it dreams of respect, of wealth, of simply being treated as a human being. It's the one thing Walter will never be. But what if he could play white, the way so many others seem to do? Would it bring him privilege or simply deny the pain? The title story in this collection [Walter and the Three-Legged King] asks those questions, and then moves on to challenge notions of race, privilege, personal choice, and even life and death with equal vigor.
The stories that spoke to me most strongly in this collection were:

"Purse," in which a human tragedy reveals itself in the course of a subway ride;

"I Make People Do Bad Things," based on the life of Harlem gang leader Stephanie "Queenie" St. Clair, which postulates a chilling source for her power;

"The Unremembered," in which a dying girl's transformation and power come from a forgotten past;

"Chocolate Park," a story of life and death in ghettoised urban America, of drug dealing and prostitution, spousal and child abuse, rape and murder, of some who get out and others who stay behind to wreak a terrible revenge;

"The Room Where Ben Disappeared," in which a man returns home to face a memory of childhood; and

"The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason," in which a woman with special gifts pays a terrible price to pass her knowledge and calling on to two young girls.



[1] http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-9370099-9-1#path/978-1-9370099-9-1
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Talking about her debut novel, Midnight in the Dragon Cafe, Judy Bates Fong recalls a cross-Canada road trup she took while young.
During that long ago car trip I was inspired by the immensity of this country, its beauty and varied landscape. Yet there was one constant that made an impression on me then and stays with me today. Almost without fail, every small town we drove through had a local Chinese restaurant, and I knew, much like my family, the people who ran these restaurants would be separated from the community by language and culture, that their lives would be lonely, especially the older generation, and that work and home were melded into one, unchanging and monotonous.
Having gone on more than a few such road trips myself, I can see in my mind's eye the ubiquitous small-town Chinese restaurants Bates refers to, with their unvarying menu of standard North American greasy spoon cuisine and Westernised Chinese dishes. In the late 1950s - when this novel is set - the odds were that the owners and their families would be the only non-white immigrants in the town, isolated despite coming in constant contact with most of the people in the communities where they lived and worked.

In Reading Midnight at the Dragon Cafe, by Judy Fong Bates, I was struck by the simplicity of a narrative that nonetheless manages to say so much, and in such a nuanced fashion, about a complex situation. The book is told through the eyes of six-year-old Chou Su-Jen, who with her mother Lai-Jing has come to Canada to be reunited with Hing-Win, Lai-Jing's second husband and Su-Jen's father. Chou Hing-Win, much older than his wife, has lived in Canada since before WWII, having returned to China only once, when he met and married Lai-Jing. With his best friend Doon-Yat Lim, he owns the Dragon Cafe in the small town of Irvine, Ontario; the son of his first marriage, Lee-Kung, lives in Owen Sound where he works in a Chinese restaurant.

As the novel unfolds, Su-Jen, now known as Annie because students must have "Canadian" names, is increasingly caught between the two worlds - her isolated and insular family, and the wider community of Irvine, which welcomes her on the one hand while reminding her of her difference on the other. Meanwhile, tensions with her family grow as her mother, isolated and unhappy, makes a choice that could shatter Su-Jen's world.
The quintessential Canadian immigrant experience, Midnight at the Dragon Café delicately traces the life of particular Chinese girl and her family in 1960's small town Ontario, but it also paints the broader picture of the difficulties faced by all newcomers, from casual racism to struggles with language acquisition and the balance between accepting new culture and not forgetting one's own heritage.(http://www.umanitoba.ca/outreach/cm/vol12/no15/midnightatthedragoncafe.html)
Bates' style is understated, but seductive. I read the book in one long session, unable to put it away until the story had run its course and the resolution known. Highly recommended.

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