Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Killers of the Flower Moon is a strange read. I walked into it hoping to learn about a time and incident in history I knew nothing about. I hoped to learn about the Osage Nation, the people, their culture. And to some extent, I did. I met Mollie Burkhart and her family early in the book’s pages. David Grann mentioned other Osage individuals who had were killed during the Reign of Terror. Somewhere along the line, however, it felt as if we were leaving the Osage Nation, its members and its culture, behind.

A little less than half of this book is about the birth of the FBI and its investigation into the Osage murders. Mollie Burkhart, her family, and other members of the Osage Nation take a backseat to Tom White, his familial background and his fearless pursuit of what Grann believes is only one perpetrator of the Osage murders. Yet, we discover at the end that while there were twenty-four murders accounted for there were, in fact, “countless other killings”—and likely many other perpetrators—that were never investigated. As a reader, this felt like more of a shocking afterthought than the reality of the Osage people.

I’m well aware that this book’s flaws are likely a result of the miscarriage of justice during the Reign of Terror. It’s hard for me, however, to ignore the quieting of the Osage people’s voices in this narrative. This wasn’t just a few strange deaths. It wasn’t just an FBI investigation. For the members of the Osage Nation, it seemed death became their reality and is a pain they have yet to recover from:

The town and the street were empty, and beyond them the prairie, too. “This land is saturated with blood,” Webb said. For a moment, she fell silent, and we could hear the leaves of the blackjacks rattling restlessly in the wind. Then she repeated what God told Cain after he killed Abel: “The blood cries out from the ground.”

They Don’t Know

He don’t know how hard it is to be black. He can’t even imagine somethin’ harder than what he doin’. I could tell him but he wouldn’t believe it.

~ From Little Scarlet, Walter Mosley

Every once in a while I lay down my armor for a moment and wonder what peace would look like. Sometimes it’s a glancing thought. Other times it’s an extended conversation with a friend. It’s hard, when you finally realize what this world is, to step back and visualize what the world could be. But you try.

The problem is simple: there’s no desire for understanding. Every human has their own struggles, their own pain, their own stories. It takes an open, patient human being to hear of another’s pain, listen and believe it.

Sara Bareilles’ Armor

Let it begin, let Adam in
Step one: original sin
Underneath the leaves, Adam found Eve
Both of them found something sweet under the apple tree
Then it was over, roads divide
Step two: learning how to lie
Let me ask a question to present day
How the hell did Eve end up with all the damn blame?
All the damn blame

Black women are different. Indian women are different. Hispanic women are different. Native American women are different. Palestinian women are different. Muslim women are different. Biracial women are different. The armor is different. The source is complicated. The mode of survival twisted and more confusing with each cultural intrusion.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”

Like a relic pulled up from the bottom of the ocean floor, Barracoon speaks to us of survival and persistence. It recalls the disremembered and gives and account for the unaccounted.

Barracoon is an experience. It is brief introductions from Zora Neale Hurston followed by pages of dialogue from a former slave who remembers what it means to be African. He tells of the time before his capture, his 5 years and 6 months in slavery, and the whirlwind that was life as a free man. It is mostly uninterrupted, somewhat sporadic storytelling written in a language laden with a severed culture and unmatched resilience.

But it’s really only a glimpse. While Oluale Kossola tells of his village being raided in detail, there are notable holes in other parts of his story. At times it feels like racing through decades of a life, just trying to hang on. There’s no real detailed discussion of life in slavery, just brief mentions of sorrow:

In night time we cry, we say we born and raised to be free people and now we slave. We doan know why we be bring ‘way from our country to work lak dis. It strange to us.

The weight of his children’s deaths barely sink in. They come so quickly, shockingly, one behind the other. His story twists and turns. It feels like I assume it felt to sit, listening to Kossola tell his story, his way.

What’s most intriguing about reading Kossola’s story is the inextricable tie he still had to his African home:

Kossola’s nineteen years of life in Africa were more real to him than a declaration of independence in America. His narrative does not recount a journey forward into the American Dream. It is a kind of slave narrative in reverse, journeying backward to barracoons, betrayal, and barbarity. And then even further back, to a period of tranquility, a time of freedom, and a sense of belonging.

