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BOOK REVIEWS | winter 2006


Reviewed in this issue:

With Liberty and Justice for All: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose By Kate Michelman
From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism
By Patricia Hill Collins
The Ellis Island Snow Globe
By Erica Rand
Harvest for Hope:
By Jane Goodall
The Last of Her Kind
By Sigrid Nunez


When Politics are Personal

With Liberty and Justice for All: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose
By Kate Michelman
Hudson Street Press

In 1985, Kate Michelman moved from Gettysburg, Pa., to Washington, D.C., to head the National Abortion Rights Action League. She was a fiery redhead with high cheekbones who used up energy faster than a racing car burns gas. Articulate and quick on her feet, she was a natural on television at a time when TV was becoming the sine qua non of politics: This was not a woman the anti-feminists could knock as a dowdy shrew no man would want. Kate Michelman was a class act on the public stage. Within a short time she had become a star in the Washington political firmament and NARAL had become a major player among the non-governmental organizations that lobby hard for their causes.

Michelman begins her new book by telling the personal story from which
the outrage came that has driven her ever since. She was a 27-year-old
Catholic with three small daughters, living on her husband’s meager academic salary, when he announced that he’d fallen in love with another woman and asked for a divorce. In an instant, life as she knew it shattered, and in time-honored fashion she blamed herself. The worst was yet to come.

A few weeks later she discovered she was pregnant and, in desperation,
swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. A neighbor found her and called an ambulance, and when her family doctor heard the agonizing tale, he told her—in that grim era before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal—that she might qualify for a “therapeutic” abortion.

In 1991, during the Clarence Thomas hearings, Michelman told this story before a television audience of millions. She underscored the humiliation of going before a panel of doctors who had to certify her—a mother of three—as incompetent and unfit to carry her pregnancy to term, and the unspeakable indignity of having to ask the husband who’d left her for written permission to have an abortion.

No doubt because her own story is so potent, she recognized the power of
personal experience, and her book is dotted with the riveting and often tragic stories—of trapped girls and of women carrying deformed
fetuses—that she has used to counter the inflammatory abstract rhetoric
of the anti-choice movement.

Savvy about the importance of language, Michelman was responsible for
featuring the phrase “Who Decides?” in NARAL’s campaign to counter the powerful “Life!” message of the opposition. She shows that respectful lobbying, coalition-building and nationwide organizing are indispensable. At a time when legal abortion is threatened as it hasn’t been since Roe, her book can be read as background, text and catalog for the constant grassroots organizing that will remain necessary as long as the anti-choice
movement persists, which is to say indefinitely.

Michelman’s account of her turbulent 30 years in the pro-choice movement is clear and forceful. However, she never plumbs the depths to explain or account for the power of those so furiously determined to reverse Roe. With the exception of the story of her divorce and abortion, she errs when she includes sections about her private life. Conveying deep emotions requires a very different approach and vocabulary than does describing the
rough and tumble of public life, and few writers can manage both.

Readers should look to this book for what it helps them understand about
the many heroes the movement has already revealed; how desperately hard the fight ahead will be; how many resources it will exhaust—in time, people and money; how much it is likely to take out of everyone; and how necessary it is to keep on keeping on.

Celia Morris is a noted women’s-history scholar and the author of four books, including Finding Celia’s Place (Texas A&M University Press, 2000) and Bearing Witness: Sexual Harassment and Beyond (Little, Brown and Company, 1994).


A Family Affair

From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism
By Patricia Hill Collins
Temple University Press

Patricia Hill Collins published her groundbreaking Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment in 1990, she was overshadowed by the mainstream stars of black feminist scholarship. Her work was simply not as “sexy” as that of bell hooks or Michele Wallace, though it did earn her a solid following within the academy. Now in the early autumn of her career, her steady commitment to studying the lives of black women makes her one of the most viable black feminist scholars.

In this book, Hill Collins examines the issues of racism, sexism and nationalism as they were confronted by the civil rights/black power generations and how they are now interpreted by the hip-hop generation. At the root of her analysis is the unpacking of “family” as a metaphor for nation, and the need across the American political spectrum to police gendered, sexual and racial norms in an effort to protect or reimagine “family.” This focus on family allows her to address the issue of mothering and its relationship to America’s national identity and population policies, including contemporary eugenics movements that aim to enhance the fertility of middle-class white women who are more “fit” for motherhood and to diminish the birth rates among “unfit” (read black) mothers.

