More History I Didn’t Learn in High School

Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War by Howard W. French

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I love revisionist history. As a historian once said (alas I forget who): The facts don’t change but the questions the historians ask do. And so this book opens up many events and shows how Africans are central to a story in which we haven’t heard their parts. It is time to hear them.

It starts with a questioning of the Asian, spice trade goal having inspired the Age of Exploration, a story in which Africa is a blob in the way. Instead it presents empires of Africa, their gold becoming known and prompting exploration of Africa, starting with the west coast and working in and south. Instead of backward savages, Africa is presented as empires with rulers who relate with Europe as equals in treaties to set up trading posts first for gold then later for the slave trade. This portion of the book presents Portugal’s role in the slave trade and exploration, a good addition to the English and Spanish focus of what I had learned before. It covers the slaving business history in the context of European struggles with each other for supremacy. It explores colonies and their products–mostly sugar cane–and how that integrated industry presaged industrialization. There is a section on the effects on Africa of the slave trade, on various colonies in the West Indies, and on the slaves’ importance to US development as well as to Europe’s industrialization. French takes a serious look at myths and dispels many.

Because most of the detail is new, it is slow reading. And in the rare chapters where I already knew something it started out as a relief to be in familiar territory, but soon I was learning new bits as well. My understanding of colonialism and the slave trade is increasing from the British focus I’d started with back in school days. With various books I’ve been reading, first I added Spanish colonies and trade, then French, and now in this book, Portuguese. (French mentions that the first slave in what will become the US is landed in 1585, not 1619, in a Spanish colony, not Virginia, and that was a reminder of the British focus that has predominated.) The expanding history enables a fuller more complex picture.

An important and good read.



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Fall at the Chinese Garden

I’ve not gotten a lot of use out of my membership this year. Most summer days were too hot for a visit. Then the rains came. But today was sunny though in the chilly side with temperatures in the 40s as 12 mph winds. Still, the garden is fairly sheltered from the wind.

There wasn’t as much fall color as I had hoped. My neighborhood has some bright oranges, yellows and reds. But there was some.

When your plants don’t flower, have a mum show. There were pots of full sized mums and miniature ones. “Penji” I think they are called in China. I do know they aren’t called “bonsai.”

But the show stealer was the tiger made of mostly mums to celebrate the year of the tiger. Personally I thought he looked pretty tame.

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Rosa Parks: Myth Debunked and Explained

Christmas knitting is almost finished (obviously not photos yet). Reading continues.

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Theoharis engages in important myth debunking even while she traces the growth of the dangerous myth. The danger is that in losing site of the real person’s ongoing actions against systemic racism, the symbol portrays a safe past action and a finished project and opens the door to blaming individual responsibility. This is a very readable biography, mostly chronological, but also thematic.

After an exploration of Parks’s family and youth, the myth of the tired seamstress is questioned and Parks’s strength, determination, and anger are explored. But the beginning of the myth in its strategic use at the time is also explored. And with the bus boycott’s ending, the book is only midway. She did more, who knew? Her life in Detroit allows for exploration of the form racism has in the north. Especially interesting is the chapter on Parks’s relationship to the Black Power movement: “Mrs. Parks’s political activities and associations in 1960s and 1970s Detroit illustrate the continuities and connections between the civil rights and Black power movements” (203).

A very important book.



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A World War II Narrative of More Than War

Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II by Daniel James Brown

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book totally lived up to my expectations. Just as Boys in the Boat overcame my reluctance to read sports books, this one overcame my reluctance to read war narratives. As in the first book, Facing the Mountain focuses on a few people (Kats, Fred, Rudy, and Gordon are major players) to tell a much larger history of more than Japanese heroism, though it brilliantly tells that story. It also tells of the imprisonment of Issei Japanese men, the concentration (euphemistically called “relocation” at the time) camps, and some resisters. The focus on people–their thoughts, actions and reactions–kept the details of war strategizing present but background.

