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As February ends, our thoughts turn to Town Meeting Day, an annual event where citizens in towns across New England meet to discuss and vote on important civic matters. In our home state of Vermont, Town Meeting is experienced as a forum where people sit, stand, discuss, and vote completely in public, right next to the person disagreeing with your position. Many of the best town meetings involve sharing food together as part of this process. Some meetings involve an all-town discussion, followed by more private voting via an Australian ballot.
When we began thinking about a Town Meeting post for today, we first thought we might review a bunch of picture books that explore how to develop and use characteristics key for effective democracies (e.g., listening skills). Then, we shifted and thought that instead we might review books about topics that will be debated: climate change, immigration, education, health care. However both those ideas required being able to browse and linger in our local bookstore - the Norwich Bookstore. And, with covid, alas, that is not currently possible.
So we browsed our own home bookshelves, and came up with the idea of exploring the topic of speeches. Why speeches? Because as we enter town meeting season, and as we dream of the post covid pandemic world, we are seeking inspiration. To ensure we end up in a better place post pandemic, we will need to remember to act well and with intention. Now is a good time to reflect on how post pandemic behaviors could change. It is our hope that these speeches provide the needed inspiration. As the title of one of these collections reminds us, we are the change we seek. (Don't worry both these books are still in print and can be found by your favorite indie bookstore.)
Lend Me Your Ears: Great speeches in history edited by William Safire (1992, 1997, 2004). Former US Presidential speech writer turned columnist William Safire compiles great speeches from Demosthenes (we looked him up to confirm our assumption he was a famous Greek orator -- he was -- from the 4th century) to the era of George W. Bush. The preface describes what Mr. Safire believes makes a great speech. The many, many speeches he selected are then divided into sections, including, but not limited to a section on "memorial and patriotic speeches" which highlights Mark Twain's speech, delivered in London in 1899, celebrating the Fourth of July. The section on "inspirational speeches" includes William Faulkner's Nobel Prize speech from 1950 during which he charged writers to help traits of compassion, honor, courage and sacrifice prevail in the world. In the speeches collected under "social responsibility", you will see Senator Margaret Chase Smith's "declaration of conscience" against McCarthyism that separates her form of Republicanism from Senator McCarthy's, as well as Malcolm X's call to African Americans to confront white oppression while speaking in Detroit on Valentine's Day 1965. The political speeches offer an international flair with words from Benjamin Disraeli of the UK, Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev, and President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt, among others. As Booklist said in their review of this collection, "to teach and to please, some Greek once advised, is the function of great rhetoric, and Safire has put together [a] volume that embod[ies] those functions and their power." This would be a great gift for any upcoming graduates in your life.
We Are The Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama edited by EJ Dionne and Joy-Ann Reid (2017). This collection begins where the previous collection ended - with the Candidacy and then Presidency of Barack Obama. In this volume, two American journalists examine the speeches of Barack Obama, describing them as the force that propelled him onto the national stage, and as the way he both spoke to the national mood and changed the course of public discourse in the United States. Mr. Dionne and Ms. Reid begin this book by framing Obama’s oratorical contributions in a historical context. They then introduce each of the 27 speeches they selected to highlight, providing important context for each. Their selections include President Obama's two inaugural addresses. They also chose more poignant speeches such as his 2015 eulogy for the honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, SC - which he concluded by singing Amazing Grace, and his concession speech "Yes We Can" after losing the 2008 New Hampshire Primary. The book is beautifully produced and makes a great gift for graduates and/or others interested in Presidents, US history, or great speeches. As for the rest of us, may we read it and discover our evolving role in the change we seek.
Once again it is time to see how well we honor our promise to represent a diverse array of authors. Why? Well, because we truly believe we are what we read; and also because we truly believe that the best way to expand your horizons (when you can’t actually travel or talk to new people - hello covid restrictions) is to read books written by or about people who are different from you (in our case people of color, or people living outside the USA). It is our hope that we honor diverse authors throughout the year. We also use these audits to expose the voices we are missing in our own personal reading habits, allowing us to fill those gaps during our next year of reviews. So one quick number -- overall in 2020, 47% of the authors we reviewed were persons of color (up from 28% in 2019 and 36% in 2018).
So now, some reviews of great books for Black History Month, followed by numbers from this latest audit for those of you who like data.