“Family” also becomes a metaphor for the collective politics of black communities, and this is where Hill Collins is most compelling. Throughout her career, she has sought to trouble the still waters of the black feminist movement. Here she challenges assumptions that depict black nationalism and Afrocentrism as the archenemies of black feminism, though she readily admits that both have less-than-stellar politics around gender and sexuality.

For Hill Collins, there’s a need to re-think the “politics is personal” mantra of the mainstream feminist movement and to uncover the feminist interests that have always existed within black community politics. While there were many who did not call themselves “feminist,” she argues that some black women have historically been involved in community empowerments that implicitly aimed to protect the interests of black women—and that even women who contributed to black nationalist movements saw themselves as empowering black women.

Hill Collins also looks approvingly to the work of hip-hop generation feminists like Joan Morgan, Veronica Chambers and Gwendolyn Pough, who challenge the politics of the previous generation of black feminists by addressing such issues as sexual desire, and who see their own empowerment as a means to empower a broad range of people within black communities. Throughout, the author evinces a healthy skepticism of any catchall movement, be it Afrocentrism or the Million Man March, aimed at correcting the ills of the black community. In this regard, her book offers a refreshing view of the politics on the ground, where people matter more than identities and the ideologies embedded within them.

Mark Anthony Neal is an associate professor of black popular culture in the Program in African and African American Studies at Duke University, and author of three books, including Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation (Routledge, 2003).


Peasant Under Glass

The Ellis Island Snow Globe
By Erica Rand Duke
University Press

Sometimes silly, and yet curiously hard to resist—that’s one way to describe both snow globes and Erica Rand’s cultural critique of Ellis Island. As a professor of visual culture and women’s and gender studies, Rand’s very queer point of view grants her a provocative take on America’s way station for history’s huddled masses. A descendent of Jews who came through the island, Rand casts a wide net over everything Ellis, not only souvenirs sold at the gift shop, but details of funding, staffing, documentation and even the observed experiences of tourists visiting the historical site.

In 1892, the government began using Ellis Island to process immigrants. In its heyday, as many as 5,000 people per day experienced their first taste of
American power and politics there. Closed in 1954 and reopened as a national museum in 1990, Ellis Island hosts nearly a million and a half
tourists annually. Rand begins her adventure into her subject as a tourist
herself. While en route to the island on a “hot date,” she falls into a reverie
about finding a souvenir snow globe while her paramour bets against the existence of such, saying it would be in bad taste, like “having snow globes at a concentration camp.”

With the discovery of a souvenir globe, complete with tiny black-clad
figures and an array of flags representing not only countries from which most immigrants came, but—curiously—others as well, Rand finds herself on a mission. By deconstructing both the commercial aspects of the immigrant experience as it is presented through souvenirs and the historical representation as shown in the museum’s symbols and educational materials, she uncovers biases and silences that demonstrate the prejudices of the times—racism, sexism, classism—and shows how the rewriting of history continues to suit commercial and political interests.

Rand reveals, for example, that the photo banner of a bespectacled man hanging in the history center (and also printed in the official souvenir guide) is not merely the classic shot of the European immigrant; instead, it is far more complex than it first appears. Though the banner hangs without explication, Rand discusses how the subject, Frank Woodhull, had been “born Mary Johnson—and had dressed in men’s clothing for fifteen years.” Details of Woodhull’s transgender identity were splashed in contemporary
newspapers, but small mention is made of the scandal in Ellis Island’s official histories. Rand delves into Woodhull’s unusual “alien” status, carefully dissecting his personal history and appearance to expose the heterosexism and crude understanding of gender as it was “policed” at Ellis
Island.

Often witty and self-revealing, Rand’s prose sometimes ping-pongs too quickly between academic jargon and chummy intimacy, and occasionally
her far-reaching gaze swings too far. The fascinating exploration of Woodhull begins with a jarring foray into lyrics found on a CD by the pop star Shakira. And the chapter on the Statue of Liberty begins with a description of her as “one hot butch”: “the kind…who makes her muscles evident without ever looking like she’s showing them off.” Still, after this read, your next visit to Ellis Island will most certainly be informed by Rand’s insightful analysis. And you’ll likely do a double take at
Ms. Liberty as well.

Louise Rafkin is the author of seven adult and children’s books; her articles have appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Salon.com and BARK, and she does commentaries for “All Things Considered” on National Public Radio.


