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Rest for the weary: the stories behind two black havens and a study on literary women offer enrichment.

* Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island by Jill Nelson, Doubleday, May 2005, $27.50, ISBN 0-385-50566-3

Finding Martha's Vineyard is a must-read for those who want to understand the magic, power and draw of that 100-square-mile island off the coast of Massachusetts.

Nelson, a best-selling author (Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience, Penguin, July 1994; Straight, No Chaser, Penguin, November 1999; Sexual Healing, Agate, June 2003), distills the essence of Oak Bluffs, a community that has long been a haven for generations of black families who have made the pilgrimage to the summertime resort for the "clean oceans, pristine beaches, rolling hills and bluffs, ponds and cool breezes."

As a five-decade summer visitor and part-time resident, Nelson understands firsthand the lure of Oak Bluffs and its surrounding communities. Her book traces the island's history, first as the home of the Wampanoag Indians, then a haven for free slaves, indentured servants and skilled laborers, to a Methodist revival camp, the a middle-class vacation resort and homestead of the wealthy today.

In addition to the collection of personal memories by residents such as lawyer and political insider Vernon Jordan, writer Bebe Moore Campbell and author Tonya Lee, Nelson has sprinkled favorite recipes and intimate photos along with the details of the historical and social significance of Oak Bluffs.

But Finding Martha's Vineyard is best when Nelson shares her family story, which she does at the beginning of nearly every chapter. It's on Martha's Vineyard, we find, that she learned to kiss, swim, become a writer, raise her daughter and keep her mother's spirit alive even after she passes on.

--Reviewed by Ingrid Sturgis Ingrid Sturgis is editor of and the editor of Aunties: Thirty-Five Writers Celebrate Their Other Mother (Ballantine Books, May 2004).

Black Then: Blacks and Montreal 1780s-1880s by Frank Mackey, McGill-Queens University Press, August 2004 $19.95, ISBN 0-773-52736-2

Most of us would struggle to conjure up the history of blacks in Canada, let alone the lives of blacks in Montreal between 1780s and 1880s. And even when the history of blacks in Canada is told, it often focuses disproportionately on the lives of blacks in Ontario, particularly those who escaped American slavery to arrive in Canaan Land by way of the Underground Railroad. Likewise, contemporary black Canadian history, one that usually centers on the 80-plus years of black immigration from the Caribbean and Africa, tends to emphasize how they came looking for better opportunities.

It is no wonder then that black life north of the 59th parallel often seems to be freedom bound. But what is sometimes lost in this storytelling is Canada's complex history of racism, slavery, anti-black immigration and rigid deportation laws. But Canadian researchers, scholars and writers alike have been working for years to address this by publishing a range of books that seek to demythologize this history. Frank Mackey's Black Then is one such book.

Though not intended as a scholarly work, Black Then is rich with information on black life in Montreal that few--on either side of the border--ever knew existed. It is a creative and often engaging blend of historical fiction that draws on exhaustive archival research to present 30 narratives about what life in Montreal may have been like. Although Mackey is guided by what the documentary record says of the people he writes about, it is clear that he takes some sweeping liberties with dialogue in much the same vein as Jewell Parker Rhodes in Douglass's Women (Atria, October 2002). What stands out in Black Then is the diversity of black society back then, as the characters range from those who were successful entrepreneurs integrated into mainstream society to those who were barely able to secure their freedom. The best of Mackey's narratives present characters who have been challenged and who have triumphed, as this resonates well with the contemporary reality.

It is the writing style, though, that serves as both strength and weakness in this book. Though Black Then is written for a more general audience, the creative prose style can get a little tedious, particularly at the moments where it feels as though the author intends for the audience to be as marveled by this history as he is. Nonetheless, Black Then is an extremely valuable contribution to the ever-growing list of resources on black Canadian history, particularly because it provides historically relevant glimpses into complexity of black life beyond the Underground Railroad.

--Reviewed by Dara N. Byrne, Ph.D. A Canadian, Dara N. Byrne is a professor at John Jay College (CUNY) in New York City.

* Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage and Literary Tradition by Cheryl A. Wall, University of North Carolina Press, February 2005 $19.95, ISBN 0-807-85586-3

The latest release in the Gender and American Culture series from the UNC Press is a lucid map of black women's late-20th century literary writing deftly rendered by Wall, a Rutgers University English professor. This is a work of literary criticism I would recommend to nonacademic readers--and reading groups--who want to know more about how our most gifted African American women narrative artists work their magic to enhance readers' appreciation of the miracle of African American families, our cultural wealth and dramatic historical legacy.

Wall weaves a vivid tapestry that allows readers to see clearly common themes and significant relationships among the represented texts and better comprehend the rich cultural sources upon which the writers draw.

