Recommended Reading – Part One

One of the interesting side effects of virtual meetings is the chat box – not always available, but often present. It allows for the kind of cross-talk that might be rude in a meeting where people are physically present. But, like texting someone sitting next you, it allows for info to be added without interruption. 

The Culver City Ad Hoc Equity Subcommittee hosted a call on “Individual, Institutional and Structural Racism; Policing” and the chat box was open. Someone asked for reading recommendations, and I went into bookstore mode. The next day, I felt that those few names were just a bare beginning. 

My first connection with Culver City was when I worked here, way back in the 20th Century, at the BookStar in the Studio Village Shopping Center, in the space that now houses Party City. It was the first bookstore I worked in with a significant amount of black clientele, and and active interest in promoting black authors. 

At the job I’d just left, I shared office space with another woman, Marilyn, who was a reader like me; constant. Her focus was on women. I had asked why. She said “In school, I was told to read all these books by white men, only men on any syllabus. So, now I’m graduated, I’m only reading women, no color barriers, for the rest of my life.” She and I traded volumes at least twice a week – hey, you would love this, or not sure if you are into it, but let me know if you like it – we probably shared a few hundred books. All written by women. So life-affirming, so mind-expanding, so heart-opening. 

Working at BookStar put me in daily proximity with people who only read black authors, for the same reason Marilyn read only women; the status quo of American education offers only white men. People crave a reflection of their own lives, of their own selves.  It wasn’t totally new for me, but it was at a higher concentration than I’d ever had the opportunity to experience. 

My first black author – the first one I remember being conscious of, was Alice Walker, whose short stories were often a feature in Ms. Magazine during the 70’s; my mom was a subscriber to Ms. from it’s first issue. I was in grade school, but “Everyday Use” deeply impressed me. Walker’s tale of the culturally conscious and the plainly pragmatic family members has stuck with me ever since.  

I read James Baldwin in high school, via one of my radical history teachers trying to get us to see that history was what we were living in. Like a lot of authors, I read one book, and then I read them all. Baldwin is the most eloquent American to begin to take on the insult and the injury that racism causes to the individual.  If you have ever heard the myth that black people don’t feel pain, read Baldwin. “Sonny’s Blues” walked me through a world I had never imagined. I re-read “The Fire Next Time” during the 1992 riots, and wondered how many ‘next times’ any culture could go through. 

I met Audre Lorde at a writer’s conference in Santa Cruz in the early 80’s. I was by far the youngest woman there, and was given any number of metaphorical ‘pats on the head’ by women who found my innocence to be kind of annoying. But I was undaunted; I was a writer, I’d come to learn, and I was going to ask any questions I had. I had not read Lorde before I met her, but meeting her was like meeting an actual deity. She was kind, patient and told me she was glad I was there asking my questions. At her presentation, she was the power of language, live and in person. I tried to change out of the workshop I’d registered for to take her class – no dice, totally booked up, no seats open. So, true to form, I went home and read everything she’d published. I was devastated when I heard of her death; it meant I’d never get to take that class.  

The books that people ordered and rang up at BookStar were more than Walker and Baldwin. Gloria Naylor, Bebe Moore Campbell, E. Lynn Harris, Cornell West, Maya Angelou (Of course!) Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, Stanley Crouch, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston. Poetry? Langston Hughes, Ntozkae Shange, Derek Walcott, June Jordan, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, US Poet Laureate Rita Dove. Science Fiction? Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler. A lot of those volumes came home with me, and reading them was a pleasure and an education. 

When I learned that Walker had resurrected Hurston from obscurity through great literary effort, I really saw how tilted the tables were.  When Mark Twain writes Dialect, he is a genius (Huck Finn) but when Zora Neale Hurston writes Dialect, she falls out of print (Their Eyes Were Watching God.)

I recently came across a quote from Jane Smiley that really hits the nail on American writing and racism. “Hemingway, thinking of himself, as always, once said that all American literature grew out of Huck Finn. It undoubtedly would have been better for American literature, and American culture, if our literature had grown out of one of the best-selling novels of all time, another American work of the nineteenth century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Smiley explained that by making the racism and slavery a personal matter between two individuals, rather than a political and institutional evil, Huck Finn fails even where it succeeds, by allowing white people to feel good about getting over their racism without ever actually doing anything about it. Smiley wrote, “Personal relationships do not mitigate the evils of slavery.” About Huck Finn, she writes, “All you have to do to be a hero is acknowledge that your poor sidekick is human; you don’t actually have to act in the interests of his humanity.” She concludes: “I would rather my children read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, even though it is far more vivid in its depiction of cruelty than Huck Finn, and this is because Stowe’s novel is clearly and unmistakably a tragedy. No whitewash, no secrets, but evil, suffering, imagination, endurance, and redemption — just like life.”

Stowe was not a black author. She was writing at time when there were laws that forbade teaching black people to read, and women authors were extraordinarily rare. She told a story that moved the country into seeing that slavery was cruel and that people were destroyed by it. Abe Lincoln joked about “the little lady who started the big war.”

The gift of reading is that I truly walk that mile in someone else’s shoes. I see from behind their eyes, and think their thoughts. I get to hold the quilts made for everyday use, and hear the music of Sonny’s blues. People far more educated than I can give you a better list.  I’m not a teacher, just a student. 

The next time you are in a virtual meeting, and there is a chat box, there might be some interesting ideas. It’s not a bookstore, but it’s a beginning. 

Judith Martin-Straw 





The Actors' Gang

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