Who pays the costs of violence, whether waged against a person, group, or environment? That’s the broad question Johnson (Creative Nonfiction/Rice Univ.) tackles in this follow-up to her 2014 memoir, The Other Side.
While the author’s previous book described her hellish experience as a victim of kidnap and rape, this book of essays takes the recovery process to the next level, searching for ways to redress loss without resorting to eye-for-eye retribution. Johnson has startled audiences by refusing to wish the worst for her own attacker: “I don’t want him dead. I don’t even want him to suffer. More pain creates more sorrow, sometimes generations of sorrow, and it amplifies injustice rather than cancels it out.” Doling out punishment is easy; the challenge comes in creating change, especially in figuring out just where it begins. As her thoughts switch gears from the personal to the collective, the question of personal culpability increases. She’s against racism, but she knows she has enjoyed white privilege in her role as a professor. She protests against the BP Deepwater Horizon spill but wonders if her own job—at a school that is also a BP beneficiary—doesn’t in some way make her responsible. She asks, too, if rehabilitation is possible when the criminal is either a major corporation or, in the case of a landfill with World War II–era toxic waste, no longer around to face the consequences. “There is no one to arrest for this, to send to jail, to fine or execute or drag to his humiliation on the city square,” writes the author. In the face of crimes that affect both the one and the many, she makes a plea for activism, art, and—as she experienced when her Houston home flooded last year—common decency.
Johnson negotiates a path between vengeance and hand-wringing despair in this thoughtful and probing collection.
Black millennials offer candid views of the challenges they face.
In her first book, journalist and broadcast producer Allen, an Eisner Fellow at the Nation Institute, investigates how the enduring myth of the American dream relates to young blacks between the ages of 18 and 30: “folks,” she writes, “who looked like me.” The American dream—“the idea that anyone can succeed and enjoy a prosperous life through hard work”—applies, the author asserts, only “to a limited number of people.” For oppressed and marginalized blacks, the dream has been largely unattainable. Has that changed, Allen asks, for a new generation? What does upward mobility look like for them? How do they express their own dreams? Drawing on interviews with 75 millennials as well as studies, surveys, and articles, the author recounts stories of defeat and dashed hopes from blacks who feel that the American dream “wasn’t and isn’t for them.” Among their frustrations is education: Many believe that a college degree is essential to their future success, accumulating huge debt to pay for schooling. More than 80 percent of Blacks who complete bachelor’s degrees have debt upon graduating, compared with 64 percent of whites. Moreover, a college education does not ensure employment: “The unemployment rate for Black college graduates is the same as for White high school graduates.” For those who manage to pursue a professional career, the workplace often feels unwelcoming. As one woman told her, “Black millennials do not have stability and security” in their jobs; they are often paid less than whites, are not offered career guidance and mentorship, and “often walk a tightrope between the hood and the elite.” Home ownership eludes many blacks, as well, with redlining and predatory lenders victimizing prospective buyers. Frustrated with their efforts to hold on to middle-class status, some blacks are redefining what success means to them, rejecting ‘the White-picket fence version of the dream” in favor of “what the dream means at its core: freedom.”
Sad, revealing testimony to the continuing effects of racism and inequality.
A revelatory examination of America’s “symbolic center in national mythologies.”
After teaching at Harvard and living in the Washington, D.C., area, among other stops, Hoganson (History/Univ. of Illinois; American Empire at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: A Brief History with Documents, 2016, etc.) found herself unexpectedly transplanted to the Midwest. Instead of readily accepting stereotypes of the nation’s so-called heartland, she began mining the roots of many of these preconceptions. The result is this brilliantly reasoned, meticulously researched book, which refreshingly pushes against stereotypes at every turn. The author demonstrates how the stereotypes and myths about the heartland eventually became conventional wisdom. For decades, any attentive Midwesterner has known that Illinois is not Iowa, is not Missouri, is not Indiana, etc. However, even Hoganson had not realized the gap between reality and the lumped-together reputation of many of these states. For this book, she first began digging into data close to her new home in Urbana-Champaign, where the University of Illinois is located, and then moved beyond to explore community and national elements. Hoganson looked at practices that many conventional scholars have missed: how the raising of cattle for beef led Midwestern farmers to interact with markets around the world, how the raising of hogs for pork led to many of the same results, how most Midwestern voters have never subscribed to isolationist politics, and how so-called flyover country turned out to be anything but boringly flat and technologically backward. Consistently, the author persuasively argues that the term “heartland” must be retired; the geographic center of the United States, she writes, is pulsing with global connections, innovations, varieties of human experiences, and ecological diversity. Hoganson closes by reiterating how “the heartland myth came to be so commensensical: its scaled-up localness is far easier to grasp than the vast complexity of the real world.”
