Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

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.

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 Musicophilia Hole

I love music. It’s been part of my daily life and identity for as long as I can remember. I have noticed, however, that my ideas about music and even the ways I engage music have changed over time. Now, this is certainly not surprising. I’m older. Let’s hope I’m a little wiser. My life has changed in some wonderful ways. It makes sense that my ideas about music would change. I do often wonder, however, if there’s a little more too it.

I read parts of Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia years ago. Lately, I’ve had a strong desire to dig in again. Sometimes a book comes to me long before I’m truly ready to receive it and I definitely think Musicophilia was one of those books. Now, I don’t expect to uncover the secrets to my current level of musical engagement necessarily, but I’m more and more curious about the ways the brain and music interact.

Before I had a chance to open the book, however, I fell down a musicophilia hole. I spent way too much time looking up articles, interviews and talks and I’m pretty sure I’ll be reaching for Musicophilia today. Scouring the internet I found theories about earworms, discussions of the correlation between blindness and perfect pitch, some brief thoughts about music as a cultural construct, and a woman who can’t recognize music:

Don’t mind me. I’ll likely be in this hole for some time.

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

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.”

Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat

Rabbit is a book I definitely recommend. I don’t think I’ve ever read a story like this one. I mean, I’ve certainly read similar ones, but this one seemed so packed with struggle and unbelievable incidents that it could’ve easily been fiction. The facts of the story are heavy, to say the least, but the light, fast-paced approach to the writing had the effect of making the story feel normal. I only wish I walked away with a better feel for who Ms. Pat is, her personality, her sense of humor.

I didn’t know who Ms. Pat was before reading Rabbit, so I had never seen her stand-up. I had never seen her or heard her speak. So, I was disappointed and a little confused when I didn’t walking away thinking of Ms. Pat as funny. I mean, there were some moments, but overall, I didn’t really understand why comedy became her career. So, I went searching and one interview was all I needed: