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Some time ago, I read in André Carrington's Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction a critical analysis of Steven Barnes' novelisation of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Far Beyond the Stars." In that episode, Avery Brooks and the other members of the cast appear as Americans living in the mid-20th century. Brooks is Benny Russell, a writer for a science fiction pulp magazine; the other actors play the roles of his colleagues at the magazine, and his acquaintances. The episode deals openly with racial issues, including race within the world of science fiction - the unlikeliness of a person like Benny Russell being seen as a writer of sf, the impossibility of him selling a story in which he imagines a black commander of a starbase in a distant future.

Carrington's description of Barnes' reworking of the episode intrigued me, and I made a note to myself to obtain a copy of the book to read.

It's an interesting piece of multiple recursion - a black science fiction writer retelling the story of an episode of a science fiction show featuring a black starbase commander - an episode in which the actor portraying that commander is also playing the role of a black science fiction writer telling the story of a black starbase commander. And so it had to be, for who but a black science fiction writer could give the character of Benny Russell the bone deep experiences of being multiply othered that a black man in America who is also writer of science fiction must live through?

Barnes' text gives Benny the depth, intelligence and passion that is inherent in Avery Brooks' creation of the live character, and a past that informs his resistance to the 'acceptable' roles and behaviours for black men in the 1950s. There's a flashback in the novel, to Benny's youth. It's 1939, and he and a few other kids from the Harlem youth centre he hangs out at have gone on a field trip to the World's Fair. The theme for that exposition was "the world of tomorrow" and they are exploring the exhibits in the General Motors Futurama building. Benny is excited by much of what he sees, but it's excitement with a bitter core: "Never in his life had he experienced anything like that, and only one thing could conceivably spoil the experience for him: Every last one of the thousands of little human beings shopping, working, playing, worshipping and living in the cities of the future had been white."

This, of course, presages the central moment of the script. Benny Russell, having written the story of Benjamin Sisko, star base commander, black man in a future where black men do exist, where humans of all races and aliens can live together, where the daily humiliations experienced by men of colour are truly a thing of the past, has his vision rejected because his publisher can't print a story where a black man is a captain. No one will buy it, no one will believe it.

It was a powerful episode, and Barnes has transformed it into a powerful novel.

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Adilifu Nama, in Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film, explores and interrogated (as he notes in his Introduction) "... the intersection of black representation and science fiction (sf) cinema." Acknowledging that actual representation of black people in sf film is extremely limited (even more so in 2008, when the book was published), he adds:

"... in spite of the overt omission of black representation and racial issues in sf cinema, I have found that both are present in numerous sf films. Albeit implicit—as structured absence, repressed or symbolic—blackness and race are often present in sf films as narrative subtext or implicit allegorical subject. Most important, for this book, is the cultural politics of race that such representations suggest not only in sf cinema but alongside the sociohis- torical place that blackness has occupied in American society. As a result, the sf film genre is not merely an imaginative medium primarily focused on the future. Sf film is also a powerful lens by which to observe the collective racial desires, constructs, fantasies, and fears circulating throughout American society."

In discussing the ways in which blackness is both openly represented and covertly coded in science fiction film, Nama acknowledges that he is examining the genre in unaccustomed ways:

"Too often the sf film genre is regarded as addressing only signature divisions in the genre: humans versus machines, old versus new, individual versus society, and nature versus the artificial. In this book, however, I place black racial formation at the center of these common dichotomies. As a result, a more complex and provocative picture emerges of how sf cinema, in imagining new worlds and addressing a broad range of social topics, has confronted and retreated from the color line, one of the most troubling and turbulent social issues present in American society."

Nama organises his analyses into six general topics. In the book's first chapter, "Structured Absence and Token Presence," he looks at the meanings inherent in the absence of black (and other racialised) characters in sf films, the implications of imagined futures in which only white people (and often only white Americans) survive, and the way blackness is coded through the use of symbolic characteristics and animals or animal-like others. While noting a number of films which do incorporate black characters - many of which, in the earlier years of sf film, were produced during the brief flourishing of 'blaxploitation' films which presented and validated black experience - Nama shows how these 'token' black characters often embody white concerns about racial issues. Examining films produced in more recent years, Nama looks at the emergence of the 'safe' black hero - in many instances portrayed by a single actor, Will Smith - as a reassuring figure for white audiences.

