Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia surrounded by women, who like her, were educated women of color. Her father worked for NASA and manyMargot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia surrounded by women, who like her, were educated women of color. Her father worked for NASA and many of the older ladies in the neighborhood were also current or former NASA employees. Shetterly describes the experience as something she always took for granted. Black women as engineers and mathematicians was, however, something that wasn't the norm, as Shetterly later found out. What she learned, was that the women in her neighborhood were breaking the color barrier long before desegregation, and while hidden withing the folds of the Unites States Space Program, they were instrumental to the achievement of the technological advances that allowed NASA to put men in space and a man on the moon.
Shetterly was correct that this is a great story. These women all came from families that valued education, and after receiving their college degrees, were typically held back in teaching jobs. World War II, however, changed all that. Men were gone fighting overseas, and NACA (the precursor to NASA) recruited women as human computers and engineers. And color was no barrier because they needed all the help they could get.
Shetterly featured pioneers like Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, and their stories are fascinating. But there are things about this book that could have been better. I would have liked to see more narrative of these women, personal stories from them and from people who worked with them. I realize that these women were very elderly or dead, but I was reminded of the great work about Alexander Dumas called The Black Count by Tom Reiss, which is a perfect example of a man of color who broke barriers and lived a most interesting life. This book was filled with stories directly and indirectly related to Dumas, and was obviously written long after his death . Shetterly also pads her writing quite a bit, filling it with verbage directly telling the reader how important these women were in breaking barriers for black women. The story does that itself, and Shetterly should have left the majority of that sentiment for her closing paragraph.
Also, this is a book about science and the space program. It is understood that the average reader would not understand the finer details of their work, but I would have liked this be the main story. It's the work that's important - and it's their race and gender that elevate the story to the next level. So Shetterly should have made the work and its story, primary, in my opinion. Again, I was thinking about books relating to science that had a broad appeal, and I was reminded of the great physicist Richard P. Feynman's memoir Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. His humorous vignettes supporting the greater story of the race for the atomic bomb really stand out. I may not have understood all the science he mentioned in his book, but it was very human, interesting and entertaining.
I am pleased that a movie has been made based on Hidden Figures and by the trailer, it looks like Hollywood has added that human and entertaining element missing from the book. Still, I was glad to have the opportunity to read about these women and their remarkable story. Hidden Figures will hit bookshelves December 29, 2016. Many thanks to Harper Collins for the review copy!...more
Hattie Shepherd is a young black woman who, in 1923, leaves Georgia for the promise of opportunity in Philadelphia. Unfortunately for Hattie, she marrHattie Shepherd is a young black woman who, in 1923, leaves Georgia for the promise of opportunity in Philadelphia. Unfortunately for Hattie, she marries a man who is irresponsible and unfaithful, and her life is wracked with sorrow and disappointment.
I really wanted to like to book, but I had such a hard time with it. First, each chapter was a story about Hattie's various children, and while the chapters were chronological, they jumped in time, setting and character so much that it became difficult to follow. Each chapter could have stood alone, but only two of those chapters actually managed to attract my interest. It's too bad, because the story of Hattie and her children held so much promise....more
Liz Spocott is a runaway slave in 1850 Maryland. She is shot in the head and captured by slave traders, when she manages to escape, setting free the oLiz Spocott is a runaway slave in 1850 Maryland. She is shot in the head and captured by slave traders, when she manages to escape, setting free the other captures slaves at the same time. In McBride's novel, we are brought into the heart of slavery, and see it in total truth. We see that blacks could be loyal to their masters and not want to leave, and white owners who didn't always feel as if their slaves were merely property. McBride isn't saying that slavery wasn't bad, but that it's effect on everyone wasn't clear-cut, as we might view it today.
The character Liz Spocott is given visions (much like Harriet Tubman), but in her visions, she sees images of the future. Just like a 21st century person seeing images of slavery, Liz cannot fully process what she is seeing, and becomes convinced that the future will be terrible for people of color. I thought the author's play on time and context to be especially astute as he attempts to take an honest look at slavery.
This is one of those books that I will have to go back and read again at some point. The author weaves actual historical persons within his narrative, presenting a tale that is as colorful as it is thought-provoking. It is one of those novels that you appreciate even more once you've had a chance to digest it. 4 1/2 stars....more
Originally published in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a story of a woman struggling to define herself and live her life independent of the desOriginally published in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a story of a woman struggling to define herself and live her life independent of the desires of others. The tale is set in Florida in 1928. The woman is Janie Crawford. If I just told you this much, you would have a totally different idea of the themes of this novel. Now, if I told you that Zora Neale Hurston, the author, was a critically acclaimed African-American writer, you might immediately assume that her book would be about class and racism. And while those themes do play a role in Their Eyes Were Watching God, it is so very much more than that.
As in real life, our lives our shaped not only by the color of our skin (Janie's is "high yellow"), but also our sex, our background and the events that occur in our lives. Being a mixed-race woman, in the south, in the 1920's, from a poor family and raised by a grandmother who has definite ideas of what her granddaughter needs, Janie already is faced with obstacles. But Hurston's character is vibrant and determined to do exactly as she pleases. And that is one of the reasons this book is so impressive. In spite of her background and her struggles, Janie Crawford is a woman to be admired.
It is interesting to note that when this book was released, some of her peers (including famed novelist Richard Wright) dissed this book. He thought Janie's voice, which Hurston presents in the dialect of a poor black southern woman (which Janie was!) was somehow racist and demeaning to African-Americans. I imagine, if Janie Crawford had been a real person, would she have told Richard Wright that she didn't care two hoots what he thought of her. And I hope Zora Neale Hurston did too. The "black elite" were obviously too political and too racist themselves to see the strength and beautiful character of the protagonist Hurston created.
All of this is set amidst stunning prose and a story that has you sitting on the edge of your seat, laughing, emitting romantic sighs and shedding a few tears. Bravo! 4 1/2 stars....more
Written in 1929, The Blacker the Berry was a shocking novel in that it exposed, for the first time, the existence of racism with the black community.Written in 1929, The Blacker the Berry was a shocking novel in that it exposed, for the first time, the existence of racism with the black community. The main character, Emma Lou Brown, is a dark-skinned woman who struggles to find acceptance in a black community that prizes lighter colored skin tones. Leaving her home town in Idaho, Emma admits that she was the only black student in her high school. She hopes that her new collegiate life in Los Angeles will help her to find new friends, but instead she is shunned by fellow black students because of her very dark color. Simultaneously, she herself rejects those students whom she deems “not of her class” – ie, southern blacks who come to the school in order to better themselves.
As the novel continues, Emma Lou leaves California for New York City and the birth of the Harlem renaissance. Things aren’t much better here. The only job available to her is that of a maid, even though she has a college education and is able to do secretarial work. Apparently lighter skinned girls are preferred for those positions. She finds the same thing happens with finding a place a live and even in her personal relationships. But again, Emma Lou also perpetuates the discriminatory attitudes with biases of her own.
Like many “breakthrough” novels, this one was important, but not very well-written nor very interesting. Luckily it was very short....more
It is 1850. Honor Bright is an English Quaker, who accompanies her soon-to-be married sister to America.. Tragedy strikes. The sister dies following aIt is 1850. Honor Bright is an English Quaker, who accompanies her soon-to-be married sister to America.. Tragedy strikes. The sister dies following a short illness, and Honor is stranded in Ohio, with a not very welcoming community of Quakers.
The hardships faced by immigrants and pioneers alike are addressed by Chevalier, in this novel, that pits human compassion against self-preservation. Honor Bright cannot return to England, and as a single woman in a Quaker community she is only left with one choice: to marry. Her prospects are extremely limited.
This area of Ohio is also a major stop on the underground railroad. Many slaves come through on their way to safety in Canada, and even though Ohio is a free state, the Fugitive Slave Act has made many Quakers reluctant to help slaves, for fear of the legal repercussions.
This book does a wonderful job of presenting the Quaker community and the moral dilemmas faced by religious and non-religious persons in a secular world. Honor Bright, in trading the English Quaker community for its American counterpart, must come to terms with the fact that life in America is far different than the life she left behind.
