Living Alternate Histories with Underground Airlines

Angela Davis

My grandmother once told me a story that stretched the limits of my understandings of racial fear. Years ago she was relocating with her family for my grandfather’s job. They planned to drive to their new home and considered taking a detour through the South as an add-on to their trip.

At this time however, Angela Davis had just been added to the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and the entire country was focused on the story. My grandmother, who is a light-skinned black woman that used to wear her hair in an Afro, was afraid of being mistaken for Davis, particularly in the South, where they perceived greater hostility. So after some deliberation, she and my grandfather decided not to travel through the South after all, bypassing it on their journey.

Now, aside from being light-skinned, I personally don’t think my grandmother looks anything like Angela Davis. When I first heard the story I had a hard time understanding what it would feel like to be alive and black during that period in time. Because of the relatively safer and calmer context I grew up in, it is almost impossible for me to fully relate to that generalized sense of racial fear. To really understand my grandmother’s story, I had to imagine a completely different world from the one in which I came of age. (Though as #BlackLivesMatter shows, racial fear is still alive and well in the world. Unlike my experience, all too many young black people grow up quite aware of it.)

Underground AirlinesReading Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters reminded me of my grandmother’s story because it is also about using the imagination to understand another world. It’s about using the tool of speculative fiction to cultivate empathy for what it can be like as a black person living in a geography of racial fear. The particular context here is slavery.

Underground Airlines is told from the perspective of the main character, who goes by Victor. Victor lives in the modern-day U.S. with one big difference — slavery still exists in four states. He’s a black man who works for the U.S. Marshall Service to help find and return escaped slaves from the slave states. As the story goes along you learn more and more about seedy things that have been going on in the background of reputable organizations on all sides. Victor has to face his own past and what he’s willing to do to keep his personal freedom.

Underground Airlines, though a thriller at its core, explores deep moral questions. Winters leads you to think about what you would do to preserve your own safety in such a compromised society. The people you would betray. Those you would manipulate. Just as interesting is the exploration of corruption among modern-day abolitionists. Winters plays with what the desire to be a “savior” can do to the psyche, and how it can corrupt. He suggests that individual people can begin to matter much less than the cause as a whole. The book is a fascinating look at what happens when who we are collides with who we imagine ourselves to be.

I’d be remiss not to mention Octavia Butler’s Kindred in reviewing Underground Airlines. In Kindred, a black woman is involuntarily trapped in a cycle of going back in time to the plantation where her ancestors were enslaved. The book explores the very real and painful ways in which the institution of slavery corrupts all morals and good intentions. Kindred was a groundbreaking mashup of the modern world and the old establishment of slavery, and Winters’ work follows in that tradition. Constance Grady’s article in Vox captures some important ways that Winters draws upon Butler’s cannon.

I am white, and I wrote this book because I think it is incumbent on white people, white authors very much included, to think about racism, to grapple with racism, and to engage with it.
Ben H. Winters

One of the great strengths of speculative fiction, is that the literal worlds it forces you to consider are often based on real world “what if” questions with current day implications. Just as the world of my grandmother’s story pushed me to expand my understandings of what her life experiences encompass, speculative fiction can take you to a new mental place, to a new body. It can play with your world in subtle ways to make you consider new possibilities and perspectives. We have to leave our entrenched beliefs behind a little when reality gets slightly warped. We don’t always know who we would be in the story.


Note: I received an advance reading copy of this book from the publisher for review.

Image Source: About.com

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Faith, Fat Chances, and Gentrification

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Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I’m always talking about gentrification, displacement, and diversity. That’s one of the reasons why I was commenting earlier this month in a #DiverseBookBloggers thread about how we need books by authors of color about neighborhood change. Then I happened to pick up Carla Trujillo’s Faith and Fat Chances and found exactly that conversation on the page.

Faith and Fat Chances takes place in a (as far as I can tell) fictional community right outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico called Dogtown that is being threatened by a winery development that would force most of the residents to relocate elsewhere. Just fyi, for anyone who has read What Night Brings, Trujillo’s first novel about a child growing up in a household of domestic violence, Faith and Fat Chances feels like a much lighter read.

Faith and Fat ChancesI didn’t find the book as riveting as I wanted it to be. Some of the characters seemed underdeveloped and the plot moved slower than I’m used to. That being said, I really loved a couple of the main characters, especially Pepa, an older curandera (a type of folk healer) whom all the residents of Dogtown come to with their ailments, both physical and spiritual.

I also enjoyed Tala, a character whose brother is trying to build the despised winery, and who leads the fight to try and save their town. Tala and several other characters fall on the LGBT spectrum, which is great since more books need gender and sexual orientation diversity. Many of the residents of Dogtown are Latino, and the book has lots of Spanglish going on, which felt important to the story voice.

There’s also a healthy dose of magical realism here, which in my opinion usually makes a book more intriguing. Think: a mysterious rain that menaces the town and won’t stop until people get their *ish* together. A few other details like this add some of the humor and lightness to the book.

I can’t help but wonder if Trujillo was interested to write on this subject matter given that she’s a Bay Area local, where the conversation around gentrification and demographic change has been raging for years. While Dogtown’s landscape looks a lot different from that of Oakland or San Francisco, I kept getting eerie chills on hearing the rhetoric of the developers and the mayor of the fake city. It hits close to home.

While I’ve seen a lot of nonfiction, especially online articles, talking about changing neighborhoods, there are fewer fiction books that I’ve come across that really address the topic. One that does come to mind is Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, a large family drama set in present-day Detroit (great book, go read it!). But I’m hoping that talking about gentrification is a new trend in literature.

Ghettoside in Los Angeles

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I just finished working my way through Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, which is a deep dive into the LA Police Department’s homicide detective unit for South LA. I picked this one up at the library thinking it would be a perfect intersection of my interests: black people, urban challenges, and criminal justice, but I have to admit I came away conflicted.

GhettosideGhettoside follows LAPD Detective Skaggs as he tries to solve the murder of a colleague’s son. Leovy spends a lot of time describing Skaggs’ character — how hardworking and dedicated he is to seeing each case through to the end. She also builds a picture of South LA from the point of view of several residents, especially those who have lost loved ones to homicide. She describes the unpredictable certainty of violence for young black men in the area, and all of the complex ways people try to avoid it.

Leovy’s got a lot of great going on here. She embedded with LAPD to really get deep on the story, and as a result, the book is almost like a fictional crime thriller in how close it shadows detectives working homicide cases. She shows the real burnout that detectives face trying to handle massive caseloads and working without optimal funding resources. And she encapsulates some of the real tragedy of losing family members and friends to violence.

But at the same time there’s a not-so-subtle message that Leovy’s putting out through the book, which is the idea that black neighborhoods wouldn’t be such violent and forsaken places if cities put more of their resources into swiftly and harshly punishing black perpetrators of homicide:

When violent people are permitted to operate with impunity, they get their way. Advantage tilts to them. Others are forced to do their bidding. No amount of ‘community’ feeling or activism can eclipse this dynamic […] [Victims] need some powerful outside force to sweep in and take their tormentors away. That’s what the criminal justice system is for.

Of course it’s true that black people in high-crime neighborhoods wish there were less violence. Middle-class blacks in particular move away from neighborhoods all the time because they’ve had experiences with (or fear) community violence. To pretend that fear doesn’t matter would be disrespectful.

However, it’s overly-simplistic to make one factor seem like the sole cause of a massive issue like black-on-black homicide. As Ta-Nehisi Coates eloquently described in his essay The Case for Reparations, black people and black communities have been through countless rounds of violence and marginalization since slavery. A simplistic stroke of “taking tormentors away” would in reality mean gauging more holes into already broken family networks and not solving the root problems that lead to crime, such as unemployment, poor housing, and continued de facto segregation.

Leovy herself notes that when someone is killed in South LA, or when someone snitches, there’s frequently a hit put out on that person. Removing residents to put them in prison wouldn’t stop others from going after the witnesses who put someone behind bars. The cycle would continue.

Again, I think Leovy does have a lot of insightful content here, especially when it comes to noting how black-on-black homicides often get ignored by police structures, and that this kind of violence can thrive within communities that feel abandoned by the rest of the world. It’s just that the abandonment isn’t solely about public safety, it’s about economic empowerment and a host of other issues too.


Header Image: Flickr

Caribbean Tourism and A Brief History of Seven Killings

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When the 2015 Man Booker Prize was announced, and I saw that it was a Jamaican author for the first time, and an LGBT author to boot, I knew I’d need to investigate. It was partially the desire to be a cheerleader for diversity at the highest levels of the literary mountain, but also an interest in deepening some of my past experiences.

I’ve never been to the Jamaica that James talks about with A Brief History of Seven Killings. But I have been to Jamaica. When I was younger my family took a once-in-a-lifetime Caribbean cruise, and I remember our guided adventure clambering up the Dunn’s River Falls — one of the popular tourist attractions in a curated section of the island. The experience was magical, yet I was also uncomfortable with my clearly delineated tourist role.