With lively prose, Hoganson delivers an eye-opening, outside-the-box book that is mind-bending in all the right ways.
In her first book, the founder of Brooklyn-based Common Justice convincingly attacks the conventional wisdom about violent crimes, appropriate punishment, and how to repair the criminal (in)justice system.
Sered’s organization brings together crime victims and perpetrators to experience a process known as restorative justice. Common Justice always begins with the crime victims, who are rarely heeded and often downright ignored by police, prosecutors, and judges. The author and her small staff listen carefully to victims of all kinds of violence. In most jurisdictions, a large percentage of perpetrators are never arrested. If an arrest occurs, well over 90 percent never reach the trial stage, and the vast majority of plea-bargained convictions terminate in private, with the victim nowhere near the negotiating venue. Even when conventional wisdom maintains that a prison sentence is a positive outcome for the victim, Sered has learned that rarely do victims heal quickly—if ever. The physical injuries and/or mental anguish do not disappear simply because a perpetrator is incarcerated. In addition to destroying myths about victimhood, the author attacks incarceration as a positive outcome for anybody, especially because prisons offer no accountability from the perpetrator that reaches the victim and no rehabilitation that benefits society eventually. Violence in every neighborhood must be attacked at its roots, Sered argues convincingly, and the evidence is overwhelming that mass incarceration never halts ongoing neighborhood violence. “If incarceration worked to secure safety,” she writes, “we would be the safest nation in all of human history….If incarceration worked to stop violence, we would have eradicated it by now—because no nation has used incarceration more.” The author provides clear, specific evidence for her contention that the new conventional wisdom must be survivor-centered, accountability-based, safety-driven, and racially equitable. The case studies of restorative justice that punctuate every chapter offer undeniable proof that Common Justice’s tactics are succeeding and should be more widely applied.
A top-notch entry into the burgeoning incarceration debate.
A stirring defense of “identity politics” and the need to reclaim narratives as well as a powerful account of the transformation of a journalist into an activist.
The old adage says that the personal is political (and vice versa), and it is the personal that elevates this above the typical activist broadside. Roychoudhuri combines the reporting chops of an experienced journalist with literary flair and a conversational, common-sense approach that seems far more heartfelt than dogmatic. “My primary identity is not as a first-generation Indian-American,” she writes, after recounting her frustrations with an agent interested in her fiction who suggested she make it more “Jhumpa Lahiri-sh.” “I identity more as an ambiguously brown American—one who decided to learn Spanish in part because so many people assume I’m Latina.” As such, the author establishes that she is emblematic of the “marginalized majority” in a country where appeals to reach the “average American” generally connote one who is white and male and where “working-class American” is similarly misrepresented given “the fact that the majority of the American working class is part of an ethnic or racial minority.” Throughout, Roychoudhuri gives voice to those whose voices are too little heard. She finds great hope in “solidarity and intersectionality in protests,” showing how #metoo, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and other movements of the supposedly marginalized have moved into the mainstream. “Marginalized Americans are at the heart of the movement,” she writes. “And they always have been.” Along the way, the author recounts her progression from a reporter more comfortable observing from the sidelines to an activist in the middle of the fray as she tackles myths of subjectivity and objectivity that can distort the reality.
There have been plenty of books covering similar territory—and there will be many more in the years to come—but rarely are they as persuasive and engaging as this one.