Amos Jasper Wright IV talks southern reads, books that shaped the civil rights movement, and avoiding Mardi Gras beads.
I haven’t kept a fixed address long enough to organize these books systematically, and it is possible that I never will. Many of these books have followed me — boxed in U-Hauls — between Alabama, Massachusetts, and Louisiana, including the many moves within the borders of those states, and they will undoubtedly follow me to my next address. Every time I move these ponderous boxes of books, I forswear them and declare my intent to read only ebooks, but a bookless room somehow feels cold and impersonal to me. Enough of my time is spent staring at computer screens; I don’t need eReaders zapping my eyesight, too.
Some of the books featured in these photos have been read more recently than others. Many of the books pictured— Heart of Darkness or Invisible Man — are famous enough that they speak for themselves and certainly do not require my annotation or introduction. Although I primarily write what is called fiction, my reading interests range the gamut of fiction and nonfiction. Caleb Johnson’s Treeborne — a novel set in my home state of Alabama — is the most recent addition to this stack; others I’ve had so long I no longer remember their exact provenance. And, even though I read it years ago, I can still hear the cantankerous, nihilistic, solipsistic voice of Thomas Bernhard’s Extinction. Yes, because some words are a call to action, and not solipsism, just as Huey P. Newton would have wanted it, those are brass knuckles on top of Revolutionary Suicide.
James Baldwin. Reading James Baldwin’s nonfiction was both an awakening to the situation that confronts us through the heightened consciousness Baldwin develops in his gorgeous and exigent language, and a recognition — even though Baldwin writes out of another era — of how little things have changed, of how I have suspected things stood all along. I devoured the entirety of the Library of America’s edition of his Collected Essays, binge-reading through Nobody Knows My Name, No Name in the Street, and The Fire Next Time. Although Baldwin was a black northerner and spent many years abroad, and I am a white man from a southern state that treated him as a second-class citizen when he visited, I felt a sense of kinship or brotherhood (if that is indeed the word) with Baldwin that I did not with Du Bois. His Collected Essays should come as a punch in the gut to readers of our “woke” 21st Century in the Anthropocene. Baldwin’s eloquent and forceful prose gracefully performs Muhammad Ali’s pugilistic dictum to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Baldwin warns us, borrowing a biblical phrase that resonates with this particular southerner: no more water, the fire next time!
Eldridge Cleaver. Soul on Ice. If Baldwin was a punch in the gut, then Cleaver was the suckerpunch, the counterpunch, the haymaker, and the windmill all rolled into one. Soul on Ice is not an ordinary prison memoir — a genre into which so many black militants were forced by the penal colony of total incarceration that surrounded them. Though Cleaver often criticized Baldwin — especially on issues of sexuality and gender, whereon Cleaver is sometimes problematic, and perhaps because Baldwin was perceived as being less radical than Cleaver, being too aloof from the trenches — they were in agreement on some points. And anyway, who said agreement has to be brokered between two brilliant and distinct voices? Like H. Rap Brown, Eldridge Cleaver does not euphemize, prettify, or mince words — he is not interested in sparing the feelings of mainstream white America, nor should he be. His words are tomahawks straight from Folsom State Prison. In the essay “White Woman, Black Man,” he dissects the fraught sexual relations between white women and black men, a relation Cleaver knew well. Through Cleaver’s trenchant and sardonic essays, we learn what prison life was like for this black man gifted with a very articulate intelligence who was convicted of rape. While many black militants were incarcerated on dubious offenses or wholly fabricated charges, and Cleaver committed these crimes before being converted to the Nation of Islam, he describes why he committed these politically and militantly motivated crimes, the method for their execution, and how he came to terms with his own guilt. Cleaver expounds his binary theory of the racialization of mind and body — in Cleaver’s analysis, blacks are identified with the body, and whites are identified with the mind, represented by the Omnipotent Administrator, a sort of Grand Dragon bureaucrat, not as a matter of course but as a matter of the white hegemonic order. He describes his conversion to the Nation of Islam, and his irreversible break with Elijah Muhammad and alignment with Malcolm X, whose assassination affected him and other incarcerated black militants deeply. When Cleaver is not deploying his acumen against the specter of what he calls the Omnipotent Administrator, he reveals himself most intimately in the tender and open love letters exchanged between the attorney who eventually became his wife (Cleaver can woo with words!) and himself. Baldwin and Cleaver reveal the extent to which racism distorts the mind and soul of the racist as much as it does its victims and the white allies of the beautiful struggle. Later in life, as Cleaver experimented with strange beliefs, sampling religions (including Mormonism) and even running for public office as a Republican — it is not clear whether one is being masterfully trolled or if the Omnipotent Administrator got to Cleaver in the end.
