The Book of the Week is “Panther Baby” by Jamal Joseph, published in 2012. This ebook is the autobiography of a former member of the Black Panthers.
Raised by his grandmother in Harlem, Joseph was of Spanish-speaking and African-American origin. In the late 1960’s, as a church-going, teenage honor student, he joined an African-American community group that steered young men toward educational, career-oriented pursuits. “Pledgees were not allowed to go to parties, have girlfriends, smoke or drink.”
Nevertheless, shortly after joining the “Feathermen,” Joseph was drawn to the Black Panthers, a group with chapters in major cities around the United States, that fought for social justice for African Americans. Continuous battles with law enforcement meant that the group’s main activity was fundraising for the purpose of legal defense for oppressed Black Panthers.
The author contends that the U.S. government launched various campaigns implemented via the FBI and CIA to spy on, spread bad publicity about, and persecute the group’s members. The government used any excuse to arrest and torture them, and deny them due process with the goal of destroying the organization.
In Manhattan, in addition to teaching and making speeches, Joseph sold newspapers to raise money to fund a breakfast program for underprivileged children and clothing distribution in poor communities. He wrote that a major aspect of the Panther ideology involved arming members with guns to fight not white people, but the racist institutions of oppression.
One night, Joseph was arrested after attending a political rally. He and twenty other Panthers were charged with various serious crimes, and thrown in jail. Read the book to learn about the political and social changes that shaped the Black Panthers and the author in the next few decades.
The Book of the Week is “Running For My Life” by Lopez Lomong and Mark Tabb, published in 2012. This suspenseful ebook tells the extraordinary life story of a “lost boy” born in the nation that is now South Sudan.
Lomong’s childhood was cut short when he was snatched from his family at six years old, along with many other boys, by rebel soldiers fighting a years-long civil war between Muslims and Christians in that country. The recruits were called “lost boys” because they were forced into leading violent, empty lives, instead of becoming productive members of society.
Lomong, too, would have been destined to become a soldier or die of disease or starvation were it not for three older children who aided him in escaping from the captives’ camp. In the next chapter of his life, he still suffered extreme hardships, but he had a chance to play soccer, which he enjoyed, and excel at running, at which he was a natural athlete.
Read the book to learn how Lomong achieved tremendous success in various endeavors against impossible odds (considering his initial life circumstances), and what led him to set a goal to help his native people obtain what citizens of industrialized nations take for granted– clean water, health care, education and nutrition.
The Book of the Week is “Jokes My Father Never Taught Me” by Rain Pryor, published in 2006. The author is one of the daughters of the late Richard Pryor, the African American comedian; the only child of a Caucasian, Jewish mother.
During her childhood in the 1970’s, Rain struggled with her three identities: black, white and Jewish. Her biracial appearance caused people to instantly develop biases, making it easy for them to practice tribal exclusion when it suited them. She found she could dispel the discrimination by making people laugh. Rain writes, “Comedy was about connecting with people in places so personal that it actually made them uncomfortable, and then showing the humor in it.”
Rain’s early-childhood circumstances did not allow her to develop a personal relationship with her father until she turned four. But when she finally did, he shamelessly exposed her to the birds and the bees. She commented that one redeeming trait of her father’s call girls, was that they were honest.
“They weren’t there because they loved my Daddy, and they didn’t pretend to love my Daddy… That was life with Richard Pryor. Sex and violence, puctuated by rare moments of family happiness.” In addition, over decades, her father went through five wives, who bore a total of seven children.
Although as a young child, Rain witnessed the seamy side of the adult world, she enjoyed a sense of love and belonging from a large family on both her parents’ sides. Another lucky aspect of her life was that of her father’s fame and fortune. He could afford to, and did take her and her siblings on various luxurious domestic and international trips.
Read the book to learn more about Rain’s issues with her own ethnicities, her father’s and her own addictions, his multiple sclerosis, and her family crises.
