Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Jeff Hobbs: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League

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This is not a woke review. This is the opposite of a woke review.

You’ve probably heard about the Dana Shutz painting of Emmett Till that the Whitney hung, and the ensuing (and I think justified) uproar. A white lady painted a picture that explicitly depicted and capitalized on black suffering. I’m not sure if she acknowledged this or not (and frankly, I don’t really care), and then a famous and influential museum hung it, catapulting her to even more fame. Should she have painted the painting? Sure, we should all write and paint what we want. Should she have hung the painting? Meh, I’m not sure, without context and appreciation for what exactly she was doing vis a vis appropriating the very real pain of both individual and group pain of people of color. Should the Whitney have hung the painting? No.

But this isn’t a piece about Shutz and a painting. It’s a piece about “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” by Jeff Hobbs. You can probably guess from the title that Robert Peace died young (no spoilers here), and you tell from the picture that he’s a black man, and you can tell from the subtitle “A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League” that this is a story of a person of color who had and lost a “promising” life. What you learn not far into this book is that it’s written by Peace’s Yale roommate- a privileged white man who is essentially pulling a Shutz. I can’t count how many times he says that his writing was stalling out- his first novel didn’t sell well and his second novel didn’t find a home at all. He is even more blatant (but perhaps even less self-aware) than Shutz that he is literally profiting from black suffering.

I’m mad about this book on so many levels. On a personal level, I find the premise infuriating. Rob Peace was, in Hobbs’ account, a genius. He worked very hard, and his parents worked very hard, to make sure that his intelligence was nourished, not stifled, in very hard circumstances. He went to Yale. And then, after Yale, he didn’t “do anything” with his life. He travelled. He went home. He tried various schemes. He dealt drugs (which he did in college, too). I didn’t go to Yale. I went to a nearby private school. But I spent a lot of time at Yale, and I understand why Hobbs sees this particular narrative as a tragedy: a YALE life was wasted. A Yaley went to school, wasted a rich white man’s resources (a private citizen financed his time there), was a good friend to many, and then just didn’t do anything with his life. He didn’t become a doctor, he didn’t write books, he didn’t pursue his science interests. How dare he? He was a Yaley! After detailing Peace’s life basically from birth, this is such a shortsighted narrative that I can’t believe Hobbs couldn’t see past how the four years of Peace’s life were the only four that mattered, but I can: I was there, and I was at an elite private school, and an elite university, and I scooped poop for 10 years. I was happy with my life, and I understood there was more than six figure salaries. But Hobbs is stuck in that mentality.

On another level, Hobbs, while detailing the minutia of Peace’s day to day (often in a style that sounds like he’s just stringing together quotes from interviews), misses the big picture context entirely. Yes, he explains the poverty in Newark and East Orange. Yes, he notes the turning points in Peace’s life, including his father going to jail, and eventually dying there. He follows his mom through 16 hour workdays and 20,000 salaries. But there is no tying this together, no sense that this is all systemic. No societal awareness of why Peace’s life is not tragic, but amazing. That the fact that Peace actually lived out his father’s life (Hobbs never mentions the parallels, which is a stark omission) falls into a statistical bell curve: Rob may have gotten out for Yale, but the societal injustices that pulled him right back into New Jersey are left out, and key to this story. Why wasn’t Rob prepared for “life after Yale” (the only way Hobbs can see Rob’s life)? Why were drugs the default money making scheme for Rob? Maybe Hobbs is trying to avoid seeming racist by avoiding what might seem trite, but in doing so, he removes any sense of understanding about systemic racism, of how poverty affects a person, of the criminal justice system, etc. This is a biography more of Hobbs’ privilege than of Rob’s life and and death.

Do not read this book. And when reading books about people of color (or looking at art works about them), think critically about their origin. The creators certainly have a right to create these works, but the works might not have the insight we would grant the works on first reading.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Heather Ann Thompson: Blood in the Water

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What it is: A number of books on my list lately have come from Public Books' updated version of the Chronicle of Higher Education's Trump Syllabus. Basically, the Chronicle put out a mock syllabus of things we should know to understand Trump. The idea was funny, even important, but it was definitely one of those dead white men things. The AAIHS (African American Intellectual History Society) called them out on this, and a new syllabus was born. I haven't even gotten to the post-election syllabus yet, as a) there are ton of amazing books on this list and b) "Blood in the Water" 600 dense (and very worthwhile) pages. If you need a good, meaningful book, the Trump Syllabus is highly recommended.

