Archive for the 'Book Reviews' Category

26
Jan

Book Review: The Invisible Empire – Racism in Canada

Author: Margaret Cannon
Publisher: Random House
Release: 1995
Genre: Non-Fiction
Length: 308 pages
Rating: 70%

A few years ago an African-American friend from Michigan visited me in Toronto . He was amazed at how integrated the city appeared to be: there were even people of different races standing together at the same bus stop! He later told me he aspired to live in Canada one day. While I was touched by his admiration for my country, I warned him that unfortunately racism does exist in Canada . I would hate for him to come here under the illusion it did not and then be bitterly disappointed on discovering the truth.

Many Americans, both Black and White, are taken in by Canada ’s seeming racial harmony. One (White) American who immigrated here in the 1970s with this vision in mind but who later found out otherwise is Margaret Cannon, a social worker, professor at York University , Globe and Mail columnist, and author of The Invisible Empire: Racism in Canada. The book is a chronicle of her investigation into the presence of racism (and anti-Semitism, which for the purpose of this review will be subsumed under the heading “racism”) in her adopted country.

The Invisible Empire: Racism in Canada was first published in 1995. While it may appear a bit outdated (Preston Manning and the Reform Party are frequently mentioned, for example), it is still relevant today in understanding racial discrimination in this country. It is written in a personable but not overly informal style. The Invisible Empire makes references to a number of well-known individuals, such as Western University psychology professor Philippe Rushton, late journalist and philanthropist June Callwood, and Catholic Archbishop of Toronto Aloysius Ambrozic. Perhaps the real substance of the book, though, lies in Cannon’s interviews with the people on the ground, so to speak: White Supremacists, police officers, immigrants, and native-born Canadians of all colours. To her credit she does her best to get feedback from all sides of the various issues she addresses. For instance, a young Black man in Toronto talks about receiving death glares from complete strangers right after the Just Desserts case. On the other hand, Cannon hears from a policeman who when describing the shootings of African-Canadian men by the police explains the dilemma officers face in trying to use as little force as possible while at the same time keeping crime under control.

The Invisible Empire begins with a description of White Supremacist organizations and their members. Cannon attempts to discover what attracts people to such groups. Her final conclusion is that many of these individuals join out of a need to belong to something larger than themselves, just as she in her younger years became part of the Young Socialists Alliance in the United States . She goes on to discuss several major players in the movement, some still famed like Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel and the late Heritage Front leader Wolfgang Droege and others who have since faded from collective memory, such as Carney Nerland, the “Fuhrer of Saskatchewan,” who was convicted in the shooting death of a Native Canadian man.

One controversy that emerges is the clash between the freedom of expression of people like Zundel and the desire to protect Jews and other minorities from hate speech. The issue gets thornier yet when it involves educators telling their students the Holocaust never occurred, as Eckville , Alberta high school history teacher Jim Keegstra did. Even individuals like myself who would, albeit reluctantly, defend Zundel’s “right” to spew any nonsense he wished in self-published pamphlets would draw the line at teachers doing the same with impressionable young minds in the classroom – though I might also agree with a trustee at the Eckville school board who said the matter should have ended with Keegstra’s dismissal, not in a court of law.

Other race-related controversies take up the pages of The Invisible Empire as well. Among them are the “Into the Heart of Africa” exhibit at Toronto ’s Royal Ontario Museum , the North York Performing Arts Centre’s decision to feature the musical Show Boat, and the resignation of social activist June Callwood from Nellie’s, the battered women’s shelter she had founded. Though Cannon refrains from taking sides in these battles, she says the side you do end up taking is literally the side of the colour line on which you fall. For example, in viewing “Into the Heart of Africa,” which displays the paraphernalia of Canadian missionaries to Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Cannon saw “an ironic look at a lot of dead white people who thought they were doing the right thing.” Black critics of the exhibit however spoke of its “false representation of African people, denigrating language and images, and perpetuation of colonialist and imperialist thinking about Africa .” Similarly while Show Boat was originally meant to be a statement against anti-miscegenation laws in the United States , Blacks in 1990s Toronto focussed on lyrics like “Niggers all work on the Mississippi .” June Callwood was forced to resign from Nellie’s following charges that women of colour were being excluded from positions of power on the hostel’s board of directors. A number of (presumably White) corporate sponsors withdrew their support for Nellie’s after she stepped down, but many non-White observers felt her accusers had some legitimate points.

