Fall Reading List: From Border Kids to the Great Migration

NPR's Michele Norris mines her past, a historian brings black migration to life, a kid finds his deported mom, plus Edwidge Danticat, Charlie Chan and more.

By Greg Varner Sep 14, 2010

Selecting twelve nonfiction books to represent this season’s offerings was a challenge. With so many interesting titles to talk about, how to choose just a dozen?

It seemed only fair to vary them by subject, for a start. History buffs should find something to whet their appetite in this grouping, and so, I hope, will people on the lookout for a good children’s book, or readers interested in food, or science, or the arts. I tried to choose only one or two books from any particular publisher, which meant that several promising titles weren’t included. So don’t treat this list as a full inventory of the bookstore, but rather as a heads up about a few volumes likely to fascinate at least some readers.

Below, I write a bit more about two books–Michele Norris’s "The Grace of Silence" and Wallace Shawn’s "Essays"–that I particularly enjoyed and wanted to recommend strongly. Of the remaining 10, the one I most look forward to reading is "The Warmth of Other Suns," Isabel Wilkerson’s study of America’s Great Migration of black Southerners to points north and west. Over the course of several decades throughout most of the 20th century, six million people fled the terror imposed by Jim Crow, searching for a new start. Wilkerson, who heads the narrative nonfiction program at Boston University, interviewed hundreds of them before selecting three whose stories she tells at length, with intermittent chapters that make more general points. She took her title from a passage in Richard Wright’s "Black Boy":

I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could … respond to the warmth of other suns….

After working on this book for the better part of two decades, Wilkerson must be gratified by the warmth of its reviews. It’s being hailed as a landmark.

Almost all of the books on this list, like Wilkerson’s, relate personal stories. Memoir, biographical profiles–many of these authors view their subjects through the prism of individual experience. 

What are some of the new and forthcoming works not described in these paragraphs? "Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington" (Beacon Press), by Charles Euchner, is drawn from oral histories of more than one hundred participants. "The Cross of Redemption" (Pantheon) gathers previously uncollected essays and speeches by James Baldwin. "Power in Words" is a collection of 18 speeches by Barack Obama, with analysis by Mary Frances Berry and Josh Gottheimer (coming in October from Beacon Press). "Blessed Are the Organized," by Jeffrey Stout, examines grassroots organizing in New Orleans, South Central Los Angeles, and elsewhere (coming in December from Princeton University Press). Political science scholar Cathy J. Cohen, who will speak at ColorLines’ Facing Race conference this month, reports on her long survey of black youth in "Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics" (Oxford University Press). I could go on.

by Michele Norris, Sept. 21, Pantheon

A falsehood, said the poet Sa’di, is like the cut of a saber; the wound may heal, but it leaves a scar. The lie of racism–that certain groups of people are inferior to others–has left countless scars, and Michele Norris, who hosts NPR’s "All Things Considered," sets out to examine some of them in this disjointed, essayistic memoir.

Every family has its painful, taboo topics, and Norris, who grew up in Minneapolis, focuses on two secrets scrupulously kept by her parents, both postal workers. First, she reveals that her maternal grandmother once worked as a traveling "Aunt Jemima," serving pancakes to white housewives on the prairie. Her mother kept this fact from Norris, who found out about it almost by accident. Learning that her grandmother dressed up as a fictional "Mammy" character to sell pancake mix is easy compared to the discovery that her beloved, upstanding father, soon after returning from Naval service in World War II, had been shot by a white cop in Birmingham, Alabama. No one ever mentioned it afterward; even her mother didn’t know it had happened.

Norris presents fascinating detail about the development of the Aunt Jemima character as a marketing tool, and about the systematic crackdown on returning black veterans by people like Bull Connor, police commissioner of Birmingham, who would later earn international infamy by turning water cannons on civil rights demonstrators.

How did Norris’s parents deal with such insults and injuries? Like many others, they did their best to bury the bitter memories and get on with life. As a result, they paid a cost that can only be guessed, but Norris believes there was more in their silence than pain, rage, and pride. There was a measure of grace in it, too: "How can you soar if you’re freighted down by the anger of your ancestors?" In the end, she recommends a different kind of silence, urging readers to listen attentively to the stories of their loved ones.