"Blood in the Water" is the story of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. It's also the story of over 30 years after that: I had heard of the revolt and cruel end to the uprising in the prison, but I had no idea how long it took for the prisoners and others to get any type of closure. The last trial that Heather Ann Thompson covers in this book literally took place in 2005. Unless you are an expert on Attica, I'm going to guess that the reality of the situation is worse than anything you thought. Prisoners were tortured. Witnesses were coerced. Evidence was hidden. Law enforcement was shoddily trained and sent into a situation set up for failure that would include shooting other members of law enforcement. Politicians planned from the get-go for a coverup. Evidence was intentionally destroyed. Prisoners continued to be tortured and denied medical treatments. Wives and families of law enforcement were kept in the dark and tricked out of compensation. Literally, if this situation were not meticulously researched and documented by Thompson, you might think it happened in a third world country. Or New York in the '70s.

On the other hand, she also meticulously documents how a group of prisoners came together peacefully and eloquently for their rights. During the few days that they occupied the prison, they had some hostages. They carefully worked to protect them. The prisoners worked together to get observers in, to come up with articulate and reasonable goals. The prison functioned better with them in charge than with the white, racist guards in charge. She talks about the group of lawyers who worked for years alongside the former prisoners to get compensation and recognition for their suffering. There is a touch of the tragic beauty here, of the "what could have been," if only we could all work in this kind of way. It's both very '70s (Black Panthers and other groups were both working with and models for the organizing) and utopian, the way it happened. It could not happen now.

Why you should read it: What happened at Attica is part of the history of prisons in this country. It's also not over. Although the book was really really long, I wish Thompson's epilogue explaining the direct effects of Attica on the current prison system had been longer. Some of the things that have actually gone backwards for prisoners as a direct or indirect result of Attica include the PLRA (Prison Litigation Reform Act). This act makes it harder for prisoners to protect themselves legally, which "Blood in the Water" makes tragically clear is a basic human right. As we know, mass incarceration of black people is steadily increasing. One of the factors in the revolt at Attica was overcrowding. The wars on drugs and crime actually led to New York's prisons to double in numbers by 1982.  And while the government initially realized that the Attica prisoners were making reasonable demands (more programming, better parole requirements, less time in "the hole," etc.), by 1982, these were all rolled back in a vicious backlash. "Forty years after the uprising of 1971, conditions at Attica were worse than they had ever been." In other words, we're talking about now. And the conditions that caused the Attica uprising were terrible. As Thompson says, 
It is both tragic and deeply ironic that new levels of brutality against America's prisoners have been, at least so far, the most obvious and lasting legacy of the 1971 Attica uprising. Even though the extraordinary violence that took place in 1971 was overwhelmingly perpetrated by members of law enforcement, not the prisoners, American voters ultimately did not respond to this prison uprising by demanding that states rein in police power. Instead they demanded that police be given even more support and even more punitive laws to enforce.

My "aha" moment:  The government worked very carefully along with the media (who also took off with the story) to spin a story that was not only sensational, but false. Does this sound familiar? The black prisoners were spun as monsters, torturing and mutilating the white guards held hostage in the prison. Although completely false, it seems like only the activists who joined the prisoner's cause ever seemed to understand that no, the prisoners had not decapitated anyone or slit their throats, and yes, the prison guards had shot scores of prisoners at close range and, after the prison had been retaken, made them crawl in glass, naked, or beaten them, or stabbed them in their anuses with with screwdrivers. The white media ran with the anti-black story, and that was what the public ate up: "The inflammatory stories of prisoner depravity reported by New York state officials found their way onto the front pages of the nation's most hardly regarded newspapers... Thanks to the Associated Press service, the story of prisoner barbarism made headline news in the local newspapers of almost every midsized city and small town in America."

Rating: Buy this book. (Partly because if you don't, you'll accrue so many fines at the library from taking so long to read it.) Absorb it. Help fix the VERY broken criminal justice and prison industrial complex. Let me know if you need a starting point. Think about how racism sends so many black and brown people to prison. Read this book.