The book attempts to portray how racism permeates Canadian daily life in its various spheres: education, entertainment, and even language. For instance, the word “Hymie,” which Canadian former talk show host Dini Petty used on the air to describe cheapskate husbands, derives from a derogatory term for Jews. Though Petty claimed to have no knowledge of the word’s origin and issued a public apology, the Jewish community was understandably upset. The stereotype of the greedy Jew has after all figured behind everything from pogroms to the Holocaust to the exclusion of Jews from institutions of higher learning (in Canada among other countries). At other times the racism of seemingly innocent words is more doubtful. One of Cannon’s interviewees, a Guyanese woman of mixed African and East Indian descent, says she can call a White woman “girl” but coming from the other end it would be racist because “it makes me the maid.” Here even the ultra-progressive Cannon admits this “may seem like linguistic hair-splitting to some.”

Towards the end of the book Margaret Cannon delves into the twin political issues of immigration and multiculturalism. Unlike in earlier years, most immigrants coming to Canada today are not White, a fact with which not everybody is comfortable. Canadians’ views on immigration are nuanced, however: polls show that while a majority of respondents want to reduce the number of immigrants, they also believe newcomers make Canada a more interesting place. Quebec holds an interesting position as a French-speaking province. Cannon notes that minorities report experiencing less prejudice in Quebec than in other provinces. Nonetheless, many Quebec Francophone leaders insist that those who settle in the province must learn French.

Multiculturalism is another political “hot potato.” Often described disparagingly as an orgy of singing and dancing and spaghetti-eating, the policy has been criticized by Whites and non-Whites alike. Trinidadian-born writer Neil Bissoondath believes it prevents immigrants and their children from fully integrating into their adopted nation. Black writer Marlene Nourbese Philip sees it as a way to appease non-Whites while continuing to exclude them from positions of power in this country’s institutions.

The Invisible Empire: Racism in Canada is all in all a well-written and informative book. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to point out a few of its potential shortcomings. Beyond a short mention of past prejudice against the “heathen Irish,” Cannon says virtually nothing about White-on-White (“white” here in the sense of White Christian) discrimination. She is silent for example on the internment of Ukrainian Canadians during World War I. Perhaps her silence stems from her view of racism as the “conviction that the white (or White Christian) race is superior to all others [and that] all others are inferior.”

The notion of racism as a “Whites versus Others” question also clashes with her own findings that different non-White communities don’t necessarily love each other or bond together to oppose the great White oppressor. In one neighbourhood Cannon visits not only the White but the South Asian residents as well are convinced that “Blacks are committing crimes at record rates.” Even members of the same broad racial group don’t always engage in a gigantic love fest. Some Somali children speak of being assaulted by Jamaican gangs at Toronto schools.

Though Cannon’s dedication to eradicating racism is heartening in many ways, in her zeal she at times appears to see discrimination where it may not truly exist. For example, she states that “Blacks, Natives and Orientals [I have to admit being a bit surprised at her use of a ‘politically incorrect’ term for East Asians] report that they are regularly stopped by the police.” However, a couple of surveys show that while Blacks and Natives are indeed more likely than Whites to be stopped by the police, East Asians are actually less likely to be so targeted. One wonders whether if Cannon interviewed a group of young White men they too would tell her of being pulled over by the cops.

I read The Invisible Empire twice: the first time when it originally came out and the second just recently. I have tentatively come to the conclusion that racism in Canada may not be as pervasive as Cannon seems to believe it is but that she does provide a good description of race relations in this country. However, anybody wanting to challenge or confirm this conclusion should read the book for him- or herself.

08
Dec

Book Review: Love-Ability

Book Cover for Author: Madeline Pecora Nugent, Julian Stead
Publisher: New City Press
Release: 2007
Genre: Self-Help
Length: 176 pages
Rating: 85%

How do you become a better parent? A better husband/wife/partner? A better friend? A better neighbour? Most books, especially those tinged with a “New Age” approach, focus on what you can do for yourSELF. Now a new book asking those same questions has come out, but with a twist: to paraphrase JFK, “Ask not what others can do for you – ask what you can do for others.” Such is the message of Love-Ability: Becoming Lovable by Caring for Yourself and Others.

