Books By Women: The New Jim Crow

For anyone interested in racial justice, this nonfiction book is a must read. Michelle Alexander writes an academic and accessible text on how the American prison system is the new form of racial segregation and control, targeting mainly black and brown men. She argues that the prison industrial complex is the new Jim Crow.

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I first read this book last December and with every page I was floored by own ignorance. Of course, I was vaguely aware of NYC’s “stop and frisk” laws and racial profiling, but from my privileged position as a white-passing young woman from suburban Connecticut, the experiences of those convicted as felons (often for petty drug crimes) was an alternate reality. The brutality of dystopian governments and police was happening in the neighborhood bordering mine, not just within the pages of fiction I read. That’s the thing about this book: it puts together the dots in a way that is instantly clear and leaves you wondering, How was I ever so blind? I know there is still so much more for to learn.

The second time I read this book, was in the past few months, reading the text with junior and seniors in high school. This is probably what makes Alexander’s text even more of a game changer in how we talk about race and racial justice: it’s accessible. She breaks down the complexities of the legal system without dumbing them down. She explains the history of SWAT teams, the War on Drugs and how police make their arrests and receive their funding. She digs into the root causes of the imprisonment of young men of color and you learn something with ever page. People who have a greater background in racial justice can still benefit from the clarity and precision of her argument.

I wish this book were written today. It would have been a very different book, or at least a book that included information on the murders of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland to name a few. She might have included information on die-ins and Black Lives Matter. But maybe not. It may have been outside the scope of her research at the time. Hopefully in subsequent editions of the text, she will include a forward or an additional chapter.

One aspect of her work I appreciate the most is her acknowledgment of the areas she does not cover. She tells the reader right from the start that this book focuses on the incarceration of men of color, though she knows women of color are also suffering.

The book is (obviously) heavy material, but I would recommend it. It’s a necessary read for necessary conversations Americans need to start having about race, segregation and incarceration.

Keep reading. Even when it’s hard and even when you’re challenged and floored by ideas, keep reading. Next up The Terrorists of Irustan. 

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Books By Women: Bad Feminist

Read Bad Feminist. Plain and simple, no strings attached I can safely recommend Bad Feminist to anyone. Roxanne Gay frames her collection of essays as a critique of the concept that there is one singular way to be a feminist and how she doesn’t want to be a feminist icon and put on a pedestal. She knows she can’t be perfect and doesn’t want to be the “popular media feminist flavor of this week” as she explains it. She is human. She is flawed. She (gasp!) shaves her legs.

And she’s a feminist. A self proclaimed bad feminist.

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One of the reasons this collection works so well is because it takes the fear out of feminism without removing the title of feminist or proclaiming an ideology. Roxane Gay is a cultural critic first and foremost. These essays are accessible conversations about why we need more representations of women (especially women of color) in movies and books. You do not need to know feminist theory to understand her ideas and as Gay explains in her introduction, she’s not as well read on feminist texts as she should be. There’s no pressure. You come as you are and take what you take, whether you agree with her critiques of sexual mores, race, and women in literature, you can see how she arrives at her ideas.

And for readers who have read all the feminist theory, Roxane Gay’s book is a great way to introduce yourself to the writings of a feminist of color. Gay doesn’t dumb down feminism or subtract from the need for feminism because her writing is accessible. The accessibility makes her work all the more poignant that, like Bell Hooks wrote: Feminism is for Everybody.

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The best moments in the essays are when Gay speaks about her personal experience, growing up as the child of immigrants, working through sex and sexuality, and navigating her own privilege. Essays like “I Once Was Miss America” capture nostalgia for childhood literary favorites (even when these tastes are embarassingly awful), while analyzing race and the incessant need in literature for flawless Mary Sue women. You finish the book feeling like you know Roxane Gay and have just spent hours and hours on the phone with her, as if you are best friends.

If you have not already read Bad Feminist is is my reading recommendation for the summer, fall, winter or spring. Read this book. You won’t regret it.

Books By Women: Parable of the Sower

Writing is one of the few professions in which you can psychoanalyse yourself, get rid of hostilities and frustrations in public, and get paid for it.

Octavia Butler

In my pursuit to read books by women for a year– and specifically women of color– I turned to Octavia Butler. Last summer I read books one and two of her Xenogenesis Series (also known as Lilith’s Brood) and her short story Blood Child–a pdf is available online.

