history · nonfiction

Book Review: Overground Railroad: The Green Book & Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy A. Taylor

I want to say that I learned about Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy A. Taylor (Harry N. Abrams, 2020) from one of the emails Book Riot sends out, maybe the one about nonfiction books? I might be wrong about that, though. But I do know that reading the description of the book had me flying to put it on my TBR. I’d never heard of the Green Book before, and that seemed like a pretty big gap in my historical knowledge. I will admit to being a little intimidated when I picked this up in the library; it’s a thick, heavy book (lots of pictures, though!), and I worried about my ability to absorb so much information right now (pandemic brain is real, y’all), but I figured I could try it, and I’m *so* glad I did!

The Green Book, originally known as The Negro Motorist Green Book, was a travel guide for Black Americans, alerting them to businesses where it was safe to stop for gas, food, lodgings, and sightseeing and entertainment opportunities. Due to America’s fierce racism during the Jim Crow era and post-Jim Crow era (and now…) and the existence of sundown towns, Black travelers weren’t assured of receiving anything they might need on the road (not even roadside assistance), and thus the Green Book came into existence in order to help them travel across the country and eventually across the world.

It’s both wonderful that the Green Book existed and a tragedy that it had to. Ms. Taylor has traveled to and photographed many of the former Green Book sights. Many of them have been abandoned or are run down, but some are still up and running; all make for wonderful photographs. Interspersed throughout the text and photos are scans of actual pages from the various editions of the Green Book so that readers can see what the writing and advertisements looked like.

This is history. It’s inspiring, it’s shameful, it’s painful, it’s difficult but necessary read. There was a lot of new information for me in this book. I knew about sundown towns; I didn’t know how many of them existed in my own state, or that a guy I dated in high school lived in one. I knew that many businesses required Black customers to use a separate entrance; I hadn’t known that some business even required their Black customers to use a SEPARATE EMERGENCY EXIT ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME. Before learning about the existence of the Green Books, I hadn’t considered the discrimination faced by Black people as they traveled (it made sense as soon as I read the description of the book; it was just another aspect of racism creeping into all parts of life that, because of my privilege, I had never needed to consider). Like the book states, I’ll never look at travel the same way again.

There’s a section on Route 66 that discusses why Black travelers had such a difficult time on this road and why they don’t find it iconic as so many white Americans do. It’s eye-opening for the white reader, and saddening as well. We very obviously have multiple versions of the United States, and which version you have access to depends heavily on, and has always depended heavily on, your skin color. I hadn’t known much about this history of the road (I don’t know all that much about it anyway, although it ran through that high school boyfriend’s sundown town…), so this was pretty interesting to me. It’ll definitely change the way I look at those Route 66 signs people have…

This is an amazing book, and I can’t sing its praises highly enough. Ms. Taylor’s voice is educational and informative, but it’s never dry. It’s engaging in a way that will have you wishing you could sit in her classroom, sign up for her master class, and hang on her every word. I’m so very glad I read this book, because it clued me into a whole different experience of travel that I never knew about.

Visit Candacy A. Taylor’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.


Between the World and Me- Ta-Nehisi Coates

BookRiot suggested Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me as a book by a journalist or about journalism, #5 on their Read Harder 2019 Challenge. I’d been wanting to read Coates for ages now, and this seemed like an excellent place to start.

I’m not even sure what I can say that would even begin to do justice to this beautiful, painful little book. Written as a letter to his teenage son, Mr. Coates covers a wide range of topics: the danger of making ones way through life in a black body; the fear he feels for his son when teenagers like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and his friend Prince Carmen Jones wind up dead on the street with no consequences for the people who kill them; the breathtakingly cruel history of slavery, and the trauma and consequences of that history that still resound in our justice system and in everyday lives of black people; and the story of how he became the man he is today.

Mr. Coates conveys his anger, his frustration, his pain, and his wonder at his son and being a father in such eloquent, moving language that had I wanted to write down the most meaningful quotes, I would’ve ended up copying out the entire book, and if I had wanted to underline the parts that touched me deeply, angered me, made me think, there would’ve been a line under every piece of text . This starts on the very first page and doesn’t end until the last, with the imagery of sheets of rain a haunting metaphor for the grief one feels when we look around and are able to see all the trauma White America has inflicted and continues to inflict on people with black skin. I am deeply, deeply ashamed and angered. We should be so much better than that, but we actively choose not to be, and it’s infuriating.

This is an important book, and although I have yet to fully engage with audiobooks, I feel as though this would make a stunning one. Mr. Coates’s impassioned words deserve to be voiced out loud, as so much of the book reads like the most powerful speech you’ve ever heard. If you’ve enjoyed this as an audiobook, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I think this is a book everyone will be handed in school, if not now (as it should be), then in the future. It deserves to be read widely, repeatedly, until its words are engraved on our souls, until we finally GET IT, and then even more so that we never forget.

View Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writing at The Atlantic here.

black history · nonfiction · space

Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation Into Space- Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation Into Space by Margot Lee Shetterly has been on my radar for a while. It’s been front and center on bookstore tables, on display at the library, and I think I’ve seen it on just about every book blog out there. And don’t forget the movie, which was wonderful (and I’m usually not a fan of anything dealing with space. Too many chances for things to go wrong and for the astronauts to get lost up there. Anxiety!). I’d always planned on reading it, but I never thought I’d get to it so soon (more on that later).

During World War II, the NACA (the agency that would eventually become NASA) needed calculations done for the research and construction of new aircraft, and a large number of those doing the calculations (by hand, of course!) were black female mathematicians. Making what was a good salary at the time, these women worked long days, often into the night, churning out packets of sophisticated equations, often without full knowledge of what they were working on or what the final results of the project ended up being. And they did it all in a world that, up until this point, had steadfastly refused to acknowledge their talents and successes solely due to the color of their skin.

Ms. Shetterly tells the story of women like Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden, painting a picture of their lives both before and after coming to the NACA, and the times they lived in. Even as these women were filling pages after page with face-melting math, black soldiers in uniform were being spit on by their fellow Americans and being refused service in restaurants. As they calculated trajectories and handed in the scores of math that would make military victory (and eventually space flight) possible, people who looked like them were still being told to sit at the back of the bus. Before coming to the NACA, one of the women featured made less as a teacher than the white janitor who cleaned her school (something like $850 per year; the starting salary at the NACA was $2,000). The discrepancy between what these women had to offer and how their ‘grateful’ nation treated people who looked like them is nothing short of infuriating, and for that reason alone, this book is a must-read.

But the book goes beyond that and celebrates the lives of women who were remarkable by any standards, and even more so due to the fact that they were able to rise far beyond the limits their country set for them. This is a story of exceptional accomplishment in the face of institutional adversity, and it’ll force you to examine exactly what we as a country are throwing away, what we might have had but chose not to, when we do things like underfund schools and condemn children in impoverished neighborhoods to subpar education.

So many times during this book, I had to stop and seethe at how hard the women had to struggle in order to access what they needed to be able to contribute to society. What on earth are we thinking when we make things more difficult for people to access education? And on that note, quite a few times I had to read certain sentences multiple times in order to get the basic gist of what Ms. Shetterly was saying. Math and science were never my thing (hence the book blog and not, say, an illustrious career in a STEM field), but whew, the complexities of what the women in this book were doing every single day were utterly mind-blowing. Man, am I glad that there are people out there who can do that kind of stuff, and I wish our country invested more in education so that the accomplishments of the women of Hidden Figures were without the fierce battle it took for them to get there.

I picked this book up on Friday thanks to the library book discussion group I attended on Thursday (which was AWESOME!!!! I loved it so, so much and I’m already signed up for next month). The librarian who led it was talking about BookRiot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge, and while I’ve normally shied away from most challenges in the past, with the exception of this year’s Modern Mrs. Darcy Challenge, attending this discussion gave me the confidence to take on the Read Harder Challenge. If I don’t complete it, that’s okay, and at least I’ll have read some amazing new authors and books along the way, but I’ve got my eye on the goal here. Reading Hidden Figures was my first read for this, and it checks off #6, a book by an AOC set in or about space. I’m off to an amazing start.

Have you read Hidden Figures? How do you deal with the anger and frustration you feel when you read about how our country has treated and still treats people of color?

Visit Margot Lee Shetterly’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical romance

Destiny’s Embrace- Beverly Jenkins

‘Okay,’ I said to myself as I walked through the library. ‘I have enough books at home, I’m going to read a few from my own shelf, I’m not going to check any books out this time.’ And then I walked by the display of books by black authors for Black History Month. And all my resolve went up in a puff of smoke and a blur of motion as I snatched up Destiny’s Embrace by Beverly Jenkins.

