"Dead women owned me."
Sunday, August 15, 2021
Sunday, June 20, 2021
He quotes historian Walter Johnson as saying that "the whole city is a memorial to slavery," and realizes that "it was all right in front of me, even when I didn't know how to look for it." After the statue of Robert E. Lee was taken down in May, 2017, Smith notes that he had become "obsessed with how slavery is remembered and reckoned with," and with "teaching myself all of things I wish someone had taught me long ago." In an interview with Publisher's Weekly, he notes that as he watched the "architecture of [his] childhood coming down," he thought about how"soft earth, in the statues I had walked past daily, the names of the streets I had lived on, the schools I had attended, and the building that had once been nothing more to me than the remnants of colonial architecture."
"these statues were not just statues, but memorialized the lives of slave owners and how history was reflected in different places."
He also states in his book that right now America is at an "inflection point,"
"in which there is a willingness to more fully grapple with the legacy of slavery and how it shaped the world we live in today"
"portrait of a place, but also of the people in that place -- those who live there, work there, and are the descendants of the land and of the families who once lived on it. They are people who have tasked themselves with telling the story of that place outside traditional classrooms and beyond the pages of textbooks."
They are also, as he says, "public historians who carry with them a piece of this country's collective memories," who have "dedicated their lives to sharing this history with others."
Using a wide variety of scholarship discussing the actual history of these locations, personal interviews, as well as his own experiences and insights, he begins this "necessary journey" (as W. Caleb McDaniel calls it in his blurb) to discover how each place has come to address its dark and painful past, or how in some cases they "worked not to have a discussion about slavery." He stops first at Monticello Plantation before moving on to the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana where people are "confronted with the reality of slavery." Angola Prison is the next stop, where he discovers that the one thing not on the tour he took was the fact that the prison was built on top of a plantation. In fact, he recalls that after the guide spoke about "Indigenous communities and French exploration of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries," he moved directly to post-Civil War America, failing to mention the time that Angola had been a plantation where enslaved black people were responsible for a cotton yield "higher than most other plantations of the South." And while the guide did mention convict leasing, he failed to talk about it as an "explicit tool of economic and racial subjugation." In Virginia, Smith visited the Blandford Cemetery where 30,000 Confederate soldiers found their final resting place, later returning there with a friend for a Memorial Day Sons of Confederate Veterans commemoration ceremony; in Galveston, Texas he celebrates Juneteenth. Then it's up north to New York City where he discovers its "untold history" unraveling all around him, after which he's off to Gorée Island in Senegal, Dakar to the Slave House and Door of No Return, a "place that still holds the ghosts of thousands and remains a symbol for the plight of millions. " That is not his final stop though -- he visits the National Museum of African American History which stirs up the memories of his maternal grandparents who had accompanied him and who will go on to share their stories with him.
As Smith notes at the end of his book, "he history of slavery is the history of the United States." It is neither "peripheral to our founding," nor is it "irrelevant to our contemporary society." It is "in our soil, it is in our policies, and it must, too, be in our memories."
I have become an staunch advocate for this book -- it's one everybody should read, not just for the history within, but also for Clint Smith's writing here, which is not only knowledgeable but truly insightful and inspiring, coming straight from his heart and his soul.
so very very very very highly recommended.
Tuesday, June 15, 2021
"an interplanetary fantasy by a Welsh squire; a timeslip into a mysterious England by a priest once called the original Dorian Gray; an avant-garde novel about a tea-party and the Holy Grail."
I mean, seriously, who could resist? At the same time, this book is also a fascinating collection of odd miscellany of rather out-there topics including the Sphinx Illusion performed in 1865 at the Egyptian Hall, a "strange head of myth speaking" to an audience "from out of a casket, uttering its omens and riddles;" an essay on what ghosts wear, and the game "Cat-at-the-Window" as recalled by Edward Marsh in his memoirs, which ends in speculation as to whether Algernon Blackwood's story "Ancient Sorceries" "may have been inspired by a too fevered indulgence in the cat game" (read the story, you'll understand) and the possibility of a more "pedestrian and peregrinatory version of the game" having been known to Arthur Machen, "the eminent historian of Dog and Duck, an old bowling game," and "admirer of cats." As a matter of fact (and unsurprisingly) many of these essays contain various literary roads leading to Machen, as well as various examples of one of my own newly-discovered reading passions, psychogeography (especially in "Apocalypse and Marrow Jam: Pilgrim from Paddington") which also happens to stem from my reading of Machen's Hill of Dreams last year.
|Colonel Stodare (with the Sphinx) as he appears in the book; this photo is from Travelanche|
Beginning and ending with treks through bookstores (never new books, by the way), in dreams and with writer John Howard, Sphinxes and Obelisks is another must-read collection for fellow travelers who are easily led down the rabbit hole to dally in the realm of the obscure. I have to say that Mark Valentine is one of the few writers whose fiction and nonfiction works consistently attain the level of near perfection; this book has the feel of listening to an old friend whose love of literature knows no bounds.
Very, very highly recommended; one of my favorite books so far this year.
