The best parts of Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, for me, are when the author describes experiments that show how deeply rooted prejudice can be, for instance that we don’t process “out-group” faces as deeply as more familiar faces, or that we do not notice nonverbal slights against minority characters in TV shows (and the actors in the shows may not notice either!). Other chapters present a more standard recitation of past and present racism horrors of various types. Sadly, there’s not a whole lot that can be done to change implicit bias, although training can, blessedly, avoid applying the biases blindly.
Cherokee America is a fictional matriarch, inspired by the author’s grandmother, and in the story she has to contend with a dying husband, a wayward son, a dead newborn, orphans, a murder, a falsely accused black servant, and the white judge who would love to disrupt Native American justice. It’s an enjoyable rambling story with abundant historical references to the Trail of Tears and the Civil War. A big too much happens to that one woman in the course of the novel, and her son’s sexual urges are described a bit too comprehensively, but it makes for a long and rich story with lots of interesting characters.
Mary Mildred Williams, whose photo graces the cover Girl in Black and White: The Story of Mary Mildred Williams and the Abolition Movement was a slave because her mother was a slave, but she looked so white that she was used by Senator Sumner in abolitionist lectures, with the very uncomfortable argument that a system that enslaves white people must be wrong. O, Senator Sumner! The book traces the history of Mary’s family, starting with her grandmother and the complicated family of her master, and the various legal judgments that accompanied Mary’s move to Boston.
The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers is the story of a fascinating woman, the author’s mother, who ran a successful (illegal) lottery in Detroit for decades. In a less racist environment, she would have managed a much larger business. She is shown balancing her work and her family, including a disabled husband and five children, and helping quite a number of young women through tough times.
A second, strong theme is the sad transformation of Detroit into a violent and very poor city, adding to her private problems in addition to her business problem, competition from the state lottery. The story meanders and repeats itself at times, but it’s well worth reading.
The author of Solitary spent over 40 years in the Angola prison of Louisiana, most of it alone in a cell 23 hours a day, and almost all of it for a crime he did not commit. He freely admits that his life pre-prison was mostly spent on the wrong side of the law, but nothing that would send him away for that long, or under such a harsh treatment. Racism was at the center of the prison (just as a very mild example, the guards were called “freemen”) and institutional racism meant that framing an African-American man for murder was swiftly arranged. It’s a miracle that he got out, and as undamaged as he did.
The woman at the center of Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster must have been a formidable lady (and the author, her grandson, confesses to having be a little afraid of her growing up!). At a time when women and African Americans had very few professional opportunities, she went to college, went to law school, prosecuted the mob in New York City, and was active in many women and African American organizations. And apparently threw great parties to boot!
Alas, her contributions to the New York justice system did not allow her to rise to higher offices, perhaps because of her brother’s communist affiliations. And she seems to have pretty much abandoned her son to be raised by others (not that her husband did much to raise him either!) It’s an exceptional life, but told in what, to me, was excruciating detail.
Heavy: An American Memoir is not, or not only, a memoir of man with a weight problem. It’s a powerful description of what it’s like to grow up in a body that marks you for abuse and discrimination, in a family where abuse is rampant alongside fierce love. The author chose to write the story as an ambitious and forceful diatribe to his mother, a woman of great intellect but also deeply flawed, and the result is astonishing.
If you decided 2019 would be a great year to read a serious book, this is it.