The book is written by Madeline Pecora Nugent, a married mother of five and Minister General for the Confraternity of Penitents, and Julian Stead, O.S.B., a Benedictine monk and priest at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Portsmouth , Rhode Island . Though the two obviously come from very different walks of life, their diametrically opposed personal experiences complement each other and underline the book’s relevance for all readers no matter what their gender, marital status, or station in life.

Despite the authors’ differences, Love-Ability is written from a Christian, and more specifically Catholic, perspective. Quotes from Scriptures and prominent saints – in particular sixth-century Pope Gregory the Great – appear throughout it. However, the authors also include Buddhist maxims and references to the Islamic faith, so if one is willing to overlook the Christian references the book has a message that can be heard by all.

The main point of Love-Ability is that if you put others before yourself, you end up not only helping them but gaining something for yourself as well. In other words, “givers are receivers.” Placing oneself last involves both concrete acts such as volunteering or making charitable donations or even on a more abstract caring for the environment and less tangible measures like paying attention to one’s manners or being careful before attributing bad intents to other people’s actions (for instance, if your friend seemed to snub you at the store, he or she might have been too occupied to notice you).

Nonetheless, there is a “good” kind of giving and a “not so good” kind. We should not look down on those to whom we make charitable donations. It is similarly wrong to selectively give to those we view as more “worthy” of our kindness. Love-Ability cites the case of a woman who refused to donate to AIDS foundations because she considered people with that disease “sinners.” We must in addition examine whether the motives for our generosity are sound. For example, believing that if we perform good deeds we can make up for past wrongs we have committed is misguided. The authors explain that “righteousness cannot be bought.”

On the other hand, putting others first doesn’t mean being a doormat. The authors tell readers to “splurge” on themselves from time to time and do something enjoyable with it. This is protective against becoming a miser. In addition, they warn that in the long run it is better not to pretend to agree with somebody if you in reality disagree with him or her. In other words, your opinion counts too. And don’t expect to take on every responsibility thrust on you; at worst this can lead to making promises one cannot keep, another mistake to avoid.

The final chapter of the book advises readers who feel they need professional help what to look for in a counsellor (who could be not only a counsellor per se but a physician, member of the clergy, etcetera). All in all, no matter whether or not we are actively seeking to become more “lovable,” Love-Ability is a book that is worth reading.

To find out about ordering the book, go to www.love-ability.com.

08
May

Book Review: Twisted Triangle

Title: Twisted Triangle: A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge
Author: Caitlin Rother
Publisher: Jossey-Bass
Release: April 2008
Genre: True Crime
Length: 304 Pages
Rating: 88%

Twisted Triangle details the real-life love triangle between crime novelist Patricia (Patsy) Cornwell and married FBI agents Gene and Margo Bennett. The majority of narratives are based on Margo’s recollections, typically verified by third party input and legal documents. The triangle is not the typical woman-scorned story, however, for it is Margo who had a lesbian affair with Patsy while Gene seethed on the sidelines.

At least, Margo may have wished that was the case. In reality, Gene –an eerily successful undercover agent used to playing roles convincingly- managed to terrorize and brutalize Margo for the better part of a decade, at one point kidnapping her for several days and at in another instance engaging in a shootout at a church.

Mind you, Margo is no saint – a point author Caitlin Rother conveys adequately despite having no direct participation from Patsy or Gene. Margo started down the wrong path early in life, highlighted by an abusive incident with her father and the dutiful nonchalance of her traditional southern mother. As a result, most of Margo’s adult life would be spent drifting in and out of short infatuations –heterosexual and homosexual- that she ritually mistook for love. Her marriage to Gene took a turn for the worse almost instantly when he decided to break FBI protocol by collaborating with various undercover contacts on money-making schemes (including defrauding an FBI program designed to prevent equity loss by agents selling their homes to relocate).

Patsy entered the picture hoping to get some pointers from real-life agents and her attraction to Margo was instantaneous. After some cat and mouse, the two blondes eventually came clean and choose to explore their feelings, causing Margo to drift obliviously away from both the social taboos of her Virginia surroundings and, more destructively, her duties at home. Being a seasoned FBI agent, Gene determined the nature of his wife’s relationship to her “new friend” in relatively short order and launched a campaign of psychological warfare fit for one of Patsy’s novels.