Wall's insights will send you back for another more rewarding round rereading Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, Alice Walker's The Color Purple and her many essays, Lucille Clifton's poetic family epic Generations, and Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow to name only a few titles. By showing you what she believes each author is up to in these works, she offers readers a more detailed appreciation for each one's distinctive mastery and control of her craft.

--Reviewed by Susan McHenry Susan McHenry is a founding editor of BIBR, now editor-at-large, and an editor for Essence magazine.

Black Studies As Human Studies: Critical Essays and Interviews by Joyce A. Joyce State University of New York Press November 2004, $21.95 ISBN 0-791-46162-9

Educators today teach a generation of students who can turn to film and television as literature, rap music as social theory, video games as visual art, and instant messaging as discourse. We live in a post-Benetton age in which it is argued that race is a socially constructed illusion. "Multiculturalism" has become a vintage catchphrase archived with other "groovy" taglines like "dy-no-mite" and "affirmative action." What's more, black culture is deeply woven into the American fabric, yet universities debate the merits of black studies as a legitimate academic field. So how do black studies scholars meet such challenges? Joyce offers a solution.

For more than 25 years, Joyce has confronted the status quo of traditional scholarship; and in her latest effort, she continues pushing the envelope. Aligning her thesis with work begun by Sonia Sanchez, Askia Toure and Amiri Baraka, artists and scholars who formed the nation's first black studies program in the late 1960s, Joyce presents black studies as a field, ahead of its time, that engages multiple disciplines across the humanities and social sciences. With an intellectual pop culture fusion of literary criticism and social commentary, Joyce presents 10 essays that stand as examples of her interdisciplinary model.

The book is relatively short and is written more specifically for academics. Through her investigation of literature, film and interviews, the author supports her main argument and demonstrates how scholars must rethink what and how they teach to better reflect current social trends as well as students' experiences and interests.

--Reviewed by Aaron Bryant Aaron Bryant teaches Critics of American Culture at the University of Maryland, where he is also a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies.

Is Bill Cosby Right?: Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? by Michael Eric Dyson, Basic Civitas Books May 2005 $23, ISBN 0-465-0179-3

Dyson doesn't care much for Bill Cosby. This is evident in Dyson's latest tome.

For all of 304 pages, Dyson disses and dices the comic's famous (or infamous, depending on point of view) comments he made about some poor black people at an NAACP award program in 2004. Among other caustic comments, Cosby said to the black-tied audience: "Ladies and gentlemen, the lower-economic and lower-middle economic people are not holding their end in this deal. In the neighborhood that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on."

Dyson was outraged by such commentary from a wealthy black man talking to other affluent black people. So outraged, he suggests that the black middle class has "lost its mind" in "the vicious assault of the Afristocracy on the Ghettocracy."

Nice imagery, but it's erroneous. Indeed, the entire book is a misguided assault on the wrong people. Where Dyson says he's at tempting to "offer a principled defense of poor black folk," he's actually arguing for the diminuntion of traditional, black, middle-class values and authority over their troubled communities.

I've spent enough time recently with Cosby to know that this is his message. But Dyson, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, hasn't and isn't likely to engage Cosby, who lives part-time in Philadelphia, in a face-to-face conversation even though both of them live not so very tar apart in geography or ideology. Both are genuinely concerned about what's happening to black people--and poor black people in particular.

Yet they might as well live on different planets. Dyson's impassioned screed blisters Cosby for not marking more of white oppression, systemic racism and the usual blather about what the white man has done to poor black people. He suggests that Cosby, contrary to what the man says, is more concerned with what white people think about black people than actually addressing the harm that racism does to poor black people.

"In truth," Dyson writes, "Cosby's position vividly revives the embarrassment over the bad behavior of the poor that the black elite have felt for more than a century."

Later, deeper in the hook, Dyson reveals that he--the defender of poor blacks and their self-destructive behavior--is more concerned with what the white man thinks.

* "[I]t is perhaps the affirming signal that Cosby's vicious assault sends to equally vicious right wing interests that is most damaging," says Dyson.

There lies the real battleground at the heart of his unfortunate book. There's less of a fight between warring black classes--Afristocracy versus Ghettocracy--and more of an age-old difference in opinions about the best place to debate how black people might rise.

Cosby was bold enough to say what needs to be said and what many of us say in private. And Dyson just doesn't like that one bit.

--Reviewed by Sam Fulwood III Sam Fulwood III is a columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. He is also the author of Full of It: Strong Words and Fresh Thinking for Cleveland (Gray Publishing, August 2004).
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Publication:Black Issues Book Review
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Date:Jul 1, 2005
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