The Book of the Week is “Maybe You Never Cry Again” by Bernie Mac with Pablo F. Fenjves, published in 2003. This is the autobiography of a man who heeded his mother’s wisdom in achieving his life’s dream of becoming a famous comedian.
Foremost, Mac’s mother taught him to be self-reliant. One of her sayings was, “If you want a helping hand, look at the end of your arm.”
Mac listed the four kinds of standup comedians: mediocre joke tellers, political commentators, observers of human nature, and tellers of personal stories. He exemplified the fourth kind, making audiences of mostly his own ethnicity laugh by comparing his African American experience to that of Caucasians without mincing words. “The most personal is the most universal.”
For example, he told the reader that, as an adult, he became as excited as a kid in a candy store when he flew in a plane for the first time. He said, “White people wouldn’t understand that feeling. White people get on planes all the time. They born on planes. Same thing with photographs. White people, they got pictures of themselves every minute of their lives. Here’s little Libby…Black people, they lucky to have one or two pictures of themselves.”
Read how Mac put his mother’s teachings to use to get through the trials and tribulations he suffered on the way to stardom.
Former teacher Mark Gerson, in his book “In the Classroom” published in 1997, presents two revelatory concepts about education.
The first is about how teachers should not try to identify with their students. They should not try to be their friends by forcing themselves to develop interests in common with their students. “Students want their teachers to be the men and women they want to become, not one of the kids.”
The second concept involves the misguided notion that celebrity role-models who lecture kids on living a clean life– practicing safe sex, avoiding drugs, being a good citizen, etc.– will succeed in changing their behaviors. They will not succeed. Inner-city kids will live clean lives only when they are surrounded by people they know personally who do so daily, and when there is love shared among them.
“Just as absurd as the role model example is the notion advanced by Helen Straka of the United States Department of Education in defending her agency’s $14 billion budget: ‘By having a Department of Education you’re saying the kids are number one, and there’s someone in Washington who’s their friend, who’s pulling for them.” This was news to Gerson, as no students he knew, knew there even WAS an Education Department. Better friends for the students would include teachers and parents who taught the value of discipline and hard work.
The Book of the Week is “The Cost of Courage” by Carl Elliott, Sr., published in 1992. This autobiography describes an American politician who acted on controversial matters in a morally correct way, making him unpopular with Southerners and Conservatives. In so doing, he hurt his career.
In 1930, Elliott had an easy time getting accepted to college. For, there was no admissions paperwork at the University of Alabama. Anyone who had a pulse and could pay the tuition in that early-Great-Depression year, was in. Most of the coed school’s students were upper-crust residents of the Black Belt and Birmingham. Freshmen were required to wear beanies so that they were easily identifiable.
Elliott became an eight-term Alabama Congressman who fought for the civil rights of African Americans. Another politician whose career was harmed by doing the right thing, was Alabama governor Jim Folsom. In 1954, he invited African American Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. to the governor’s mansion in Montgomery for a drink. In 1962, Folsom was pushed out of office by people who voted for (racist) George Wallace.
Read the book to learn the details of Elliott’s heroic but unwise career moves.
The Book of the Week is “Catfish and Mandala” by Andrew X. Pham, published in 1999.
This book is the memoir of An, a Vietnamese native whose family fled to California from Vietnam in the spring of 1975, just before Saigon fell. He alternates chapters describing his family’s history, and his bike trip.
An was born in Vietnam, but has mixed Asian blood, so he looks different from everyone. When he returns to Vietnam in his twenties on his bike trip, having been Westernized, he is called the derogatory term, “Viet-kieu.” He flies to, and then cycles through most of the country, to revisit his childhood memories and motherland.
An writes, “… I grew up fighting blacks, whites, and Chicanos… And everybody beat up the Chinaman whether or not he was really an ethnic Chinese. These new Vietnamese kids were easy pickings, small, bookish, passive, and not fluent in English.” So each Asian group segregates itself by nationality in Chinatowns and Japantowns.