YA and CHILDREN'S
Punching The Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (2020). A powerful look at life from the eyes of an incarcerated Black teen. Amal, whose name translates to hope - an important aspect required for his survival while incarcerated - remains in jail after a fight with some white teens landed one white boy in a coma and him in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Did he throw the first punch? Yes. Did he beat a white boy into a coma - No. And yet he sits in jail because even his character witnesses - in particular a teacher from his school - see him as an angry Black boy. What feeds his hope? It's some sage advice from some of the boys preceding him into incarceration, a poet teaching classes to any boy who "earns" the privilege, and a guest whose exploration of mistakes, misgivings, and systems reminds Amal that speaking his truth is the most important thing he can do, as well as the one thing no one can take away. Told in poetry and based on the actual experiences of Dr. Yusef Salaam, one of the "Central Park/Exonerated Five", this book will hopefully change how we view our prison system and move us to action. ~ Lisa Christie
The Black Friend by Frederick Joseph (2020). To begin -- this YA book is also great for adults and I think would be excellent for Book Clubs and classroom discussions for anyone interested in racial justice and becoming better anti-racists/up-standers. Written by Mr. Joseph as if he is a friend of the reader, he walks his new friends through how comments such as "I don't see color" and other micro-aggressions, as well as examples of more overt racism, are just wrong and need to end. The book is divided into chapters by themes, with a conversation between Mr. Joseph and other experts on that theme ending each chapter. Full of practical advice and lists of "people and things to know" throughout each chapter and then helpfully compiled at the end (I currently have the songs on rotation on Spotify), this book is a great place to start one's own work on being a better person and actively anti-racist. It also feels important to highlight Mr. Joseph's reminder that "that this book is a gift not an obligation" (p. 195), because "while this book is meant to be a guide for white people to understand and be better, it's important that white people also understand that it isn't the duty of Black people or people of color to explain things" (p. 194). Enjoy his gift of this book. ~ Lisa Christie
The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed (2020) and Twilight Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith. In The Black Kids, Ashley Bennett and her friends are enjoying their senior year spring in Los Angeles in 1992. They are worried about which college will accept them (Stanford? UC Berkeley?) and how often they can successfully cut classes to lay on the beach or sneak a swim in the pool of a neighboring mansion. As you may guess from the year and the location, everything changes one night when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating Rodney King to death. Suddenly even though Ashley has been questioning her choices of friends yet hasn't been able to cut them loose because they've been friends since kindergarten, the fact that Ashley is Black and her friends are not, means Ashley is now one of "the Black kids". Her world suddenly and methodically starts to crumble: her estranged older sister is involved in the riots, her family's success as a "model Black family" is no longer enough, her so called friends spread a rumor that endangers the future of one of the other "Black kids" at her prep school, and Los Angeles is literally burning around her. The historical setting unearths questions and highlights racism with us today. And if you or your YA fans need more information about the Rodney King murder, the riots, and their aftermath, put Twilight Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith in their hands. Using nine months of interviews with more than two hundred people, Twilight explores the impact of Rodney King's murder and the five days of riots that followed the acquittal of the police officers involved. Anna Deavere Smith truly is a genius and thanks to PBS, you can see her perform Twilight here. ~ Lisa Christie
Who Is? What Was? series (assorted years). We recommend these books often and do so because they offer a superb intro for chapter book readers into many people and places and events. They also keep growing in the subjects they tackle. These books are forever referred to as the bobblehead books due to their distinct illustrations in Lisa Christie's household and their lengthy list of titles provides MANY MANY opportunities to learn about people who are different from you. Enjoy! ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
The Color of Water by James McBride (1996). I’ve wanted to read this for a long time - and now wish that I had sooner. Many of you may already be familiar with this American classic as it was first published 25 years ago. If you haven’t yet gotten to it, hopefully this review will alert you that McBride’s memoir of being a Black boy raised in 1960’s America by a white mother remains essential reading. It still resonates today on many levels as it touches on so many complicated themes (social, political, religious, and educational) and yet somehow is simultaneously imminently readable, lyrical, and even poetic. Told in chapters that alternate between his mother’s words and McBride’s own voice, this book is a sometimes painful, sometimes joyous, sometimes funny trip throughout seventy years of United States history. He wrote it when working as a journalist in his late thirties, married, and raising a family of his own, driven by the desire to understand his own mother’s complex history. This book is also a loving celebration of her, a rabbi’s daughter born in Poland in 1921 who went on to raise 12 highly accomplished children while living in Harlem and Red Hook New York after being raised in the south and converting to Christianity and starting a church. In case you’re wondering about the title, below is an excerpt of a conversation a young James McBride remembers having with his mother:
“What color is god’s spirit?”
“It doesn’t have a color,” she said. “God is the color water. Water does not have a color.”