Let Them Eat Fake

Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating
By Jane Goodall
Warner Books

Primatologist Jane Goodall, the woman who spent decades in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park observing chimpanzee behavior and showing millions of people the importance of wildlife conservation, has written an inspiring book on the impact humans’ food choices have on the planet. She uses scientific research supported by memorable and engaging personal stories to demonstrate the evolution of human dietary habits and the history of food production and consumption. She also exposes the reality that many of us already know but wish we didn’t: Our food is fertilized with chemicals that poison the earth, contaminated with harmful pesticides, genetically modified and often hormone-enriched. (And we wonder why cancer rates are on the rise?) Goodall links our personal health to the health of the global ecosystem, persuasively arguing that we must rapidly change how we consume food and, in so doing, rapidly change how food is produced. When we consciously choose to eat healthy food, we also support small farmers, protect whole species of animals and contribute to restoring ecosystems at home and abroad.

Government should be steering things in a more positive direction, but given the Bush administration’s strong ties to big agriculture, nobody is counting on policy as the fix. Instead, consumers are beginning to change the way food is harvested and delivered to our homes. When you buy food from local farmers markets, you’re supporting whole new local economies. When you choose not to buy farm-raised salmon, you’re protecting an ancient species of fish—the wild salmon—and preventing the use of millions of pounds of antibiotics in our marine ecosystems. Goodall lists numerous examples of how consumers are driving the growth in organic, locally produced food and how this translates to a healthier world.

Goodall has always been prophetic. She has consistently lived and written from her heart—calling on each of us to do our part at this moment in history to protect the great apes, to care for all of life and to be responsible stewards of the natural world. With this book, she reminds us that we can do all this and take care of our bodies too. When we eat consciously—for our own health and the health of our children—we also support a rapidly emerging network of small organic farmers, artisanal food producers, community-based sustainable fishers and more. Slow down, Goodall advises. Pay attention. Be mindful. Take the right kind of bite and help save the world.

Betsy Taylor is president of Center for a New American Dream, a nonprofit devoted to helping Americans consume responsibly, and author of What Kids Really Want That Money Can’t Buy (Warner Books, 2003).


Hippie Heyday

The Last of Her Kind
By Sigrid Nunez
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The anti-war movement. Black power. Women’s liberation. Woodstock and flower power. Days of Rage and the youth uprisings of the ’60s and ’70s. Now that a full generation has passed, some may be tempted to romanticize those tumultuous years. Not so Sigrid Nunez.

In this riveting novel, Nunez captures the very heart of the tuned-in and turned-on generation, baring both the idealism and polarization that accompanied its political turmoil. All of this is a brave new world to Georgette George, a workingclass innocent and the book’s narrator. Georgette, the first of her family to attend college, is haunted by the family she seeks to escape—an abusive, unschooled mother who thinks her varicose veins are “very coarse veins” and a 14-year-old sister who disappears, perhaps a runaway or worse.

But the elite world of Barnard triggers new anxieties as she moves among the daughters of privilege: “I found myself in the grip of a delusion, hard to explain but equally hard to shake, that all these girls and the teacher—everyone, that is, except me—had known one another before.”

One of those privileged girls is her dorm roommate, Ann Drayton, a brilliant only child who despises her parents and their wealth and entitlement.
“I wish I had been born poor,” says Ann, or, ideally, poor and black. She had requested a black roommate, she tells Georgette, compounding her roommate’s self-doubt.

The two become unlikely friends. With the aid of pot, speed, downers and LSD, Georgette survives two years of college as well as a rape—about which Ann and a friend invoke Eldridge Cleaver’s justification of his rape of white women as revenge on white men. Ann, like so many female leftists of the day, disdains the women’s movement. Women are consumed by trivia, she says, “Never ideas. Always this tiresome focus on the minutiae of the personal.”

For Ann, everything is political, even as she propels herself into the radical edge of the anti-imperialist maelstrom, her frenetic, often violent life careening toward disaster. Inevitably, Ann ends the friendship, calling her college roommate too superficial. This is no huge loss for Georgette, who is coming of age in New York City in the era of feminism. Her voice grows more self-assured as she finds a career and her runaway sister, embarks on assorted affairs and two marriages, and has two children. Then Ann, after her arrest for killing a police officer, comes crashing back into Georgette’s life.

In this saga of love and privilege renounced, Georgette remains the romantic, believing that “life really is like a novel, with patterns and leitmotifs and turning points, and guns that must go off and people who must return before the ending.” Nunez has wrought a mesmerizing story of breathtaking sweep and intricate detail, without sentimentality, full of the patterns, leitmotifs and turning points of a generation.

Helen Zia is the author of Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001).