Tag Archives: African-Americans

Black Ink: Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading And Writing, Edited by Stephanie Stokes Oliver

Some time ago, a friend and I were discussing what it might be like to lack the ability to read and write. How many people today lack the wherewithal to decipher the black squiggly lines and put meaning to the words? Many of us cannot remember a time before we couldn’t read.

For a moment, place yourself in a foreign country that displays signs, names of streets, buildings and warnings, of which  none are in English. How will you find your way around or locate some place to eat or sleep?

Step for a time into the shoes of those whose rights were stolen, particularly the right to read. How would you feel? Frustrated? Powerless?

Be thankful that you have the ability to read and understand the essays edited by Stephanie Stokes Oliver and walk in the footsteps of those who suffered, struggled and overcame great difficulty to learn something you were given before you could miss it, knowledge of the written word.

Stephanie Stokes Oliver presents the book in three parts with writers of the various time periods; The Peril (1800-1900), The Power (1900-1968) and The Pleasure (1968-2017). This essay anthology follows the journeys of a multitude of African-Americans throughout history from Frederick Douglass to former president Barrack Obama on the importance of the ability to read and write. As you read each essay, you see how notable people lived their lives with a burning passion, the voracious need to decipher the written word, to express themselves in writing, to make a better life for themselves.

In The Peril, the reader will meet people like Solomon Northup. In his memoir, 12 Years as a Slave, Mr. Northup writes of his desperation to get a letter to a dear friend. He painstakingly boiled white maple bark to create the ink and plucked the wing of duck to use as the pen.

Did the letter reach its intended reader? You will have to read Black Ink to learn the answer.

The largest portion of essays are in The Power, a time period which includes comments from people like Maya Angelou. Angelou credits Ms. Flowers, who gave her lessons in life starting with reading, in part for her ability to read.  They shared classic books, such as A Tale of Two Cities, and after a time Ms. Flowers gave her a book of poetry for which Angelou memorized a poem she could share, strengthening her reading skills.  Why was this time period so filled with power of the written word?

In The Pleasure section, we hear about Roxane Gay* who recalls what drove her passion of reading was the desire to read the Sweet Valley High series.  “I waited for new Sweet Valley High books the way other kids waited for new comics or movie releases.”  What was so compelling about this series for Roxane Gay? To learn what the draw was behind this serialized storyline, read Black Ink.

My need to read this title came from the 2018 Read Harder Challenge from BookRiot.com as it fulfilled the challenge of reading an essay anthology.  In my opinion, the passion, the need and the love of reading from the various time periods through the decades are at the heart of these stories.  Oliver’s final summary is succinct and it drives home an important lesson for all, “Reading matters.  Writing matters. People matter.” Reading is an inalienable right for everyone.


*Roxanne Gay is a regular contributor to the New York Times and released a memoir last year called Hunger.


 

Format Available: Book, eBook

Review by Micah, St Matthews Branch

Insurrections: Stories by Rion Amilcar Scott

Short fiction can be an acquired taste; as a reader you have to be satiated by just enough. I have tried to suggest a book of short fiction to my book club but the ladies always scoff and complain that they are left unsatisfied.  They want more time with the characters, more development of the story, more finality than “a prose narrative shorter than a novel” can provide. I can understand the need for more, but a masterful short story collection is at ease with less.

Recently, I was in a book funk; every book I picked up was not right or the story didn’t grab me. That is until I picked up Insurrections: Stories, published by the University of Kentucky Press.  The simplicity of the cover – a flock of birds in flight – and the title, the juxtaposition was striking to me. Mr. Scott held my attention from the very first sentence:

“Walter caught the sight out the corner of his eye one hot July day, and for so long afterward he asked himself what if he had never seen those dangling legs from the balcony above, kicking, kicking, kicking against the open air.” (Good Times).

That indelible image gave me goose bumps and urged me to read on. As I mentioned, I was struck by the title, but the definition escaped me; so I looked it up. By definition, the act of insurrection is a violent uprising against authority or an opposing force which is stifling, throughout the collection characters are “suffering the quiet tragedies of everyday life and fighting for survival” (http://www.rionamilcarscott.com/thebook/).

