By Kam Williams
Nationwide (January 5, 2011) — There were many to choose from, but here are my final picks for the top non-fiction books of last year. I’ve also listed 15 honorable mentions:
1. The Grace of Silence: A Memoir
by Michele Norris
Quite frankly, this heartbreaking memoir in which the author wistfully recounts her family’s quiet and dignified way of dealing with racism and discrimination, moved me to tears. NPR’s Michele Norris describes lives painfully limited by the color line, including a litany of humiliations endured by relatives well before she was born, such as the indignities suffered by her maternal grandmother while employed by Quaker Oats as a traveling Aunt Jemima.
Particularly poignant is the painstaking lengths Michele goes to resurrect the besmirched name of her late father. For following his honorable discharge from the military after serving in World War II, he’d returned to his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, reasonably believing he’d earned the right to vote by fighting for his country.
So he and other black veterans began making treks to the courthouse downtown to attempt to register. However, in an incident which was subsequently covered-up by a falsified police report full of lies, her father was shot while wearing his Navy uniform by a police officer who charged him with attempted robbery and resisting arrest. The truth just unearthed by his intrepid daughter during a recent return to Birmingham belatedly clears his name, even though his innocence had been impossible to prove back in the Jim Crow South.
A very intimate, riveting and revealing cultural keepsake apt to resonate deeply with any African-American family inclined to reflect honestly on the oft-unspoken legacy of generation after generation of ancestors who had to cope in a world where bigoted whites could get away with anything.
Ever since the dawn of the nation when the Founding Fathers deliberately rationalized slavery by spreading the big lie that black people were inferior, African-Americans have suffered from serious self-esteem issues. But why has this phenomenon continued to persist so long past emancipation and the elimination of the Jim Crow system of segregation?
This is the nagging thought which inspired Tom Burrell to write Brainwashed. After all, as an advertising executive with 45 years in the business, he was well aware of the power of propaganda. So he knew that American society has done such a good job on the minds of blacks that they have not only internalized but have willingly participated in the perpetuation and further dissemination of nearly every negative stereotype propagated about them by the media.
Mr. Burell explores his subject-matter at considerable length and depth with the hope of helping to eradicate self-destructive behaviors. He believes that people have to heal from the inside-out, so his solutions start with each individual’s recognition that you’ve been brainwashed, and that you can reprogram your mind because it is ultimately under your control.
A potentially-transformative, seminal treatise provided readers are receptive to contemplating commonly-accepted cultural practices like the use of the N-word, corporal punishment and hair relaxers as possibly the vestiges of a deep-seated self-hatred implanted in the brain by white supremacist notions.
Given all that Condoleezza Rice went on to accomplish in life, it’s hard to believe that she was born in Birmingham, Alabama in the Fifties during the repressive reign of Jim Crow segregation. But somehow, despite spending her formative years in a city where state-sanctioned discrimination served to frustrate the aspirations of most other African-Americans, she miraculously managed to overachieve with the help of her doting parents.
The former Secretary of State pays tribute to their herculean effort in this remarkably-revealing memoir by a very private, public figure who has until now played her cards pretty close to the vest. But you had a sense something might be up when she was spotted playing piano behind Aretha at a concert in Philadelphia last summer. And after reading this intimate autobiography it’s clear that underneath that seemingly-steely veneer beats the heart is an introspective sister yearning to recognize and return to her roots.
An evocative opus fully humanizing a once-inscrutable Madam Secretary. I just have one question: May I call you Condi at the homecoming party?
In this engaging autobiography, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien revisits her challenging formative years in order to illustrate how overcoming childhood adversity perhaps served to shape not only her personality but her compassionate approach to her career as an award-winning television journalist. Whether it was being asked “Are you black?” by a portrait photographer at the age of 11, being teased “If you’re a [N-word] why don’t you have big lips?” by an 8th grader in the hallway at school, or having to hear “Why do I have to sit next to the black girl?” coming from the sister of a friend, Soledad suffered a host of indignities on the path to the peak of her profession.
Fortunately, once in a position to make a difference while covering disasters like the Great Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina or the Haitian Earthquake, this intrepid reporter has kept the pedal to the metal in an indefatigable quest to shed light on the plight of the least of her brethren. As for her private life, we learn that the freckle-faced, dedicated mother of four was an ugly duckling who never dated in high school before blossoming in Boston where she met her husband, Brad.
A moving memoir which does justice to the effervescent spirit and unbridled intellectual curiosity of a truly empathetic soul my faithful readers already know just might be the brightest person I’ve had the privilege of interviewing.
As a journalist privileged to have access to many celebrities, a question I often like to ask in interviews with African-American captains of industry is how they managed to flourish in a predominantly white environment where so many other talented blacks have simultaneously failed to do so. Now, we finally have a satisfactory answer to that query thanks to Dr. Randal Pinkett, winner of Donald Trump’s reality show The Apprentice.
For, in conjunction with his longtime business partner, Dr. Jeffrey “J.R.” Robinson, Randal has written a viable blueprint for blacks trying to make it in corporate America. Here, he and J.R. serve up sage advice culled from a combination of their own experiences and those of dozens of equally-accomplished black contemporaries they interviewed for the project. In a nutshell, their sacred 10 Commandments range from a stress on excellence to seeking out the wisdom of mentors to maximizing synergy and scale.
A helpful handbook designed for the average African-American armed with credentials yet in a quandary about how to flourish in the midst of a corporate culture tainted by intolerance in terms of skin color.
