Tag Archives: Black History Month

The Story of Beautiful Girl

The Story of Beautiful Girl

Every once in awhile, a novel comes along with the power to significantly change one’s perspective while simultaneously being a beacon of hope for people who have been forgotten, who are disenfranchised and who remain on the fringes of society.

It happened with To Kill a Mockingbird, the classic novel by Harper Lee that illuminated race relations in the Deep South. It’s plausible to draw comparisons with that and The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon.

(A bit of a disclaimer: Rachel Simon is someone whom I consider a friend, as I’ve been a fangirl follower of her career since 1990 when I attended a writer’s conference where she was the keynote speaker. I’ve taken a few writing classes of hers, and we hang out on The Facebook and The Twitter. I have tried to separate all this from the novel, but the truth is?  I love her work and have for quite some time. Even if she never gave me the time of day, I would still be saying what I say here about this book.)

As I was saying.  Just as To Kill a Mockingbird was and still is, The Story of Beautiful Girl is also a game-changer, this time for people with developmental disabilities who were, once upon a time, “put away,” sent to stark and barbaric institutions with cringeworthy names like The School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, forgotten by families and by the world as a whole.

That’s the name of the fictitious Pennsylvania “school” where Lynnie Goldberg was placed as a young child by her middle-class, Caucasian family who didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to cope with and accept her developmental disability. Such was common in the 1950s and 60s, a time when parents were advised to put their children away to better “forget” about their mistakes in the form of their children who were labeled as imbeciles, idiots, incurable.

(But as The Story of Beautiful Girl illustrates so clearly, forgetting becomes impossible to do when hearts are involved, even when the distance of years and place come into play.)

At the School, Lynnie — who is mute — meets Homan, an African American man who is deaf, but who is only known to the school officials as a John Doe, Number Forty-Two.  It’s important to note that he is based on a real person, representing the plight of people of color who had disabilities in that era.  Lynnie and Homan become friends and fall deeply in love amidst the neglect and abuse and racial relations that was all too prevalent in such institutions (and which still exists today, here, in the United States).  Lynnie is also pregnant, and during one storm-filled November night in 1968, the couple escapes from the School.  A baby girl is born, and the couple finds refuge — temporarily — with Martha, a retired widowed schoolteacher living in a remote place, both in terms of place (her home) and in terms of the fragile, unresolved feelings she still carries after her husband’s emotional distance and loss of their only child.

From the book jacket: “When the authorities catch up to them that same night, Homan escapes into the darkness, and Lynnie is caught. Before she is forced back into the institution, she whispers two words to Martha: ‘Hide her.'”

Lynnie and Homan choose Martha’s home because her mailbox is a lighthouse, a beacon of hope for those who are lost.  The symbolism of the lighthouse plays out throughout the novel, as Lynnie and Homan and Martha and the baby journey separately (but always interconnected) out of the darkness of their lives into the light. It is not an easy road, and as the reader, you find yourself holding your breath and turning pages to learn what happens next.  In doing so, you become immersed in a world that is rarely talked about, one that is shrouded in darkness even today. (For those who may be concerned that the abuse, neglect and race relations are too graphic in this novel, they are not portrayed as overly such.  It is more heartbreaking and eye-opening than horrific.)

The most significant aspect of The Story of Beautiful Girl is how it sheds light on one of the biggest disgraces in our country: how we treat those who are developmentally disabled and the people who were put away. Another compelling aspect of The Story of Beautiful Girl is how universal this story is, and Simon conveys that to her reader through the physical sense of place and the spiritual elements present throughout the novel.  In regards to place, there were times I wanted to know definitively where the action was taking place.  I like to be grounded as a reader, to know where I am.  You don’t always have this with The Story of Beautiful Girl, and it took me a few chapters to realize that this jarring was intentional. With the action sweeping literally across the country – from Cape Cod to San Francisco, for example — it illustrates that people with disabilities (and especially those of color) are everywhere in our society.  In every community.

