Sunday, 15 May 2011

Round-up 19

Malcolm X:  A Life of Reinvention

The biggest launch of the past few months has been this biography of  the political leader and activist, Malcolm X. Written by the author and historian Manning Marable, who spent over ten years researching the book. Sadly, a few days before the book was due to be published Marable died. With this major work he had been determined to respond to the well known Malcolm X autobiography, that Malcolm himself had co-authored with Alex Haley (of Roots fame). It seems that Marable believed that this book was much more Haley's work than it was ever Malcolm X's. Marable's legacy is going to be the seminal book of the life and work of one of the most important African American's of the twentieth century.

The reviews have understandably, been very positive about this book, Marable had been a world renowned historian of African American studies based at Columbia University and with the years of industrious research that he'd undertaken, it really is going to become 'a go-to book' on the life of Malcolm X. Such a shame that we'll not hear from the man himself on how he decided what to include or not.

However many reviewers have chosen to focus on the the more personal issues of Malcolm's life that Marable describes. It is certainly one of the more dispiriting aspects of biographies that its always the salacious aspects that are overly highlighted in the feature stories and newspaper reviews. Don't let that put you of this book though, as I understand that it is particularly good if you'd like to have a better understanding of America's relationship with Islam.

Reviews: New York Times    The Guardian

New Books about the Caribbean

Suddenly there are two books out about the Caribbean. I had originally thought that Red Heat: Conspiracy Murder and the Cold War in The Caribbean would be a wide reaching look at America's influence throughout the islands. In fact it focuses on just three - Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and as the Financial Times has it  'America's misadventures.'  The book explains how America got involved in the these particular islands in order to stave of communism - though it behaved differently in each place and according to which president was in power in the US.  It is this attitude to policy that led to further mistakes in Vietnam and currently in the Middle East. This is not a book that shows America's overseas policy at its best. I do however love the story that the Financial Times reviewer picks out about Nixon on a visit to Haiti - he decides to talk to a local woman passing by with a donkey:  "Tell this coconut to get out of the way, she barked in creole. Nixon persisted after an aide translated her remark as "she is pleased to meet you." "What is the donkey called?" he asked. "He's crazy," she replied "It's called a donkey."

Here are links to the reviews in the Financial Times and The Observer. You'll enjoy these - The Observer loves it, the Financial Times essentially picks out the flaws in the research. Both reviewers are themselves authors of books about Cuba. Richard Gott's is Cuba: A New History; and John Paul Rathbone's is called The Sugar King of Havana: The Rise and Fall of the Julio Lobo - Cuba's Last Tycoon.  

Sugar is the thing that connects the second book about the Caribbean that has also received spacious reviews. This is Matthew Parker's The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire and War. 

This history book is the rarely told story of the British in the West Indies - in fact you learn from the book - that the Sugar Barons/slave owners  - who were made fabulously wealthy through the free slave labour and the west's sugar addiction, were in fact called 'West Indians' when they came back on visits to England. It's interesting that this is a part of history that has not been told, taught or hardly discussed here in the UK and I guess not very much in the Caribbean either.  Since in fiction in recent times, both Andrea Levy (in The Long Song) and Dolen Valdez Perkins (in Wench) do give a sense of the the lives of the slave owners, though here the author's aim is primarily to give voice to the voiceless slaves. And of course though their work is fiction both are thoroughly researched and based upon historical fact.

Parker's book is from the perspective of some of the most eminent slave owning families of the British owned Caribbean, Jamaica, Barbados and St Kitts and essentially sets out the gross inhumanity that the British empire was built upon. I think it fascinating that it is the case that both viewpoints (the lives of the slaves and that of the of the slave owners) are broached as untold. Is the basic issue the same, that it has not been told because of a sense of shame on both sides?  Andrea Stuart  (author of Josephine: The Rose of Martinique) refers to this omission in her review in The Independent, but I recall that Andrea Levy mentioned this point as the impetus to write The Long Song, as it is her intention to provide a story of strength for the children of the formerly enslaved. I've actually bought The Sugar Barons and browsed through the pages and already noted that Parker credits a wide range of Caribbean historians and resources. And to be totally fair to him he does acknowledge that the history of the West Indies 'is dominated by a concern of slavery' and the nature of the 'sources that focus on economics of the plantation system', - I guess that he means rather than as on the slaves as individuals or human - but he continues that he tries to focus on other aspects [of the sources]. The truth is, it is that I am not looking forward to reading this book, it will after all be a difficult  (in the sensitive sense) read, but I do want to improve my understanding of my own history and of the Caribbean.

As an aside to this book, I feel that I should mention, that I went to Margate recently to see the new Turner Contemporary gallery that opened there last month. There are surprisingly few paintings by Turner actually on display, but one that is given most prominence is of an active volcano on the island of  St Vincent in 1812. Turner apparently did this painting from letters and the word of friends who were slave owners in the Caribbean during the early 19th century. The gallery's website celebrates Turner's imagination and love of nature and his curiosity about natural phenomena. However the picture caption next to the painting mentions that Turner's 'financial interests' in the West Indies may also have sparked his keenness to take on that particular subject matter.  Maybe this history is not so 'untold' or 'unknown' we just need to piece it all together a bit more thoroughly.

Reviews: The Guardian   The Independent

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