I've always enjoyed Tracy Chevalier's novels, and this is no exception. Her details about Quaker life, the underground railroad and the history of quilting make this a worthy read. 3 1/2 stars....more
The story opens in post World War II Mississippi, where Jamie McAllan and his older brother Henry are digging their father’s grave. Jamie has returnedThe story opens in post World War II Mississippi, where Jamie McAllan and his older brother Henry are digging their father’s grave. Jamie has returned from the war a broken man, struggling to come to terms with all he has done as a bomber pilot, but mostly hiding from it with booze and women.
As the story progresses, we hear shifting narratives. From Jamie, the story is told from his brother’s wife, Laura, Henry and then from the Jacksons, black sharecroppers who work Henry’s land. An unlikely friendship develops between Ronsel Jackson and Jamie McAllan and also between Florence Jackson and Laura McAllan. Their attempts to find acceptance and understanding in each other turn into tragedy as the novel unfolds.
This was quite the page-turner from start to finish. It’s themes of racism and brutality, friendship and family, are just as important in the historical context as they are today. Given the simplicity of the prose, I would say it could pass as a young adult novel – but strictly for high school students given the content....more
In 1791, a young girl is orphaned when her parents do not survive the voyage from Ireland to Virginia. The ship’s captain promptly indentures her oldeIn 1791, a young girl is orphaned when her parents do not survive the voyage from Ireland to Virginia. The ship’s captain promptly indentures her older brother, but decides there’s nothing to do with the girl but bring her home with him. Lavinia is put to work with the slaves in the kitchen house and they soon become her new family. But there is a huge divide between the girl and the slaves. She is white, and although a servant, she will eventually be free to make her own way in the world once she is an adult.
From the first pages, I loved The Kitchen House! It pulls you in and keeps you there – forcing you to abandon everything in your life for want of reading the next page. The themes of slavery, race, abandonment and the struggle to belong are presented with a gripping storyline that tells us as much about our American past as it forces us to recognize portions of it that still exist today.
I thought Grissom did an excellent job researching the area and it’s history, but the end was a little too tidy for me. For many, that won’t matter, and honestly, it didn’t matter all that much to me either. Fantastic work of historical fiction and I highly recommend it!...more
The longer title, Behind the Scenes or 30 Years a Slave and 4 Years in the White House, is a more detailed picture of this autobiography of ElizabethThe longer title, Behind the Scenes or 30 Years a Slave and 4 Years in the White House, is a more detailed picture of this autobiography of Elizabeth Keckley. And while this does describe the woman’s background, it is not an accurate portrayal of what you will find in this book. Written in 1868, Mrs. Keckley does discuss her past as a slave, but she rushes through her history. She argues that there is happiness as well as horror in the life of a slave, and while she was clearly abused by some of her white owners, she was also well-loved by some.
Mrs. Keckley’s purpose in writing this book was not to present a slave narrative, however. For 4 years, she was the dressmaker for Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, working for her and also befriending her. In the aftermath of President Lincoln’s assassination, Mrs. Lincoln sought Mrs. Keckley’s help in selling some of her vast and expensive wardrobe, due to Mrs. Lincoln’s greatly diminished income. Mrs. Lincoln claimed she was on the verge of destitution. Although she tried to accomplish this quietly, the Mary Todd Lincoln was found out, and the public opinion of her actions was unfavorable. And so, Mrs. Keckley claimed to write the book in order to defend Mrs. Lincoln.
Not surprisingly, Mrs. Lincoln was not pleased to have her private life publicly displayed, and without consultation. Their friendship was severed, and while I found the book interesting, the public, apparently, did not. Behind the Scenes did not sell well.
The poor outcome of the book’s release began a series of negative events in Mrs. Keckley’s life, including the loss of her white clients and thus her formerly successful business. Eventually she retired in Washington D.C. at the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children.
While not a great work of literature, I did find it an interesting little read. 2 1/2 stars....more
“Someone bound my wrists behind my back and slipped a leather noose around my neck, which he tightened just to the point of cutting off my breath so “Someone bound my wrists behind my back and slipped a leather noose around my neck, which he tightened just to the point of cutting off my breath so I couldn’t scream and could barely breathe. Gagging, I waved wildly at the men. The noose was loosened enough to let me breathe. I was still alive. Allahu Akbar, I said. I hoped that someone would hear the words in Arabic and realize the mistake. But nobody heard me. Or cared.”