In the second chapter, "Bad Blood: Fear of Racial Contamination," Nama "examines the theme of racial contamination in sf cinema and, by extension, America’s fixation with racial boundary maintenance." Fear of racial 'contamination,' and the history of eugenicist responses to this fear, can be seen both in coded implication and overt symbolism in a number of science fiction themes and tropes - mutants, zombies, androids, shape-shifting 'things' - that, when associated, as they frequently are, with dystopian and post-apocalyptic settings, underline the belief that 'blood mixing' is the first step to the end of civilisation.

The third chapter, "The Black Body: Figures of Distortion," begins with the observation that the black body has long been depicted in a distorted or exaggerated fashion in American media. Nama goes on to discuss how "... the black body is often depicted in sf film not merely in ways that connect it with a sense of the grotesque or a source and site of phantasmagoric spectacle but also as a cultural and political metaphor for racial difference." Nama also notes the ways in which the male black body is associated with violent phallic and sexual imagery, suggestive of the construction of black men as sexually aggressive and threatening.

In the fourth chapter, "Humans Unite!: Race, Class and Postindustrial Aliens," Nama explores various unifying interests - class notably among them - that appear to override interracial strife or threats. In a number of science fiction films, the evil corporation becomes the threat which brings together black and white, while in others, the threat of an even greater Other - the invading or infiltrating alien - stand in for loss of jobs and disempowerment in a postindustrial economy and "... make racial strife obsolete." Ironically, while downplaying black/white racial tensions, many of these films symbolically depict fear of Latin@ immigrants 'invading' the shrinking blue-collar labour market.

In "White Narratives, Black Allegories," Nama begins his discussion by noting that science fiction film is a genre that, while superficially recapitulating many of the tropes of the white-supremacist, colonialist 'Western' genre, it is notably more open to resistant and subversive readings. In expanding on this, he "examines the allegorical import of sf film not only in breaching and buttressing the ideological constructs of America’s racial hierarchy but also as sources of subversive pleasure, meaning, and play that often contest the “preferred” meaning..." The chapter discusses a number of films that in Nama's analysis are "...open to racial readings that engage the legacy of American slavery, the racial injustice of the American legal system, black crime, police brutality, black liberation, and “race” riots, as well as racial pro ling."

In the final chapter, "Subverting the Genre: The Mothership Connection," Nama "... shifts focus from Hollywood representations of science fiction blackness to those independent and extrafilmic productions that stand not only outside the mainstream apparatus of cinematic production but in some cases outside the cultural conventions of mainstream notions of blackness." In particular, he examines films which consciously engage with race and the black community. Nama also explores the relatively new movement of Afrofuturism which includes not only film, but "... art, independent black comic books, black music, and even hip-hop videos [which] have functioned as alternative sites where futuristic fantasyscapes populated by black people can find expression." In considering the importance of the Afrofuturism movement in black-created and black-centred cultural productions, Nama asks, as his closing remarks, "... sf film is an important symbol of the social progress of a society still struggling to come to terms with the legacy of American racism. If we cannot look toward the future to imagine new possibilities and solutions for a history of race relations marred with fear, violence, institu- tional discrimination, and deep-seated ambivalence, then where else?"

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An Internet acquaintance posted a link to an online course on Critical Race Theory offered by Adrienne Keene at Brown University, and while I'm not in a position to formally enroll in, or even audit, a course, I thought that it might be both interesting and useful to read as many of the assigned books and articles as I could access.

One of the core texts is Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic (foreword by Angela Harris), which I was able to download via a link in the course syllabus.

In their introduction, Delgado and Stefancic say: "The critical race theory (CRT) movement is a collection of activists and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power. The movement considers many of the same issues that conventional civil rights and ethnic studies discourses take up, but places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, context, group- and self-interest, and even feelings and the unconscious. Unlike traditional civil rights, which embraces incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law."

They go on to provide a brief history of the Critical Race Theory (CRT) movement and to identify the fore principles that most CRT scholars and activists would agree are the foundational ideas of CRT:

"First, that racism is ordinary, not aberrational—“normal science,” the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country. Second, most would agree that our system of white-over-color ascen- dancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material. ...

A third theme of critical race theory, the “social construction” thesis, holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient."

Other crucial concepts in CRT are differential racialization - the recognition that different minority groups are defined, treated and represented in different ways at different times by the dominant culture in response to its changing needs and interests - and intersectionality - a concept developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, which holds that "No person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity."

Finally, CRT argues that people of colour offer unique perspectives and knowledge on issues with a racial component: "... the voice-of-color thesis holds that because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, Indian, Asian, and Latino/a writers and thinkers may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know."