He talked of creating Africatown, of giving his children African and American names. While he and his family accepted their new Christian ideals, the African rituals he learned during his nineteen years on the continent were ever-present memories.

We call our village Affican Town. We say dat ’cause we want to go back in de Africa soil and we see we cain go. Derefo’ we makee de Affica where dey fetch us.

It was a new and thoughtful experience to read of a once enslaved man who still remembered his African home and customs even as he was forced to make a new home in a strange land.

The Hate U Give: The Movie

I read The Hate U Give in 2017 when it was released. Overall, it was a pleasant read, but I had questions about the author’s approach to her chosen topic—officer involved shootings of unarmed black men. I commented in an earlier post on the difficulty of critiquing fiction that calls itself political. I also noted the glaring absence of Khalil’s story. Unfortunately, the big screen has a way of illuminating a story’s flaws and The Hate U Give was no different.

The Hate U Give is a good movie. It is visually appealing. It isn’t boring in the least. Like the book, the story might be a touch too long, but that’s my only general critique. Overall, just as I did the book, I have no problem recommending the movie.

The movie, however, does raise the same questions the book did. In fact, the treatment of the black male characters overall has a way of obscuring the point of the story. DeVante, a character in the book who offered readers a glimpse into Khalil’s life, is absent from the movie. The remaining black male characters appear flat and almost robotic. By the end, Khalil’s death feels like a distant memory.

So, my thoughts are the same. It has to be difficult to use fiction to address an issue that for some is a constant fear. I imagine telling a story like this one through the publishing and film industries has its limitations. I do wonder, however, what good this book and movie might have done if along with insight into Starr’s traumatic experience as an eyewitness readers and viewers also had the chance to learn a little about Khalil’s life before it was taken.

Here is my earlier review of The Hate U Give:

I finished reading The Hate U Give a few months ago. I’ll be honest and say I had initially decided not to read the book. But somehow I had evidently put myself on a waiting list for the audiobook at my local library. When the hold became available, I decided to give it a chance and I’m glad I did. The Hate U Give, especially in its audiobook format, is a treat. The story is very well written and is a very pleasant experience. Everything, from the characters and the use of language, is unmistakably situated in the context of black culture and makes for an enjoyable experience. Overall, I think the book is great and I have recommended it several times since reading it. However, I must admit that I left the book feeling a little bit of a void. I wanted more of something. I wanted more Khalil.

For those who don’t know, The Hate U Give follows sixteen-year-old Starr Carter in the aftermath of witnessing her childhood friend Khalil’s death at the hands of a police officer. In some ways, the book deals with Starr’s struggle to grapple with her friend’s death on both a personal and political level. However, Khalil’s death instead serves as a catalyst for Starr’s exploration of her place in her two worlds: the predominantly black and poor community she lives in and the predominantly white school she attends. Throughout the book we see her begin to question the sincerity of her friendships with her non-black friends as well as her ability to continue her romantic relationship with Chris, a white boy who attends her school. We also see her consider how her identity ultimately affects how she sees the incident she witnessed and how she chooses to deal with it publicly. And even with all of these artful entanglements and the author’s masterful exploration of complex ideas, something was missing. I needed more Khalil.

Now, let me get this out of the way: while I believe art can be political, I never infer a political purpose onto a piece of art. Why? Because I also believe that there is value in creating art for art’s sake. The freedom to simply enjoy a product of a human creativity is as much a gift as art that chooses to be explicit about its political values. The difference between this book and most of the books I choose to read, is its explicit political positioning. Before reading the book, you are told clearly what this book is about. The inner flap of the book describes the book as one that will speak to issues of racism and police violence. At the end of the story, the author confirms the political position of this book by listing actual victims of police violence. So in a book that goes this far, why am I left wondering about Khalil?

In the book, Khalil is Starr’s childhood friend, but also a distant one. When he is killed, it had been a moment since they hung out or even spoken. And we, the readers, are offered only a brief encounter with Khalil as he dies within the first 24 pages. The book spans 444 pages. As I continued past those first few pages, I found myself craving more of Khalil’s story, a little more of his personality, and more insight into his fears, desires, and hopes. And there was very little of that. Starr’s memories of her childhood and Khalil’s friend DeVante’s recollections humanize Khalil to some extent, but there’s so much more I wanted to know. And in some ways, I feel there is so much more we needed to know.