Kidnapped off the coast of Africa in 1745, and sold to a South Carolina island plantation, Aminata Diallo is a literate young black woman, who tells her life story in this wonderful novel by Lawrence Hill. There are many works of slavery-based historical fiction out there, but few are as well researched or have such a unique story to tell. I consider myself pretty well-read on the subject, but Hill taught me much about life on an Indigo plantation, how Jews were treated in the South during the 18th century, the Book of Negroes and the plight of Black Loyalists who were promised much by the crown, and delivered little.
This was absolutely one of my favorite books of the year! 4 1/2 stars!...more
“When the time had come, Ida Mae and little James and Velma and all that they could carry were loaded into a brother-in-law’s truck, and the three o “When the time had come, Ida Mae and little James and Velma and all that they could carry were loaded into a brother-in-law’s truck, and the three of them went to meet Ida Mae’s husband at the train depot in Okolona for the night ride out of the bottomland.”
Just last year, I was helping my middle schooler study for his social studies test. One of the questions was about The Great Migration. Quite frankly, I had never heard that term before. There was no question that black Americans left the South at certain times in history and tried to better their lives in the North. I just hadn’t been aware that it could be charted – that it was actually a phenomenon that ended in the 1970′s. They didn’t teach us about The Great Migration while I was attending school, probably because it was still going on or had recently ended.
Isabel Wilkerson’s epic work, The Warmth of Other Suns, is an attempt to describe why blacks left the south, what attracted them to the north, and what they found when they arrived. Wilkerson did this by conducting over 1,000 interviews, and by focusing on three personal accounts, in a narrative that is as engrossing as it is educational. This was a wonderful and enlightening work. Bravo! 4 1/2 stars!...more
Set in a narrative fiction, The Long Song is the story of a Jamaican slave, Miss July, told at the request of her adult son – a proprietor of a publisSet in a narrative fiction, The Long Song is the story of a Jamaican slave, Miss July, told at the request of her adult son – a proprietor of a publishing house. Miss July is a reluctant teller, but she certainly has a voice to savor with a charm all her own. We learn through her story that she was the product of a slave girl, Kitty, and the plantation overseer, Tam Dewar. As a child, she was snatched up into the plantation house and trained as a ladies maid and companion to the owner’s sister, Caroline Mortimer.
Having read and loved Levy’s Small Island, I was anxious to read this work of fiction. For me, The Long Song did not disappoint. Some of my Goodreads friends did not care for this book – Levy’s characters were accused of being insipid and the tone too light for such a serious subject matter. I appreciated hearing those comments ahead of time, and I read with a thought as to why the author might portray her characters the way she did. Miss July really came alive for me. In fact, she reminded me of a woman I have known and loved. She is charming and mischievous; and yes, she had a hard life, but she didn’t want to dwell on the tragedies. I felt that Levy understood that a real person, reluctantly telling a story so full of sadness, might want to downplay the bad events. To dwell on them would be to give into the despair, rather than showing that she had been able to come through it as a survivor.
Levy presents a novel that is well-researched – including the language used by Jamaican slaves (as is evidenced in her lengthy resource list at the conclusion of the book). She also shows a bit of the origins of the Jamaican class system, which currently favors lighter-skinned blacks.
In addition to all that, The Long Song is a moving and uplifting tale of a people who are able to retain dignity in the midst of enslavement. I can see why it was a finalist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. 4 1/2 stars....more
In this memoir by the executive vice president and managing editor of CNN Worldwide, Mark Whitaker takes a look at his upbringing in a biracial familyIn this memoir by the executive vice president and managing editor of CNN Worldwide, Mark Whitaker takes a look at his upbringing in a biracial family, his struggles of coping with divorced parents, and his climb to the top in spite of his father’s substance abuse.
Whitaker definitely has an interesting story to tell. Both his parents were part of the university elite. With education as a strong value in the Whitaker household, the mixed-raced boys had an advantage over other children of color growing up in the 1960′s and 1970′s. However, Whitaker should have presented more of the history of the eras he covered, because it would have shown his parent’s achievements as rather extraordinary. Whitaker’s take on it was more of “that’s how I grew up,” rather than showing the true significance. The author struggles to come to terms with his relationship with his father, and appears to be at peace towards to the end. Perhaps he was too close to the subject matter, but it could have been more exciting and moving than Whitaker portrayed it....more