By juxtaposing thoughts of many, Brown is able to present complexities. Going to war for the sons of imprisoned fathers and families contained behind barbed wire was not a clear cut decision, nor was refusal. Instant response may be necessary for effective action but can be disastrous when orders are poorly thought through. And unity among troops segregated by race is not guaranteed: the clash between Hawaiian boys and mainland boys was dramatic until wisely resolved.

The book presents an important history to know and provides an excellent way to learn it.



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On Dealing with Information, Misinformation, and Communication

What the Fact?: Debunking Disinformation to Detangle the Truth by Seema Yasmin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I think this book does what it intended to do: introduces readers to a complex topic in a readable way. The chatty tone keeps interest going even when technical terms are being introduced. And the bibliography is there for readers who want to follow up on an idea.

There were new illustrations and recent analyses given where a topic was familiar to me, and there were some solutions I’d heard before but need constant reminders because they are not my natural reaction. There were also new solutions to ponder.

Strong points: the history of journalism was fascinating. I found the distinction between “High conflict” and “Good conflict” illuminating and may follow up by reading the source quoted. I found the section near the end where Yasmin addressed ways to react when my views are challenged an excellent addition to ways to address differences with others. Now to remember and do it! And useful is the reminder that we are human and will make mistakes, but forge on.

The book is a good antidote for the attitude that had been brewing to distrust everything; one piece of which is the awareness of degrees of certainty and how they can (and should) change with the search for additional information



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Animal Cognition

Maybe I should change the title of my blog to include books? I have just finished another good one.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Well, the answer to the title question isn’t quite, No! But it has taken a long time to break the bonds of behaviorist thinking. And the cumulative evidence is beginning to change the field after three generations of scientists. De Waal challenges the binary of animal/human, reminding us that we too are animals; he challenges human uniqueness by showing differences of degree, not kind, as he argues for evolutionary cognition. Why, he asks, should evolution stop at the head?

The book is well organized and argued and filled with examples. As de Waal says, experiments are necessary to make the point but anecdotes make more interesting reading. The book abounds in both from a wide variety of species, though his own work has been mostly with primates. It raised animal cognition a notch above other works I have read, asking why should we study traits important to humans in animals; better to study traits important to their survival. And he faults the methodology of many studies that claim to show human superiority at tasks, noting the unequal treatment. The humans are tested by someone of their same species with similar interests, whereas animals face another species and tasks that are irrelevant to them. For example animals that seem not to distinguish faces have been tested with human faces. When tested with same species’ faces, they do fine. However, only animals who need to make the distinction to survive attend to faces.

Two chapters I found especially interesting were those discussing social skills and politicking among some species–including cooperation as well as competition–and those studying animals’ memories from the past and planning for the future that contrast with previous thought that animals live in a permanent present.

Well worth reading and leads me to want to read more of his works.





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Embroidery for the Women of Iran

I’ve listened to news about the women of Iran protesting for the control of their lives and their expressions of faith. And been inspired.

Then I read Susan’s blog today

https://desertskyquilts.com/2022/10/07/iran-protest-stitchery/

And Susan led me to Sarah’s blog

I don’t do a lot of embroidery and may or may not actually make this piece. But I can pass it on to you in case stitchery is your thing

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Uncle Tom contemporary

Blake: or; The Huts of America by Martin R. Delany

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This book was recommended during the past Black History Month as an answer to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written at the same time by a Black author. (And since I have never read UTC, I’ll be reading it too.) While I’ve heard the generalization and read a couple examples that slaves weren’t passively waiting to be freed, this novel of the late 1850s reinforces that point all the way through. Henry Holland (becomes Henry Blake about 2/3 into the novel) is working on his own freedom and that of others all the way through.

The novel has two narratives, the first being Henry’s travels through mostly southern states with a plan (we are never told the plan) and his encouraging resourcefulness and resistance. The second tells Henry’s experiences in Cuba. The first gets tedious, but it is worth continuing. For the second, I was glad to have read Cuba: An American History first, though it isn’t essential to understanding what is happening. There are endnotes most of which provide historical analogues and identify characters with historical figures; after the history they indicate sources. I found myself checking them more often than I sometimes do, and they were useful. Though the two narratives are connected, they don’t seem integrated into a whole. Some scenes seem to be there only to illustrate some aspect of slavery, and some conversations to illustrate ideas. When questioned, Henry convinces all too easily. The editor says, “[Delany’s] only fictional effort marks the artistic epitome of a social and political position–that is, the creative offering of an activist rather than the political expressions of an artist” (xiii). Still it is important reading.