The concepts outlined in the text are not new to anyone who has been at all engaged in anti-racism action or discourse in recent years, but I found that there was value in seeing these basic tenets organised in a logical fashion, and seeing how they flowed from and built upon each other to create a way of seeing race in North American society. As an activist who began thinking and reading about these matters in the late 60s, and who has tried to keep current with the many changes and refinements, advances and extensions of theory over the decades, a primer in modern race theory is also an excellent source for absorbing not just new theory, but new terminology, and a resource for scholarship in more specific areas of the field of study.

I'm very glad that I happened upon this text, and decided to read it. And I'm looking forward to further readings from the course syllabus (which can be found here: https://blogs.brown.edu/amst-2220j-s01-2017-fall/syllabus/).

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Michelle Alexander's book on the carceral state, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is rightfully on most lists of essential books to read for an understanding of race in America. It is a masterful indictment of the ways in which the American justice and penal systems continue the job of the former "Jim Crow" laws, of keeping black Americans in the role of second-class citizens, with limited rights and reduced access to everything from jobs to participation in the political system. As Alexander notes in her Introduction,

"The stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history. And while the size of the system alone might suggest that it would touch the lives of most Americans, the primary targets of its control can be defined largely by race."

She goes on to say that " ...despite the unprecedented levels of incarceration in the African American community, the civil rights community is oddly quiet. One in three young African American men is currently under the control of the criminal justice system—in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole—yet mass incarceration tends to be categorized as a criminal justice issue as opposed to a racial justice or civil rights issue (or crisis)."

In The New Jim Crow, Alexander demonstrates with overwhelming evidence that mass incarceration is indeed a racial justice issue, and one that should he at the forefront of the social justice agenda.

"This book argues that mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow and that all those who care about social justice should fully commit themselves to dismantling this new racial caste system. Mass incarceration—not attacks on affirmative action or lax civil rights enforcement—is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. The popular narrative that emphasizes the death of slavery and Jim Crow and celebrates the nation’s “triumph over race” with the election of Barack Obama, is dangerously misguided. The colorblind public consensus that prevails in America today—i.e., the widespread belief that race no longer matters—has blinded us to the realities of race in our society and facilitated the emergence of a new caste system."

Alexander begins her argument with a discussion of past 'racial caste systems' - slavery and the Jim Crow - and how the same results are created again and again by changing social structures and institutions: "... there is a certain pattern to the births and deaths of racial caste in America. Time and again, the most ardent proponents of racial hierarchy have succeeded in creating new caste systems by triggering a collapse of resistance across the political spectrum. This feat has been achieved largely by appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower-class whites, a group of people who are understandably eager to ensure that they never find themselves trapped at the bottom of the American totem pole. This pattern, dating back to slavery, has birthed yet another racial caste system in the United States: mass incarceration."

The essence of Alexander's argument is demonstrated through detailed historical research. She shows clearly how, almost from the moment of emancipation following the civil war, unjust laws and prisons that are little more than enforced eork camps have been used to perform the same social functions that slavery did, to deny human rights, civil rights, and the rights of citizenship to black Americans, and to coerce their labour to support the economy to the benefit of white Americans. Of the Reconstruction Era, she writes that "... tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested during this period, many of them hit with court costs and fines, which had to be worked off in order to secure their release. With no means to pay off their “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, farms, plantations, and dozens of corporations throughout the South. Death rates were shockingly high, for the private contractors had no interest in the health and well-being of their laborers, unlike the earlier slave-owners who needed their slaves, at a minimum, to be healthy enough to survive hard labor."

The Jim Crow era - the name is most likely derived from a popular minstrel show character - stretched from the Reconstruction to the post-WWII period, when changes began to appear, sparked by the nascent civil rights movement, the growing presences in politics of blacks in the North, and a desire to actualise the American ideals of freedom and equality which were made much of during the war. Of the Jim Crow era itself, Alexander notes that "By the turn of the twentieth century, every state in the South had laws on the books that disenfranchised blacks and discriminated against them in virtually every sphere of life, lending sanction to a racial ostracism that extended to schools, churches, housing, jobs, restrooms, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, orphanages, prisons, funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries. Politicians competed with each other by proposing and passing ever more stringent, oppressive, and downright ridiculous legislation (such as laws specifically prohibiting blacks and whites from playing chess together). The public symbols and constant reminders of black subjugation were supported by whites across the political spectrum, though the plight of poor whites remained largely unchanged."

But even as Jim Crow laws were challenged and civil rights were - at least formally - gained for American blacks, the development of a 'law and order' focus that would ultimately lead to today's carceral state had begun. In federal and state legislatures, the strongest supporters of law and order platforms were the same politicians who opposed civil rights legislation. Initially, race-based arguments were openly used by the 'law and order' proponents - they pointed to lower crime rates in the south where segregation remained the unwritten law of the land and referred to civil rights protestors as criminals.

Later, the racism in the law and order platform because implicit, with the concept of a 'culture of poverty' which led to crime standing in for a direct association between being black and being more prone to criminality. This 'colourblind' language became the norm among conservative politicians by the time that Reagan sought office:

"In his campaign for the presidency, Reagan mastered the “excision of the language of race from conservative public discourse” and thus built on the success of earlier conservatives who developed a strategy of exploiting racial hostility or resentment for political gain without making explicit reference to race. Condemning “welfare queens” and criminal “predators,” he rode into office with the strong support of disaffected whites—poor and working-class whites who felt betrayed by the Democratic Party’s embrace of the civil rights agenda. As one political insider explained, Reagan’s appeal derived primarily from the ideological fervor of the right wing of the Republican Party and “the emotional distress of those who fear or resent the Negro, and who expect Reagan somehow to keep him ‘in his place’ or at least echo their own anger and frustration.” To great effect, Reagan echoed white frustration in race-neutral terms through implicit racial appeals. His “colorblind” rhetoric on crime, welfare, taxes, and states’ rights was clearly understood by white (and black) voters as having a racial dimension, though claims to that effect were impossible to prove. The absence of explicitly racist rhetoric afforded the racial nature of his coded appeals a certain plausible deniability. For example, when Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign at the annual Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi—the town where three civil rights activists were murdered in 1964—he assured the crowd “I believe in states’ rights,” and promised to restore to states and local governments the power that properly belonged to them. His critics promptly alleged that he was signaling a racial message to his audience, suggesting allegiance with those who resisted desegregation, but Reagan firmly denied it, forcing liberals into a position that would soon become familiar—arguing that something is racist but finding it impossible to prove in the absence of explicitly racist language."

With the introduction of the "war on drugs" the pieces were finally in place for a massive increase in law and order funding to provide more police and more prisons. Signalling its true goals with clarity, the federal budget for law enforcement grew in the wake of the war on drugs while spending on drug prevention, education and treatment programs was cut. At the same time, urban black men - most of whom had traditionally worked in blue collar jobs requiring minimal education - were facing an employment crisis due largely to globalisation and the shift from an industrial to a service based economy. Poverty, unemployment, the introduction of crack cocaine into urban centres, increased policing, welfare crackdowns and a 'tough on crime' policy among bith conservatives and liberals set the stage for mass incarceration and disenfranchisement of black Americans.

"The law and order perspective, first introduced during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement by rabid segregationists, had become nearly hegemonic two decades later. By the mid-1990s, no serious alternatives to the War on Drugs and “get tough” movement were being entertained in mainstream political discourse. Once again, in response to a major disruption in the prevailing racial order—this time the civil rights gains of the 1960s—a new system of racialized social control was created by exploiting the vulnerabilities and racial resentments of poor and working-class whites. More than 2 million people found themselves behind bars at the turn of the twenty-first century, and millions more were relegated to the margins of mainstream society, banished to a political and social space not unlike Jim Crow, where discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education was perfectly legal, and where they could be denied the right to vote. The system functioned relatively automatically, and the prevailing system of racial meanings, identities, and ideologies already seemed natural. Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black or Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate. The New Jim Crow was born."

Alexander examines in depth the ways in which the 'war on drugs' has been used as a justification for massive investment in policing and prisons, changes in the execution of laws which make arrest and conviction easier, and incentives from grants to military equipment to asset seizures which motivate police departments to focus their resources on drug-related crime. Starting with the legal processes of warrants, search and seizure of evidence, she follows the trail through to incarceration and disenfranchisement, and the denial of access to employment, housing, education, professional certification and other essentials of living to released felons, showing the coded racism of anti-drug and anti-crime propaganda, legislation and police action, and demonstrating the ways in which the system operates to disproportionately target black communities.

In the final section of the book, Alexander addresses the massive challenge posed by any attempt to end this prison-centred system of racial caste control. The end of the carceral state requires first the end of the War on Drugs and the ideas that black communities are the primary centre of drug activity, that black men are the primary actors in the drug trade. The first principle of change, then requires an "understanding that any movement to end mass incarceration must deal with mass incarceration as a racial caste system, not as a system of crime control." In order to achieve this understanding, Americans must be willing to give up the false ideal of 'colourblindness' and look at - and have a national conversation on - the realities of race.