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When I read Octavia Butler, I’m ready for three things.

  1.  science fiction with the understanding that the genre is perfect for commenting and critiquing our world and culture
  2. a detailed analysis of culture
  3. a diverse cast of characters and a female lead of color

Parable of the Sower lived up to these expectations.

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The book follows Lauren, a teenage black woman living on Earth after the planet has suffered ecological disaster and the United States has all but fallen into anarchy. Lauren lives with her dad, a Minister, and her family behind a walled city, one of the only ways to protect yourself from a world where walking outside of your gate almost certainly means being robbed, raped or killed. I loved the raw and brutal depiction of the United States because the danger was real and very plausible. The narrative brought up issues of modern day slavery where most jobs do not pay or pay in company scrip from company-owned cities and towns. The economic situation pitted the poorest people living on the streets against the less-poor but barely eeking out a living families who live behind walls, like Lauren. The story is a survival story: when Lauren’s walled city is destroyed, can she survive the danger posed by her fellow human beings?

Lauren also has a secret. Though her father is a minister and she was raised Christian, she doesn’t believe in a Christian G-d. Her understanding of G-d is a self-designed religion called Earthseed, told through poems at the start of each chapter.

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
is Change.

God
is Change.
Octavia E. Butler Parable of the Sower

I’m sure I missed many of the religious references because as a Jew, I don’t know the Christian Bible and often miss Biblical allusions, but someone with a stronger background in religion would, I’m certain, have endless entertainment parsing through the novel.

There were a few things in particular I loved about this book.

  1. Lauren is black but her race is not her one and only defining attribute.
  2. Lauren has sex and doesn’t apologize for it, demean, or demonize her sexuality.
  3. the main characters are racially diverse with multiple characters who are black, white, Hispanic, or mixed. One character never serves to represent their entire race.

I have not read the sequel, Parable of the Talents, but from the summary, it seems as if it will patch up a few issues of the story I struggled with. The novel is a brilliant text and a feminist text, but I wasn’t as invested in the characters as I wanted to be. Especially as the novel progresses and we have more and more main characters to follow I have difficulty keeping up and wished the story were more character driven and less plot driven (though the Xenogenesis series had the same issue). Still, I would highly recommend Parable of the Sower for your reading list to add more female authors of color to your shelf.

Next up: the Poisonwood Bible. Keep on reading!

Coloring While White

I was at an event at my college, hosted by the South Asian students association, the Black Student Association, and the Muslim Student Association and they had whole tables of pictures to color, most of which were of women of color. There was a brilliant picture of Princess Jasmine, from Disney’s Aladdin, waving a flag that read:

nobody’s free until everyone is free!

And when I went to color her in, I had to stop and think and remember to reach for a brown crayon to color her skin. I had never thought of this micro aggression against people of color before, but it’s so obvious now that I think about it. As a person perceived as white and benefiting daily from white privilege, regardless of how I choose to identify, even things like crayons cater to me. I can reach into a Crayola crayon box and pull out a “flesh” colored crayon, which tells me, even as a child, that this is the natural color of a person’s skin.

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I feel oblivious and ashamed that I never noticed that until last week. But until we notice and address the micro-aggressions against people of color, we’ll never move beyond them to address the blatant issues of racism. Because, nobody’s free until everyone is free and nobody’s free while we ignore white privilege.

“Onward We March” to Racism

There’s been a recent controversy in Trumbull, CT over a painting in the Trumbull Library which depicted Mother Theresa standing alongside other female activists, including Margaret Sanger, who holds a Planned Parenthood sign. Catholic officials are deeply offended and say that the painting slanders Mother Theresa’s image. The painting has since been taken down.

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However, the real controversy–the one no one is talking about–has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with race. Look at this painting. Women unite under the banner “Onward We March” and yet there are no women of color. Nowhere.

Imagery like this perpetuates the stereotype that feminism and any push for women’s rights is a white woman’s movement, specifically a cisgender heterosexual middle class white woman’s movement. Where are the Audre Lourdes? the Bell Hooks? the Dolores Huertas?

Where are the women of color and more important, why is no one raising the alarm that Trumbull’s attempt at feminism is severely whitewashed. Feminism is for everyone, and the issue with this painting should be about exclusion and erasure rather than issues of Catholicism and slander against Mother Theresa.