Highly recommended reading. Especially if you’re curious to know more about this talented author (and musician!) who wrote the National Book Award winning The Good Lord Bird as well as 2020’s Deacon King Kong (now being adapted for TV and also reviewed in this post). ~Lisa Cadow
Deacon King Kong by James McBride (2020). We really honestly can not review this superb book better than the Norwich Bookstore's Carin Pratt did last spring when this novel arrived on the scene. So we will just quote her directly here - Deacon King Kong is many things -- a mystery, a crime novel, a detailed portrait of a (mostly) African American urban community in New York, a love story (or two), and a farce. It is filled with "the humor of survival." (And God knows, we need that now.) McBride clearly had a ball creating the Deacon, who is a sot, a handyman, a widower who still talks to his wife, a baseball umpire and, despite his failings, a moral force in the community. It's almost impossible to paraphrase the plot(s), so I won't. Just know that McBride's formidable strengths as a storyteller and character builder (not to mention master of dialogue) shine in this blast of a book." We will add we think it would be a great Book Club pick. ~ Carin Pratt and seconded and thirded (new word) by Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour (2021). This darkly humorous fictional look at the tech industry was a perfect follow-up to the Book Jam's recent reading of Anna Wiener's Uncanny Valley Ms. Wiener offers an atmospheric chronicle of her gradual disillusionment with the sector. Mr. Askaripour satarizes all of that and more in this "self-help" book, narrated by Buck, An African-American 20-something picked out from behind a Starbuck counter to become an integral part of a high tech start-up. As far as Buck can tell the purpose of the start up is to sell tools that users help create the best version of themselves; but he isn't entirely sure. While both Ms. Wiener and Mr. Askaripour point out the absurdities of the start-up culture, Mr. Askaripour goes further and pointedly highlights the absurdities and insidious nature of systemic racism in corporate America and well, America. The cringe-worthy incidents Buck endures somehow don't dampen his extremely grounded sense of self and generosity of spirit, leaving you turning pages rapidly to discover what could possibly happen next and how Buck will handle it, and also wondering how you yourself can change your part in systemic racism. ~ Lisa Christie
So now to the results from our audit of books we read between February 2020 and this post. The fine print for this audit: we did not include guest columns, or "Pages in the Pub", "BOOK BUZZ", or the “3 Questions” series, because we don’t control those selections. We also excluded books written by groups such as Lonely Planet or series written by a variety of authors. Although we know some of the authors we highlighted identify as members of the LGBTQ community, we do not know the sexual orientations for all the authors we review, and thus do not audit by sexual orientation. We also do not have access to economic class statistics. Thus, our diversity audit focuses on gender and race/ethnicity.
That said, we will begin with the fact the number of books we reviewed increased to 153 books from 94 books in the 2019 audit. This is down from 202 books reviewed in 2018, and 164 in 2017.
Some significant numbers from this 2020 audit: Women authors were 65% (57% in 2019) of the authors we featured. Staying with stats regarding women, almost a quarter (21%) of all authors we featured were white women from the USA (holding steady from 21% in 2019, down from 32% in 2018), and 14% of all authors we read were white women from outside the USA (down from 20% in 2019 and up from 8% in 2018). We featured more Latina authors 11% this past year, compared to only 2% in 2019 and 4% in 2018. Only 1% were Asian women (down from 4% in 2019 and 6% in 2018). We featured more Black women in 2020 14% up from 10% in 2019 and 12% in 2018).
There was a mixed bag in terms of the ethnic diversity in the men we reviewed this year compared to previous years. White men from the USA were 17% (down from 23% the previous audit) of the authors we featured. Slightly over one in ten (13%) of the authors we featured were white men from outside of the USA (up from 8%). Exactly 5% (down from 7% previous audit) of the authors were Black men from anywhere in the world. Very few authors (1%) we featured were Asian men or Latinos (1%), none were Middle Eastern men (down from 2% last year). We did increase the number of Native American male authors we featured (2%) this year, compared to none last year.
Adding men and women together, 47% of the authors we reviewed were persons of color (up from 28% in 2019 and 36% in 2018). Within the white authors there was a decrease in geographic diversity, 21% (down from 33% in 2019) of the white authors we featured were from outside the USA (16% in 2018). The largest group of authors of color were Black (24%), up from 15% in 2019 and 13% in 2018.
To sum, we improved the percentage of authors of color we reviewed: 47% of all authors reviewed in 2020, 28% of authors in 2019, 36% of authors in 2018, 32% in 2017, 26% in 2016, 23% in 2015 were authors of color. We remain curious if our percentages are greater than the percentages of authors of color published in the USA each year. And, once again, we vow to continue to review a great diversity of authors.