Archive for the ‘books’ Category

The following is based on Chapter 6 of Frantz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952): “The Black Man and Psychopathology”:

Why white people are so afraid of black men:

  1. Black men are seen as being way less moral.
  2. White men fear they will take white women from them.

Take the last one first:

White men think that black men have bigger penises. They think that once a white woman sleeps with a black man she will never want a white man again: if it is not for their size then it is because black men are so much better in bed.

None of this is based on fact. According to science the African penis and the European penis are the same size on average. There is no proof whatsoever that “Once you go black you never come back”. And prostitutes will tell you that black men and white men are pretty much the same in bed.

Fanon finds it a bit odd that any man should be thinking that much about other men’s penises and sex appeal, that they should be saying stuff like black men have an “aura of sensuality”, etc. He says it comes from repressed homosexuality.

But white women too are afraid of black men. Fanon saw it for himself when he fought in Europe in the Second World War: he was in three or four countries and every time white women would shrink back in fear if he asked them for a dance – even though he was hardly in a position to do them harm.

Black men are seen as little better than animals. Therefore they are feared for what their bodies can do, which means they are feared for their penises, which accordingly become large in the white imagination. Thus: “whoever says rape says black man”.

In Europe Jews were feared too but no one feared Jewish rapists. When violence was turned on them no one thought to castrate them. Because they were feared for their minds, not their bodies.

But the sex thing is not all of it. Blacks are also seen as morally dark, as sinful and evil – as if blacks were born with original sin but whites were born pure.

Even in Martinique where Fanon grew up and where nearly everyone was black, his mother would tell him to “stop acting like a nigger” if he did something wrong. And if his conscience was clear he would say he was “white as snow”.

This comes from the colour black being seen as evil, bad, dark and dirty and the colour white as pure, innocent and clean. Whites thought that way long before they ever took blacks as slaves, but it did help to support the idea of black people as morally bad and whites as morally pure.

Whites  also use blacks as scapegoats: it is easier for them to imagine blacks as the screwed-up ones instead of facing up to their own morally broken nature.

See also:

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The following is based on Chapter 5 of Frantz Fanon’s book “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952): “The Lived Experience of the Black Man”:

Frantz Fanon wants to be a man. But in the white world in which he lives his skin colour becomes everything, more important than even his education and achievements. While his neighbour or his cousin might hate him for good reason, white people hate him without even getting to know him. They are irrational.

He is seen not as Dr Fanon but as a black man who is a doctor. Everyone is watching and waiting for him to make a mistake.

I was walled in: neither my refined manners nor my literary knowledge nor my understanding of the quantum theory could find favor.

White people do not see him, they see his body:

My body was returned to me spread-eagled, disjointed, redone, draped in mourning on this white winter’s day. The Negro is an animal, the Negro is bad, the Negro is wicked, the Negro is ugly.

Instead of being a person, a man, an individual, he is a black man, a Negro, an object, a thing that has value only in relation to whites.  Always a Negro, never a man.

Look how handsome that Negro is.
The handsome Negro says, “Fuck you”, madame.

Even though the Catholic Church and science admit that black people are every bit as human as white people – their hearts are on the same side! – and even though white people themselves admit that racism goes against all reason, they still do not want you to marry their daughter.

Seeing that reason does not work with white people, some make up their mind to shout their blackness, to secrete race. Cesaire and Senghor took this road with their philosophy of negritude: on the other side of the white world there lies a magical black culture. Blacks have rhythm, their sex is magical, “Emotion is Negro as reason is Greek” and so on. But this only feeds white stereotypes about blacks.

And then there is black history: blacks had empires, scholars, iron workers and all the rest. But that is a dead end too since currently whites have the most advanced civilization in the world. At best it allows them to see blacks as the childhood of the world.

Even Sartre, a supposed friend of blacks, saw negritude not as something in its own right but merely as a passing reaction to white supremacy.


A feeling of inferiority? No, a feeling of not existing. Sin is black as virtue is white. All those white men, fingering their guns, can’t be wrong. I am guilty. I don’t know what of, but I know I’m a wretch.

