The Best American Essays 2020 edited by André Aciman

I’m no stranger to André Aciman. In the summer of 2009 I read his 1996 memoir Out of Egypt, which had been sitting on my shelf unread for who knows how long. Five summers later it was his semi autobiographical novel Harvard Square I spent several warm evenings reading on my front step while watching the comings and goings of my fellow apartment dwellers. Even though I’d read just two of his books I considered myself a fan of his writing and looked forward to reading more of it.

Finding myself in the mood for a decent essay collection I discovered through Overdrive a borrowable Kindle edition of The Best American Essays 2020 edited by none other than André Aciman. Eager to see which essays Aciman deemed worthy of inclusion I downloaded it and went to work reading. I’m happy to say after finishing it Aciman’s choices did not disappoint me.

Annual anthologies like these are always a crap shoot. While some years better than others, on average each offering has one to three of outstanding pieces, with the bulk being pretty good while the remaining two or three selections not so hot. Fortunately, none of the essays Aciman selected are duds. Even my least favorite inclusions  had their moments. So hats off to Aciman.

Over the years I’ve read close to a dozen of these anthologies and Aciman’s introduction to this edition easily ranks as one of the best. Drawing from his deep well of erudition he explains what makes a great essay, serving up examples from Montaigne, Machiavelli and Proust. (If you’re looking for an impressive reading list, check out his interview 2015 interview on the Vox Tablet podcast.)

My favorites essays in the collection were ones with sharply focused narratives and specific topics in mind, akin to the long form pieces you’d find in Harpers, the New Yorker or Atlantic. While considered essays, they easily could be included in anthologies featuring outstanding writing in the fields of science and nature  or crime. Barbara Ehrenreich’s piece of prehistoric cave painting “The Humanoid Stain”,  Clinton Crockett Peters’s “A Thing About Cancer” – a novel look at the dreaded disease seen through the lens of the 1982 John Carpenter horror film The Thing  were two such pieces. Susan Fox Rogers’s essay on infamous 1920’s child murder Nathan Leopold and his love of birding was a fine science and nature feature as well as a crime one.

Much to my surprise just as it was with Jonathan Franzen’s edited Best American Essays 2016, a couple of my favorite essays touched on LGTBQ themes. Probably my favorite of these was the lead essay “How to Bartend” by Lebanese-American painter and writer Rabih Alameddine.  After being diagnosed with HIV he moved back to his native Lebanon to attend graduate school and pursue a “third worthless degree.” Needing cash he picked up a gig tending bar at an upstairs “faux upscale taproom with an English private club motif” complete with “pretentiously bound hardcovers in fake bookshelves.” Here half heartedly went about his job, pouring occasional drinks but preferring to be left alone to read novels during his normally slow workdays. Instead of a primer on good bartending his essay is a darkly humorous look at the difficult but ultimately satisfying process of finding ones tribe.

Instead of finding one’s tribe Alex Marzano-Lesnevish’s “Body Language” the focus is the long, painful process of discovering one’s gender, or if it be, non-gender. Even Peter Scheldahl’s life journey from midwestern bumpkin to NYC-dwelling art critic and mildly reckless aesthete recalls a passing gay affair, despite being an admittedly straight man with at least two heterosexual marriages and countless liaisons under his belt. (A degree sexual fluidity also rumored to be shared by Aciman himself.)

It feels like every annual essay collection contains more than a few contributions by authors looking back and reflecting on their long lives or the long lives of loved ones. As I grow older and slowly come to grips with my own mortality, and those around me I dislike these kind of pieces less and less, no longer complaining they’re products of an unwanted cottage industry. Instead, when I encounter such writing I grudgingly welcome whatever words of wisdom they offer while at the same time yearning for younger days.

But before I succumb to the ravages of old age, I’ll treat myself to a few more enjoyable anthologies. And as I do I’ll happily share my impressions of them with all of you.

20 Books of Summer: Dark Continent by Mark Mazower

A couple of years ago I was rummaging through one of those Little Free Libraries/public bookcases you find in so many neighborhoods when I came across a copy of Mark  Mazower’s 1998 book Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century. Happy to come across a book I’d been wanting to read, I eagerly helped myself.

Dark Continent is more than just a history of Europe in the 20th century. It’s also a deep dive into how and why democracy waxed and waned across the Continent during the 75 or so years following the end of World War I.

By the War’s end the great European land-based empires had collapsed and spawned a host of successor states across Central and Eastern Europe including the Balkans. In the beginning almost all were parliamentary democracies, complete with competing political parties representing constituencies across the spectrum. But by the eve of the Second World War democracy in Europe was a rare commodity. Authoritarian regimes were the norm be they the USSR, Germany, Italy or Spain. Even newly independent states like Hungary and Poland, while not overtly Fascist or Communist were run by hard-right strongmen.  According to Mazower these fledgling democracies inherited parliamentary traditions and structures evolved from years of battling autocratic monarchs. With parliaments powerful but cumbersome and prone to deadlock, and presidents and prime ministers unable to govern effectively they were ill-equipped to handle the challenges facing the states of interwar Europe: the Great Depression, sizable communities of ethnic minorities complicating the notion of a unified nation sate, specter of Communist takeover from home or abroad and newfound power of mass organizations of populist or reactionary nature to affect political change.

Complicating all of this was the decline of birthrates across the Continent beginning around the turn of the century. Although the killing ended with the cessation of hostilities a generation of young men had been slaughtered and would not be returning home to raise families. Therefore, unlike the period following World War II there was no baby boom and populations in the former belligerents either plateaued or continued to decline. Leaders and policy makers in countries across Europe feared a demographic implosion would prevent them from sustaining the standing armies and industrial output needed to compete against their rivals. Prefiguring today’s rising anti-immigrants sentiment in Europe and America many in interwar Europe thought it only a matter of time before they were swamped by their more populous neighbors either through immigration or military invasion.

Just 20 years after the last colossal European war another would engulf the Continent. While the democracies of Great Britain and France declared war on Germany, it was the authoritarian states of Germany, Italy and Russia’s successor state the USSR that shoulder the blame for restarting hostilities. According to Mazower the reasons are rooted in each of the three authoritarian states’ ruling ideology: German Nazis saw race as the only legitimate institution and the most Central and Eastern Europe states as artificial and illegitimate created by the Treaty of Versailles; Italy’s Fascists yearned for the glory days of the Roman Empire and coveted the lands of North Africa and the Balkans; Stalin and his fellow Soviets saw the modern state as a capitalist construct meant to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie and the sooner the USSR’s armies conquered its rivals, the sooner it could help spread the dictatorship of the proletariat.

By 1945 Germany’s dreams of colonizing Europe and Italy’s attempts to resurrect the Roman Empire lay in ruins. Five years of war, occupation, and genocide left the Continent impoverished and in shambles. Within five years an “Iron Curtain” had descended upon Europe, dividing the the Continent between two rival blocs. The West was home to an alliance of more or less democratic nations, allied with the United States and opposed to Communist expansion. To the East lie a collection of Soviet-imposed authoritarian states, collectively isolated and inward-looking. The dynamics of the stark division and the tensions it spawned would dictate European politics, foreign and domestic for the next 70 years.

In the West, once the cities and factories were rebuilt the region entered an unprecedented era of economic growth. With industrialization growing at a breakneck pace the ensuing labor shortages forced many countries to import workers from abroad. At first workers from Europe’s periphery like Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Communist outlier Yugoslavia migrated to the factories of West Germany, France and the like. Later, the call for workers went answered in more distant lands including Turkey, North Africa, and in the case of the United Kingdom the Caribbean and South Asia. Giving the Western economies a much needed boost, it would create long term questions over the nature of citizenship and limits of multiculturalism.

This time, in the West anyway, democracy did not wither up and die in the decades following WWII as it did after the previous world war. Learning from their past mistakes and traumatized by the horrors of authoritarian rule and foreign occupation constitutions were rewritten or retooled to prevent parliamentary gridlock. Structural changes were enacted to protect human rights and promote functioning and responsible governments. In hopes of preventing another Great Depression governments took a more active role in economic planning and enlarged the social safety net. (Ironically, both measures were first introduced by the authoritarian states of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Communist USSR.) A movement to foster closer political and economic cooperation among European nations would eventually give birth to the European Common Market and later European Union. (Again ironically, according to Mazower eerily similar to a concept floated by Nazi Minister of Industry and Production Adolf Speer.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Iron Curtain things weren’t so rosy. After Stalin’s death the reigns of power did loosed somewhat, but those in the Eastern Bloc enjoyed few of the civil and economic liberties enjoyed by those in the West. Forced industrialization promoted almost full employment, but wages were relatively low and desirable consumer goods scarce. Attempts to reform the systems from within were crushed in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1981. In hopes of propping up their failing economies Communist leaders in places like Hungary and Poland borrowed heavily from the West. In Romania, efforts to pay off these mounting debts led to crippling austerity measures resulting in a rapid plunge in living standards.

The 1970s and the decade following it would bring new challenges to Europe, both East and West. The oil shocks that bookended the 1970s spawned simultaneous inflation and economic stagnation, long believed impossible according to the rules of classical economics. Quickly dubbed “stagflation” the nations of Western Europe saw their economies contract and state coffers weaken and with it the ability to support social safety nets. Worse yet, European industries faced greater competition from East Asia in an array of product lines including automobiles and consumer electronics. In some countries the unemployed and underemployed cast unfriendly eyes towards local guest workers with nervous governments like West Germany’s offering to help repatriate them.

Meanwhile, at the far end of the Eastern Bloc, the once mighty colossus of the USSR began to stagnate and teeter. Unable to reform a doomed system, make it economically competitive and politically relevant on a global stage without inadvertently causing its demise Gorbachev’s USSR finally collapsed. During the last year or so of its death spiral, one by one the captive nations of Eastern Europe shed their authoritarian regimes, long since seen as illegitimate, incompetent and oppressive.

Dark Continent covers a lot of ground. Mazower’s prose can be a bit dense but he’s one hell of a researcher. A challenging read perhaps, but nevertheless informative. He’s left me with a deeper understanding of modern European history and a desire to learn more.

20 Books of Summer: The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn R. Saks

My book club announced it was reading Elyn R. Saks’s 2007 memoir The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness and I couldn’t have been happier. The book, along with Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, had been on my list to read forever and this was a great excuse to finally read it. In a stroke of good luck I was able borrow a Kindle version through Overdrive and quickly went to work on it. Even without devoting my full attention I made quick work of Saks’s memoir. And like so many backlisted titles I’ve encountered over the years wished I’d read it sooner.

Born to a stable and supporting upper middle class family in Miami Saks, by all indicators and expectations was on a promising trajectory towards college, graduate/law school, professional accomplishment, marriage and motherhood. That is until as a high schooler she began experiencing hallucinations, many of them encouraging her to harm herself and others.

Convinced the hallucinations were the result of a fleeting,  experimentation with recreational drugs (once with pot, the other with peyote) her parents exiled Saks to a lock-down residential care facility in hopes of curing her “addiction.” Ran with the discipline one usually encounters in religious cults and Marine Corp basic training she emerged several years later with an aversion to all drugs, illegal and otherwise and an unhealthy insistence upon personal self-reliance. Unfortunately, as her symptoms worsened during her years away at college and later graduate school it was this instilled mindset that led to Saks mistakenly believing she could handle her debilitative mental illness on her own without any therapy, hospitalization or medication.

Left untreated her illness worsened, leading to several involuntary hospitalizations and rounds of treatment. After years of clinical dead-ends, and in retrospect misdiagnoses, she was finally diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia. This would lead to a longterm regimen of one on one therapy and a series of different anti-psychotic medications.

Despite these seemingly insurmountable challenges (not to mention surviving not one but two bouts of cancer as well as a brain hemorrhage) Saks nonetheless persevered. After graduating from Vanderbilt she earned a graduate degree from Oxford, following it up with a law degree from Yale. Later, as a professor at USC’s law school she went on to publish a number of articles and books and today is not only a best-selling memoirist but also a leading expert on the intersection of law and mental illness.

If you’re on the many who loved Robert Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family then this book is for you. Saks’s memoir is an intimate look at the mysterious and much stigmatized illness of schizophrenia, a disease whose root causes a mystery to scientists and doctors alike and cure an illusive mystery.

Echoing the Persian poet Rumi’s aphorism that a person who exhibits both positive and negative qualities, strengths and weaknesses is not flawed, but complete Saks concludes her memoir by declaring “[m]y good fortune is not I’ve recovered from mental illness. I have not, nor will I ever. My good fortune lies in having found good life.”

20 Books of Summer: Reopening Muslim Minds by Mustafa Akyol

I can’t remember how and when I first heard of Mustafa Akyol’s Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance but when a Kindle edition became available through my public library’s Overdrive portal I immediately downloaded it. Published in April of this year, Akyol asks why the Muslim world lags so behind the West in such key areas as democracy, civil liberties and scientific and technological achievement and what can be done to address these disparities?

In search of answers Akyol-a Turkish journalist, New York Times contributing opinion writer and current senior fellow at the Cato Institute- explores Islamic history and concludes in the Middle Ages, when Muslim theologians and ruling powers elevated blind religious faith over reason and refused to incorporate valuable concepts and principles from communities and traditions outside Islam it effectively closed the door on further development.  Intellectually hamstrung and closed to novel and foreign ideas, the Islamic world, unlike the Christian West never experienced the Enlightenment nor its subsequent developments: the scientific and industrial revolutions, democracy, human rights and religious pluralism.

The motivation for this medieval closing of the Islamic mind was more than just theological. According to Akyol, the insistence on believing tenants of faith solely on Islamic scripture and tradition instead through more open-ended processes like philosophical reasoning gave weight to those who believed the Caliphs and those like them should be simply obeyed because God said so. More flexible and less slavishly literal interpretations of Islam might lead to Muslims questioning the rule of an oppressive or incompetent ruler. Putting the emphasis on “what” a person should believe instead of the “why” would hinder deeper explorations into the nature of truth, promoting an overall rigid faith leaving it unable to modernize as times changed.

Reopening Muslim Minds reminds me of other books that have appeared over the last decade and a half, in many ways a response to the rise of Islamic terrorism. Khaled Abou El Fadl’s The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, Anouar Majid’s A Call for Heresy: Why Dissent Is Vital to Islam and America, Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now all ask in varying ways what went wrong in the Islamic world and how could it be fixed.

Reopening Muslim Minds is no doubt controversial, perhaps even downright offensive to some. But he makes countless compelling, if not convincing arguments. I enjoyed Akyol’s book and look forward to reading what else he’s written on the Islamic world.

20 Books of Summer: Sons and Soldiers by Bruce Henderson

With a ton of library books already in my possession and no shortage of World War II-related stuff in my personal library it seemed foolish to borrow one more library book about the Second World War. But after watching an excellent PBS documentary on Jewish American GIs in World War II I found it hard to resist a copy of Bruce Henderson’s Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler. Encouraged also by the many favorable reviews it received I put aside the rest of my reading material and gave Sons and Soldiers a chance. I found Henderson’s 2017 book hard as hell to put down and one of the most pleasant surprises of 2021.

Tragically, only a relative handful of Jews made it out of Germany before the Nazis fully unleashed the horrors of the Holocaust. Of those who made it to America, many were boys and young men forced to leave their families behind in Germany to face unsettling futures. After the US entered the war these same young men joined the US Army to fight the foe who’d treated them and fellow Jews as enemies of the state.

As soon as the Army realized the newly inducted men were fluent in German they were sent to  Ft. Ritchie in Maryland to become interrogators and military intelligence personnel. After taught German military structure and protocols, map reading, orienteering, parachuting and how to operate behind enemy lines each soldier was later sworn in as a US citizen, in part to reduce the risk of being executed as a German traitor in case of capture. In addition, as an extra precaution many carried special dog tags to conceal their religion, fearful of being killed for being Jews should they become POWs.

According to Henderson these brave young men provided the US military with mountains of invaluable intelligence, much of it timely, that wound up being instrumental in defeating Nazi Germany. That a group of people the Nazis worked so hard to murder would play such a crucial role in bringing about their destruction is truly ironic justice.

Just like The Forever War, Sons and Soldiers made for effortless reading and I whipped through it in no time. Definitely one of the pleasant surprises of 2021.

20 Books of Summer: The Jews in America by Max Dimont

Way back in late 2005 I placed a library hold on Aaron Lansky’s Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books and couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Judging by the number of holds ahead of me, I wouldn’t be reading it anytime soon. So, in an effort to turn lemons into lemonade I decided to read a few books on Jewish history while I waited. One was Max Dimont’s 1962 highly acclaimed bestseller Jews, God and History, a book that had been  gathering dust on my shelf for years. A few months after I finished it, Outwitting History became available. Once in my possession I eagerly dived into it, fortified with background information from Jews, God and History as well as other books on Jewish history I’d just read.

Fast forward to a few years ago, while rummaging the shelves at a used bookstore/pub I stumbled across a copy of Dimont’s 1978 The Jews in America: The Roots and Destiny of American Jews. Hoping I’d enjoy it as much as I did Jews, God and History (and more than his 1971 offering The indestructible Jews: Is there a Manifest Destiny in Jewish History?) I bought it.

In June I included The Jews in America as part of my 20 Books of Summer series in hopes it would prompt me to read it. Unsure how a 40 year old book on American history would hold up after all these years I wondered if I’d chosen the right book. After finishing it a few weeks ago I’m happy to report The Jews in America did not disappoint me.

My most lasting takeaway from this book is America served as a land where the Jews could reinvent themselves. Here was a land with no mandated  religion, forced ghettos or state sponsored anti-semitism. Jews were free to move about and settle anywhere. As the United States expanded over the course of its history many migrated westward, trying their luck as traveling merchants or pursuing other professions. This freedom of the wide-open frontier, coupled with the lack of any rabbinical authority led to many American Jews adopting a laissez-faire approach to Jewish life. More traditional practices customary to Europe, be they dietary or ceremonial were commonly loosened or discarded among those on the frontier of the young republic. (Legend has it some itinerant Jews, when encountering settlements lacking as they usually did a synagogue simply worshipped in the local church, freely substituting God for Jesus in the hymns and liturgy.)

Over the course of America’s history there were three waves of Jewish immigration. The first, which was the Sephardic, began in the early Colonial period. Originally from Iberia but more recently England and The Netherlands, when compared to their co-religionist of Central and Eastern Europe were secular and patrician. Later, a second wave arrived from Germany. Some, but not all were Reform Jews or would eventually embrace the liberal practice of Reform once in America. Lastly, the largest wave came during the last decades of the 19th century. These were the Jews of the Russian Empire, from what is today Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine. Despite their poverty and provincialism by their sheer numbers alone would help transform not only American Judaism butt the entire nation.

Dimont traces the dynamic history of American Jewish life. America’s Gentile culture at large understandably was a naked factor, but within American Judaism there was a great deal of cross pollination. Seeking a middle path between liberalism of Reform and the old world restrictiveness of Orthodox many American Jews coalesced into the Conservative camp, making it one of the nation’s largest and most vibrant. By the early 20th century many were no longer practicing Orthodox but had migrated to more liberal communities, and as a result helped make them more traditional. Lastly, conversion to Christianity was always a concern. Ironically, so often the pattern was nonobservant Jews marrying into to nonobservant Christian families, swapping one pro forma for another.

After over 40 years The Jews in America still packs a decent punch and makes a great companion read Howard Sachar’s A History of the Jews in the Modern World and Stephen Birmingham’s “The Rest of Us”: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews. Even with a personal library best called an embarrassment of riches I’m happy I figured I had room for at least one book and bought this old copy of The Jews in America.

20 Books of Summer: The Forever War by Dexter Filkins

As I pointed out in an early post, I’m a big fan of Dexter Filkins. His 2013 New Yorker piece on Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was top notch and became must reading after Soleimani’s 2019 assassination. But as much as I love his New Yorker stuff I still hadn’t read his highly praised 2008 book The Forever War. Lately however I’ve been craving books on the Middle East and the Islamic World so when I spotted a copy of The Forever War at the library I figured now was as good a time as any to finally read it. Filkins’s well-written book made for almost effortless reading and like so many back-listed books I’ve read over the years left me wishing I’d read it years ago.

During his years as a foreign correspondent Filkins spent time in Afghanistan and Iraq, battlegrounds in America’s War on Terror. His collection of dispatches begins in the late 1990s in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and ends in Iraq, roughly around the time of the “Surge”, necessitated by the escalating insurgency and corresponding Sunni-Shia civil war. In addition, Filkins also reports from Ground Zero in New York City in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks showing us the face of war on American soil.

To me the most memorable take away from Forever War is the everyday look of military occupation. Besides the endless ambushes, bloodshed and grabbing suspected insurgents for detention and questioning it’s also the blurred lines between friend and foe. The friendly face you meet today could kill you tomorrow. Yesterday’s sworn enemy may throw in his lot with you today should he find it politically and/or financially advantageous. Just the simple act of grabbing lunch in a local restaurant is a potential risk to life and limb as evident the moment you walk in, when regulars stop talking and begin staring at you, like some scene in an old western.

Thanks to Filkins’s direct, narrative style The Forever War is easy and entertaining reading. Even though it was published over 12 years ago in contains valuable insights into the bitterly contested countries of Afghanistan and Iraq. If you’re looking for good books to explain the bloody conflicts behind today’s news headlines, consider The Forever War.

Library Loot

Even though I’m up to my eyeballs in stuff to read I went a little crazy at the library and wound up with a big ole stack of books. Sadly, I fear I’ll never get ’em read. But I’m sure as hell gonna try.

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot pic and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Claire’s Blog.

But is having too many books really a problem? Naw. Looks like I’ve got some great reading in my future. Nothing wrong with that. 