Similarly, the spiritual aspect was one that I appreciated about this novel too. It’s hard not to miss the symbolism of the young couple traveling a long distance, the seeking of shelter, the secret birth of a baby in a barn. When the novel opens, it’s November, the eve of Advent and the Christmas season.  Yet, Lynnie was raised in the Jewish faith and The Story of Beautiful Girl includes a traditional Passover.  Buddhism comes into play, too.  These elements are not heavy-headed but again, included intentionally to show the universality of people with disabilities being part of a religious community, even though that community might not know how to address and minister to their spiritual needs.

When I finished The Story of Beautiful Girl, I immediately thought of the phrase “faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.” That is, at its essence, what this book is about.  It is about having faith and trust in others, in rebuilding that faith and trust when it is irrevocably taken, and ultimately, having faith and trust in yourself to survive the darkest of nights and go on to do what might have seemed impossible.

It’s about hope that never fades, that survives decades. (“There were two kinds of hope: the kind you couldn’t do anything about and the kind you could. And even if the kind you could do something about wasn’t what you’d originally wanted, it was still worth doing. A rainy day is better than no day. A small happiness can make a big sadness less sad” (pg. 313).

And yes, The Story of Beautiful Girl is very much a love story.  It’s a love story that illuminates how people with disabilities aren’t immune to the feelings of love that we all experience. It’s a story about the love between a parent and a child, and how those bonds aren’t always defined by blood or race. It is a love story “for those who were put away” (to whom the book is dedicated), to those who have who have been forgotten and neglected, and those — regardless of color, creed, disability and gender — who have risen from darkness into light and those still journeying on that path.

Reserve a copy of The Story of Beautiful Girl.

~ Melissa F.

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One Shot Harris

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Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Eleventh Stack are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting books, music and movies by African American Artists. We also have a ton of great events and programs for children, teens and adults. You can view all of our Black History Month posts here.

oneshotPittsburgh owes much appreciation to one man for documenting the city’s African American urban life during the Jim Crow era—specifically, this sharp lensman concentrated on the Hill District and a once-thriving social life that has long-since passed and faded to memory.

The Hill District during its heyday was a vibrant place, the city’s cultural center—where people of all ethnicities lived alongside each other, and where independent businesses and Pittsburgh’s Jazz scene thrived.  Who is this man?

We’ll give you a couple hints: He’s had numerous exhibitions of his photographs over the years in Pittsburgh and nationally (the Carnegie Museum of Art showcased his work in 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2011), has an archive devoted to his work of over 80,000 negatives and worked for the Pittsburgh Courier.

The answer: Charles “Teenie” Harris.

Harris was born in 1908 and was an avid baseball player in his youth, later becoming a semi-pro athlete, and among other things, playing for the Negro league Pittsburgh Crawfords. It wasn’t until the early 1930s that he bought his first camera. He proved to be a natural, and within a few years opened his own photography studio (earning the nickname “One Shot” because he rarely made his subjects sit for long) and became the main photographer for The Pittsburgh Courier, one of America’s leading black newspapers during the 1930s and Civil Rights eras.

tharrisThis working class beat photographer snapped well over 100,00 images for The Courier during his years at the paper (1936-1975). And he did it in a unique way, shooting the important and influential people of his day, with the city’s everyday life. Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Muhammad Ali, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles and John F. Kennedy were all photographed by Harris, alongside Pittsburgh’s weddings, nightlife and little-league games. He found them all equally important and celebrated and portrayed the dignified lives of African American people that became even more influential during the 1960s. You can learn more about this fantastic man at the Library. Just a few of the titles we have for you to peruse:

-Whitney

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Read Harder: Vol. 2

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Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Eleventh Stack are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting books, music and movies by African American Artists. We also have a ton of great events and programs for children, teens and adults. You can view all of our Black History Month posts here.

This year, I plan on chronicling my adventures with Book Riot’s 2016 Read Harder Challenge.

In Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer, Delphine and her younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, are heading to Oakland, California to spend a month with the mother they barely know. Cecile left them seven years ago for a new life as an artist and poet on the West Coast.

Oakland in 1968 is nothing like their California dreams of Disneyland, movie stars and days at the beach. Cecile has no interest in showing them the sights — her work with the printing press in the kitchen is far more important. Instead, every day Cecile sends the girls to a summer camp held at the community center run by the Black Panther Party. Delphine’s ordered world view is altered by the time spent learning about the fight for justice and her mother’s role in the Party.

This quick read sent me on a quest for more information about the Black Panther Party, and I can recommend Stanley Nelson‘s documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

For those following along with the Read Harder challenge, One Crazy Summer will help you cover the “Read a middle grade novel” and “Read the first book in a series by a person of color.” You can follow more of Delphine’s adventures with P.S. Be Eleven and Gone Crazy in Alabama.

– Jess

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Listening to Citizen

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Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Eleventh Stack are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting books, music and movies by African American Artists. We also have a ton of great events and programs for children, teens and adults. You can view all of our Black History Month posts here.

It’s been nearly a year since I read Claudia Rankine’s award winning book, Citizen: An American Lyric. Up until now, I’ve resisted every opportunity to review this book or even participate in a discussion about it with others — yet when we Eleventh Stackians were self-selecting our topics for Black History Month, offering my thoughts on Citizen was the first topic that came to my mind.

It’s a book that’s difficult to talk about, yet one that has the potential to serve as the gateway to some of our most important conversations. For just as Claudia Rankine isn’t defined as simply a poet, a playwright, an artist or an essayist, Citizen is a book that defies being boxed in by a single genre.  Is it a poem?  An essay?  A meditation or prayer?

I think it’s all of these things, and it feels fitting that this book doesn’t conform to a singular label. In some ways, that lends itself well to the immediacy of emotions that makes reading Citizen an experience.

CitizenAt times, that immediacy can be an uncomfortable one — and maybe that discomfort stems from my being a white, middle class, raised-in-Suburbia person in today’s America. Sometimes it is hard to know how to talk about issues of race (Am I going to offend her? Is he going to get upset? Do I sound ignorant? Privileged? Something else? Maybe I should just stay quiet, pretend I didn’t see, didn’t hear, was distracted).  After all, how can we ever really know or understand someone else’s reality?  My reality is not yours and vice versa. Claudia Rankine’s point in Citizen is that the unshared experience doesn’t excuse us for not seeing and acknowledging the experience of others.

Understanding and acknowledging the hard truths of our lives begins with listening and by paying attention to others’ experience. By directing her reader’s attention to the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) instances of racism that occur in American society, Claudia Rankine brings her experience and hurt and pain to the page where we see it in all its rawness and honesty.

Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lung. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. Cough. After it happened I was at a loss for words. Haven’t you said this yourself? Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper? You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget.

The poetry (the American lyric) of Citizen forces us to slow down, to listen, as Claudia Rankine writes eloquently of real-life instances of racism that we know from the headlines — the cover illustration is of a hoodie, symbolizing the killing of Trayvon Martin — as well as the more subtle, yet personally searing moments that too often get glossed over and dismissed altogether.

Two examples that have stayed with me:

Because of your elite status from a year’s worth of travel, you have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines, when the girl and her mother arrive at your row. The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected. The mother’s response is barely audible — I see, she says. I’ll sit in the middle.

and

The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?

It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.

I am so sorry, so, so, sorry.

~ Melissa F.

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We Want the Funk

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Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Eleventh Stack are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting books, music and movies by African American Artists. We also have a ton of great events and programs for children, teens and adults. You can view all of our Black History Month posts here.

George Clinton – songwriter, impresario, music producer. I’ve seen him referred to as the “Count Basie of Funk.” The first thing I noticed about  Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t that Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?, Clinton’s memoir (written with Ben Greenman), was that it was very readable and compelling. It is fun to see the stories behind the songs, and get to know George Clinton’s thoughtfulness, sincerity and intelligence. And his love of a good pun.

