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REVIEWING

The Light of the World: A Memoir

By Elizabeth Alexander

Grand Central Publishing | April  2015 | 224 pages

Reviewed by Brenda M. Greene

To be in love
Is to touch with a lighter hand.
In yourself you stretch, you are well.
You look at things

Through his eyes.
By Gwendolyn Brooks

In this poem on the nature of love, poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks informs us that  when you are in love, “you look at things through his eyes.” We see this concept epitomized in Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir, The Light of the World.  The memoir is a narrative recounting Alexander’s trauma and grief when she suddenly loses her husband of 15 years.  It is an experience that jars her sensibilities, interferes with a sense of normalcy and impacts on her emotional well being and sense of self.

Light of the World is also a testimony to Alexander’s deep and sacred love for her husband Ficre, an East African man from Eritrea.  As she recalls their life’s journey, we witness her go through the process that is necessary to regain a sense of well being and to heal herself and her sons. 

This is a compelling memoir, told through a poetic voice that blends prose and poetry as Alexander details the death, the loss and the grief that she and her sons experience.  As the events leading up to the death unfold, we learn that she could not write this memoir until she had undergone certain stages in the grieving process and had had the time to reflect and remember the special moments, the talks, dreams, celebrations, and meetings that came to her mind as flashpoints. 

Alexander divides the book into five sections, each a story in and of itself that provides a different portrait of Ficre and his relationship with his family from the perspectives of Alexander, her husband and her sons. Thus, we see the many sides of the impact of Ficre’s death on the family and we witness it from many starting points.  The result is a nonlinear narrative that reflects the psychological and dream states of Alexander and her sons

Her husband Ficre is an artist who lived each day as fully as possible and was conscious about leaving a legacy and his imprint on the world, his family and his friends.

Alexander notes that “he left us with his eyes on the world.”  And she ponders on what it has meant to live with an artist. “To love and live with a painter means marveling at the space between the things they see that you cannot see, that they then make.”

Ficre has a studio and although he has a job as a chef to supplement his work, art is his passion. It is clear that he lives for this and his passion permeates all aspects of his life.  Although she encourages him to sell and market his art, he informs her that people would know his work after he was gone.  This is one of several visions and premonitions on death in the memoir.

We experience such statements for Elizabeth Alexander is a natural storyteller.  She begins the memoir with the words: “The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss.  Loss is not felt in the absence of love.”   

This relationship between catastrophe, loss and love foreshadows the events in the memoir. One such moment, haunting in many respects, occurs several days before Ficre’s death; a giant hawk appears in their yard and she, Ficre and her friend Lorna observe it as it eviscerates and devours a squirrel. Alexander later finds among Ficre’s papers, an acrostic in which he exhausts variations on the word hawk.  It is clear that Ficre is moved by seeing the hawk. 

Other events guided by these premonitions or forebodings occur. Ficre dies on April 4, just before Easter Sunday, just after his birthday and on the anniversary of the tragic murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The painting on the easel that Ficre works on during on his last day on earth is of a horseman, who is racing off the canvas towards something unseen.  These incidents, which symbolize a foreshadowing of death, help to create a moving story of the grieving process, one that will resonate for many who have loved and lost.

Alexander is a poet who paints visual images in her poetry and prose. Symbols of food, art, music, religion and African culture permeate the pages and are recurring symbols throughout the memoir. This is captured through her remembrance of birthdays, holiday gatherings and dinner parties.  And in celebration of these events, we feel the loss.

One chapter opens with an excerpt on friendship and loss from Langston Hughes:

I loved my friend

               He went away from me

               There’s nothing more to say

               The poem ends,

               Soft as it began

               I loved my friend.

She shares Lucille Clifton’s poem, a meditation on the death of Fred Clifton, her husband who is also an artist in another chapter.  In the poem, Clifton tries to imagine what dying is like and Alexander reflects how she connects with Clifton, for she is “Ficre’s widow, clutching at his edges. . . She “cannot imagine what sight awaits. . . her.”   