Rother touches on several recurring themes while sorting through the sordid details of the Bennetts’ marriage. Margo’s attractions were typiced short-sighted and screamed the need to fill a void from her childhood. Yet Patsy –despite being non-violent while showering both Margo and her two daughters with gifts- was barely more attentive than Gene. Both lovers tended to treat Margo as a possession rather than a person. Throughout the story, the Bennett children were used as pawns by Gene while being secondary on Margo’s mind (next to personal survival). Predictably, both girls eventually needed a lot of therapy – much of it administered in the form of drugs, sex and self-mutilation. To that end, the latter section of the book is bittersweet, reveling in the protagonist’s survival as much as it cautioned about the fallout.

Twisted Triangle is not my usual book but was a nice diversion from geo-political and financial literature. Caitlin Rother’s work is highly rated by Amazon.com readers and, based on this non-fictional account, the adulation is justified. I look forward to reading more of her work.

29
Feb

Book Review: Showing our Colors

One of the first challenges to the idea of black intellectual inferiority came from a German study. Authored by psychologist Klaus Eyferth and published in the 1959 edition of the journal Vita Humana (now Human Development), the study compared the intelligence of two groups of children born in Germany to local women and American soldiers. The first group, however, was sired by white GIs, while the second had black fathers. If the former children proved to be more intelligent than the latter, then white supremacists could make the argument that blacks were indeed genetically inferior to whites, at least in terms of intellectual ability. But no such luck: the two groups’ test scores were indistinguishable. The study was, as expected, vilified by proponents of racial inequality (prompting one commentator to note that left wingers were not the only ones to dislike race research), but it was accepted by the scientific community and, more importantly, replicated by other researchers who reached the same conclusions.

I first read of this study in my first-year psychology class. The existence of a black community in Germany was news to me. But I soon learned that the offspring of black GIs were not the only people of mixed African descent in that country. Germany at one time possessed a number of colonies in Africa, including modern-day Tanzania, Cameroon, Togo and Namibia. Some natives of those places immigrated to Germany, where they established relationships with the locals and produced mixed-race children. In addition, biracial children were born to Germans and immigrants from African countries never under Germany’s control. Until recently, though, I had never come across any first-hand accounts by mixed-race Germans themselves. That is, until I discovered Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out at a small Toronto bookstore.

Showing Our Colors is edited by three women: May Opitz, an Afro-German speech therapist and poet; Katharina Oguntoye, a feminist historian of German and Nigerian background, and Dagmar Schultz, a white woman and publishing house editor. Translated from the German Farbe bekennen, the book contains a history of German imperialism in Africa and of blacks (and mixed-race people) in Germany as well as their portrayal by white society. The English version includes a foreword by the late poet Audre Lorde, who met a number of Afro-German women during a stay in Berlin. The book’s principal attraction, however, lies in the first-hand accounts by fourteen women of mixed black and German descent.

As the editors state in the introduction, the contributors have little in common besides their blackness. The women differ in their sexual orientation (most are heterosexual, but a few are lesbians), educational and professional experience, country of residence (at the time of the book’s publication, what is now Germany consisted of two nations, east and west), and connection with their black heritage. They also trace their ancestry to different sources. Some have a parent directly from Africa, whereas others were born to black Americans, usually GIs. In general, the women with African-born parents have had more contact with their black relatives than did the daughters of African Americans. In addition, almost all the contributors have black fathers and white mothers, except for a seventeen-year-old woman with an Afro-German mother and Italian father and the twenty-three-year-old daughter of an Afro-German woman and Ghanaian man.

Few of the women profiled in Showing Our Colors claim an exclusively black identity. Perhaps because they live in Germany, speak German as their first language, and in some cases have had little contact with other blacks, even their own family members, the women largely identify as German or, at most, as mulatto. One woman, for instance, who was raised by a white single mother, begins her account with “I’m German, and I’m dark.” According to a forty-two-year-old nurse, people who tell her she is lucky to live in Germany do not understand that “I’m German and don’t belong anywhere else.”

The contributors’ tendency to identify more with their German than black side in some instances stems from their inability to integrate into a black community. While they rarely faced rejection or discrimination from blacks as they sometimes did from their fellow Germans (on the contrary, one contributor states that her African boyfriend’s family put her on a pedestal because of what they perceived as her “whiteness”), they often felt that they could never become part of black society. In the case of those who traced their descent directly to Africa, sometimes cultural barriers were too great an obstacle to overcome. One woman, for example, became distressed at what she saw as women’s subservient role in her father’s native Ethiopia. The woman whose boyfriend’s family idolized her supposed whiteness explains that when she was called “white lady” at a beach in Liberia, she realized that in Africa she would always be considered an “other,” even if a privileged “other.” She decided that Germany was her home after all.