In considering the factors that have worked against the development of a clear consciousness of racial inequity, Alexander makes an interesting argument for the end of affirmative action:

"Racial justice advocates should consider, with a degree of candor that has not yet been evident, whether affirmative action—as it has been framed and defended during the past thirty years—has functioned more like a racial bribe than a tool of racial justice. One might wonder, what does affirmative action have to do with mass incarceration? Well, perhaps the two are linked more than we realize. We should ask ourselves whether efforts to achieve “cosmetic” racial diversity—that is, reform efforts that make institutions look good on the surface without the needed structural changes—have actually helped to facilitate the emergence of mass incarceration and interfered with the development of a more compassionate race consciousness."

She goes on to itemise the specific reasons behind this proposition: "... (a) it has helped to render a new caste system largely invisible; (b) it has helped to perpetuate the myth that anyone can make it if they try; (c) it has encouraged the embrace of a “trickle down theory of racial justice”; (d) it has greatly facilitated the divide-and-conquer tactics that gave rise to mass incarceration; and (e) it has inspired such polarization and media attention that the general public now (wrongly) assumes that affirmative action is the main battlefront in U.S. race relations." Alexander makes a strong argument that, by facilitating a small number of success stories that showcase 'black exceptionalism,' affirmative action actually supports the continuation of the carceral state by seeming to say that 'if these black individuals can succeed, that means the failure if most to do so is rooted in personal choices and decisions, not systemic racism.'

Her closing thoughts on the path to an end to the carceral state and the beginning of a society based on social justice for all look back to the shift that Martin Luther King Jr. was moving toward when his life and evolution as a leader for social change was brutally ended. As he said in introducing the idea of the Poor People's Campaign, "I think it is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights…[W]hen we see that there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power, then we see that for the last twelve years we have been in a reform movement…That after Selma and the Voting Rights Bill, we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution…In short, we have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society."

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Keeanga-Yamahtta ​Taylor, African American scholar, socialist and academic - she is assistant professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University - offers a profoundly incisive and extensively researched study of US politics American racism and Black resistance in recent decades in her book From ​#BlackLivesMatter ​to ​Black ​Liberation.

Taylor's viewpoint is grounded in both socialist and anti-racist theory - and her analysis looks at both economic and cultural forces. Taylor's focus here is on the era from the civil rights movement to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the similarities and differences between the two movements, and ultimately on "the potential for a much broader anticapitalist movement that looks to transform not only the police but the entire United States." However, she begins her analysis with an examination of America's history as a racist state, from the earliest foundation of a slave-based economy to the exclusion of Black Americans from the benefits of the New Deal. In particular, Taylor points to the effects that the cultural myth of "American exceptionalism" has had, particularly in the Cold War period, in suppressing any consideration of institutional and systemic injustice in American society, and the subsequent evolution of the idea of the "culture of poverty" as the reason for the existence of economic and social inequity in the supposedly freest and most economically mobile country in the world.

"The government and its proponents in the financial world were making a global claim that the United States was good to its Black population, and at the same time they were promoting capitalism and private enterprise as the highest expressions of freedom. American boosters sustained the fiction of the “culture of poverty” as the pretext for the persisting inequality between Blacks and the rest of the country. In some ways, this was even more important as the United States continued its quest to project itself as an economic and political empire. Cold War liberalism was a political framework that viewed American racial problems as existing outside of or unrelated to its political economy and, more importantly, as problems that could be fixed within the system itself by changing the laws and creating 'equal opportunity.' "

Taylor notes the beginnings of a wider understanding of racial inequity as a systemic issue - and one with material as well as cultural elements -during the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, the extension of the welfare state under Johnson, and most significantly, in the multiple Black Liberation movements, and particularly The Black Panthers - that followed in the latter half of the 1960s.

"Hundreds of thousands of Black Americans drew even more radical conclusions about the nature of Black oppression in the United States as they were drawn directly into the radicalizing movement; hundreds of thousands more sympathized with the rebellions. The struggle broke through the isolation and confinement of life in segregated Black ghettos and upended the prevailing explanation that Blacks were responsible for the conditions in their neighborhoods. Mass struggle led to a political understanding of poverty in Black communities across the country. Black media captured stories of injustice as well as the various struggles to organize against it, feeding this process and knitting together a common Black view of Black oppression while simultaneously providing an alternative understanding for white people. A Harris poll taken in the summer of 1967, after major riots in Detroit and Newark, found 40 percent of whites believed that “the way Negroes have been treated in the slums and ghettos of big cities” and “the failure of white society to keep its promises to Negroes” were the leading causes of the rebellion. Many, including Martin Luther King Jr., began to connect Black oppression to a broader critique of capitalism."

