Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead – Book

From a Google Image Search – Time Magazine

In the first chapter of his book Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead sucked me right into his world. It was serendipity. His main character, Ray Carney, was driving in his truck to see Aronowitz, an old man who was a wizard at fixing up TVs and radios. Aronowitz had a shop full of tubes, TV tubes, radio tubes. It’s 1959, that’s what was inside radios and TVs in those days. I felt at home because my father’s basement workshop was full of those same tubes and the neighbors’ TVs and radios that needed repairs.’

Ray Carney is the owner of a furniture store at a good spot on 125 th street. He precariously straddles a life as a proud small businessman and a fence for stolen goods, because he can’t seem to leave behind his crooked cousin Freddie, his almost brother since early childhood. As Freddie’s life deteriorates, Carney’s life improves, but it is a life and death struggle. Between characters like Miami Joe, Chink Montague, and Pepper who keep pulling him into illegal schemes and the beat cop, Detective Munson, making him pay protection, getting ahead was like maneuvering through a minefield. It did help that criminals switched girlfriends a lot and bought a new dinette set for each lady friend.

There is a heist that Carney is roped into by Freddie and there is the rumor of an extremely valuable necklace. How far will Carney go to protect his dream and his ‘new apartment fund’, his wife Elizabeth and his little son and daughter? How far will he have to go? When Carney is moved to take revenge against Wilfred Dukes for one betrayal too many, Carney shows his focus and effectiveness, which suggest that he would have made a better crook than most of the crooks around him. Then Harlem erupts in violence when a young black man is killed by a policeman without any justification. Carney hunkers down in his store with his Heywood-Wakefield furniture lines and his Argent recliners and stays there day and night until the riots end and his store is safe, because the riots did not come to his little corner of the world

Most of us, if we are trying to get ahead in business do not have to face the challenges that Ray Carney had to face. There is a good argument in this story for taking Carney’s businessman route as opposed to the chaos of pursuing illegal means to get rich. Some people who break laws and learn to be tough, who will kill at the slightest provocation may manage to find their way into a legal and better life, but the odds are not great. Once Freddie meets Linus, a rich and interesting guy and an addict, Freddie’s fate is sealed, and Carney ends up in possession of that necklace full of emeralds which he has no idea how to rid himself of. This is a story of Harlem, but it could just as easily take place in any modern city. Colson Whitehead once again shows his chops as a writer.

The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers-Book

From a Google Image Search – twitter.com

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers surprised me. I expected it would be commentary on the works of W. E. B. Du Bois, but it ended up being a family saga of a uniquely American family. Mr. Du Bois did introduce each section of the book and there was an amusing and somewhat substantive debate between two characters about whether Booker T. Washington or W. E. B. did more to raise up African Americans. So, the author, who speaks in the afterword about her personal hero, the one in the title of the book, manages to offer both a tribute and to speak some truths in her novel.

Of course, African Americans brought here as slaves did not choose America as their home, it was forced on them. But theirs is still a quintessentially American story and not always one white Americans can be proud of, which is probably the basis of American racism. This is Roots for girls, women are in the lead in this family saga, what women endure, how they endure it, what was done to Black women in this country, and because this fictional family begins with a marriage between a Black man and an indigenous (Creek) woman, two ethnic tragedies become intertwined.

When white farmers moved into Georgia, these men forced the Creek tribe out, and as their farms grew into plantations, they bought slaves to farm the land. Slaves were their property and not considered to be evolved humans, and so women and men, even children were exploited and abused. Slaves survived, reproduced, were relocated, or died at their “master’s” whim. Because of forced interbreeding many of the family trees of black folks are involuntarily intertwined with white families, although perhaps unacknowledged until modern times. White people were shamed by having black relatives, but for all the wrong reasons. Their behavior was beastly and that is what the shame should be all about. The author does not say these things but these feeling can be extrapolated from what she writes.

We come to enjoy each visit to Chicasetta, Georgia, as much as the characters in this story. Although it is not a real place it becomes real by the gift of the writer’s art. We time travel back and forth between the beginnings of a couple of family trees and the modern family that was born out of these beginnings. Ailey Garfield is the narrator, and her dialect is evocative of the South and the warm manners of Black families who reside there. Her mother Belle and her father Zachery Garfield married because Belle was pregnant with her first child. They were almost separated by the Black Power movement but became stable and loving parents. Belle had to give up on her college degree, but she became a mother who tried to inspire her three daughters to succeed where she had fallen short and, for the most part she succeeded. Lydia is the middle sister. Coco is the oldest daughter.

It’s a long book and it is engrossing. It took me a long time to read it only because I kept getting distracted by my own projects and chores. It’s a wonderful book and a great addition to the genre. Ailey’s relations are quite strong characters, and I came to admire Jason Thomas ‘Uncle Root greatly. Eliza Two, Rabbit and Leena are also interesting characters to keep an eye on. It accomplishes some of the same goals as Coates’ book, The Water Dancer, except with more realism, less magical realism.