Showing Our Colors does not address the question of race mixing per se but rather the lives of African-descended individuals in what was until recently a fairly monoracial country. Nonetheless, given that all the women featured here are in fact biracial, they offer a number of insights into the mixed race experience. One of the first contributors, a sixty-seven-year-old woman who lived through the Third Reich and narrowly escaped sterilization (a procedure mandated by the Nazis for non-“Aryans”), says that when asked once whether she minded being a mulatto, she replied, “No… what I have already experienced because of my background you will never experience in your entire life.” Another woman, forty at the time, tells of having reconciled herself to the “white part of me.” A couple of the younger contributors, though, speak of feeling alienated from both sides of their heritage at some point in their lives. For example, at a younger age one woman “hated mixed marriages, since we children have to live our lives always between two stools.” Another was disappointed that her physical features were not “black” enough.

The contributors not only faced the issue of race mixing in the context of their family background but in their own marriages and sexual relationships. The first woman profiled, the sixty-seven-year-old Third Reich survivor, married a white man. Many of her friends could not understand how she could do so in light of the oppression she and her family had experienced from white society. She always answered that she had no objection to marrying a white man provided he was a “decent person.” She describes herself and her husband as “happy grandparents” whose lives do not differ fundamentally from their contemporaries. Some of the younger women are less sanguine about their relationships with white men. The forty-two-year-old nurse, for example, considers some white men “racist exploiters” and recounts having left a white boyfriend herself after he told her “A model or stewardess I can have any time, but not a Black woman.” She and several other contributors imply that some of their white lovers were interested in them not as individuals but as members of the black race.

Other women formed relationships with black rather than white men (as well, one contributor had a brief affair with a black GI but later married a white German). Sometimes circumstance rather than race was the major factor in their choice of partner. The older sister of the sixty-seven-year-old Third Reich survivor, for instance, married a countryman of her father, but rejection of white men did not seem to play a part in her decision. Some contributors admit to other reasons for preferring black over white men. A young woman abandoned by her American soldier father and raised by her white mother says that for many Afro-German women the “search for a father and the search for Black men often converged.” With regard to herself, she adds that “I never wanted a white boyfriend; blackness and being a man went together… once I realized that, I wanted to get to know my father.”

Some women profiled say that their white mothers, or mother substitutes, did not know how to deal with the racism their daughters faced in white society. For example, one woman describes how her mother refused to discuss problems like racism with her and thus failed to prepare her for the outside world. Another contributor who lived with her African father and his Jewish wife states that her stepmother, having lived as a Jew in the Nazi era, had adopted an attitude of “whatever you do, don’t be conspicuous” and was not willing to “go to bat” for her stepdaughter. On the other hand, the father would not let anyone get away with mistreating his daughter.

The contributors to express differing opinions on various issues. One example has to do with the role of blacks in German films. After Germany’s loss of its African colonies, coupled with its defeat in World War II, German filmmakers tried to re-ignite the spark of national pride by making movies that portrayed the country’s glory days as a colonial power. Many Africans and Afro-Germans were hired as actors and extras on the sets. The two sisters who lived through the Nazi era speak fondly of their small parts in these movies, noting that they had the opportunity to meet other people of African descent as well as earn extra money. The forty-two-year-old nurse, on the other hand, who herself acted on stage as a child, is more critical of the roles offered to Africans in the cinema and theatre. In her view, “the movie scene was not all that nice… either you play the naked wild man or woman, or servants’ roles.”

Some of the limitations of Showing Our Colors? The book primarily profiles the daughters of black fathers and white mothers. It might be interesting to see whether the lives of children born to white fathers and black mothers differed in any way from that of the present contributors. The editors can hardly be faulted for the omission: though many German colonizers in Africa sired offspring by local women, most of these children remained with their mothers and never went to Germany.

Showing Our Colors’ strength lies in its first-hand presentation of the lives of biracial individuals in a largely monoracial European country. Of course the experience of these women might not be identical to that of mixed race women in a multiracial society such as the United States. But Showing Our Colors is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the multiracial experience in Europe.




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