We learn of the meals shared by her and Ficre and are given recipes for Shrimp Baraka, and Spaghetti with a Hundred Onions. As the reader moves through the narrative, the music of Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Ahmad Jamal, Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln and Randy Weston becomes the backdrop for many of the remembrances in this family that represents a blending of cultures.

There are lines that stand out in this memoir, almost in a haunting way.  “The day he died, the four of us were exactly the same height.”   At 5 feet, 9 inches, Alexander, Ficre and her sons Solomon and Simon were all the same height. 

In her first poem, drafted many months after his death, “Family in ¾ Time,” Alexander begins, with “We are now a three-legged table, a family of three, once a family of four.  We bring ourselves into new balance.  The table wobbles, but does not fall.”  These words reflect both the beginning and ending of this memoir.  Through telling her story and with the support of her personal friends, colleagues and family, Alexander has begun the slow, painful process of healing and of connecting to the larger community.  The Light of the World is a sensitively told rendition on the nature of love and loss.

The author of six books of poetry including American Sublime, shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, two collections of essays, The Black Interior (Graywolf Press, 2004) and Power and Possibility (University of Michigan Press,  2007 ), Elizabeth Alexander is a highly respected teacher, scholar and mentor and Professor of Creative Writing at Yale University.  She composed and recited “Praise Song for the Day” at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Brenda M. Greene, Ph.D. is Chair of the English Department and Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.


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REVIEWING

The Sellout

By Paul Beatty

Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 2015 | 291 pages | $26.00

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

Paul Beatty

Since Paul Beatty’s hilarious debut novel, The White Boy Shuffle, in 1996, the literary world has taken notice of his intellectual brilliance, acerbic wit, and bold commentary on all things American. In his latest book, The Sellout, his first novel in seven years, he has outdone himself, turning African-American literature on its ear with some of the most searing and penetrating insights on race, culture, and society seen on the page in many years.

It’s stand-up comedy at its best, worthy of a ring-savvy Dick Gregory, a raunchy Redd Foxx, a folksy Moms Mabley, and the hip urban truth-telling of Richard Pryor and Chris Rock. It’s howling laughter that ends with a serious face.

The ever-humble but highly capable Beatty, a native of West Los Angeles, has assembled The Sellout in an astounding collection of images and words, mainly told in flashback, like a masterful Charlie.

Parker solo played backwards. Our narrator, Bonbon, awaits his fate in the all-powerful corridors of the U.S. Supreme Court, fortified by his maverick academic father’s example. The shooting death of the father at the hands of the police leaves his son confused.

Beatty, the author, centers the action when his fictional world mirrors our real one with the cops recently gunning down Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Freddie Gray, triggering urban unrest. The writer says he wasn’t trying to sermonize or drive home a point, but he does justice to the issues of race, culture and politics.

Even in the opening lines of his insightful novel, Bonbon attempts to convince the world to look beyond his skin color to his humanity. He stares straight forward and explains his existence: “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to ways of

mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen look on my face.”

However, the town of Dickens, supposedly inspired by Beatty’s hometown of Compton, California, has been erased from a map, a case of cultural gerrymandering. With the support of Marpessa, his former girlfriend, and Hominy Jenkins, the last remaining Little Rascal, Bonbon wants to pump new life into slavery and segregation, hoping to avoid the ongoing corruption and slaughter of his beloved community.

His narrator is willing to take his case to the highest court of the land. Beatty is very wise to take the reader through step-by-step of his outlandish theory of racial self-preservation. He’s very conscious of the old school Negroes who would welcome the warm embrace of Jim Crow and all that implies back again. We were better off before the Ofays got to us.