Unfortunately, as Taylor demonstrates, this early materialist critique of the philosophies and methods of institutionalised racism faded in the 1970s as more conservative, 'personal responsibility' narratives take the central place in the debate on both racism and poverty, and the doctrine of 'colourblindness' emerged as a means of appearing non-racist while continuing to engage in administrative and economic practices that were inherently unjust to people of colour.

"Nixon’s turn to focusing on crime fit snugly with his broader use of colorblindness to champion his domestic policies. There was no need to invoke race in this campaign for law and order, but the consequences of the policies could not have been clearer. Crime was committed by bad people who made bad choices—it was not the product of an unequal social order that left Blacks and Puerto Ricans, in particular, isolated in urban enclaves with little access to good jobs, housing, or schools in a worsening economy. Instead, inequality left poor and working-class people of color to their own devices to advance in a society that had made next to no provisions for them to do so through legal or normative means. These kinds of constrained “choices” were made in white enclaves as well, but those were less surveilled and less likely to be criminalized by the police and the criminal justice system as a whole."

As the political climate in America became increasingly conservative in the years following Nixon - even among Democrats, but alarmingly so among Republicans - the twin narratives of colourblindness and the 'culture of poverty' became fixed as the foundations of public policy. Even among the middle class Blacks who increasingly gained access to positions of political and economic power, these narratives went unchallenged, while social and economic conditions worsened for poor blacks (and other people of colour). By the time that conditions were ripe for the emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, as Taylor notes in comparing the situation in 2014 immediately prior to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson to that preceding the emergence if the civil rights movement, "The main difference is that today, when poor or working-class Black people experience hardship, that hardship is likely being overseen by an African American in some position of authority. The development of the Black political establishment has not been a benign process. Many of these officials use their perches to articulate the worst stereotypes of Blacks in order to shift blame away from their own incompetence."

Taylor sees the betrayal of black communities by black politicians and elites as the inevitable outgrowth of a switch from grassroots resistance and critique of the political and economic power structure structures to a strategy based on electoral politics - one which, due to the nature of the political process in America left black politicians financially beholden to corporate money and conservative voting bloc brokers.

After examining political viewpoints surrounding the oppression of Black Americans, Taylor turns to an examination of racism and violence toward Blacks in criminal justice institutions.

At the turn of the twentieth century, African Americans began their long transition from living largely in rural areas to living predominantly in urban ones. In that time, there have been many changes in Black life, politics, and culture, but the threat and reality of police surveillance, scrutiny, violence, and even murder has remained remarkably consistent. The daily harm caused by the mere presence of police in Black communities has been a consistent feature of Black urban history and, increasingly, Black suburban history. Police brutality has been a consistent badge of inferiority and second-class citizenship. When the police enforce the law inconsistently and become the agents of lawlessness and disorder, it serves as a tangible reminder of the incompleteness of formal equality. You cannot truly be free when the police are able to set upon you at will, for no particular reason at all. It is a constant reminder of the space between freedom and “unfreedom,” where the contested citizenship of African Americans is held."

She opens with a discussion of laws restricting black movement, employment and home rental/ownership after the Civil War, laws whose violation was punished by enforced labour on municipal projects - thus beginning the carceral-based slavery system that has replaced the plantation-based slavery system.

"The desperate need for labor seemed insatiable; it turned all Black people into potential suspects and justified surveillance and scrutiny. Convict leasing was lucrative for employers compared to slavery, since it involved lower overhead expenses. As one observer put it, “Before the war we owned the Negroes. If a man had a good nigger, he could afford to take care of him; if he was sick get a doctor. He might even put gold plugs in his teeth. But these convicts: we don’t own ’em. One dies, get another.” The police were the linchpin to this new arrangement."