An is still grappling with his racial identity. However, writing this book has made it easier, by making others aware of his plight.
The Book of the Week is “Forest Hills Diary” by Mario Cuomo, published in 1974. In 1972, New York City Mayor John Lindsay chose Mario Cuomo to embark on a fact-finding mission to collect public opinion data on a proposed low-income housing project on 108th Street in Forest Hills near Corona, Queens, to consist of African American tenants, three towers of 24 stories each.
There was much emotionally charged public debate due to the very nature of the undertaking (housing projects in general, have a bad reputation– for crime, for bringing down property values, etc.). Cuomo could have proposed reducing the planned apartment sizes to that of studios or 1 bedrooms– a compromise in order to push the project through. Regardless, he could not please anyone because Forest Hills residents were against the project altogether, while African Americans wanted apartments of at least 2 bedrooms.
Another option was to make one of the three towers a “Mitchell-Lama” which would allow tax breaks, but reduce the number of low-income units, and reserve 40% of the units for the elderly. The reason for favoring the elderly was to minimize the public sentiment that the apartments would be crime-ridden. Cuomo visited projects in the Bronx and had seen this phenomenon himself.
The Jewish neighborhood of Crown Heights had gone downhill due to low-income housing. The African Americans with whom Cuomo spoke were against the project. One black leader admitted to him in confidence that a way to spur upward mobility among African Americans was to have a mix of middle-income and low-income tenants.
The “scatter-site” legislation was passed allowing the project proposed originally, to be built. However, raucous public hearings prompted the developers to compromise by building three towers of 12 stories each (instead of 24), 40% of which were to house seniors. All sides of the controversy roundly criticized a report released by Cuomo, although few people had actually read the whole thing. This book provided an engaging analysis of political and urban issues with respect to race, housing and human nature.
The Book of the Week is “Whatever It Takes” by Paul Tough, published in 2008. This book is about Geoffrey Canada’s efforts to improve his community in Harlem in New York City, through both educating kids and providing social services to parents to improve the kids’ environments. City agencies funded his programs.
Mr. Canada felt bad that he could not save all the underprivileged children in Harlem. He did not operate his school the same way the KIPP chain of charter schools did– hand-picking a group of underprivileged kids it would make into high-achievers, whose accomplishments would exceed those of their peers. He idealistically thought all children could become college material, if his Promise Academy charter school (initially a middle school, and later, also an elementary school) did its job right.
However, many studies have shown that success in life becomes much more likely for an individual when that individual is taught specific skills starting in infancy, such as “patience, persistence, self-confidence, the ability to follow instructions, and the ability to delay gratification for a future reward.” Middle school is too late.
But Mr. Canada still felt it was worth trying to turn their lives around, although he had far less success with them than with kids who participated in his programs from infancy and were lucky enough to be chosen in the lotteries that determined who was accepted. Also, he had the most success when kids stayed in the programs from infancy through at least middle school, but this was extremely expensive.
The jury is still out on whether society as a whole is greatly improved by providing a small percentage of underprivileged people with resources superior to those of their peers, so they may succeed in life. I doubt Mr. Canada, and even all of the other people and entities helping too, will ever be able to bring success to all of Harlem’s children. Some people do not want to be helped. Others unluckily are not chosen in the lotteries. I don’t know the solution.
The Book of the Week is “The Heart is the Teacher” by Leonard Covello, published in 1958. The author came to the U.S. from Italy when he was nine. He became a passionate teacher, and later, principal of Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem, New York City.
Benjamin Franklin said about education, “If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”
Mr. Covello said about being a teacher, “I am the teacher. I am older, presumably wiser than you, the pupils. I am in possession of knowledge which you don’t have. It is my function to transfer this knowledge from my mind to yours… certain ground rules must be set up and adhered to. I talk. You listen. I give. You take. Yes, we will be friends, we will share, we will discuss, we will have open sessions for healthy disagreement– but only within the context of the relationship I have described, and the respect for my position as teacher which must go with it.”