14 March 2018

Book Review: Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin

Talk about provocative titles, right?  I picked this book up in January when attending Winter Institute, an independent booksellers convention, in Memphis, TN. There’s a magical place there called The Galley Room, where tables groan under the stacks of books piled thereon. All the booksellers have to do is wander around the room and help themselves to complimentary copies of anything that looks good. Like many readers and booksellers, I actively try to diversify my reading (which for me also means intentionally choosing some non-fiction sometimes amidst the literary fiction that comprises my main reading interest AND making sure that I read works from small publishers), so this book ticked all the boxes.

It turns out that Michael Bennett is an important player in the NFL, a fact that no doubt many readers would know, but which took me completely by surprise.  I have since asked myself whether I would have picked this up to read if I had known that, as I have zero interest in footfall, despite having grown up in Mississippi, where football is less a sport and more a religion. As of my reading of this book, he was a player for the Seattle Seahawks, but as of this writing, he was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles.

At any rate, I’m glad I picked this book up to read because first of all, Michael Bennett is talking about things that make white people uncomfortable, and second of all, he’s doing it in a very accessible and conversational tone.

If you know football, then you quite likely know some of the things that Bennett has been involved with, starting with the support of Colin Kaepernick and his kneeling during the national anthem, but moving beyond that to his participation in the Black Lives Matter movement.  So far, so awesome.  But what I really loved about this book was Bennett’s passion for intersectionality and the many ways he’s become involved with his community and speaking out against (or in some cases, FOR) various things: the institutionalized racism of the NFL and the NCAA, the importance of providing affordable and wholesome foods in the poorest urban centers, the marginality of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people in every aspect of our society -- really, the list goes on.

In one case, Bennett had been invited to Israel to play an All-Stars exhibition game, which he was really excited about because he loves to travel and meet new people. But not long before departure, he took a closer look at the itinerary and realized that it was a very sheltered trip, he would not be allowed to visit Palestine, and that the trip was not just a goodwill trip, but a political one. He canceled, voiced his reasons publicly, and spent months researching Israel and Palestine, and then booked his own trip there.

On the subject of becoming an activist: “It’s so much easier to talk shit than to do shit, because once you are out there representing what you believe, people see the real you. Most everybody in the world wears a mask, and very rarely do people unveil who they really are...So I’m going to be judged by strangers on the core of who I am, and yes, that makes me vulnerable and it can even feel terrifying. Nobody wants to lose his job like Kaepernick...but if the price of employment is silence, I just can’t do it anymore.”

On the subject of politics and personal activism: “As much as I was into Bernie, I also believe that just electing someone and expecting them to make real change happen for us is a dead end. I believe in intersectionality because Bernie Sanders -- or anyone else - isn’t going to end racism or bring resources into underserved communities. We are going to need to connect with each other to bring about the shifts we need. I hope we have more political candidates who express the values Bernie was talking about, but we still have to do the work.”

On becoming woke to gender discrimination: “Knowing that sexism and gender violence and employment discrimination are going to be real obstacles in their [his daughters’] lives makes me want to fight for girls and women with all my heart.  I wish it didn’t take having daughters for men [and me] to realize that this is their struggle, too. It should be enough that we are all human and we should want equality. But the reality is we live in a world where women -- especially Black women -- aren’t valued, and that often means that until we are looking at the world through our daughters’ eyes, we just don’t get it like we should.”

Amen to all of that.  Whatever Michael Bennett has next in store, I look forward to it.  It’s not every day that somebody can get me to consider football, really consider it, and I’ll be the first reader in line for his next book.

Things That Make White People Uncomfortable will be published by Haymarket Books on April 3.  Go out and get yourself a copy to read, why don’t you? 

01 March 2018

Last Month in Review: February 2018

For being such a short month, I got a good bit of reading done, and I’m maybe 10-30 pages away from finishing two other books I started in February. Did I consider fudging on those and including them here? Absolutely. But I was able to refrain and they will show up for next month’s stats instead. 

In reverse chronological order, then, here’s what I finished:

1. Hamilton: The Revolution. Dayum. I was slow to come to this musical, but that just makes me a fool. It’s just utterly brilliant, and I’ve been listening to the soundtrack while reading the book.  I have basically zero background in hip-hop, but that doesn’t matter one bit when it comes to how much I love and appreciate what Lin-Manuel Miranda has accomplished here.  I’ve rarely been as convinced of someone’s genius as I am with this guy.  

2. The Wicked King by Holly Black.  This is the sequel to The Cruel Prince, which came out in January, but this book won’t pub until January 2019. Holly’s books regularly make my year end best-of lists, and this likely will keep in line with that. Here she’s accomplished the improbable: she has written a sequel that is even better than the first book of the series. I pick up Holly’s books to read when I want an escape, since her world building is utterly immersive, but then I remember how sharp an eye she has for the politics that transcend the human realm and therefore how much reading her books can inform my current world.

3. Black Panther: World of Wakanda. This was the first comic I’ve read in years, certainly in my adult life.  Review here

4. A Stone for Sascha by Aaron Becker.  This book won’t be out until May, but since our store will be doing his book launch, we had access to the complete F&Gs.  This book is, in a word, gorgeous.  Becker’s illustrations are lush and thoughtful, full of layers that the reader can unpeel a bit more with each encounter.  Like his Journey trilogy, this book is also wordless, but oh! What stories the imagination can weave in the face of images like these. 

5. Florida by Lauren Groff.  This collection of short stories is just stunning.  I’ve read Groff’s novels before and have long considered her a master of language (you can see my review of Arcadia here), but this book also brings a powerful self-awareness to bear, particularly in the recurring character of The Mother.  The state of Florida is itself a sort of character here, too, its sights, sounds, and oppressive humidity lending flavor to the narrative. This book will pub in June, and I hope to get around to reviewing it. 

6. Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires is another story collection from a debut author.  The first story, from the which the book takes its title, is a real powerhouse. Subtitled "Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology," it plays with the fourth wall and and turns readerly expectations upside-down. While not all of the stories are as strong as the first one (frankly, I think that would be nigh-impossible, it's just SO DAMN GOOD), the collection taken as a whole is an important contribution to the narrative of race in America.

7. Last but not least, I finished the audio book of Code Girls by Liza Munday early in the month, and many of the stories she shares here have stuck with me since.  You can read my full review here.

How about y'all?  Was February a good reading month for you?  What did you love?