Having set the scene, as it were, by delineating the history of the conditions - institutional racism and its consequences for the average black person, police brutality, the narrative of a 'culture of poverty' and the co-opting of the black elite - which could, given the necessary spark, bring about a new Black liberation movement, Taylor takes a close look at the Obama regime and its influence on perceptions of racism. She recalls the initial optimism of blacks and progressive whites at the election of a black man to the office of President:

"The excitement about Obama turned into postelection euphoria. That was certainly the feeling in Chicago on election night, when a cross-section of the city converged in Grant Park to hear the country’s first Black president-elect address the nation. It was a rare, almost strange scene to see a multiracial crowd gathered in Chicago, one of the most segregated cities in the United States. That was the power of Obama’s calls for hope and change. On the eve of President Obama’s inauguration, 69 percent of Black respondents told CNN pollsters that Martin Luther King’s vision had been 'fulfilled.' In early 2011, asked whether they expected their children’s standard of living to be better or worse than their own, 60 percent of Blacks chose “better,” compared with only 36 percent of whites. This was not just blind hope: it was the expectation that things would, in fact, be better. One researcher described the broader context: 'Certainly, the Obama presidency has fueled euphoria in black circles. But even before Obama came on the scene, optimism was building—most notably among a new generation of black achievers who refused to believe they would be stymied by the bigotry that bedeviled their parents. Obama’s election was, in effect, the final revelation—the long awaited sign that a new American age had arrived.' "Now we have a sense of future,' said Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson. 'All of a sudden you have a stake. That stake is extremely important. If you have a stake, now there’s risk—you realize the consequences of compromising an unknowable future.' Almost 75 percent of African Americans in the South said that Obama would help America rid itself of racial prejudice. Forbes ran an enthusiastic editorial opinion in December 2008 titled 'Racism in America Is Over.' "

Disillusionment with Obama's reticence on racial issues and acceptance of the 'culture of poverty narrative among Blacks helped to build a loose coalition between social justice activists and the economic justice activists of the fledgling Occupy Wall Street movement.

"...Black Occupy activists organized “Occupy the Hood,” whose goal was to raise the profile of the Occupy movement in communities of color across the country and widen the range of people involved. Some “Occupy the Hood” organizers had also been involved in organizing against “stop-and-frisk.” Thus, not only did Occupy popularize economic and class inequality in the United States by demonstrating against corporate greed, fraud, and corruption throughout the finance industry, it also helped to make connections between those issues and racism. The public discussion over economic inequality rendered incoherent both Democratic and Republican politicians’ insistence on locating Black poverty in Black culture. While it obviously did not bury the arguments for culture and “personal responsibility,” Occupy helped to create the space for alternative explanations within mainstream politics, including seeing Black poverty and inequality as products of the system. The vicious attack and crackdown on the unarmed and peaceful Occupy encampments over the winter and into 2012 also provided a lesson about policing in the United States: the police were servants of the political establishment and the ruling elite. Not only were they racist, they were also shock troops for the status quo and bodyguards for the 1 percent."

Taylor pinpoints the killing of Trayvon Martin as the turning point that led to the coalescence of the BlackLivesMatter movement. Despite protests, demonstrations and attempts by Black and anti-racist activists to challenge the narrative, Martin was characterised as a dangerous criminal and his killer, George Zimmerman, as a victim.

"Out of despair over the verdict, community organizer Alicia Garza posted a simple hashtag on Facebook: “#blacklivesmatter.” It was a powerful rejoinder that spoke directly to the dehumanization and criminalization that made Martin seem suspicious in the first place and allowed the police to make no effort to find out to whom this boy belonged. It was a response to the oppression, inequality, and discrimination that devalue Black life every day. It was everything, in three simple words. Garza would go on, with fellow activists Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, to transform the slogan into an organization with the same name: #BlackLivesMatter. In a widely read essay on the meaning of the slogan and the hopes for their new organization, Garza described #BlackLivesMatter as 'an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.' "

While the death of Martin ad the acquittal of his killer marked the beginning of the BlackLivesMatter movement, Taylor identifies the crucial moment when that ignited mass resistance in the killing of Michael Brown:

"For reasons that may never be clear, Brown’s death was a breaking point for the African Americans of Ferguson—but also for hundreds of thousands of Black people across the United States. Perhaps it was the inhumanity of the police leaving Brown’s body to fester in the hot summer sun for four and a half hours after killing him, keeping his parents away at gunpoint and with dogs. “We was treated like we wasn’t parents, you know?” Mike Brown Sr., said. “That’s what I didn’t understand. They sicced dogs on us. They wouldn’t let us identify his body. They pulled guns on us.” Maybe it was the military hardware the police brandished when protests against Brown’s death arose. With tanks and machine guns and a never-ending supply of tear gas, rubber bullets, and swinging batons, the Ferguson police department declared war on Black residents and anyone who stood in solidarity with them."

As she recounts the growing response to the deaths of Brown and other black boys and men at the hands of police across the country, Taylor draws clear distinctions between the positions of the black 'older statesmen' such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson who sought to defuse tensions and re-establish the legitimacy of the government in dealing with police violence and racism, and the younger generations of activists who sought immediate and direct action.

