An inspired and moving work of intrepid scholarship.

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SPECTACLE

THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OTA BENGA

A shocking tale of a young African taken from his home for the purposes of Western science throws into relief the turn-of-the-century's ill-conceived intentions and prejudice.

It is hard to fathom placing a young Central African man of “pygmy” descent in a cage at the Bronx Zoo with an orangutan as a companion to be mocked and stared at by thousands of visitors, unless it was part of some weird art or political installation. Indeed, Newkirk (Journalism/New York Univ.; Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media, 2000, etc.) notes in her work of careful scholarship how the director and chief curator of the New York Zoological Gardens, William Temple Hornaday, was delighted by his 1906 acquisition of the “pygmy,” who would undoubtedly attract hordes of viewers, with no idea how offensive the exhibit might be, especially to African-Americans. Newkirk has to fill in many blank spaces in this wrenching story of Ota Benga—his name would be spelled a dozen different ways over the course of his short life—who was eventually “rescued” by the director of an African-American orphanage in Brooklyn, with the aim of educating him to become a missionary to be sent back to Africa. Specifically, Benga never told his own story, so Newkirk has pursued the villain, Samuel Phillips Verner, a South Carolina–born racist who became a minister and went to Africa, only to ingratiate himself with the officials of King Leopold’s Belgium Congo in plundering African artifacts (sold to the Smithsonian and other American institutions) and preying on native tribes. The “diminutive forest people” would be his particular prize, first conveyed for exhibit at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Benga was the victim of the era's flourishing eugenics, and the author notes that he likely suffered from PTSD.

An inspired and moving work of intrepid scholarship.

Pub Date: June 2, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-06-220100-3

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Amistad/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 11, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2015

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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST

Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.

In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50928-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

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A clear and candid contribution to an essential conversation.

SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE

Straight talk to blacks and whites about the realities of racism.

In her feisty debut book, Oluo, essayist, blogger, and editor at large at the Establishment magazine, writes from the perspective of a black, queer, middle-class, college-educated woman living in a “white supremacist country.” The daughter of a white single mother, brought up in largely white Seattle, she sees race as “one of the most defining forces” in her life. Throughout the book, Oluo responds to questions that she has often been asked, and others that she wishes were asked, about racism “in our workplace, our government, our homes, and ourselves.” “Is it really about race?” she is asked by whites who insist that class is a greater source of oppression. “Is police brutality really about race?” “What is cultural appropriation?” and “What is the model minority myth?” Her sharp, no-nonsense answers include talking points for both blacks and whites. She explains, for example, “when somebody asks you to ‘check your privilege’ they are asking you to pause and consider how the advantages you’ve had in life are contributing to your opinions and actions, and how the lack of disadvantages in certain areas is keeping you from fully understanding the struggles others are facing.” She unpacks the complicated term “intersectionality”: the idea that social justice must consider “a myriad of identities—our gender, class, race, sexuality, and so much more—that inform our experiences in life.” She asks whites to realize that when people of color talk about systemic racism, “they are opening up all of that pain and fear and anger to you” and are asking that they be heard. After devoting most of the book to talking, Oluo finishes with a chapter on action and its urgency. Action includes pressing for reform in schools, unions, and local governments; boycotting businesses that exploit people of color; contributing money to social justice organizations; and, most of all, voting for candidates who make “diversity, inclusion and racial justice a priority.”

A clear and candid contribution to an essential conversation.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-58005-677-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Seal Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 9, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2017

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