We want the funk.

bookcoverHe starts out by talking about the culture of his old neighborhood and what it meant to be black in the 50s when Motown dominated the scene. George Clinton took the paradigm of how R&B songs were created and recorded and funked it up. He gradually put together a collective of over 50 musicians who worked with him in two separate bands, Parliament and Funkadelic. The sheer volume of records that came out in the ’70s and ’80s speaks to the creative power of Clinton and his collaboration with Bootsy Collins, Eddie Hazel and the rest.

Give up the funk.

Funkadelic had funky psychedelic rock jams. The white groups from British Invasion days were playing the blues developed by black Americans. Black musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone turned around and started incorporating what was thought of as white rock. Clinton cites the influences of Hendrix, Sly, Bob Dylan, Cream and others for helping to gel the sounds and flavors of Funkadelic. They used no costumes or stage props. They played smaller venues, and the focus was on the hooks and jams.

Ow, we need the funk.

Parliament presented the “pop” side of funk, with freaky costumes, multi-layered instrumentals, driving and intense rhythms, its own mythology, and it was closer musically to James Brown. Parliament albums were put out on a second record label and aimed at a wider radio audience. The lyrics contained critiques of American culture wrapped in humor. Parliament performed long, wild concerts and used elaborate stage props. The Mothership would land on the stage with the band members inside. Its presence on stage meant that they had to treat the show like a well-rehearsed play. The size of the stage and touring crew, and the transportation needed to go from city to city, was the equivalent of a touring Broadway show.

We gotta have that funk.

Both bands featured the same cast of musicians. Clinton coalesced the separate entities in the 80s and toured as “George Clinton,” The P-Funk All-Stars, and a few splinter and side-groups. Legal troubles abounded with different factions vying for the rights, royalties, and residuals of the songs. Clinton places some of the blame over this tangle on his own drug use and the befuddlement it caused in him in his business dealings. He now has a much clearer outlook and is trying to regain the intellectual property rights to songs that he wrote. His good friend Sly Stone just won a similar lawsuit.

The legacy of P-Funk lives on in part with the thousands of sampled grooves by hip-hop artists. One of the appendices in the book has a “selected sampleography” of popular hip-hop songs and the P-Funk songs they came from.

Hey, look out! The Mothership has landed. This cultural icon is now permanently housed at the Smithsonian.

Here is a little factoid of special interest to us Pittsburghers: While trying to find a shortcut through Pennsylvania on an early tour, Clinton and his band freaked out when they ran into zombies! It was in fact the movie set of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

Check out Parliament and Funkadelic on CD, on DVD or on Hoopla, and prepare to boogie.

-Joelle

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New Shoes and Sole Hope

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Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Eleventh Stack are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting books, music and movies by African American Artists. We also have a ton of great events and programs for children, teens and adults. You can view all of our Black History Month posts here.

There was a joke about African Americans having bad feet. But once you bought a shoe, it was yours. You couldn’t exchange it. And you couldn’t try it on in the store.
Betty Ellison-Harpole

When I was reading the book New Shoes by Susan Meyer I cringed when Ella Mae wasn’t allowed to try on shoes. I know this was simply one more Jim Crow indignity piled upon a mountain of indignities, but imagining a little girl unable to try on shoes…

NewShoes

New Shoes, Susan Meyer

When her brother’s hand-me-down shoes don’t fit, it is time for Ella Mae to get new ones. She is ecstatic, but when she and her mother arrive at Mr. Johnson’s shoe store, her happiness quickly turns to dejection. Ella Mae is forced to wait when a customer arrives after her and is served first. Ella Mae is unable even to try on the shoes because of her skin color. Determined to fight back, Ella Mae and her friend Charlotte work tirelessly to collect and restore old shoes, wiping, washing, and polishing them to perfection. The girls then have their very own shoe sale, giving the other African American members of their community a place to buy shoes where they can be treated fairly and “try on all the shoes they want.” Set in the South during the time of segregation, this stunning picture book brings the civil rights era to life for contemporary readers.