In my defense, I’ve wanted to read one of Ms. Jenkins’s books ever since I saw her in Love Between the Covers, a documentary on romance novels and authors and the industry surrounding them (if you haven’t seen this, it’s wonderful). I enjoyed everything she had to say and looked her up on my next library trip. At the time, my library only had her work in ebooks and I wasn’t reading those at the time (long story why, but it involved being frightened of losing my momentum for reading down my Goodreads TBR list), but she’s never fallen off my radar. And now, she’s on it in a big, big way.

The year is 1885. Thirty-year-old Mariah Cooper, the daughter of a mean-spirited, abusive hag, lives in Philadelphia, where she works as a seamstress in her mother’s shop and is occasionally courted by the weak-willed Tillman Porter. When her mother goes too far, Mariah flees to her aunt’s house across town, and within weeks she’s on a train bound for a new life as a housekeeper in California. She’s determined to become her own woman, leaving the browbeaten, unloved version of herself behind for good.

Logan Yates lives and works on the profitable ranch he owns with his loving stepmother and brothers. Sure, his house smells- and okay, looks- like a barnyard, but that’s just the bachelor way, isn’t it? Alanza, his stepmother, takes the liberty of hiring a housekeeper. Enter the lovely Mariah, and she and Logan cannot butt heads fast enough. Each decision to be made is one they can spar over, and Logan can’t stop thinking about his alluring new employee. He’s made it clear that he has no interest in marriage, now or ever…but Mariah may have changed all of that for good.

It’s been a long time since I read a historical romance novel, but this was just plain fun to read. There’s enough steam to make it spicy, but the sex scenes aren’t terribly graphic. Ms. Jenkins’s style never veers into the purple prose I remember reading in the romance novels of my youth; there are no long, drawn-out descriptions of clothing or scenery, just enough to create a crystal-clear image in the reader’s mind of the beautiful California ranch land Logan owns and the finely-sewn blouses and skirts Mariah has created. Her female characters are strong but not so over-the-top that they’re not believable for the times they live in. While this is a typical romance in that it ends happily (and don’t we all need that so badly these days? Heavens knows I do), there are several things that make this stand out, including a scene in which a small parade of local men come by the ranch to propose to Mariah, and another outside a jewelry store, after another woman notices Mariah’s (happy) tears and inquires after her. That one brought tears to my eyes as well. But what stood out most…Let me backtrack a little.

The stigma around romance may have faded a bit over the years, but be assured, it hasn’t left entirely, and that’s something I learned in my own home last night. Upon noticing my copy of Destiny’s Embrace on the kitchen island, my husband squinted at it, then said, “Whose book is that?”

“Mine,” I responded.

He laughed. “That’s what you’re reading these days? I would’ve thought you’d be reading something more intellectual.”

Before I could bean him in the head with a rock like Mariah did to Logan, he left to attend to our daughter, leaving me to mentally scoff, Okay, man who reads comic books.

Which is entirely my point. There’s nothing wrong with comic books, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with romance novels. Not everyone needs to read, say, a calculus textbook at all times; it’s totally okay to read for straight-up entertainment if that’s what you’re looking for and what you need at the time. Reading is reading, and anything that gets anyone reading is a wonderful thing. The joke is really on my husband here, because I learned a lot from this book, including about

  • Calafia, the fictional warrior queen often depicted as the Spirit of California
  • James Beckwourth, the fur trapper and African-American pioneer who discovered the mountain pass in the Sierra Nevadas between Reno, Nevada and Portola, California
  • William Leidesdorff, who helped found what became San Francisco
  • Estabanico/Estevanico, one of the first African-born men to reach the continental US
  • Biddy Mason, a nurse and midwife who also founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.

I never learned about any of those people in school, so if this is what a non-intellectual book looks like, I’ll be over here, buried under a pile of non-intellectual books, plenty of them with Beverly Jenkins embossed on the front.

The other really great thing about this book is that it’s changed the way I think towards historicals, or at least some historicals- or maybe even historicals back when I last read them. I think I’m more willing to give them a chance, and I definitely want to read more historicals by authors of color, because that’s a perspective that I need more of in my reading life. I’m halfway tempted to head back to the library and dig through that Black History Month display again…but I’m going to have to hold off, because today’s library trip yielded another stack of books.

So much for reading from my own shelves, again.

Are you a fan of historical romance? Have you read Beverly Jenkins? If you can recommend other historical romances by authors of color, I’m listening (and scrawling down the names, and checking my library’s website)!

Visit Beverly Jenkins’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.