20 Books of Summer: Black Against Empire by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin

When I learned my book club was reading Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party I was intrigued. Like most Americans I knew very little about the Black Panthers. All I had was a vague sense it was powerful political organization, if only for a relatively short time. Much to my surprise I was able to borrow a Kindle edition of Black against Empire through Overdrive and once it was in my possession I went to work reading it almost immediately. I’m happy to report I couldn’t put it down.

By the late 1960s the Civil Rights movement had won significant victories for Black Americans. Businesses as well as public institutions such as schools and universities were finally being desegregated. For the first time in nearly a century the right to vote was restored in the South by the rollback of Jim Crow, thanks to sweeping Voting Rights legislation. When it came to race relations to many it looks liked America had finally turned the corner and a more harmonious and equitable future loomed on the horizon.

Sadly, despite these gains life for most, if not all Black Americans was less than ideal. In cities throughout America Blacks were relegated to ghettos where poverty, unemployment and inadequate or even nonexistent social services were the norm. All white police departments patrolled Black neighborhoods like occupying armies, ruling with iron hands. Meanwhile the escalating ground war in Vietnam sucked up increasing numbers of young Black men into the draft. While Black America had won the vote, politically and economically it remained powerless. Assassinations of Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. only made things worse.

Frustrated by this sense of powerlessness, a group of Black activists in Oakland decided to take matters into the own hands, starting with conducting armed patrols of their neighborhoods. By shadowing police officers as they patrolled the streets early Panthers sought to put a brake on the cops’ racist brutality. Believing substantive change was impossible without possessing true political power, the activists modeled their struggle after the liberation movements sweeping the developing world. The ruling white power structures were seen as colonial overlords to be overthrown and armed self defense, not integration the Panthers’ goal. After adopting this liberationist stance before long the Black Panthers were being warmly received by revolutionary regimes in China, North Vietnam, Cuba and Algeria.

Like any successful liberation movement the Panthers competed for the hearts and minds of those they wished to liberate. Neighborhood children received free breakfasts and the curious were treated to lectures and study sessions designed to raise consciousness and promote the Panthers’ ideology. Inroads were built with sympathetic whites leading to instances of positive press as well as successful fundraisers. Panther candidates ran for political offices in local races. Seen by many Americans as controversial to say the least, and despite the authorities’ attempts to crush and discredit them the future looked bright for the Black Panthers.

But the Panther’s bright star would eventually supernova. Reasons why are many, and still debated but the Black Panthers were victims of forces from outside as well as within. Its relevance as a force for change began eroding when the many of the injustices it fought against finally began being addressed. The Nixon administration, hoping to wind down the Vietnam War began ratcheting back the draft. Taking advantage of new legislation and changing societal attitudes more Blacks were getting elected to offices at local, state and federal levels. Social programs like Head Start improved the lives of inner city children. Police departments slowly added Black officers and began addressing racist brutality. Affirmative action programs increased hiring at federal entities.

On the global front, countries like China and Algeria that supported the Panthers as a people’s liberation organization, began distancing themselves from them in hopes of improving relations with the United States. Realpolitik would take precedence over revolutionary ideals.

Government persecution, which at its zenith occurred when the Panthers were flourishing eventually began taking its toll, unfortunately just when the organization was beset by internal power struggles and vicious infighting.

The most fatal wounds the Panthers received sadly were self-inflicted. Like so many revolutionary movements it was riven by competing factions and personality cults. Deep divisions materialized between those who wished to make the Panthers America’s armed liberation front and those wanting to pursue less violent means. Realists among the Panthers knew armed struggles might work in the jungles of Africa or SE Asia when pitted against colonial forces or a weak national government but was ill-suited for urban warfare in a place like the United States. Power struggles and competing ideologies led to denouncements, infighting and even murder. Huey Newton, once it’s revered founding member, degenerated into a mess of untreated mental illness, drug abuse and criminality before dying like a street punk in 1989.

Black Against Empire is a great book. If you take my advice to heart and end up reading it, I’d also encourage you to follow it up with Isabel Wilkerson’s multiple award-winning 2010 book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration and Bryan Burrough’s 2015 Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. Black against Empire is a strong candidate to make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction. Please consider it highly recommended.

Library Loot

Thankfully, it’s not going to be a million degrees this weekend. But I still wanna find a spot that’s cool, grab an adult beverage and read a book. So yesterday while I was in town running errands I dropped by the public library a grabbed some books because, well I could. 

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading to encourage bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write-up your post, steal the Library Loot pic and link your post using the Mr. Linky on Sharlene’s Blog.

With COVID restrictions in my state finally lifted I can now sit at the bar, drink a pint or two and read until my heart is content. Let the good times roll.