Beatty doesn’t dwell on all of the evils found in the black community, the feverish gun violence, the murderous duels between gangs, the dysfunctional families found there. Instead, he sets up a chorus of African-American voices to speak in various tones on significant subjects, sometimes whispering and sometimes shrill, but always with a sense of irony, jokes, and satire. This book will make the reader think and weigh a few sensitive topics between chuckles.

Often, the one-liners flood the mind to the perilous point of overload, but this is according to plan. As the late funnyman Pigmeat Markham used to say, burn that mess into their lazy minds and they won’t either forget it or ignore it. And that’s Beatty does expertly and effectively in every sentence, paragraph, and chapter. He doesn’t let up. He will not let the reader off the hook. He rubs your face in it.

As the reefer-smoking Bonbon gets a few tokes in before his judicial session, he ponders on his existence as “a direct descendant of Dred Scott,” who was in the eyes of the Court simply property…with no

/            5

rights the white man was bound to respect.”

In the same breath, he wonders about 2 Live Crew front man Luther Campbell’s obsession with partying and his anthem, “Me So Horny,” that mocks the white American fascination with “cullud” sexuality, big butts, and soulful twerking. After all, the reader must remember Beatty, a low-key B-boy, comes from Compton, the fabled home of such hip-hop talent as NWA, DJ Quik, The Game, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube. Throughout this novel, its characters show the emotional and spiritual damage done to them by a society who neither cares for them or treats them with respect.

Like master satirist Mark Twain before him, Beatty questions the basic myths of his country and community, including the hollowed images of the civil rights movement: “The marchers on Washington become civil right zombies, one hundred thousand strong, somnambulating lockstep onto the mall, stretching out their stiff, needy fingers for their pound of flesh.”

If Bonbon’s Pops, the “Nigger Whisperer” with his valiant psychological ideals and his wacky local think tank, the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals doesn’t tickle your fancy, then our narrator will do his best with his piercing zingers: “Bemoan being middle-class and colored in a police state that protects only rich white people and movie stars of all races, though I can’t think of any Asian-American ones.”

Beatty’s supporting cast such as Foy Cheshire, Hominy Jenkins, King Cuz, and the beloved Marpessa have their wicked say, but Bonbon has all of the stand-out lines the reader remembers long after the page is turned, such as his take on Hollywood: “Hollywood had all the blackness it needed in the demi-whiteness of Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, the brooding Negritude of James Dean, and the broad, gravity-defying, Venus hot-to-trot roundness of Marilyn Monroe’s ass.”

Nothing is off-limits from Beatty’s harsh glance, including some punch lines delivered by the thuggish King Cuz about the female species: “When a white bitch got problems, she’s a damsel in distress! When a black bitch got problems, she’s a welfare cheat and a burden on society. How come you never see any black damsels? Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your weave!”  

At times, Beatty’s literary style is a combination of the late Albert Goldman and Lester Bangs on acid, the paranoid William Burroughs on alert in his darkened bunker, the twin satirical verve of Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut when he gets his blood up. The firestorm of pop references, name dropping, and gangsta ditties from Billboard only make Beatty’s heavily revised barbed truths much more timely and provocative.

When Beatty gets around to the essence of blackness, unmitigated blackness, there’s no doubt that the writer, educated at Boston

University where he studied psychology, knows of what he writes: “It’s Tiparillos, chitterlings, and a night in jail. It’s the crossover dribble and wearing house shoes outside…It’s our beautiful hands and our fucked up feet. Unmitigated blackness is simply not giving a fuck. Clarence Cooper, Charlie Parker, Richard Pryor, Maya Deren, Sun Ra, Mizoguchi, Frida Kahlo, black-and-white Godard, Celine, Gong Li, David Hammons, Bjork, and the Wu-Tang Clan in any of their hooded permutations. Unmitigated blackness is essays passing for fiction.”

Beatty’s The Sellout is written brilliantly and boldly to spark a real dialogue about race and culture among black and white readers. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, the author said he wrote the book to “make myself flinch.” Not only did he succeed in making himself flinch, he charmed his readers with surprising wit and humor to think and flinch with this extraordinary novel.