The question that plagues me when I think about this book is a simple one: Why couldn’t we have had more time with Khalil? Maybe it was an attempt to make the readers feel the void of his absence. The problem is, he wasn’t around long enough for his life to be significant to the reader. Maybe it made more sense for the author to focus on Starr because in some ways there is a little bit of author Angie Thomas in the character. Maybe this book was just not really about Starr witnessing Khalil’s death, but actually about her exploring her identity in a politically charged environment. There might be many reasons why Khalil didn’t have much of a living presence in this book. These reasons may be both creative and even practical. And I am in no way implying that the author maliciously marginalized Khalil in her story. But, in a world where the killed are often reduced to bodies lying covered in the street or even hashtags, I believe that there is much value in giving voice to the person facing the end of his life at the hands of one who has sworn to protect and serve.

LGBT+ Fiction, Urban Fiction… I Have Questions

Last week I had some time and stopped by one of my favorite places, McKay’s. It’s really a treat when I have time during the week to go peruse the seemingly endless shelves of books. The store is quieter than it is on the weekend and it’s much easier to browse without having to squeeze by people. During the week, looking through the many books becomes a zen-like experience and this day was no different.

Since I had time this particular day, I went down almost every aisle. I looked through the biographies, true crime, mystery, etc. As I was browsing, I turned onto an aisle that I’ve perused before. This aisle usually has nonfiction “cultural studies” titles categorized by cultural group. For example, there’s an African American Studies section and a Native American Studies section. This time, it was LGBT Studies that caught my eye. Right next to the bays of nonfiction titles about the LGBT experience are two bays of LGBT+ fiction. I immediately took a picture because I was shocked. This is still a thing?

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Not too long ago, it was common to see African American Fiction sections in most bookstores. It was always a weird little space. The section was predominantly “urban” fiction. It was the place to find books by Zane, Sister Souljah, Omar Tyree and basically anything deemed unworthy of “literary fiction” or “general fiction” placement. Some stores would place the section near African American Studies, just like McKays placed LGBT+ fiction with LGBT Studies. As a reader, my thoughts about these categories were always complex. On one hand, if I was shopping for a novel written by an African American author, I was likely to find it in African American Fiction. On the other hand, it was hard to avoid the feeling that I was being shuffled off to a section of the store that only “certain people” would be interested in. Apparently, I wasn’t alone.

Curious about what others thought of the days past when African American Fiction sections were the norm, I started digging. Science fiction author N.K. Jemisin tackled this issue head on in a blog post in 2010. Let’s just say she didn’t keep her feelings to herself:

I hate the “African American Fiction” section. HATE. IT. I hate that it exists. I hate that it was ever deemed necessary. I hate why it was deemed necessary, and I don’t agree that it is. I hated it as a reader, long before I ever got published. And now that I’m a writer, I don’t ever want to see my books there — unless a venue has multiple copies and they’re also in the Fantasy or General Fiction section.

She did more than just express her disdain for the section. She addressed the widely held belief that black people don’t read or buy books and just how untrue that is. Jemisin also explained that these categories aren’t inconsequential to African American authors’ careers. In fact, they can limit an author’s success. A few years earlier, the Wall Street Journal made the same claim:

As a practical matter, segregating books by race and culture makes it less likely that black writers will hit the national best-seller lists — whites make up a majority of book buyers — limiting their chances of earning bigger paychecks.

Now, I’ve been talking about this idea of categorizing fiction based on culture or identity as if it is a thing of the past. The truth—I thought it was. Imagine my surprise when I strolled into one of my new favorite bookstores, Novel, and found that they too have what they call an “urban fiction” section:


I don’t typically look for this section, so I was shocked to happen upon it just a few days after visiting McKay’s. It’s populated mostly by what people call “urban” titles—Sister Souljah, Zane, Ashley & JaQuavis, Eric Jerome Dickey, etc. There were others, however, that I haven’t heard referred to as “urban,” like Kiese Laymon, Trisha Thomas and others. The section seems to function the same way others did a few years back; it houses the books by African American authors who have yet to garner a mainstream audience. Toni Morrison and Walter Mosley weren’t present . Octavia Butler was sitting comfortably in science fiction. While I didn’t search science fiction for N.K. Jemisin, I didn’t see her books in this section.

