Monday, May 7, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 17

Welcome to Week 17 of A People's Read-a-long! We're reading a chapter a week, and as someone who would rather read fiction, I'm still finding the pace a delightful way to sprinkle in some non-fiction. Note: the hosts have switched to posting every other week instead of every week, but I'm bucking the trend and posting every week. This week is a week everyone is posting. (Missed the earlier posts? Check them all out here.)

My thoughts: Chapter 17, "Or Does It Explode?" focuses on the civil rights movement. Zinn opens the chapter by backtracking in time to the early 1900s and tracing the artistic output of black people: "a society of complex controls, both crude and refined, secret thoughts can often be found in the arts, and so it was in black society." It was a delight to read the beautiful words of so many black poets and writers and ponder the distinctions between jazz and blues music as political messages. After reading Half Blood Blues (my review) last week, it was particularly moving. There were also references to the Scottsboro boys, which obviously reminded me of  Ellen Feldman's divine novel Scottsboro (my review). There were also echoes of Toni Morrison's remarkable new novella Home (my review) as Zinn discussed the segregated armed forces and the plight of black soldiers once war ended.

I've realized that the parts of A People's History I've enjoyed most have reminded me of historical fiction I've read and enjoyed. Zinn provides an overarching history, scads of quoted primary source material, and statistics, but despite these strengths, what this book has lacked overall is some form of narrative. It's not necessarily a criticism, as I don't think it was Zinn's intention. For me, a reader who greatly prefers fiction to non-fiction, it's often meant reading without emotional investment. The strongest emotional chapters are coming from places other than Zinn's work. It's also why I'm glad to be reading a chapter a week. Without a narrative, I don't think I could read this book exclusively.

Back to this chapter: I've been intrigued with the civil rights movement for years, and this chapter was among my favorites because I already had a strong interest and knowledge about it. One challenge, as this book gets closer to the present, is confronting the actions of people I've admired. Somehow it's easier to accept the racist, sexist and classist actions of leaders a hundred years ago, but the actions of Robert Kennedy bring me sadness: "Attorney General Robert Kennedy, instead of insisting on their right to travel without being arrested, agreed to the Freedom Riders’ being arrested in Jackson, in return for Mississippi police protection against possible mob violence."

What was most jarring in this chapter were the economic statistics:
  • "In the spring of 1963, the rate of unemployment for whites was 4.8 percent. For nonwhites it was 12.1 percent."
  • "According to government estimates, one-fifth of the white population was below the poverty line, and one-half of the black population was below that line."
  • In 1974, "the total receipts of black-owned firms accounted for 0.3 percent of all business income."
  • "Despite the new opportunities for a small number of blacks, the median black family income of 1977 was only about 60 percent that of whites; blacks were twice as likely to die of diabetes; seven times as likely to be victims of homicidal violence rising out of the poverty and despair of the ghetto."
Aside from the third statistic, what I found most startling, and shouldn't be surprised by, is how similar these numbers are to our current economic plight. This recession is hitting black people (and young people) harder. We know more blacks than whites live below the poverty line. As I've said throughout this book, it's depressing how little has changed in some ways, and the closer the book comes to the present, I'm surprised to still feel the same way. When will we come together to solve these problems? With the next chapter set to focus on the Vietnam War, I'm guessing any sense of hope left from the civil rights movement and communities joining together will soon be lost.

Intrigued? Read along! Buy A People's History of the United States from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (the Kindle version.) You don't have to post each week (or at all!) Keep up with the read-a-long hosts at Fizzy Thoughts. Note: Jenners from Life...with Books has dropped out of her own read-a-thon.

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1 comment:

  1. I agree with you that the lack of a narrative would make this book difficult to read straight through. I feel that there are good bones for a wonderful book but that Zinn's writing and structure hurt it. The book I wished this had been and what is turned out to be was so vast. I almost wish that someone would take this and rewrite it in some way.

    It is sad that so much of what is discussed in these pages don't necessarily feel like issues that are resolved and in the past. That is one of the more depressing things about reading this book.

    As always, I appreciate your posts on the book.

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