Charles S. Johnson. Shadow of the Plantation. A sophisticated sociological study of the plantation legacy in Macon County, Alabama — I recently read through this book’s statistical tables, interview transcripts, qualitative descriptions, elegiac narratives, and thoughtful arguments, while conducting “research” on Tuskegee, a town in the Black Belt infamous for the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Johnson skillfully combines hybrid methodologies to reveal the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of the economic regime of sharecropping and tenant farming, which many of his informants described as more brutal than slavery. Along the way, he uncovers their religious beliefs, farming techniques, education, kinship structures, health habits, marital systems, and other aspects of their rural folkways and lifestyles — a total picture of how black sharecroppers and tenant farmers were trapped by a system deliberately contrived to keep them in tenantry and bondage. Although the Tuskegee syphilis experiments are mentioned only in passing, and this book was written many decades before that experiment came to light, Johnson rigorously chronicles the conditions in which such a morally dubious experiment was able to be quietly and covertly conducted by the Public Health Service on a vulnerable population. I’m a native Alabaman who grew up less than two hours away from where the book is set, and the shadow of the plantation still darkens much of Alabama. Shadow of the Plantation is a necessary read for anyone interested in the historical conditions and the intergenerational effects of institutionalized racism as it was embodied in the plantation system.
Claude Lévi-Strauss. Tristes Tropiques. “I hate traveling and explorers,” Strauss somewhat ironically begins his travelogue of the tropics. One can see why Strauss might have hated explorers, as European explorers were responsible for the devastation of the indigenous peoples he devoted much of his life to studying, though Strauss was mournfully aware of the epistemological and cultural contradictions or dilemmas involved with a Westerner traveling to study native cultures being assimilated (or destroyed) by Westerners like himself. For an anthropologist as observant and conscientious as Strauss, this is no mere academic matter. The West seems to destroy, convert, or bunglingly assimilate whatever native culture it comes into contact with. But before the Bororo and other peoples vanished entirely, Strauss departed his native France for the jungles of the Amazonian interior. Strauss sketches the metaphysical and anthropological systems behind the layout of a tribal village, and extrapolates the meaning hidden in the arabesques and intricate geometries of body painting, which appears naïve only to the inexpert, uninitiated eye. A haunting valediction to disappearing tribes in the heart of Brazil, Tristes Tropiques is his most lucid explication of Structuralist anthropology. The Western project has mapped and categorized every inch of the earth; the terrestrial globe contains no more terra incognita. At the time of Strauss’ writing, this isolated region of the Amazon was one of the last remaining areas untouched by the West. One wonders who will write the valediction if — dare I say when? — Western civilization also vanishes or implodes under the weight of its own contradictions. Sad tropics, indeed.
John Howard Griffin. Black Like Me. John Howard Griffin may be the first and last white man to “experience” briefly the Jim Crow south as a black man, or to pierce what Du Bois metaphorically called The Veil. The author voluntarily underwent a dermatological treatment to darken his skin, thereby enabling him to pass as Negro. The book documents this experimental transformation, its consequences for him and his family, its effects on his consciousness, and his travels through the Jim Crow south in New Orleans, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, experiencing for himself the many petty discriminations constituting the daily lives of black men and women living under the Jim Crow regime, whether it was searching for a job, housing, or using public transport. This book is a cogent and personal deconstruction of the social construction of race in America.
David Redmon. Beads, Bodies, and Trash. I read this sociological study during Mardi Gras this year and will never experience Mardi Gras in quite the same way again. I’ve always been skeptical of Mardi Gras’ more Disneyfied spectacles, but Redmon’s study investigates the materiality of the business. Redmon scrutinizes the commodified practices of Mardi Gras under a commodity supply chain analysis to track Mardi Gras beads from their site of production in the free enterprise zones of China to their sites of consumption on the streets of New Orleans. While Redmon focuses almost exclusively on Bourbon Street garbage culture, which is not representative of carnival or the festival season per se (there are traditions of neighborhood street parades in New Orleans which are not part of the dominant, mass-marketed disposability of Bourbon Street culture), he implicates this particular iteration of commercialized Mardi Gras in a global ecological crisis and humanitarian abuses, as the Chinese laborers who manufacture these beads for American street parties are subjected to gruesome working conditions that are only nominally differentiated from slavery in the American South. In this account, however, the plantation has been outsourced. It would appear that the same forces that put Cleaver behind bars, forced James Baldwin to flee his homeland for the relative reprieve of France, and annihilated the tribes of Tristes Tropiques are also at work in the global commodity chains of Mardi Gras beads — how insidiously the West often co-opts and neutralizes cultural practices that could organize dissent. Bourbon Street is a kind of corporatized “safe space” for the cathartic expression of repressed desires, a seemingly — and no more than that — spontaneous release valve for tourists who visit New Orleans to escape the tedium and doldrums of their workaday lives in ludic leisure. In reality, the culture of Bourbon Street is highly scripted and predictable. It is managed chaos. Mardi Gras has been subsumed by what Theodor Adorno called The Culture Industry. Most disturbing was the book’s scientific account of the beads’ lead toxicity resulting from the gradual degradation of the lead-based paint, which enters the soils and the body, so that the bodies used in these performances of ludic leisure are also polluted by the deviant objects of global capitalism. After reading Redmon’s insightful study, I will never touch another plastic Mardi Gras bead again. Laissez les bons temps rouler!