Wednesday, May 19, 2021
Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era, by Tiya Miles
"search for evidence of Molly's life in the archival rubble of urban slavery, to tell her story and redeem her spirit from the commericialized spectacle of bondage I had witnessed"
"Although many young women like her surely existed in antebellum Savannah and the torturous rice plantations of the surrounding countryside, this Molly was not among them. Someone had concocted her story of racial and sexual exploitation as a titillating tourist attraction."
Why were ghost stories about African American slaves becoming popular in the region at all? And why were so many of these ghosts women? What themes prevailed in slave ghost stories, and what social and cultural meanings can we make of them? What 'product' was being bought and sold, enjoyed and consumed, in the contemporary commerical phenomenon of southern ghost tourism?"
"haunted tales routinely appropriate and skew African American history to produce representations of slavery for commercial gain."
Wednesday, February 24, 2021
the IRL book group read: The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the True Hermit, by Michael Finkel
"Nothing makes complete sense... Knight is like a Rorschach card. He really is an object for everyone to project onto."
Mr. Finkel notes at goodreads, under "Popular Answered Questions" about his book, that Knight "had a wildly unusual idea for how to live" and that "he has an awesome and daunting brain," with "insights into modern society and solitude and the meaning of life that you will find nowhere else." That's all well and good, and over the course of the book you can see how the author feels himself getting closer to Knight, but the fact is that in the long run there really are no answers to be found here. And Chris Knight isn't talking. Finkel's take on the matter is that Knight left "because the world is not made to accommodate people like him," while Knight says only that he'd found a place where he was "content." He also wished that he "weren't so stupid to do illegal things to find contentment." The truth is though that he did. He also caused pain and anguish to his victims. It seems to me to have been an impulsive decision to walk away from his car in 1986 and go into a life of self-imposed isolation; people who go off the grid generally have some long-term plan for how to do it. Chris Knight obviously did not and ended up having to steal for his survival.
The Stranger in the Woods makes for fascinating reading. Aside from Chris Knight's story, what I locked onto really was the author's exploration of the natures of and differences between solitude and isolation. My only issue with this book comes toward the ending in the way that the author wouldn't let go, wouldn't respect the requested privacy of Chris or his family, and would not take no for answer. That just seems wrong to me somehow. However, the book as a whole is well worth reading, and as the title suggests, it is an "extraordinary story."
Tuesday, February 23, 2021
"some proper thinking and research into who and where I'd want to explore, I realised that the locations I was considering were connected to my own family -- a story which itself could be said to be somewhat haunted."
Leaving Livemere, as he says in the book, "the final words of James' last published story, 'A Vignette' resonate:
Are there here and there sequestered places which some curious creatures still frequent, whom once upon a time anybody could see and speak to as they went about on their daily occasions, whereas now only at rare intervals in a series of years does one cross their paths and become aware of them?"
"the writing of the book became a way of reclaiming something that had been lost to me. A way of trying to give form to those half-glimpsed figures that otherwise languish in shadow on my father's old Kodachrome slides."
As he makes his way around to explore the locations from the books, movies, television shows and short stories that he enjoyed so much, he discusses these works and writes about the authors themselves, recalls childhood memories, and slowly reveals the story of his "phantom family -- a host of lives lived, then unlived" in an attempt to help him "reconcile the real and the half-remembered."
While I won't go into very much here, one of the key ideas that runs through Ghostland is the link between landscape and the work of the writers he's chosen to explore here -- and how awareness of their environment seemed to have been embedded within themselves as much as it has been embedded in their writing. There are more than mere traces to be found in, as the back-cover blurb notes, "the ancient stones, stark shores and folkloric woodlands of Britain's spectered isle," as well as the inland waterways (and I'm so happy he mentioned Elizabeth Jane Howard's "Three Miles Up" which is one of the most frightening stories I've ever read -- and beware, the film version is not quite the same), graveyards, and more, including the stone rings, hills, and other features found in Arthur Machen's work, or Ithell Colquhoun's Cornwall, to mention only a few of the many places he visits. But landscape, nature and place also have personal connections for Mr. Parnell -- they evoke memories of family, which he can now remember not in terms of "disquiet" but rather as "reassuring." His journey is related here much along the same lines as W.G. Sebald's Suffolk journey chronicled in The Rings of Saturn (another recent, excellent read) down to the photos embedded within the text.
It is one of the most beautiful books I've read, a poignant way in which the author finds a way to try to express "what is haunting him," as well as a way in which to try to "lay to rest the ghosts" of his "own sequestered past." I cannot recommend this one highly enough ... I'm sure I will go through it again many times. An absolute no-miss for readers (like me) who thoroughly enjoy old ghost stories, and especially for readers who (also like me) are lovers of weird fiction.
Tuesday, January 12, 2021
"This is a book about this courtroom, about some of the people who have appeared in it, whether as defendant, counsel or judge, and about the practice of criminal law. It is also intended to be about British sensibilities and preoccupations over the last hundred years. It is one of the contentions of this book that through the criminal trials that have occurred in Britain's foremost court there can be traced at least one version of social and moral change over the last century."