Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Book Review: "The Warmth of Other Suns" by Isabel Wilkerson

I abhor confrontation, whether I'm involved or just a witness. This isn't something about which I am at all proud. Well, except for the fact that this character trait has kept me out of fist fights. I'm the kind of guy who thinks of a snappy comeback well after the fact, or needs to do research to provide back-up to whatever point I was trying to make earlier. I'm just not a good debater. Let's not get into the psychology of this.

Nearly 20 years ago I worked as a proofreader at a Boston accounting firm. The work was extremely dry, the work environment was fairly buttoned down, and my fellow employees were mostly young conservative types. Most days, a bunch of us younger types (the junior accountants, receptionist, interns and me, although I was a few years older than most of them) would eat lunch in the conference room.

Most times, the conversation revolved around clients, or weekend antics or local sports. I spent much of the time hunched over the Boston Globe while I ate. A few of the young dude number crunchers used to fight over my sports pages.

One day the conversation shifted from the usual topics to something more controversial, although I might have been the only person who considered it so. Well, I suspect I wasn't the only one, but certainly nobody spoke up when a few people, especially the receptionist, started bad-mouthing black people.

I don't recall how the subject came up. Could have been a report in the paper about gangs. There have always been gangs in Boston, including the infamous Whitey Bulger and his associates, but in the mid-'90s, as today, many of the gangs are made up of young, black men. In September of 1995, a gang prosecutor was assassinated in broad daylight.

The only comments I recall from this conversation came from our receptionist, a nice woman named Maria, who was, like me, a few years older than the recent college grads who we ate lunch with. I liked Maria. She was easy to talk to, good at her job, if a bit ignorant of world affairs at times.

A proud daughter of Italian immigrants, Maria wondered that day about why black people had such a hard time moving up in the world, when her family and other Italian-Americans managed to find their way in the world and be successful. It was obvious that in her opinion, black people just weren't trying hard enough, or had some deficiency that was holding them back.

Listening to her, I got that feeling that I get when I'm uncomfortable with a conversation or am witnessing an argument or physical confrontation. My nerves jangled, my skin got hot and my brain seethed with disgust. But I didn't say anything, couldn't think of what to say that would get my point across without making Maria feel bad. See, I don't ever want to make people feel bad. Because then they'll say something back, and either I won't have an answer, or I'll get too mad too quickly and end up saying something nasty.

I've thought many times over the years about the things Maria said. I've come up with replies that would've, at the least, made Maria think for a few seconds about what she'd said.

Now, all these years later, I have an answer for her. Sure, it's more than 500 pages long and has taken me weeks to read, but Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration provides irrefutable proof of the misery that black people endured for the 100 years after slavery ended, at the hands of white politicians, lawmakers, law enforcement, employers, everyday people on the street.

"You wanna know why black people have had so much difficulty getting ahead in America?" I would ask Maria now. "Because white people treated them like shit at every possible turn, and that was in the good times. Lynchings, Jim Crow laws, unfair wages and housing opportunities, refusal to allow them to drink from the same fountains or ride in the same train cars (and countless other methods of separate and unequal treatment) -- setting up an entire system designed to keep black people from making anything of themselves."

None of this information is new to people who have any clue about the history of race relations in the United States. But when you read page after page of first-hand accounts of the unimaginable suffering that the descendants of slaves went through, it makes it far too real.

But Wilkerson's book is so much more than just a recounting of terrors and heartbreak. The author interviewed more than 1,200 people in order to get as complete a picture as possible of what people in different parts of the South did to escape North or West and make a new life. Out of all of these folks, she chose three as the "leads" in the story of millions of people who made the brave and sometimes heart-rending choice to leave their homes and take a chance in someplace new.

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney left Mississippi and went to Chicago; George Swanson Starling fled Florida for New York City; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster bolted Louisiana for Los Angeles.

Each had a different reason for leaving: Gladney and her husband escaped after somebody close to them was beaten for committing a crime that turned out never to have occurred; Starling felt threatened after agitating for better wages in the citrus groves; and Foster felt stifled in the Deep South and fulfilled his longtime dream of going to Hollywood.