As a result of the civil rights movement, many black Americans reached previously unattainable heights. Many others, however, were plunged into deeper poverty. Segregation along racial lines has too often been exchanged for another, "de facto segregation based on class," in Norris’s words. In a telling moment, she returns to the Birmingham neighborhood where her father was raised, and where, as a girl, she enjoyed summertime stays with grandparents. Today, the old place is almost unrecognizable, scarred and disfigured by violence and neglect. As she leans against her car on a blasted street, a youth riding past on a bicycle warns her about the local violence, saying, "Best you get yourself back to where you came from." One way or another, racism makes exiles of us all.

by Wallace Shawn, Sept. 1, Haymarket Books

Wallace Shawn’s delightful essays were first published in hardcover last year, and most of them don’t explicitly address race. So why include this new paperback edition here? Because Shawn, like Shirley Sherrod, understands how class informs the experience of race–and he is in a unique position to comment on the privilege he enjoys because of his background (his father was the longtime editor of The New Yorker). And because this expanded edition includes an extraordinary new essay, "Why I Call Myself a Socialist." It may not make you a socialist, but it will deepen your understanding of how our society makes winners of some and losers of others.

Shawn is an actor and playwright, the author of the screenplay for "My Dinner with André," in which he also appeared, and plays such as "The Designated Mourner" and "The Fever." In the latter work, a pampered tourist falls ill while traveling in a poor country and reflects on the political violence outside his hotel. "I’ve passed my life largely in a fantasy world," Shawn writes in the introduction to this essay collection; he’s talking about working in the arts and about growing up as the son of William Shawn.

"My feeling of superiority, and the sense of well-being that comes from that, increases with the number of poor people on the planet whose lives are dominated by me or my proxies and whom I nonetheless can completely ignore," Shawn writes in this book’s opening essay. He makes connections between global and local, between imperialism and our liking for unobtrusive waiters in nice restaurants. Opening the eyes of readers to the connections between their comfort and the degradation of others is one of Shawn’s specialties.

He condemns the Cheney-Bush regime, inveighing against "men in Washington, D.C., who have a sick need to set fire to cities." Yet he notes, "the difference between a perfectly decent person and a monster is just a few thoughts." Given this awareness of our universal capacity for violence, it’s not surprising when Shawn concludes, "In fact, it is utterly wrong for me to imagine that Bush is violent and I am not, that Bush is cruel and I am not. I am potentially just as much of a killer as he is." A crucial difference between him and Bush, Shawn gratefully notes, is maintained with the help of the arts that humanize him while seeming to leave Dubya untouched. Shawn’s essays show how "reality"–the world of politics and governments–and the "dream-world" of art are interdependent.

This book includes interviews with Noam Chomsky and Mark Strand. Other essays touch on the power of sexuality, Thomas Jefferson’s ownership of slaves, and the fact that even when we do nothing, we are moral actors: "My power over history is inescapable except through death."

story by René Colato Laínez, illustrations by Joe Cepeda, August 17, Children’s Book Press

This children’s book, just published in a bilingual edition with charming oil paintings accompanying the text, distills the headlines about undocumented immigrants to the tender and hopeful story of one little boy who journeys with his father from San Diego to visit his mother in Tijuana after she is deported ("Two weeks ago, Mamá didn’t come home from work"). José and his father spend a day at El Centro Madre Assunta, a refuge for immigrant women and children waiting to be reunited with their families across the border. Their visit ends when night comes: "I dreamt that Mamá had the right papers and we crossed the border together."

CHARLIE CHAN: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History 
by Yunte Huang, August 30, W. W. Norton and Co.

The author of this history, a Chinese-born professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, loves Charlie Chan, the detective character. His carefully researched and expansive book, which does not shy away from discussing racism, offers much more than an appreciation of the controversial cultural icon. It’s also about Earl Derr Biggers, the creator of the popular detective character; about Hollywood; about Asian immigrants in America; and it’s a story of Chang Apana, a detective on the Honolulu police force who was, if not the principal inspiration for the Chan character, certainly an influence. "What is a Chinaman?" asks Huang, analyzing the familiar racial slur; he answers, in part, "I am."