In the story, “Boxing Day”, a son gauges his father’s mood by the sound and speed of his boxing gloves hitting the bag – from the first sentence the scene is wrought with tension and unease.

“It’s a flapping noise. The louder the sound, the more pissed he’s become. He says every day he punches the bag is boxing day…I would stay out of the basement, away from my punch drunk father and every delusion he’s used to sew himself together, but my mother’s sent me to descend into his Hades to deliver a message” (p. 53).

Scott’s prose is lyrical, authentic, and jarring all at once while he tells the stories of African Americans growing up and growing old in their community where despite seemingly endless hardship, they are resilient. Though bleak and haunting at times, Insurrections: Stories is a portrait of existence; its struggles and its joys.

Formats Available: Audiobook, Paperback, eBook

Reviewed by Carolyn, Crescent Hill Branch

Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist by Nancy Goldstein

jackieormes

Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist is a strange bird of a book.  On one hand, it is a reverent – albeit short – biography of a mostly-forgotten forerunner of modern black women in comics.  Cheryl Lynn Eaton (creator of the web-comic Simulated Life and founder of the Ormes Society), Rosario Dawson (co-creator of Occult Crimes Taskforce), Afua Richardson (artist for Genius), and Jackie Broadnax (creator of the Black Girl Nerds blog) all owe a huge debt to Jackie Ormes‘ trailblazing comics.  Ormes authored and drew four different strips from 1937 to 1954 which appeared in African American newspapers, particularly the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender.

This was a time, of course, when opportunities for African Americans and women, let alone African American women, were limited in the comics industry.  In addition, the series were – mostly – not the kind of simple gag strip that was a major part of the industry.  They expressed many moods and dealt with topics often not touched by other comics.  Her work Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger was very direct in taking on racism and McCarthyism. Another strip, Torchy in Heartbeats followed an educated African-American protagonist as she not only navigated romantic options but also issues of race, environmental activism, and even foreign intrigue.

Due to Ormes’ outspoken political beliefs and activism on their behalf, she was targeted by the FBI during the late 1940’s and 1950’s.  Goldstein has appended excerpts from the FBI file.  These primarily consist of several different interviews that were conducted over the years due to her leftist leanings and the anti-Communist hysteria of the times.  Ormes consistently stated (and nothing to the contrary was definitively documented by the FBI) that she was not a Communist though sympathetic to the Party’s anti-racist and pro-worker principles.

But on the other hand, author Nancy Goldstein was previously known for having written histories of dolls. It is Goldstein’s initial interest in dolls that led to the creation of this biography. Jackie Ormes developed a positive African American doll, produced by the Terri Lee Doll Company, in the late 1940’s.  An examination of the doll’s creation, marketing, and impact – a small part of Ormes’ artistic output – takes up a large portion of the book.

The Patty-Jo dolls were based on the younger sister of her most prolific strip.  Patty-Jo was not as glamorous as her older sister, Ginger, but she was the one given all the pointed dialogue in the strip.  As a doll, though, Patty-Jo had many outfits and hair that was able to be easily styled.  This made her an appealing toy to young African-American girls who had – at that time – very few choices for African-American dolls that were not stereotypical or demeaning.

For readers primarily interested in the comic side of Ormes’ work, there are copious illustrations from her strips, some early drawings, and other sketches.  Her line work is typical of the time in that it is solid, clean, and mostly realistic.  Sometimes the perspective of the human body is odd but oddly enduring at the same time.  I found great joy in just flipping back and forth over the illustrations.

Goldstein knows that this book is somewhat incomplete in documenting the impact of Jackie Ormes and acknowledges so in the Conclusion.  Some of this is due to the general lack of archives for old African-American newspapers in many library collections.  To help rectify this problem, she calls for renewed donation of materials to and funding for several main collections of comic material such as the Cartoon Research Library (Ohio State University) or the Comic Art Collection (Michigan State University).

 Formats Available: Book

Reviewed by Tony, Main Library