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REVIEWING

What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford

By Frank Stanford

Copper Canyon Press | 2015 | 747 pages | $40.00

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

Frank Stanford

Burning Bright

My friend Camille has a fantastic ability to discover places that are untouched and seemingly invisible.  Off the beaten track, winding through remote valleys and over passes, she’s discovered pictures drawn on caves and pieces of ancient pottery. 

She takes these relics home (on the back of a Harley she shares with her husband) or leaves them alone, depending.  She and her husband discover these hidden places on their “coffee breaks”—coffee served from an ancient thermos—as they traverse the dusty, open landscape of southwest Montana.  For many miles there is no cell phone reception.  She describes these trips casually when she comes to work Monday morning, tanned from the sun and bright eyed, her grey hair framing her face. 

Always the writer, I insist that she could write a great travel guide and wouldn’t the tourists who come here for the great fly fishing die to travel to some of these spots (I actually imagine us writing the book together). 

“Why would I ever do that?” she asks. “Then everyone would know where to go.  You have to discover these places on your own.”

She’s got a point.  There’s something to finding a treasure and keeping it to yourself.  But as a reviewer, my job is to share, so I’ll share a new find: What About This: The Collected Works of Frank Stanford, a thick collection—over 700 pages, published by the renowned poetry press, Copper Canyon Press—of the work of a little known southern poet.    In his introduction to the book, Dean Young writes,” When I was in college in the 1970s and ‘80s, the poems of Frank Stanford were passed hand to hand like contraband: small editions coming from small presses, hard to get, guarded with secrecy, coming from outside any known curriculum and profoundly intoxicating.” 

I wondered why.  As a person with an MFA in poetry, I’d never heard of this poet before. Stanford died young—he took his own life—and somehow his work has not been anthologized.

With the thought that he had killed himself, I looked for darkness or cynicism in the collection of poems I had before me—an uneasy groping or (as in the case of Sylvia Plath) a knife-edged shrillness.  Instead I found song.  Many of these poems evoke a night scene (the moon is a recurring motif, as is the river).  But the night is not burdensome; the night is mysterious, beautiful, full.

Stanford writes:
Stars
Slices of cold butter the lovers are spreading
Over their toast.

***

And he writes:
When We Are Young the Moon Is like a Pond We All Drown In
when I sleep a wind blows
over the strange grasses
of a prairie I don’t know
and I feel like a lamp
someone is holding up
looking for a way
through a dark field
I will go out

A couple of his poems address the phoniness of the literary world.  These poems, though sharp, don’t have a “reverse pretentiousness” that compromises some poets, such as Charles Bukowski.  Bukowski, the “everyman’s poet” can be too confrontational, daring the reader to attempt to be more “real” than him.  (But really, who can be more “real” than Bukowski writing about a shit in his poem “shit time”?)  When he writes about women, for example, Bukowski dares the reader to be “politically correct.”  (Or maybe he doesn’t dare; maybe I am only getting older and I no longer see the romance in his poems?)

Stanford also writes about women, but in a different way: 

Dusk
You walk across the room in your panties
with a glass of orange juice
and turn off the air conditioner.

I love the simplicity of this poem, the minimalist, moment-in-time aspect of it.  And although Stanford has many longer poems, I’m drawn to these short ones I have recounted here and the simple eloquence of them.  (Other critics have commented on the long lines of Stanford and the Whitman-esque sweep of his work).

But before I give the impression that Stanford writes in a gritty-realistic way, I should note that his poems also veer into the surreal, the strange, and peculiar. 

Take, for instance, the poem “Pasture Dream” and the lines:
My daughter put black
Lady Fingers between my toes…

What is the poet trying to do here?  It is the reverse confessional, in which dreams and imagination are more real than the “reality” of life? 