FIRE IN THE HEART: How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice
by Mark R. Warren, Sept. 1, Oxford University Press

In welcome contrast to those who say Barack Obama’s election ushered in a new, post-racial America, sociologist Mark Warren maintains that further progress on civil rights, like the election of a black president, can’t come without the participation of white Americans in collaboration with people of color. Accordingly, he interviewed 50 white activists "to understand the conditions under which white Americans can be moved to support racial justice efforts." It isn’t an idle question: "Fully 81 percent of whites believe that blacks have as good a chance to get a job as whites, 79 percent think black children have as good a chance as white children to get a good education, and 86 percent say that they have the same chance as whites to get affordable housing."

by Isabel Wilkerson, September 7, Random House

Ecstatic reviews are greeting this book, which tells (in the words of its subtitle) "The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration." Author Isabel Wilkerson focuses on three rural Southerners who made the trek north or west to what they hoped would be a better life than the one they had known under Jim Crow in Dixie. The first, Ida Mae Brandon, was a Mississippi sharecropper’s wife who went to Chicago in 1937; the second, George Swanson Starling, left the Florida orange groves for New York in 1945; the third, Robert Foster (personal physician to Ray Charles), left Louisiana for Los Angeles in 1953.

DO IT ANYWAY: The New Generation of Activists 
by Courtney E. Martin, Sept. 7, Beacon Press

Profiles of eight young activists introduce readers not only to what they do, but why they do it. The first entry, on peace activist Rachel Corrie, indicates what the stakes can be: She was killed while trying to stop an Israeli bulldozer from razing a Palestinian family’s home in Gaza. Among the others profiled are Raul Diaz, a social worker in Los Angeles who helps gang members after their release from prison, and Nia Martin-Robinson, director of the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative in Washington, who advocates for low-income people–usually women, children, and people of color–who are most likely to be adversely affected by catastrophes caused by climate change.

FIST STICK KNIFE GUN: A Personal History of Violence
story by Geoffrey Canada, adapted by Jamar Nicholas, Sept. 14, Beacon Press

Educator and charter school celebrity Geoffrey Canada’s memoir of his New York City boyhood was originally published in 1995. Here, in graphic (comic strip) form, as newly adapted by Jamar Nicholas, it poses its challenge to the status quo with immediacy and force. Canada, who grew up in the Bronx, offers insight based on personal experience about how children’s lives are shaped by urban violence. When he left the Bronx for Bowdoin College in Maine, he bought a gun to protect himself back home, finally realizing that the logic of carrying a weapon required its eventual use: "I knew that if I continued to carry the gun I would sooner or later pull the trigger."

by Edwidge Danticat, Sept. 21, Princeton University Press

The Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat reflects on art and exile in these essays shot through with memoir. She eulogizes family members and writes about exiled author Marie Vieux-Chauvet, painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, and other Haitian artists; about the assassination of journalist Jean Dominique; and about her own journey from Haiti to America at the age of twelve. "Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously," she advises, reminding writers, "no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them."

by Mark Winne, Oct. 12, Beacon Press

If you thought this book’s title was long, wait until you add its subtitle: "Fighting Back in an Age of Industrial Agriculture." Saying all of that’s enough to make you hungry! But there are several good reasons not to eat mass-produced, industrial food, and go local instead. This book presents them, along with examples from around the United States (and one in South Korea) of people who are exploring alternative methods of food production and distribution. From urban farms in Cleveland to buffalo restoration on Native American reservations, people are injecting democracy into the food system in surprising and innovative ways.

THE SKULL COLLECTORS: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead
by Ann Fabian, Oct. 15, University Of Chicago Press

This book by Ann Fabian, a professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University, tells how science and racism converged in the work of Samuel George Morton, the 19th-century naturalist who used his collection of nearly 1,000 human skulls to "prove" that there were five distinct races. She sketches some of the consequences of his work through American history up to the present day, when Native Americans demand the return of ancestral remains from museums. Like Stephen Jay Gould in "The Mismeasure of Man," Fabian shows how ostensibly empirical science can be put in the service of a racist agenda.

THE CRUEL RADIANCE: Photography and Political Violence
by Susie Linfield, Nov. 1, University of Chicago Press

Photography is a democratic art–all you need is a camera. What happens when this democratic art form meets antidemocratic political violence? Susie Linfield, an associate professor of journalism at New York University, picks up where Susan Sontag left off in this study, arguing that we’ll never be able to understand political violence unless we look at it. From the Spanish Civil War and the Holocaust to China’s Cultural Revolution, genocide in Rwanda and beyond, horrific images of death and destruction have allowed us to look at what many would prefer to keep hidden. But what are the hazards of wading into what one critic has called "the moral minefield where horror meets art"? How does a person of conscience respond to such photographs?