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In celebration of Black History Month, CLP- South Side is having a special storytime and shoe-cutting party for the whole family. What is a shoe-cutting party, you may ask? Using patterns from the charity Sole Hope we will use denim and plastic to create shoe soles for children in Uganda. We’ll collect our soles and send them to Sole Hope, where trained shoe-makers create shoes for those in need.

New Shoes and Sole Hope
Saturday, February 20
2-4 PM

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We could use the following donations for our party on Saturday!
Jeans or denim
Fabric scissors (just letting us borrow a pair for the day would be awesome!)
Clean milk jugs and/or laundry detergent bottles
$10 to sponsor a pair of shoes

Hope to see you Saturday!
-suzy

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The Sting of Mercurochrome

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Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Eleventh Stack are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting books, music and movies by African American Artists. We also have a ton of great events and programs for children, teens and adults. You can view all of our Black History Month posts here.

Wanda Coleman (1946-2013) was a politically active, socially aware poet who took great joy in pushing the limits of what poetic forms and language could do. She’s also somewhat infamous for her extremely negative review of Maya Angelou’s A Song Flung Up to Heaven, which earned her a lot of grief from the Black literary community. Her response to the controversy, which was published in The Nation in 2002, contains a lot of strong—and possibly unpopular—opinions about writing excellence in the context of the history of the African American literary tradition. And she honestly didn’t care whether you agreed with her or not. She was too busy promoting, and creating, her own version of excellence.

The poems presented in Mercurochrome (2001) reflect that excellence in a deep, passionate engagement with both language and culture. As readers, we know exactly what we’re getting ourselves into because Coleman tells us flat-out in the lead-off poem, “The Language Beneath the Language”:

thus you hold me
frozen in your doubtful vision
in your study of my brownness. believe
my curious fingers. trust my
daring fingers
as they probe your opened wound… (15).

mercurochromeIn other words, reader, the book you hold in your hands is not meant to be comfortable. Coleman is out to engage you, and the engagement will not always be pleasurable. If you are willing to be uncomfortable, however, your mind will get blown wide open. And that’s never a bad thing, in the long run.

Divided into six sections, Mercurochrome explores the Black American experience by subverting conventional poetic forms. In Section III, for example, “American Sonnets,” Coleman takes a style many contemporary readers find tedious and manipulates it into something a lot more interesting:

widely widely i open to love. my country
impregnates with seed of hate. conjecture?
no. this mad fornication i endure, jealous
contrary to reason, foolish in my fantasy
that i too am cherished…(95).

By using the classic poetry of love to indicate where love is lacking is more than just clever. It’s a direct criticism of what America has promised, but not provided.

The volume’s title is made clear to the reader in “Letter to My Older Sister (5)”:

…love
as i live it seems more like Mercurochrome
     than anything else
i can conjure up. it looks so pretty and red,
     and smells of a balmy
coolness when you uncap the little applicator.
     but swab it on an
open sore and you nearly die under the stabbing
     burn (70).

And there are a lot of open sores that need healing, including the commodification of Black culture (“Paper Riot”), police brutality (“South Central Los Angeles Deathtrip 1982”), and even the banal quality of most contemporary poetry (“Essay on Language (6)”). For all that it stings, however, Coleman’s lyrics also advocate standing one’s ground:

i am blackness waking
my mother’s face on my father’s gift
i am the utter meaning
immesurable, sensual and stark
i am the jetflow of subterranean events
my father’s gentleness on my mother’s savagery
i am blackness. the awakening (24).

Although it may often sting like a poison, Mercurochrome is Coleman’s lyrical attempt at a cure. If you’d like a bigger dose of her medicine, click on over to the Library catalog and reserve a copy, or try another one of Coleman’s collections on for size.

–Leigh Anne

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