I happen to have read three books that deal with the rights of African-Americans just before Black History Month. Two of them are bestsellers I hadn’t read before, but the one I’ll mention first is a less-well-known book I’ve read a couple of times before and suddenly felt inspired to reread.
The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown by Louise S. Robbins is the story of a white librarian who was fired in 1950 because of her personal involvement in advocating equality for African-Americans. The official reason she was fired was that she had provided “subversive materials” in the library–books and magazines that were thought by the most paranoid conservatives to be advocating Communism–but that was greatly exaggerated. Really, the people running the town were afraid that her pro-integration activities would embarrass them and/or threaten their status. There was a long and convoluted campaign to get rid of her, complete with a sudden replacement of the library’s board of directors, outrageous rumors, secret after-hours sneaking into the library’s storage room to photograph books (which, in fact, had been removed from general circulation), and so on. It’s a great story! For me, it’s especially interesting because I grew up in that town (Bartlesville, Oklahoma) and this story is both a reminder that things were worse before I was born and a spookily familiar tale of “community leaders” who make policies based on their own stupid prejudices and force out everyone who disagrees with them, and of honest citizens afraid to speak up for what’s right in a culture where personal choices can have mysterious, gossip-driven effects on people’s employment and social lives. Most of the institutions and a few of the people who are major players in the story are familiar to me. But even if you know nothing about Bartlesville, small-town politics, or that part of the country, this is a really interesting story!
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is the story behind the cell line used in thousands of scientific projects around the world, grown from a sample of a cervical cancer tumor in a poor African-American woman who had no idea her cells were being sampled. Henrietta Lacks died in 1951, but her cells are still growing! In fact, more of them have lived in laboratories than ever lived in her body. They have contributed to dozens of breakthroughs in medicine and other sciences, yet her family received no compensation and didn’t even know about the cells until more than 20 years later. Skloot met many family members and presents their stories, along with Henrietta’s, in a very sympathetic and entertaining way. She also explains the science very clearly. The two kinds of stories wind together into a really fascinating book! It’s like the in-depth articles I love so much in Harper’s magazine, except that it goes on for 300+ pages! The most interesting and touching part is the desire of Henrietta’s daughter Deborah to know more about her mother, who died when she was just a toddler. Deborah’s quest to understand her mother’s legacy–and the incredible indifference of most of the medical establishment to Deborah and the rest of her lower-class, less-educated, black family–is heartbreaking, yet ultimately Deborah gets at least minimal satisfaction. Another amazing aspect of the story for me (as a research professional) is the stunning disregard for research participant confidentiality back in Henrietta’s era. Hers was the case that really started the ball rolling to create the Institutional Review Boards and other safeguards we take for granted these days.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett is fiction set in a world that, sadly, really did exist: the Deep South in the early 1960s, when middle-class white women all had “help” in the form of African-American maids who did most of their housework and cared for their children. The story begins with a white family adding a bathroom to their house, even though they really can’t afford it, because the wife’s friend insists on segregated bathrooms for “hygienic” reasons. When the family’s toilet-training daughter later uses the maid’s bathroom, it’s a big deal! It sounds so silly, but adults actually fought about these issues–and sometimes killed over them–just a few decades ago. The Help is the story of two black maids who agree to work with a white woman to anonymously publish the stories of black maids, shedding light on their oppression and mistreatment. All three of them suffer for it, yet in many ways this is a very funny book! One of my favorite things about it is that one of the white women who is not a viewpoint character, Elizabeth Leefolt, obviously has baggage that makes her act the way she does, but we never find out what it is; she has her own secret sufferings, despite being racially privileged, and that makes her seem very real.
All of these books are for adults, but my eight-year-old son enjoyed hearing interesting bits from each of them as I was reading and was inspired to acknowledge Ruth Brown’s story in his board game about Martin Luther King, Jr.
These are three books that worked for me as interesting reading and to remind me that I am lucky to have light skin and to live in a time and place where I’m allowed to have friends of any color without anyone questioning my morality, hygiene, or employment! Visit Three Books on Thursday for Jessica’s recommendations of three different books on black history, and other writers’ posts about books. Visit Booking It for more book reviews.
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