There are reasons to have titles categorized this way. I worked in a bookstore briefly. I worked in a bookstore where, for a while, I was the only black hire. I worked in a bookstore whose customers were mostly white. It was common for African American customers to approach me asking for the “African American Fiction” section. There’s a convenience factor that is certainly lost for some customers who do, in fact, only want to buy books by African American authors and aren’t interested in browsing the entire fiction section to find them. I want this convenience for African American readers. I do.

At the same time, I want white people to happen upon a Kiese Laymon or a Zane. I want them to pick it up, read the synopsis, flip through the pages. I don’t want the “urban fiction” or “African American Fiction” sections to allow white customers to avoid these stories. This is the reason I stopped when I noticed the LGBT+ fiction section in McKay’s. As a heterosexual woman, I should encounter these LGBT+ stories as I browse the literary or general fiction sections, as I have in other bookstores that don’t categorize their fiction this way.

While some would argue that we should all be searching all parts of a bookstore, actively seeking out diverse stories, we all know the truth. It’s not likely to happen. Even the best of us have reading habits. We are drawn to stories we are familiar with. That could change, but it’s possible it won’t. There are already so few stories by and about minority groups, why not encourage all of your customers to read them instead of the few you think are interested?


Moses Sumney’s Aromanticism

A wonderfully talented friend of mine told me about Moses Sumney over tea a few days ago. I’m not sure what rock I’ve been under, but I’ve clearly been hibernating because I had no clue this creative human existed. So, I decided to go down a Moses Sumney hole starting with his debut album Aromanticism.

To begin, I learned a new word—aromantic. An aromantic is someone who experiences little to no romantic attraction. In a New York Times article, Moses Sumney explains that he has never experienced romantic love and wanted to challenge a culture that values romantic love so highly:

I was just bored with the love song, the idea of the love song as the archetype, and also the culture that suggests romantic love is the end-all and be-all of human existence. I wanted to question and challenge that on a personal level and on the social level — the personal is the social. I think I just felt alienated by the idea of pursuing romantic love. And I never fully saw myself in love songs, although I enjoy them. But I was wondering, what else is there?

I am certainly intrigued by the choice to tackle this idea and while I don’t have a solid opinion about this album—I can’t after only a few listens—I am content to sit in this Moses Sumney hole for a while and discover more.

Here’s a video of him performing my current favorite from Aromanticism, “Plastic”:

I know what it is to be broken and be bold
Tell you that my silver is gold
Though we’re much too old for make believe
And I know what it’s like to behold and not be held
Funny how a stomach unfed
Seems satisfied ’cause it’s swell and swollen
And you caught me
Shootin’ cross the sky like a star
But nobody told me
To never let it get too far
You see my silhouette, so you’re standing scared of me
Can I tell you a secret?

Prince: Piano & a Microphone

I don’t usually like listening to posthumously released albums. If the artist didn’t want me to hear it, I don’t think I should hear it. It may be weird, but listening to “gems” from the vault have always felt like crossing some kind of line. What I do love, however, is hearing songs stripped down to the basics.

Prince Piano & a Microphone 1983 sounds like Prince playing around. That’s what I love about it. It’s not perfect. It’s not clean. It’s an artist at work, an artist at play.

Is it something I’ll listen to every day? Probably not. But I do wonder what benefits a songwriter could find in just listening to what working sounds like and reminding themselves what it feels like to just play.

Here are a few of the songs that were previously released and are stripped down to just piano and vocals on this album:

“17 days”

I wanna call you every day
Beg you to be near me
I know your head is underwater
I doubt that you could hear me

“Strange Relationship”

I bet you wish this was a movie
Then you could rewrite my every line

“International Lover”

Appears to me
You could use a date tonight
A lover that’ll do you right
Am I qualified?

And this is just a treat:

“Mary Don’t You Weep”

Pay Attention

Paying attention often requires some sort of empathy for the subject, or at the very least, for the speaker. But empathy, these days, is hard to come by. Maybe this is because everyone is having such a hard time being understood themselves. Or because empathy requires us to dig way down into the murk, deeper than our own feelings go, to a place where the boundaries between our experience and everyone else’s no longer exist.