The way Stanford bridges realism (and a southern style—he lived in Arkansas for most of his life) with surrealism makes his poems appealing.  And readable.  They are so unpretentious.  It’s a joy to read modern poetry that is not pretentious.  Rather, his poems are quirky and imperfect and real—swampy and original and naked.

An interview with Stanford is included in the collection. In the interview, the interviewer, Irving Broughton, asks Stanford about finding “strange” material.  Stanford replies, “Yeah, I hardly ever use a direct experience.  For one, I don’t like to do that.  For another thing, a lot of people probably think that what a person writes he has done.  Such things are too strange, and it would require too much time.”

Mostly, if you like poetry, I would urge you to seek out this book.  You will find yourself trying to recite the small treasures and you might be drawn to the mysterious places these poems can lead.  As I explored the work of Frank Stanford, I got intrigued by his life and spent a couple of weeks researching.  He burned bright, for sure, and sought the love of many women. He was a curly-haired wonder, a satyr, a drunken god of song.

I won’t get into who these women are, but, yes, some are famous artists, writers, and it was this that was his downfall.  One famous singer even wrote a song about him.  But this would be giving too much away, if I went into detail.  This is for you to discover.



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REVIEWING

F*ck You, I’m Irish

By Rashers Tierney

Ulysses Press | 2015 | 192 pages

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

Rashers Tierney

The subtitle of this book is “Why We Irish Are Awesome” and it’s fair to say that Ulysses Press is equally awesome for producing Rasher Tierney’s unique book.

This little volume is equal parts history, folklore, ethnic studies, pure sass, dour wit, and socio-cultural drama.  All mixed together.  It’s not a dry and dusty academic tome; not a text written with an eye on narrative control via chronological order.

Instead, author Rashers Tierney (a self-described “itinerant lecturer and anthropologist of note, presenting seminars across North America on all things Irish”) has created a potpourri that is as instructive as it is entertaining.  This is the type of little book that makes a perfect gift, because it works on multiple levels.

From the title itself (which actually features the image of a shamrock in place of the “u” in You Know What), all the way through the book’s 14 short chapters, the author walks a fine line between serious and educational information aligned with saucy humor, a great deal of irreverence, and a sweeping assessment of Irish culture.

It’s a tricky balance.  From the get-go, Rashers Tierney strikes notes that in almost any other context might sound too over the top.  Too in-your-face enthusiastic.  Yet, he does so with such verve and goodwill (not to mention backing up all of his claims with abundant and easily recognizable examples and details) that it all meshes well.

Right off the bat, on page one, his balancing act of tone and mood is achieved:

“From our fightin’ nature and inherent good luck to out potato eating and St. Patrick’s Day parading, the clichés regarding us Irish are famous.  But our true awesomeness stems not from a few lame stereotypes; rather it can be found in the countless accomplishments for which we’re not given proper credit.  That is – until now!  Serving up the truth like a perfect pint of Guinness, here are the fun and informative facts about the best feckin’ people in the world – the Irish.  Astonishing historical accounts.  Profiles of Irish heroes.  Stories of struggles and success.  Language.  Music.  Culture.  We’ve got them all.” 

And that’s the admixture of high and low that gives this book its charm and its exceedingly useful content.  From the chapters titled “How the Irish Made America” or “Irish Pop Culture and Its Worldwide Impact” to the chapters called “A Way with Words Like You Wouldn’t Believe” and “More Magic and Mystery Than You Could Shake a Stick At,” the reader receives a staggering array of insights and reminders.

Random examples abound.  Like this one:

“It’s often said that ‘the Irish built America.’  The truth is, not only did they build it, they also manufactured, repaired, and cleaned it, especially in the decades before and after the potato famine.  As they were largely poor, unconnected, uneducated, and discriminated against, many unskilled Irish women and men found the strongest opportunities in industrial work, domestic service, and blue-collar public works positions.  From 1850 onward, more and more immigrants got a head start in America in the form of welcoming relatives who provided moral support, a financial safety net, and whatever connections they might have had.  Irish immigrants quickly found employment (mostly blue-collar) in the police and fire departments and other public institutions of larger cities, due in some part to the influence of Irish political machines in the urban areas of the Northeast.”