All of them faced discrimination in their new cities, and hard times getting started and becoming even a little bit successful. And while they missed the people, food, culture and landscapes of their hometowns, they never regretted migrating away from the brutality of the South.

Wilkerson tells their tales with such intimacy and beauty, providing incredible details at every turn of their lives and hardships and triumphs. I felt so connected to each of the three protagonists, and learned so much about a huge chapter of this nation that I knew next to nothing about beforehand.

I have no idea what, if anything, Wilkerson is working on now. I imagine she's got something in the works. Whatever it is, I'm sure I'll read it.

I've gone on too long. Just go read the book.

Saturday, September 7, 2013


I'm happy to report that after six weeks, I have set aside my crutches. The surgeon told me yesterday that my recovery is coming along well, and that I'm ready for the next phase.

The doctor said I might want to try one crutch for a while, or even two if the pain is too much. But I couldn't wait to ditch the crutches, and so far over the past 28 hours I'm feeling good.

I was half hoping the doctor would tell me I had to use either one crutch or a cane. I would've gone for something like this:

On Monday I'll give the therapist my new prescription. I don't know what that will entail, but he told me on Thursday that once the surgeon gave me the go-ahead for full weight bearing, he'd start pushing me. I've got plenty of work ahead of me, and the doctor said I can expect a few more months before I'm feeling as fully healed as I'm going to get.

My left hip isn't ever going to be 100%. I'm not going to be a runner again. But that's OK. I'll take up swimming or get back to walking. Maybe bike riding. Right now I'm just happy to be limping.

Sunday, September 1, 2013


Man am I sick of these crutches.

I've been on them for 5 1/2 weeks now, and I absolutely still need them. All along I'd assumed that I'd be off them at the six-week mark, which would be the end of this week. I have an appointment with the surgeon on Friday, which is a day after the six week anniversary of my hip surgery. But my physical therapist told me a few days ago that it's likely the surgeon will instruct me to use one crutch (or a cane) for a while before making the transition to full weight bearing.

I don't know for sure that's what the surgeon is gonna tell me, but I suspect it will be. If he gives me that choice, I'm tempted to go for the cane, so I can be wicked dope like Prime Minister Pete Nice.

My dad, who's 84, uses a black cane with a silver snake head on top. I don't think he'd part with it, but I'd like to rent one like that.

I'm glad I'm able to drive despite using crutches. Fifteen years ago I tore my Achilles tendon and couldn't drive for a few months. That sucked.

But there's just so much I can't do, or can't do as well as I'd like. I get very frustrated trying to do the simplest things, like clear the dinner table, or empty the dishwasher, or carry a book or a magazine from one room to the next. Last week I was trying to pick up some of the kids' books and toys from an ottoman in the living room, and lost my balance, and ended up dropping the crutches and falling arm first onto the ottoman.

Of course, I blamed my mishap on the books and toys, admonishing the kids to clean their stuff up so I wouldn't trip and almost fall on my face. I've always had a low threshold for frustration with simple things that don't go right, and while for the most part during my recovery I feel as though I've let little things slide by, lately I've been letting those issues bug me too much.

If I knew that at the end of my time on crutches, and after several weeks of PT and taking some time to get back in the swing of things that I'd be feeling better than I did before my surgery, perhaps I wouldn't let myself get frustrated. But I know that's not the case. The surgeon cleaned torn cartilage out of my hip joint, but he didn't repair it. He also shaved down the head of my femur, so it won't impinge on the joint.

But I notice the same physical issues now that I did before the surgery: clicking sound in my hip, discomfort in my groin, low-back pain. I know that I have to work with a personal trainer at some point to get on a good fitness program, so that will help. But I'm not going to be a runner again, and I fear that eventually my left hip will get worse and that I might need to go bionic at some point.

Maybe I'm just letting myself get a bit down because I've been house-bound for too long. I can't wait 'til the kids go back to school, so I can get to writing and figuring out what the heck I'm gonna do to get back into the work force.

OK, here's a reward for reading my rant. All this talk about canes and watching rap videos led me to this video, which ain't safe for work: Public Enemy, Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane (get it?):