~ Wendy S. Walters “Lonely in America” from The Fire This Time

Once a person truly dons this empathy, it demands that they keep their mouths closed and disregard everything they think they know. It requires them to listen with an awareness that opens their ears to something they’ve never heard before, something that sounds so unbelievable that, in any other context, they might think it fiction. When they choose to pay attention they may find that boundaries dissipate, but they may also find that, in some ways, the life they live is a fantasy and some wake up every day in hell.

Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things

I learned of the book Small Great Things from a black woman perusing a local Barnes & Noble a couple of years ago. She was holding it, planning to buy it because of the good things she’d heard. Other readers she spoke with seemed impressed by the author’s ability to discuss black hair even though she—a white woman—likely had no personal experience with the idea. I forgot about this conversation until I noticed the paperback in Target a few weeks ago. While I had my doubts about the book—writing race and racism isn’t any easy thing—I was now curious enough to give it a chance. It didn’t take long for me to realize that, for me, this wasn’t just a book about a black nurse facing discrimination, but a prime example of the reasons black readers are often skeptical of black stories penned by white authors.

I had my doubts about Jodi Picoult’s ability to write a black character’s experience of race. Being black in this country is a unique existence best understood through experience. It isn’t really something you can observe and truly comprehend. It is even more difficult now because racism, in many ways, has transformed from the obvious to the obscure. Sure, there are those who have no problem placing their prejudice and hate on display, but for the most part, it is unacceptable to do so. Still, some people are unable to hide their discomfort when a black man is walking behind them on a sidewalk or their fear when suddenly there’s a black person in their neighborhood they haven’t seen before. So it felt strange that the author would set her story in 2015 and focus the plot on Ruth’s encounter with a white supremacist family. There’s certainly enough racist behavior in the “progressive” white characters around her. Had that been the main focus, maybe the story could have offered a truer, more unsettling view of what it feels like to be black in America.

Very early in the story, it started to feel like the author was trying to prove something to her readers. She rattled off moments of obvious discrimination, mentions of black hair, colorism, and pressures to succeed and assimilate like she was checking off a list instead of trying to write an experience. Usually these elements didn’t make sense, they didn’t really add anything to the story. She essentially made Ruth a composite; she collected as many racial incidents as she could into this one character that was so weighed down by it, she was completely unrecognizable to me.

To make matters worse, it seemed that Ruth was supposed to be having some sort of racial epiphany—finally seeing her world as it really was. The problem is, the author seemed to forget that Ruth was black and had been all her life. She forgot that Ruth was the daughter of a black maid who still worked for a rich white family. Now, it is certainly possible for a black person to focus so hard on succeeding, on trying to fit in that she’d ignore some of the language and behavior of her white friends. However, it doesn’t make sense for this same black person to encounter a white supremacist family, have her boss respond oddly to the family’s request, suddenly be shaken out of the fantasy she created for herself and be shocked to see what the world looked like when she opened her eyes. Remember, she’s been black all of her life. And if it is also true that this woman is often followed around stores and has security check her shopping bag after leaving the register and purchasing her items, there is no way she could have been completely oblivious to her blackness all this time. It just doesn’t make any sense.

There are other elements of this story that don’t sit right with me. The plot takes strange turns. Why does Ruth’s son end up having some sort of racial epiphany himself on the same day Ruth encounters the white supremacist family? How does Ruth end up on trial for murder? Ultimately, I left the book confused. What did the author think she was doing by writing this book this way? Luckily for me, there was an author’s note in the back of the book. She made it clear who her audience was:

I was writing to my own community—white people—who can very easily point to a neo-Nazi skinhead and say he’s racist…but who can’t recognize racism in themselves.

She does offer her white readers a model for their own epiphanies about race—Kennedy, the public defender. However, when she pairs Kennedy with Ruth, the composite black woman, she really only offers her white readers an out. Her readers may not be the type to clutch their purse or make offhanded comments about a black boy’s success. They likely wouldn’t follow a black person around the store. They might, however, call the police when they see a black man going for a walk in their neighborhood. They might even say he “looks suspicious.” They may even assume that a group of black kids congregating outside are “up to no good” before they see them do anything wrong. The white people she wrote into this story may still be distant enough from her white readers that they can exclaim with full confidence that they are not racist. Then when they step away from this book and see a black boy get killed by police, they’ll still say “he should’ve complied.”