"The young people of Ferguson had great reverence and respect for the memory of the civil rights movement, but the reality is that its legacy meant little in their everyday lives. “I feel in my heart that they failed us,” Dontey Carter said of contemporary civil rights leaders. “They’re the reason things are like this now. They don’t represent us. That’s why we’re here for a new movement. And we have some warriors out here.” When Jesse Jackson Sr. arrived in Ferguson, he was confronted by a local activist, who said, “When you going to stop selling us out, Jesse? We don’t want you here in St. Louis!” Other activists did not go that far, but they did note that young Black people had been thrust into leadership on the ground in Ferguson because they were the ones under attack."

Taylor notes other differences between the BLM movement and the more established Black civil rights organisations - the prominence of women and LGBT people, its decentralised structure and use of social media, the flexibility of its tactics, its work in coalition building with labour and other movements, and the development of a "systemic analysis of policing.... that situated policing within a matrix of racism and inequality in the United States and beyond."

In the book's final chapter, Taylor discusses the ways in which radicalisation on political and economic issues - an analysis that links capitalism to the material conditions that Black and other marginalised people are faced - with is a necessary part of the struggle for Black liberation. She reminds us of the socialist perspectives adopted by 60s activists such as the Combahee River Collective and the Black Panthers, and traces the roots of black radicalism in the United States from the early days of the Communist Party in that country. Beginning with the words of Karl Marx on the relation between colonial exploitation, slavery, and capitalism, she outlines a radical understanding of the relation between the capitalist system and the oppression of black people, leading to the conclusion that only a restructuring of society which embraces economic as well as social justice can bring about the goal of black liberation.

"Racism in the United States has never been just about abusing Black and Brown people just for the sake of doing so. It has always been a means by which the most powerful white men in the country have justified their rule, made their money, and kept the rest of us at bay. To that end, racism, capitalism, and class rule have always been tangled together in such a way that it is impossible to imagine one without the other. Can there be Black liberation in the United States as the country is currently constituted? No. Capitalism is contingent on the absence of freedom and liberation for Black people and anyone else who does not directly benefit from its economic disorder. That, of course, does not mean there is nothing to do and no struggle worth waging. Building the struggles against racism, police violence, poverty, hunger, and all of the ways in which oppression and exploitation express themselves is critical to people’s basic survival in this society. But it is also within those struggles for the basic rights of existence that people learn how to struggle, how to strategize, and build movements and organizations. It is also how our confidence develops to counter the insistence that this society, as it is currently constructed, is the best that we can hope to achieve. People engaged in struggle learn to fight for more by fighting for and winning something. But the day-to-day struggles in which many people are engaged today must be connected to a much larger vision of what a different world could look like."

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Trials by Whiteness, edited by science fiction author Jayme Goh, is the latest in Aqueduct Press' series of published essays and conversations arising from the annual WisCon (the oldest feminist-focused science fiction convention, held in Wisconsin). In recent years, Wiscon has ben making attempts to make its focus on feminism an intersectional one, looking at issues of representation, and safer space for POCs in conventions, among other things. In this, the Chronicles of the 40th WisCon, Goh has chosen to interrogate whiteness:

"I want to start a conversation on whiteness. We talk a great deal about representations of people of color in science fiction, because they are erased, invisiblized — they need to be foregrounded, in order to combat the overwhelming whiteness of the genre.

What we do not talk about is how whiteness, so pervasive, all-encompassing, is also invisible, like the water that fish live in. To talk about it is like naming racism — it’s bringing the bogeyman to life. In this logic, racism would not exist if we simply didn’t talk about it — similarly, the problem of whiteness, the problem of white culture, the problem of white supremacy, simply would not exist, because we do not talk about whiteness, do not pinpoint its murky edges. It is only a problem when Nazis are involved, and even then, mostly unremarked upon, because Nazis are not normal, so let’s not normalize them by talking about them."

She goes on to specify her theme as 'trials by whiteness': "... trials by whiteness that people of color face. The slow and steady stream of microaggressions and invalidations. The sudden eruptions of violence. The cold betrayals from loved ones in what should have been a safe and understanding space. We could talk about just white people, but the problem with whiteness is not really about white people per se, but about them in relation to non-white, the Other. To center white people in an analysis of whiteness is to repeat the problem."

The essays and creative works collected in this volume touch on this theme from many perspectives, in many voices. There's much to learn for this white reader in them. And much to remind me of how much I wish I could be a part of this community, these conversations, this learning and teaching and sharing.

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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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