A Brief History of Seven KillingsOn this same trip our boat stopped in Labadee on the island of Haiti, another part of the Caribbean that’s carefully guarded to keep tourists happy and keep most locals out. I remember going out into the ocean alone at the Labadee beach. There was this little area that was roped off as the place to swim and across the water I could see the rest of Haiti, not just the little section that we were on.

I had a pool chair and lay floating on top of it. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life. The sky was this ridiculous blue and the water was so clear that it looked like glass and shadows. It was paradise to a T. And at the same time I had an inkling of how carefully constructed it all was.

At the time I was reading Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder’s powerful investigation into the work of Dr. Paul Farmer, who had been working on bringing medicine for infectious diseases to Haiti for years. I knew that what I was seeing on my vacation was so much different than the reality lived by Hatians and Jamaicans beyond the borders of the resort. And because of that, I couldn’t settle. I felt guilty and I wanted to learn more about this place. Years later, A Brief History came my way, with it’s gritty depictions of Jamaica’s Eight Lanes and Copenhagen City neighborhoods.

Marlon’s book is an epic work of fiction that’s clearly grounded in years of research. It looks at a particular period of time, when Bob Marley was everything — the god of Jamaica who kept it real and didn’t lose touch with the people he knew before he was famous. And yet, Marley was also the subject of an assassination attempt by his own people, which is the historical point that the entire books spins into and out of.

It was a challenging read, since each chapter is written from the point of view of a different character, and much of the book is in Jamaican patois. But what kept me moving through it was the fantastic job that Marlon did in bringing out the various voices — male, female, rich, poor, Jamaican, American, etc. — and layering the various actors together in a way that reveals no clear right or wrong.

Parts of the book aren’t dissimilar to The Wire, where you have government officials and politicians working to quell the violence of poor, gang areas, while always looking after their own interests. The drug trade is a prominent aspect of the story as well. I definitely came away from A Brief History with a bigger picture of Jamaica than when I went in, and I’m happy to now hold that more complex impression, instilled by a master of literature.

Header Image: Wikimedia

Open City Wanderings

Open CityI couldn’t remember what life was like before I started walking.
—Teju Cole,
 Open City

I read Teju Cole’s Open City while traveling through India. It was a bizarre yet wonderful experience, because Cole’s book starts off all about New York City, which is strikingly different from the environment I found myself in at the time. But it’s also a book about exploration and connection. The magic of Open City is not in what happens, but rather in how the main character experiences life. And those fictional wanderings called up memories of my own experiences walking without a clear destination.

Open City follows a Nigerian American doctor who is in the midst of his residency at a Manhattan hospital. The doctor finds himself with lots of unstructured time in his odd periods of respite from his demanding work schedule, and so he walks. He walks all throughout NYC, and eventually his wanderings take him to Brussels and beyond. He encounters all manner of people —rich, poor, white, of color, young, old. And throughout his adventuring he maintains a persistent and alluring internal monologue that shows an uncanny self-awareness and depth of mind.

Back while I lived in Washington, DC, a close friend of mine was located in NYC. So, when I had free weekends, I would sometimes take a bus up to the Big Apple to hang out. I had a great experience in DC — it’s an interesting city and it fit my lifestyle at that point. But New York was even more intriguing to me, because it isn’t just interesting, it’s an endlessly interesting place.

One of the first times I visited NYC my friend had to work all day. I wanted to see what the city had to offer, so in the morning I left the apartment and took the subway from Queens to Columbia University in north Manhattan. I admired the campus for a little while and then wandered to a deli and then a park nearby to eat lunch. From there, I figured I might as well see some of Harlem and so I wandered over to 5th Avenue and started to make my way down alongside Central Park. And after that for lack of much else to do, I simply… kept walking.

Columbia’s manicured haven had opened into the grittier streets of Harlem, where I experienced the feeling of being both at home and on edge at the same time. I saw Central Park change, as I walked from its more vacant end toward museums, the ritzy area, and then the hubbub of the central city. I ended up at Wall Street and the former site of the World Trade Center, absorbing that end-of-the city feeling as evening blew across the water and into the grid of streets.

The approximate route I took, minus a few meanderings

The approximate route I took, minus a few meanderings

I’ll never forget the tender sense of accomplishment I had at the end of that day. It was just like the closing of a book, the sense that I had fully opened myself up to the city and what it had to offer. I had seen so much, felt so much, encountered so many different people and blocks in one day. I may never experience New York in that same way again — it was a lot of walking after all — but I’m grateful for the memory.

I have some confusion about Cole’s choices for the very ending of Open City that I can’t really get into without spoiling. But otherwise, the writing is truly graceful, and I’m glad Cole reminded me what it feels like to give in to the beautiful sensation that is wanderlust.