Or this one:

“By the time that [potato] famine reached its height in 1847 (“Black ‘47” as people called it), public relief was being distributed, but only in return for 12-hour days of intensive physical labor.  This further weakened many already racked by hunger and disease.  That winter was an exceptionally bitter one, and the workers had to toil in rags – adding insult to their shivering injury.”

However, the dolorous historical information is countered by plenty of uplifting reminders about the great writers (Yeats, James Joyce, and others) as well as the more recent cultural trailblazers whose Irish identity (Bono or Colin Farrell, for example) is unmistakable.  Appropriate ridicule is heaped on what the author dubs “Hollywood: The Saintly Irish Version,” and lucid explanations are offered about “Bards,” “Changelings,” “Harps and Heraldry,” and “Ceilis” of course.

There are also succinct explications in relation to the “Bodhran” (the “handheld drum with a tongue-twisting name . . . traditionally made of goatskin”) and “Eejits” (aka: “a clueless but basically harmless fool”), plus “Feck – the Friendly F-Bomb.”

The timing of this book’s release proves to be perfect.  Ireland, once controlled by the draconian power of the Catholic Church in all aspects of daily life, has recently delivered the most remarkable “Feck you” to the Vatican’s patriarchal Pooh-Bahs, becoming the first nation ever to legalize same-sex marriages.  This rebuke to the “Eejits” in the Vatican is a timely reminder of the Irish habit of making huge waves.

Rashers Tierney’s book is a trove of critical information and varied cultural gems.

(M. J. Moore is at work on a new novel called “For Paris – with Love & Squalor”).



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REVIEWING

The Only Words that are Worth Remembering

By Jeffrey Rotter

Metropolitan Books | 2015 | 209 pages | $26.00

Reviewed by Michael Carey

Jeffrey Rotter

“Sorrow and solitude: the only words that are worth remembering.” This quote from Jeffrey Rotter’s The Only Words that are Worth Remembering answers the question induced by the novel’s title. The book is centered around the Van Zandt family, but more specifically Rowan Van Zandt, the youngest twin in the family of four. He is the weaker and gentler brother, and as such, he represents the reasonable base for their family unit.

The Van Zandts live in a future in which our civilization has collapsed and much of our progress with it. Truth deemed dangerous has been discounted as myth, including astronomy. The Earth once again is the center of the universe and is surrounded by the “Night Glass”, through which there is no escape. This is common knowledge to the Van Zandt’s until they run into some trouble and find, to stay together as a family, their only option is to agree to be shot into space.

The story is told from Rowan’s point-of-view as he recounts the adventure to his young daughter, trying to impart life lessons to the unsuspecting three-year old. Rotter hooked me early with his style, choices, and delivery. The world he creates is familiar and strangely believable. He leads us on a fun adventure with an intriguing group that fulfills each other in oddly comfortable ways and is bonded by the special ties of family. Questions in the reader’s mind of where Rotter and Rowan might lead him or her are vast as the night sky above.

Then the story reaches a point, and the questions quickly dissolve. Answers pour in, and possibilities are eliminated. The story slows (at least for me) leaving only, “How does he get from here to there?”

Rotter carries the reader through though on the deeper level of the journey: Rowan’s search. And he searches, for pages and pages. The early sense of adventure had my heart racing. I was ready to run, but then the book slowed to a walk.

Strange encounters meant (I’m assuming) to entertain fell short of their mark. However Rowan emerges in a good place. He finds what he is looking for and tries, in the telling of his story, to teach his daughter the lessons he learned: lessons of sorrow and solitude; lessons of family and loss; lessons of life.

