Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The Elephant in Our (History) Room

July 25, 2014

Maybe the only way history becomes meaningful to anyone is when it illuminates your own experience, and vice versa. As a white person who was around for the Civil Rights Movement and played a very small role in it, I thought I understood something about the realities of our bloody history.

There was, of course, the one great peaceful moment: the 1963 March on Washington. I rode down from Boston overnight in the vast cavalcade of buses streaming south to hear Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

March on Washington, 1963

March on Washington, 1963

The following year, I picketed the Boston School Committee over segregation and was escorted to safety when Southies arrived in force. I was acutely aware of the violence faced by the people my own age who went down to Mississippi for Freedom Summer, from fire hoses and police dogs to murders and bombings. (The guy who pulled me off the Boston picket line had just returned from Mississippi.)

All of which counts for nothing. In fact, I understood very little either of the realities of the black experience in America or of the extent to which the violence of racism has shaped and warped us and our culture. Two excellent, compulsively readable books have made that plain: Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877 by Brenda Wineapple (2013),

Ecstatic Nation

and The Warmth Of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (2010).

The Warmth of Other Suns

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Ai Weiwei, Stasiland and the Persistence of the Police State

September 6, 2012

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is the story of a world-famous artist who provoked the Chinese police state and, so far, seems to be getting away with it—if you don’t count being slugged by a Sichuan policeman in 2009 and almost dying of a subdural hematoma, being arrested in 2011 and held for 81 days and, now, being forbidden to leave the country and liable for a fine of almost $2 million for alleged tax evasion. His provocation: leading an effort to document and publicize the deaths of more than 5,000 schoolchildren, buried or crushed when their poorly constructed schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. And, on top of that, first demanding an investigation of the Sichuan police slugging and then suing. Plus photographing, filming and tweeting everything that happened to him along the way.

We see him, strong and confident, at his huge Beijing studio / residence, overseeing the production of his work, organizing the investigation of the student deaths. We see heartbreaking photographs of fields of small backpacks, dirty, torn open, their contents spilling out—all that’s left of the children who wore them to school that day. Read on