In the Hollywood film “Home of the Brave” (1949) a soldier hurt in the war says: “Get used to your color the way I got used to my stump. We are both casualties.”

Fanon: I refuse to accept this amputation.

See also:

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Tiffany D. Jones at Mulatto Diaries has given me her kind permission to cross post her wonderful review of Heidi Durrow’s “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky” (2010). Some of you might know Heidi Durrow from her blog, The Light-skinneded Girl.

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.

– The History Boys

This is exactly how I felt while reading Heidi Durrow’s debut novel “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky” (available now wherever books are sold). Except that I do know her, and I thank God that she’s not dead because I need more from this author/friend of mine. Heidi has written one of the best books I have ever had the pleasure of reading, biracial subject matter or not. Truly beautiful, profound, poignant. All that good stuff and more! I read (more like devoured) TGWFFTS during an extremely difficult time in my life. I felt as though the book was saving me. And reminding me of all the good things I have to offer. And that no matter what hardships and tragedies we may go through in life, the story goes on – there’s another chapter to be lived.

Though the book is not entirely about being black and white, there are many beautiful passages that honestly touch upon the heart of that matter. I often find myself lamenting the fact that this biracial identity is so misunderstood out in the world at large. “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky” offers much insight. I sincerely hope that it is widely read. We all need this book. Whether we know it or not.

A few of my favorite “themes” of the novel:

Loss of self, becoming the “new girl”, becoming “black”, forsaking white. Making deals with the self. Deals which become layers covering over the authentic self. The self that the biracial kid loses when they feel pressured to be just one thing. Then eventually you long to be just one thing because no matter how hard you pretend to be whatever it is they want you to be, you can never totally convince yourself that you are exclusively that one thing. Because you aren’t. But most people seem completely incapable of understanding that, of allowing that. So we find ourselves feeling alone and lonely in groups of people.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is, “I think what a family is shouldn’t be so hard to see. It should be the one thing people know just by looking at you.” Unfortunately, we’ve been trained to recognize families as homogeneous groups. Seeing interracial couples is still jarring for many. Mentally pairing a mother with a child that “does not look like” her can be a major stretch of the imagination. But it is not an imagined thing for many. It is a reality. And for whatever reason that people who don’t have to deal with this don’t seem to understand, we need our families to be recognized.

I could go on and on. I have pages of notes. But I hope this is enough to pique your interest and motivate you to buy (and read!) “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky”. I’d love to hear what you think!

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The following is based on Chapter 3 of Frantz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952): “The Man of Colour and the White Woman”:

Fanon, a black psychiatrist from Martinique,  starts by saying of himself:

I want to be recognized not as Black but as White. … who better than the white woman to bring this about? By loving me she proves to me that I am worthy of a white love. I am loved like a white man. I am a white man.

Yes, it gets worse:

Between these white breasts that my wandering hands fondle, white civilization and worthiness become mine.

Having lost half his readership, Fanon then turns to the case of Jean Veneuse, the hero of an autobiographical novel by Rene Maran, “Un homme pareil aux autres” (1947).

Jean Veneuse came to France from the Caribbean when he was three or four. He lost his parents and was brought up by boarding schools in France, the only black student in a sea of white. He has a lonely childhood. When the other students go home for the holidays he is left alone at school.  He withdraws into himself and into books: Aurelius, Tagore, Pascal and other writers become his only friends.

He grows up French and falls in love with a white woman. He wonders about his motives.

Maybe it is simply because he was brought up European and so desires European women just like any other man in Europe. Or, contrariwise, maybe it is because he is black:

the common mulatto and black man have only one thought on their mind as soon as they set foot in Europe: to gratify their appetite for white women.

Most of them, including those with lighter skin who often go so far as denying both their country and their mother, marry less for love than for the satisfaction of dominating a European woman, spiced with a certain taste for arrogance.

And so I wonder whether … I am unconsciously endeavoring to take my revenge on the European female for everything her ancestors have inflicted on my people throughout the centuries.

Yet when he works in Africa as a civil servant he proves to be just as bad as the whites, complete with the native girl in his hut. So maybe it is not revenge that he wants but to separate himself from his race or even somehow to become raceless.

But Fanon says that Veneuse’s troubles run much deeper than that: he was left alone in the world by his mother as a small boy and is hung up on that. So he is afraid to love and be loved. He holds everyone at arm’s length, even the woman he wants to marry. Therefore we cannot draw any general conclusions from Veneuse’s case.

I have not read the whole book – I post as I read – but at this point this chapter seems like a waste. But we shall see.

See also:

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The following is based on Chapter 2 of Frantz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952): “The Woman of Colour and the White Man” (men of colour and white women will be next week):

When women of colour go after white men and put down men of their own colour Fanon says the cause is just what many of us suspect: internalized racism.

Nor do these women truly love these white men: they just love their colour. They go with them not out of love but to deal with their own hang-ups about race.


It is because the black woman feels inferior that she aspires to gain admittance to the white world.

Secretly she wants to be white. Marrying white is her way of doing this. She looks up to white people and looks down on black people. Whites represent wealth, beauty, intelligence and virtue; blacks, on the other hand, are “niggers”, something to escape, to be saved from, something not to be. So they want to marry a white man even though they know full well that very few will marry them.

Their racism is so profound that it blinds them to good black men. They will say black men lack refinement – and turn away black men more refined than themselves. They will say black men are ugly – and grow impatient with you if you point out good-looking black men.

Fanon takes as his examples three women: Mayotte of Martinique and Nini and Dedee of Senegal. Mayotte is Mayotte Capecia who wrote a book about her life; Nini and Dedee are characters from “Nini” (1954), a story by Abdoulaye Sadji. All three are part white which makes them determined not to “slip back among the ‘nigger’ rabble”. (There was no the One Drop Rule.)

Nini is a silly typist. A man who is an accountant with the waterways company proposes marriage. She cannot believe it. What nerve this man has! There is talk of getting him fired. In the end they have the police tell him to stop his “morbid insanities”. Why? Because he is black and she is half white. He has offended her “white girl’s” honour.

Meanwhile another man with a good government job proposes to Dedee but this time it is a dream come true. Why? Because he is white:

Gone was the psychological depreciation, the feeling of debasement, and its corollary of never being able to reach the light. Overnight the mulatto girl had gone from the rank of slave to that of master. … She was entering the white world.

But a white man cannot make you white, not even in effect: Mayotte, the third woman, had an affair with a married white man. One time she asked him to take her to the white side of town. He does, taking her to a friend’s house for the evening.  But the white women there made her feel so out of place, so unworthy of him, that she never went back to the white side again.

See also:

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The following is based on Chapter 1 of Frantz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952): “The Black Man and Language”:

Fanon grew up in Martinque, an island in the Caribbean ruled by France. The capital of France, Paris, was the metropole, the centre of the empire. Martinique was the bush, the outback, the hinterland, a nowhere kind of place. All the top people in Martinique either came from France or received their university education there. They all spoke in perfect French.

But most black people in Martinique did not: they spoke Creole, a dialect of French noted for its swallowed r’s. Its closest counterpart in America is Ebonics. Everyone is taught to look down on it at school. The middle-class tries not to speak it at all – except to servants – and shame their children out of using it.

People in Martinique found Creole wanting and saw French as better. That comes not from scholarly opinion but from being colonized, from being under French rule.

Fanon noticed that when people came back from France after receiving their university education they would speak in painfully perfect French and act as if they no longer knew Creole. Why was that?

Fanon found out first-hand: in France white people talk down to you if you are black. Either they speak in fake pidgin French – “Why you left big savanna?” – or they would act too familiar, calling you old fellow and so on. French doctors, for example, would talk to their white patients with impersonal respect but to blacks and Arabs like they were their old friend or something.

The whites say that they are just trying to make blacks feel comfortable. Fanon says no, they are scumbags trying to keep blacks in their place – as perpetual children, as beings of a lesser mind. He noticed they talked to blacks the same way he talked to retarded patients.

So under such circumstances students from Martinique make it a point to speak perfect French, complete with all the r’s. Not because they want to be white or because they think white people are better or something – but to prove they are the equal of any white Frenchman, to deny whites the satisfaction of looking down on them because of their French. (And, admittedly, because French opens doors to opportunities that Creole simply cannot.)

And yet even if you speak perfect French the racism does not stop: white people will then say stuff like, “You speak such perfect French!” – something they never say to a white person with the same university education. Or they will say of one of your country’s writers, “Here is a black man who handles the French language unlike any white man today.” As if that is a surprise or something.

But then mastering perfect French puts black students in a bind: “To speak a language is to appropriate its world and culture,”  says Fanon. Through learning to speak perfect French, they have unwittingly become culturally whiter.

See also:

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Once a week I am going to do a post on a chapter of Frantz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952). This post covers the introduction. I will try to get the posts out on Friday – you know, because then I can call it Fanon Fridays in blogly fashion. But as you can see this Fanon Friday has turned into Fanon Sunday! My apologies!

“Black Skin, White Masks” is one Fanon’s main books. In it he tries to understand blacks and whites and the relationship between them by applying the ideas of psychology. He wants to examine their souls. He wants to help them:

My true wish is to get my brother, black or white, to shake off the dust from that lamentable livery built up over centuries of incomprehension.

Whites are locked in their whiteness and blacks in their blackness. It keeps them both from becoming free, from becoming truly human. But to destroy their prison we must first understand that prison.

Being black himself, Fanon is more interested in helping blacks, in helping himself. So he talks mainly about them:

We shall attempt to discover the various mental attitudes the black man adopts in the face of white civilization.

He says his observations and conclusions are valid only for the French Antilles (he is from Martinique). And, since he wrote in 1952, what he says might be way out of date by now. But given that my translation into English was done in America in 2008, and given how quickly even good books go out of print, I am going to assume, for now, that what he says applies more broadly than just the French Antilles in the 1950s, that it is useful for blacks – and whites – in America to know now in the 2010s.

And, I should think, anyone who lives in a society shaped by the white empires would get something out of it too.

He says that not all blacks – or whites – will see themselves in the book, but those who do will have made a step in the right direction.

I love how the book starts out. Here is some of it:

Why am I writing this book? Nobody asked me to.
Especially not those for whom it is intended.
So? So in all serenity my answer is that there are too many idiots on this earth. And now that I’ve said it, I have to prove it….

This books should have been written three years ago. But at the time the truths made our blood boil. Today the fever has dropped and truths can be said without having them hurled into people’s faces…. Zealousness is the arm par excellence of the powerless.

But later in the introduction he throws in this unsettling sentence:

As painful as it is for us to have to say this: there is but one destiny for the black man. And it is white.


  1. The Black Man and Language
  2. The Woman of Colour and the White Man
  3. The Man of Colour and the White Woman
  4. The So-Called Dependency Complex of the Colonized
  5. The Lived Experience of the Black Man
  6. The Black Man and Psychopathology
  7. The Black Man and Recognition
  8. By Way of Conclusion

See also:

  • Frantz Fanon
  • Martinique
  • Freud
  • Adler
  • the colonized mind
  • the black buck stereotype

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Why study the Greeks

Aside from Shakespeare and the Bible, the books that have helped me the most to understand the world and my place in it were nearly all written by three kinds of people: serious Christians, black Americans and the ancient Greeks.

The Greeks make the list for three reasons:

  1. Along with the Bible they are what the West was built on.
  2. The Greeks valued the truth. They questioned things and took nothing at face value. It was not enough for an answer to sound good or be respectable – it had to make sense and stand on its own.
  3. Like Shakespeare and the Bible, the Greeks are universal: you can read them and they sound like they are writing about people you know, about your time and place.

An excellent example is Thucydides. He wrote a history of a war between Athens and Sparta. Reading about a forgotten war sounds like a waste of time – and it probably would have been if Thucydides wrote it like a White American: full of self-serving lies, concerned more in making himself and his country look good than in the truth.

But he did not. Instead he wrote it like he lived in the very same crappy part of New York that I lived in. Yes. A place which none of the American schoolbooks or television shows helped me to understand – but which Thucydides did.

He could do that because he stuck to the truth, particularly the truth of human nature and the nature of power. He knew full well that in a hundred years no one would care about the war, and yet he knew people would still be reading his book – because people are the same all down through history.

If I lived in China I would read the oldest Chinese books I could find. Because they would lie at the root of what makes China China. But I live in the West, so I read its oldest books instead: the Bible and the Greeks.

Some dismiss the Greeks as DWEMs – Dead White European Males – while others use them to prove how great white people are.

The Greeks did not think of themselves as white. They divided the world not by race but language: if you spoke Greek you were Greek, if not you were barbarian. Racism is not as “natural” as racists like to think. All these white people who try to claim the Greeks for the glory of the white race are, yes, barbarians. It is pretty laughable – and sad. Especially since Greek “whiteness” seems to be less than 200 years old – but that is another post.

Further, Greek achievement was built mainly on top of thousands of years of Egyptian achievement. We are taught not to notice how culturally Egyptian they were.

On the other hand, just because they were “white” and “male” that does not mean they were incapable of true greatness. That would be just as racist as saying people of colour are no good. The truth is both are equally human.

Thanks to Macon D of Stuff White People Do for kind of suggesting this topic.

See also:

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AnAutobiographyOfAngelaDavisWritten: 1974
Read: 2009

“An Autobiography” (1974) by Angela Davis tells the story of the first 28 years of her life, from birth to her arrest, imprisonment and trial. It was edited by Toni Morrison, who had already written “The Bluest Eye” and was then working for Random House.

I got it from the library because it was out of print – but now it seems to be back in print again!

It is not as good as, say, the autobiography of Malcolm X, but it is still well worth reading.

Malcolm X was not only more important in history, his story is one of self-discovery, a search for the truth that remakes him. Like St Augustine’s “Confessions”.

Angela Davis’s life was far more straightforward: she saw how unjust American society was growing up and sought to change it by taking part in SNCC, the Black Panthers and the Communist Party. In time this landed her in prison.

The part about the trial was well written: it could have bored you to tears with all the ins and outs that trials have, but she avoided that. Best of all was the ending: even though you already knew she would win, you were still overjoyed when she does win! That is how the book ends.

The book starts two years before with her on the run from the FBI. She is arrested in New York and put in prison. Since she is to stand trial in California, she is sent back. At that point the book jumps back to fill in the first 26 years of her life and then ends with her imprisonment in California and the trial.

She writes at great length about her time in prison. It affected her powerfully, but not me: I expect prison to be terrible, so nothing she said shocked me.

The same goes for what she said about the police in Los Angeles: from living in New York I already knew how they can be. But it is nice to know that I am not just imagining it.

One of the best parts is her account of growing up in the Jim Crow South in the 1950s. It makes you see how some things have changed like night and day (like being able to walk in through the front door) while other things remain the same (like the police).

She won me over when she said she loves reading books but hates going to parties.

Another good part was her account of the Los Angeles police trying to wipe out the Black Panthers.

She lives in Los Angeles in the 1960s. There are no Jim Crow laws  there, yet in some ways the racism is worse: because the whites there know and understand blacks less they seem to regard them more like wild animals to be threatened, shot and put safely behind bars.

She says little about philosophy, which she studied for years, and little about racism in New York, where she lived during part of high school.

It is called “an” autobiography. Is she going to write another one?

See also:

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colorofwater“The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother” (1996) by James McBride was the number one book in America and spent two years on the New York Times’s bestseller list. It is now required reading at many high schools and universities.

It tells the story of his mother, who became an outcast from white society for marrying a black man in the 1940s, bringing up 12 children in Red Hook, a poor black part of New York, sending them all to get university degrees. And it is about James McBride himself, about his search for who he is as a mixed-race person.

Growing up, McBride did not make all that much of being mixed. He looked black, thought of himself as black. It was not like he could pass for white or something. He avoided the issue, but by the time he reached 30 he found he could not go on like that.

mcbride-netzWhen he was growing up his mother was the only white person in the neighbourhood, at church, at the bus stop. And yet her past was a mystery. She never talked about where she came from or how she got there. But McBride found he could not understand himself unless he understood the mystery of her past.

She would not even say she was white. She said she was “light-skinned”. It turned out to be truer than McBride knew. She had a white body, got the diseases that white people get, but because whites would not accept her while black people did (more or less), she became in effect black. McBride calls her a black woman inside a white woman’s body.

Bit by bit the truth came out. She was a rabbi’s daughter who grew up in the South. Being Jewish in the South and living on the black side of town where her family’s shop was, she had only one good white friend growing up. After high school she left home for New York. There she fell in love and got married.

But because her husband was black, her family cut her off. Completely. They would not even let her see her mother on her deathbed. When her husband died and she needed help, they slammed the door in her face. Only years later, after the book became a bestseller, did they speak to her again.

Cut off, she did not know what the future held, she did not know what she was doing half the time, but, becoming a Christian, she trusted utterly in God.

One time he saw his mother crying in church. He thought it was because she wanted to be black like everyone else. He asked her what colour God was. She said, “the colour of water”.

When she saw him off to Oberlin College she gave an absent-minded wave as the Greyhound bus pulled out. But when the bus turned the corner and he could see her again, she had broken down, leaning against the wall crying.

See also:

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Danzy Senna: Caucasia

caucasia“Caucasia” (1998) by Danzy Senna is a story about Birdie Lee, a girl growing up in America who can pass for either black or white. Her father is black and her mother is white but she is neither – or either. She is whatever the circumstances demand. It is a story about that strange, grey nowhere land between the races, between black and white, a story about the nature of race itself.

For a long time I did not read the book because of the title: “Caucasia”: it seemed a little too skinhead to me. It is nothing like that.

Because the story of Birdie Lee seems so much like Senna’s own life you keep having to remind yourself that it is fiction and not autobiography. Just like Birdie Lee, Senna grew up in and near Boston, her father was black, a professor who studied race issues, her mother was white, an old-money, blue-blood Wasp who turned against white American society after having black children.

Unlike the main characters in “The Imitation of Life” or Nella Larsen’s “Passing”, Birdie Lee is not a tragic mulatto. She does not hate being either black or white. She does not come to a bad end trying to be either.

In fact, her very willingness to change race is unsettling. It unsettles even her. We expect our heroes to stand their ground, to be the moral centre of the story. It is sad to see her kiss up to the white girls who laughed at how she looks; it is sad to see her try to be just like them. And sadder still to see her give the cold shoulder to the only other mixed girl in town. Sad, but probably truer to life.

Her mother is wanted by the FBI for hiding guns for revolutionaries. So for much of the book her mother is on the run with her. During that time Birdie Lee becomes Jesse Goldman, a made-up Jewish girl with a made-up Jewish past. But she is Jesse for so long she forgets where Jesse ends and Birdie Lee begins, she almost forgets that she ever was Birdie Lee. Which is her true self? Does she have a true self?

As Jesse she wore a star of David, but then when a boy threw pennies at her (because Jews are supposed to be cheap), she stopped wearing it and tells her friends she is only kind of Jewish because her mother is not Jewish.

I was hoping that she would not quite fit into white society, that her secret about being part black would come out, that she would become an outcast like that mixed girl she would not talk to, that she would say bitter but true things about American society. Well, it is not that kind of book.

However her father does tell her that race is a construct, a fiction, a lie that American society is built on. And that, as it turns out, is the moral of the story.

See also:

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ww2Churchill’s book “The Second World War” is twice as long as the Bible but it is well worth reading. Unlike most history of our times it is written by someone who:

  • Writes well (Nobel-prize-winning stuff).
  • Helped to make the history he writes about.
  • Has a deep understanding of history.
  • Does not see the world in Marxist terms.
  • Understands that power, empire and war can be forces for good as well as evil.
  • Writes from a moral centre – there is true evil in the world.

If you enjoy reading the The Economist, then you will probably enjoy this too.

Yes, I know Churchill was a racist and an imperialist. I know people who refuse to read him for that reason. Churchill thought white people – in particular Anglos – should rule the world because they were just plain better than everyone else. It was not his fault he was born as one of them. That is how he looked at it.

But, in fact, part of what makes Churchill’s histories good is that he does take sides like that, he does see it from a strong point of view. You know it, he does not hide it, and, as it turns out, even when you do not agree with him it still makes his storytelling better.

It is a long book, so long it is divided into six volumes. My advice is to read the first volume and see how you like it. It can be read on its own. His account of the fall of France to Hitler in that volume more than makes it worth the read.

Even when you know what will come next – you know that France will fall, you know that the atom bomb will work – he can report it in a way that still leaves you in shock. He has this matter-of-fact way of reporting terrible things that makes them seem all the more terrible.

It is clearly a British history of the war: British campaigns are described in loving detail while American and Russian campaigns are only described to the degree necessary to understand the war as a whole. But that is just as well since in America you get a different take on the war. It is interesting to hear an account of the war where Japan and the Holocaust are not the main things other than Hitler himself.

It is a measure of how honest and thorough Churchill was that you can read his history and find yourself taking sides against him with Stalin and Roosevelt.

The worst thing about his history is how it ends. Just when Britain, America and Russia were making the peace at Potsdam, Churchill lost the election and had to go home. And that is just where the book stops. Nothing about how Potsdam ended, nothing about the dropping the atom bomb, little about how the war shaped the future. Very odd.

See also:

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Reading Plutarch


Plutarch in his book “Parallel Lives” compares the lives of famous Greeks and Romans. Always a good read. He tells of the lives of people like Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Pompey, Solon, Pericles and so on.

What I liked best were the lives of Brutus, Cato the Younger, Pompey, Antony, Crassus, Pericles, Alcibiades, Nicias, Lycurgus, and Theseus. Sometimes it is the man I like (Brutus), sometimes it is the times he lived in (Alcibiades), and sometimes it is the tragedy of his life (Crassus).

Plutarch writes about men’s lives to see how their virtue and vice, their moral decisions, their character – what we  in our time call “values” – affected their lives. If I had read Plutarch when I was younger he would have affected me more deeply.

The book is about long as the Bible and, surprisingly, makes a far better case for living a moral life. The Bible’s case is based mainly on fear of God and has few down-to-earth examples to model your life on (King David comes the closest). Even though Plutarch’s examples are generals and statesmen, they seem far closer to everyday men than do Moses or Jesus. Plutarch’s feet are planted on this earth, and that too makes him easier to believe.

Although he is a follower of Plato, he also makes a better case than Plato himself, and for the same reasons: he writes about this earth and its men and their lives, not all this hot air about a higher plane of being.

Things I learned from Plutarch:

  1. Sometimes it’s safer to be brave than not.
  2. Philosophy, like religion, can be a way of life and not simply a way of making sense of the world. (The respectable religions of his day were worn out.)
  3. Moral character  rests on a base of self-control.
  4. Men are defined by their actions, not by their position or property. But then the Bible tells that too.
  5. One of the best things about television is that it shows the terror and waste of war far more than its glory. Plutarch is blinded by the glory. He tells the story from the general’s camp, not from the streets that run with blood.
  6. That maybe Sparta, not Athens, was the crown of Greek achievement.
  7. That war and prison are true tests of a man’s character. I used to hate prison films. No more.

Like the earlier Greeks, he places a lot of value on courage, especially the physical kind. Like them, he sees the glory of war far more than its blood and waste – and this even though he knows from his grandfather’s knee what Mark Antony put Greece through in his failed attempt to rule the world.

Yet unlike the earlier Greeks, Plutarch  does not have the tough, clear mind they had, people like Sophocles, Thucydides and Aristophanes. His thought is based more on hopes and feelings than on reason and a clear eye.

– Abagond, 2008.

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“The Bluest Eye” (1970) by Toni Morrison is a book about a black girl who dreams of having blue eyes. A short but powerful book that you will not forget. I liked it better than “Beloved” (1987), though that was good too.

Here are some of the bits I liked best:

I destroyed white dolls… Thus the conversion from pristine sadism to fabricated hatred, to fraudulent love. It was a small step to Shirley Temple.

But the unquarreled evening hung like the first note of a dirge in sullenly expectant air. … The tiny, undistinguished days that Mrs. Breedlove lived were identified, grouped, and classed by these quarrels.

Hating her, he could leave himself intact.

It was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth. They seemed to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn that had burned for ages in the hollows of their minds – cooled – and spilled over lips of outrage, consuming whatever was in its path.

I felt a need for someone to want the black baby to live – just to counteract the universal love of white baby dolls, Shirley Temples and Maureen Peals.

We had defended ourselves since memory against everything and everybody, considered all speech a code to be broken by us, and all gestures subject to careful analysis…

A little black girl yearns for the blue eyes of a little white girl, and the horror at the heart of her yearning is exceeded only by the evil of fulfillment.

We were beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. … Even her waking nightmares we used to silence our own nightmares.

… for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good but well behaved, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect, we switched habits to simulate maturity; rearranged lies and called it truth…

Love is never better than the lover.

This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers.

One part that I cannot find but loved is about how Hollywood stands like a giant above all of us, pushing its own strange ideas about not just beauty but love too, ideas that have no love or beauty in them. At one point the three girls are walking down the street and a huge poster of Greta Garbo looks down on them, a King Kong of white beauty.

I have had this book for years, but it was a comment by Miss Licorish to one of my posts (“There is absolutely nothing wrong with being black”) that got me to start reading it. Thank you, Miss Licorish!

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There are few books that I start that I never intend to read all the way through – at least someday – but Burton L. Mack’s “Who Wrote the New Testament?” (1996) is one of them. After 120 pages (out of 310), it was plain to me that the book is so bad that it is not worth continuing.

This was back in 1996 when I had just read the Bible all the way through. I was wondering if the Bible was true or just made up. Mack wanted to prove just that about the New Testament, the Christian part of the Bible: that it was made up. Yes, Jesus did live, but he was hardly divine. He was just a very good and wise man.

It was just the book I was looking for. So when I started reading it, I  ate it up, page after page.

But then by page 100 I started to wonder if Mack was writing satire. By page 120 I saw that, no, it was not satire: it was just a bad book. So I stopped. Which is rare for me once I get that far into a book.

Mack points out that Matthew and Luke copied part of their gospels from Mark and from a lost gospel known as Q – something Bible scholars have known for a long time. But Mack goes beyond this. He assumes that the part of Q we can recover from Matthew and Luke is complete and that it was the main book of an early Jesus movement, as he calls it, a book that has everything they believed.

Without saying how he knows, Mack says that Q was written in three stages:

  1. The 30s: Jesus is a thinker like Diogenes who overturns the thinking of comfortable, well-to-do people and gains a following among the poor. A sort of hippie philosopher.
  2. The 40s: Jesus is a prophet who says the world will end and his followers will suffer terrible things but win in the end.
  3. The 50s: Jesus is a near-god, one that suffers.

In the 60s Mark wrote his gospel and then, some time between 70 and 100, Matthew and Luke copied from Mark and Q to write their gospels and made Jesus into a god, the Son of God.

Very interesting. But there are two things wrong with it.

First, if we did not have Mark, we would think Mark and Q were the same book. We also would not have the most important part of Mark where Jesus dies on the cross and rises from the dead. That is because Matthew and Luke used Mark only to flesh out their gospels. The same with Q. So it is unlikely we have all of Q.

Second, we have to assume that people will leave their families and old religion and suffer for a philosopher – not a prophet or a divine being, mind you – and then make up strange lies about him, ones they give their lives for.

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