Now that the bloom has fallen off the rose of the Obama Administration, most black folks are beginning to wake up to the fact that his election isn’t about to turn the country into a post-racial utopia any time soon. To the contrary, attorney Michelle Alexander argues that in recent decades America has increasingly, and ever so subtly, adopted a color-coded caste system where minorities are targeted, stigmatized and marginalized by the criminal justice system.
Alexander, a Professor of Law at Ohio State University, makes her very persuasive case in this scathing indictment of the widespread practice of selective enforcement of draconian drug laws. Ostensibly, the aim of the U.S. government has been not only to warehouse masses of African-American males behind bars, but to relegate them permanently to a subordinate stratum of society even after they’re paroled.
If the author holds out any hope for our future, it rests in raising the country’s collective consciousness about the role the Apartheid-like legal system plays in perpetuating oppression along the color line. Her goal, as delineated in this sterling text, is to work towards that end by generating some frank dialogue leading to a social movement on behalf of the vast underclass of unfairly-criminalized social pariahs.
During these dire economic times when the overall unemployment rate in the U.S. has dipped to 9.8%, you can be sure that that figure is at least double in the African-American community. And after the Democrats took what even President Obama referred to as a “shellacking” on Election Day, they’ve already capitulated to the Republican demand that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy be extended.
Therefore, if you’re presently out of work, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the supposedly-stimulative effect of that windfall for the rich to trickle-down to you in the form of a job. Instead, may I suggest perusing this invaluable how-to tome designed with ambitious self-starters in mind.
The book was written by Dante Lee, the CEO of Diversity City Media and a bona fide success story in his own right. He shares a cornucopia of practical advice based on his experiences about what’s involved in getting a profitable money-making operation off the ground.
A plausible primer for financial success aimed at any aspiring entrepreneur equipped with a viable business plan and the requisite amalgam of guts, determination and common sense to make their dream a reality.
This inspirational opus is a collection of essays based on a series of lectures tackling a variety of universal themes apt to resonate with any immigrant reflecting on the oppression they left behind in coming to the United States in search of fundamental freedoms, particularly Freedom of Speech. A 2009 winner of a MacArthur Genius Fellowship, author Edwidge Danticat’s focus is explained by the fact that she was born in Haiti and had to spend her formative years under the thumb of the ruthlessly repressive Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier regimes.
The book opens with a gripping description of a public execution in the Sixties of a couple of Haitian political dissidents in a crowded Port-au-Prince town square aired live on TV, on a specially-declared national holiday when schools and businesses were closed in order to enable everyone to observe the grisly deaths by firing squad. But Edwidge points out that the true purpose of Duvalier’s turning the event into such a spectacle was to discourage the populace from ever voicing their discontent with the status quo.
Obviously, in the case of Ms. Danticat, such attempts at intimidation ultimately backfired, for the inveterate firebrand grew up to stake her career on exposing injustice and challenging authority. The magical musings and flowery phrasings of a gifted wordsmith who, it must be noted, writes not in her native French but in the English of her adopted homeland.
This heartfelt homage by Craig Robinson credits his parents, Marian and the late Fraser Robinson, III, with making countless selfless sacrifices on behalf of him and his little sister Michelle while instilling them both with “fundamental values like love, discipline and respect.” What makes the book so compelling to this critic is that after having read so many mediocre unauthorized biographies about the Obamas, we finally have a legit opus by a person you tend to believe when he says he grew up sharing the same bedroom with his little sis who is now the First Lady. Sorry, nobody can question the cred of anyone that close to her.
And when you factor in that Chicago witnessed 40 gang-related shootings on the Southside over a recent weekend, the deteriorating state of affairs in the Windy City makes this uplifting success story about how a couple of kids miraculously made it out of that very same ‘hood all the more remarkable, refreshing and eminently worthwhile.
Everybody remembers how President Obama invited both Harvard Professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates and the police sergeant who arrested him for breaking into his own home down to the White House to bury the hatchet over drinks in the Rose Garden. That photo-op was dubbed Beer-Gate, but the nagging question left unanswered was whether what had transpired back in Cambridge was really an isolated incident unlikely to reoccur or merely a reflection of a longstanding, police pattern of profiling African-American males all across the country.
Shedding considerable light on the issue is Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree in this dissection of the matter from a predominantly legal perspective. Granted, as Dr. Gates’ attorney of record, Ogletree definitely had a horse in the race, so one might question his impartiality when he makes mincemeat here of Sgt. Crowley’s rationale for jailing his client.
However, what’s of far more interest and ultimately dispositive are the anecdotal accounts offered in the book by over a hundred well-educated, highly-accomplished brothers about their own run-ins with the law. It seems that everyone has a nightmare to share, from civil rights pioneer Julian Bond to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to actor Blair Underwood to Bay State Banner Editor Howard Manly to Baseball Hall of Famer Joe Morgan to former Clinton aide Keith Boykin.
Proof-positive that, yes, Obama may be in the White House, but a post-racial utopia remains yet to be realized.
11. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
by Isabel Wilkerson
by Thomas Chatterton Williams
by Wes Moore
by Nell Irvin Painter
by Thomas C. Holt
by Carolyn Marie Wilkins
Edited by Marilynn Griffith
by Roland S. Martin
by Hisani Dubose
by Daymond John
by Barack Obama
by Vanessa “Fluffy” Murray-Yisrael
Edited by Clarence Reynolds
by Shanae Hall
Kam Williams is a syndicated film and book critic who writes for 100+ publications. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online, the African-American Film Critics Association, and the NAACP Image Awards Nominating Committee. Contact him through NewsBlaze.