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Recent Reading

I’m still reading more than sewing, though I’m knitting on Christmas projects a bit for crafty diversion. I don’t think every book I read is worth blogging about, but this more recent one was fascinating.

This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality by Peter Pomerantsev

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


It’s not an uplifting read, but it’s not totally depressing. It is just hard to read about the many ways reality can be distorted, especially multiple ways all at once. The chapters seem to be ordered in increasing degree of intensity, and the concluding chapter continues the intensification as well as offering a glimmer of hope for dealing with disinformation. And while many illustrations are from Russia, other countries have their moments: the Philippines, the former Yugoslavia, Syria, and Ukraine, to name a few.

The first chapter deals with troll farms and bots, the second with tactics of non-violence (useful for out of power minorities) being turned back onto those minorities by those in power then used against them. And how that experience disorients. Next Pomerantsev writes about controlling the narrative, how the propagandist first selects a goal for the information warfare, then selects/creates an ideology to go with it. This is intensified in chapter 4, “Soft Facts,” where he writes of the change from trying to make a misleading narrative sound true to simply stating the alternate narrative to confuse rather than to convince. “With the idea of objectivity discredited, the grounds on which one could argue against them rationally disappears” (123). In chapter 5, “Pop-Up People,” people seems to have two meanings: a person’s feeling of identities or a disinformationist’s manipulation of the use of we to try to push the reader into an us-them mode of thinking.

I was startled to find an intensification of methods of disinformation in the final chapter, having expected solutions when I read the title, “The Future Starts Here.” The chapter starts with an exploration of the origins and methods of Cambridge Analytica. Then the solutions. I will have to ponder the hints given: In order to limit disinformation on social media, he suggests a shift from the substance to the method, to reveal bots and trolls, for example. Because polarization and us-them thinking are a method, he describes the possibility of flexible identities, to not shift completely from an us-position to a them-position, but to continue analysis. Because Pomerantsev had identified as problem a loss of a sense of future, allowing factlessness, he posits the value of a sense of future. and he notes something many protesters had in common: a love of fiction. Fiction, he posits, helps one develop “an ability to imagine a different social and political reality from the one around you” (195).

Another feature of the book is that each chapter contains a bit of the author’s family history, interesting narratives of parents and grandparents. And some snippets of his father’s writing makes me want to read a couple novels he wrote that have been translated.



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Back to the Books

Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom by Tiya Miles

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The first time I read this book (before my Goodreads record keeping), I focused on the Shoe Boots/Doll story and skimmed everything else. Thus I missed a lot of important detail and perhaps the whole point. This time I focused on “everything else” and read the Shoe Boots/Doll story as the glue that holds it together. The Shoe Boots/Doll family is a perfect vehicle because of the many variations in relationship between Black and Cherokee they experience. Is Doll slave or wife or both? Three children are explicitly given freedom and tribal membership, but Doll isn’t–on paper though she seems to have lived as a member. Nor are the twins, born after Shoe Boots’ official request for his first three, explicitly given tribal membership. Thus is illustrated a difference between the official position defined by the white-Cherokee, northeastern educated men who set out to define the Cherokee Nation and the kinship-relationship mores that had existed before and continued to exist after the writing of the constitution. Add to the mix the state of Georgia illegally declaring sovereignty over the Cherokee Nation and annulling all decisions it had made, a move which put wife and children back into the slave category. And the complexity continued after removal and termination. One sees the encroaching ideas of European categories affecting much Cherokee thinking.

I suppose I was more prepared for complexity and nuance on second reading so didn’t get lost in the detail. Miles documents her sources, explains their limitations, explains her attempts to get beyond gaps. There is an important appendix on her historical method and the difficulties of telling histories of Blacks and women when the sources are mostly European and white men. Scholars will appreciate the original sources also shown in the appendices.



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