I have broken the novel into two parts: a compelling, quick-paced adventure and a slower, more thoughtful trek. As a whole, Rotter delivers a journey of meaning. The fun, adventure, and humor all fall short of the resonating message of the sadness of a life alone, summed up with a memorable last line that reiterates Rowan’s view on life.

I believe Rotter accomplished in this novel what he set out to. It delivers a spectrum of emotions that will satisfy most readers. Aside from the price (I get it, but $26.00 for a novel will probably cause me to pick something else) and the shift in the pace, I found The Only Words that are Worth Remembering a fun read that maintains a serious sense of reality within its uniquely imagined realm.



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REVIEWING

Firefight:  The Century-Long Battle to Integrate New York’s Bravest

By Ginger Adams Otis

Palgrave Macmillan | 2015

Reviewed by Herb Boyd

Ginger Adams Otis

It has taken Ginger Adams Otis nearly a decade to complete her book Firefight:  The Century-Long Battle to Integrate New York’s Bravest.  Otis, a reporter with the New York Daily News, builds her compelling narrative on Wesley Williams, who in 1919 became the city’s third and most publicized African American firefighter.

Fortunately, Williams was highly literate and left behind a trove of letters and even a few speeches as ballast to Otis’s study, and this was bolstered by family-held memorabilia as well as a richly rewarding research of John Ruffins and a thesis by historian David Goldberg.

But it’s Otis’s diligent and meticulous research that burnishes this untold story, and she more than meets the challenge of filling in the historical gaps between Williams’s arrival at Engine 55 just months before the nation experienced a paroxysm of racism that came to be called “The Red Summer,” and the emergence of today’s Vulcan Society.

“He’d expected his first days to be challenging and they were,” Otis writes of Williams’s arrival at the firehouse in Little Italy where an all-white crew “welcomed” him. “The silent treatment continued, but nobody, save the captain, had been as openly antagonistic as he feared.  Nobody had tried to hit him yet.”

After a racial slur by one of the firemen, Williams felt he had endured enough harassment and intimidation.  He challenged the name caller to a boxing match in the firehouse’s basement, a customary way of settling disputes in the company.  When Williams was the first to emerge, indicating his victory, the other firemen were shocked.

They were unaware that Williams had been given lessons by the great boxer Sam Langford.  “Boy, you’re going down to work with the Irish.  You’re going to need to know how to fight,” Langford told him bluntly.  “You’re going to get lessons from us.”

Those lessons were more than sufficient and nobody else dared challenge him with their fists.  Williams had scored 100 percent on his entry exam and a knockout of a racist colleague.

Even so, the fisticuffs victory provided only a temporary halt to the negativity that surrounded him; Williams was undaunted and fulfilled his mission as a firefighter, to say nothing of his bravery that was not saluted.

Otis vividly recounts his days in uniform and in chapters titled in fiery metaphors she moves the reader across the years, citing the accomplishments of other Black firemen such as Arnold Joel, Edward Bantry, and particularly Vincent Julius, Jim Lee, Michael Marshall, and Paul Washington, stalwarts in founding the Black firemen’s Vulcan Society.  When Williams received his promotion to lieutenant in 1927, it marked the end of an era and the beginning of another.  And though Williams’ firehouse nemesis John O’Toole was no longer around, there were still a mountain of obstacles for Black firemen to overcome, and Otis devotes the last third of the book to the modern period.

There are so many interesting and intriguing ways to tell portions of New York City’s action-packed history, but seeing it through Otis’s vision and the odyssey of Black firemen is a unique perspective.

One day, a few years ago,  I was walking my students up 135th Street in Harlem and one of them wanted to know who Wesley Williams was since his name was emblazoned on the street sign.   At that time, my rambling account could have used Firefight and it will be a useful reminder for others who want to know more about this pioneer fireman and some of the city’s flames he helped douse.



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