Richard Prince's Book Notes™: Compelling Nonfiction
After 44 years behind bars, the nation's most famous prison journalist tells his story. A black journalist reaches the highest reaches of the New York Times newsroom, only to topple in a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions. Women examine their multifaceted status in 21st century journalism. Now it can be told: "Con games, voodoo schemes, true love and lawsuits on the Underground Railroad." A look at recent nonfiction books by and about journalists of color, with more in the coming days.
Kevin B. Blackistone, a columnist with AOL Fanhouse and panelist on ESPN's "Around the Horn," co-authored "A Gift for Ron" by Everson Walls (Lyons Press, $24.95)
In October, Blackistone wrote for AOL, "Until about three years ago, Everson Walls was best known for what he took away: passes intended for receivers. Since then, he's become more known for what he's given: a kidney. After years of watching his one-time teammate and longtime friend Ron Springs being whittled away by diabetes, and losing hope in the wait for a life-saving kidney transplant, Walls, a former Pro Bowl cornerback, donated his to Springs early in 2007.
"In 'A Gift for Ron,' a memoir . . . Walls described to me in detail the moving story of how he shed selfishness as a star athlete to become a selfless organ donor. In doing so, Walls became the first pro athlete to donate an organ to a teammate. With Springs, he co-founded The Ron Springs and Everson Walls Gift for Life Foundation.
"Two years ago . . . Springs, having risen from a wheelchair on the strength of Walls' kidney, walked into a Dallas hospital to have a cyst removed from his arm. He is still there. Upon being anesthetized, Springs lapsed into a coma from which he has yet to awaken.
"Springs is awash in constant prayers and visits from his family and friends who underscore even more so now the importance of what Walls did, which was to save a life that is still here."
Columnist Rick Gosselin wrote, "Walls has a compelling story to tell and Blackistone, a former colleague of mine at The Dallas Morning News, had the savvy to keep it as compelling in print."
No doubt, Gerald M. Boyd's "My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at the New York Times" (Lawrence Hill Books, $26.95) is the highest-profile book written about being a black journalist at a mainstream news organization.
The outlines of Boyd's story are well-known: born into poverty in St. Louis, a two-decade rise at the New York Times as Washington correspondent, metro editor and managing editor — the first and only African American to reach that plateau — and then the denouement: linked in scandal with plagiarist and fabricator Jayson Blair because, Boyd says, both men were black. After a newsroom revolt, Boyd and the executive editor, Howell Raines, were forced to resign. Boyd died three years later of lung cancer, at age 56. He had been working on this memoir, and his wife, journalist Robin D. Stone, finished it.
Reviewers said Boyd reveals thoughts about that career that they never suspected. Their observations, though, are inextricably tied to their views on black journalists, the Times and race relations.
Wayne Dawkins, unofficial historian of the National Association of Black Journalists, pointed out on PoliticsinColor.com, "Boyd’s leadership is linked to 10 of the New York Times’ then 89 Pulitzer Prizes. His shining achievement was the 'How Race is Lived in America' project of 2000. Other Pulitzers included the metro section’s coverage of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and a record seven Pulitzers after the 2001 Sept. 11 attacks on America. Boyd and Raines were only weeks into their top editing posts when that devastating story broke."
Longtime Boyd friend George E. Curry wrote in the St. Louis Journalism Review, "One of the most striking things about Gerald's memoir is how he naively believed that with his sterling accomplishments — covering the White House for the Times, leading two series that won the Times Pulitzer Prizes, studying as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard — he would be judged on the basis of his talent, not his race." Curry is black.
Venerable Times columnist Russell Baker, who is white, wrote in the New York Review of Books, "Throughout Boyd's version of events, one cannot help wondering whether the Blair story would have amounted to more than a light entertainment if Jayson Blair had been white. In that case might his journalistic derelictions and drug-and-whiskey-inspired antics have passed through the media as a circus sideshow . . .
"Blair's being black made such a happy outcome impossible. The 'diversity' issue was always the ugly subtext to the dull narrative about a management failure at the Times. 'Diversity' is not a subject for light amusement in America. It is a subject that Americans take to the Supreme Court. . . . Boyd, moreover, was the physical symbol of the 'diversity' program so unpopular to the newsroom."
Jim Sleeper, the former liberal whose calling card is "Liberal Racism" — the book of that name and the theory — wrote that Boyd's book proves him right. Michael Antman, another white writer, said for Pop Matters: "It illustrates that sometimes those who preach the loudest about diversity and tolerance are the least capable, when it comes down to it, of tolerating any diversity at all."
The last words will go to two former Times colleagues of color. Howard French, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, said, "His account provides a timely opportunity for a beleaguered industry to think deeply about diversity. The Times seems to favor blacks who don’t make whites feel uncomfortable — as even Boyd did from inside his cocoon of inscrutability. In practice, this suggests that only the most thoroughly assimilated minorities (politically, culturally, some would even say physically) get in the door or get ahead.
"If this is diversification, one might wonder, what’s the point?"
Mia Navarro, who considered Boyd a mentor, wrote of Boyd in Politics Daily:
" 'Knowledge of other cultures should be a prerequisite for anyone entering the business,' he writes in 'My Times.' "Any decent journalist starts with a core of general knowledge. In newsrooms, that core assures that we all have enough smarts to produce a newspaper. . . . Yet there are no penalties for ignorance about race and ethnicity, about blacks, Latinos, Asians, or Native Americans, their histories, and their cultures. And journalism provides little incentive to learn.' "'
Betty DeRamus, former Detroit News columnist, has "Freedom by Any Means: Con Games, Voodoo Schemes, True Love and Lawsuits on the Underground Railroad" (Atria, $25). After DeRamus took a buyout in 2006 after 17 years at the News, she worked on her first book, "Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad." This is a follow-up.
"According to the usual story, slaves gained their freedom by running away, being freed in their owners' wills, buying their way out of bondage or having someone else buy them," DeRamus writes in the foreword. "But how do we account for people like John Bowley, who bluffed his family's way to freedom, or Althea Lynch, a runaway slave whose cooking sprang her from jail? And what about all those enslaved blacks who managed to gain freedom by winning lawsuits in which state-appointed attorneys defended them?
"Most people believe fugitive slaves ran only to northern states, or to Canada after it abolished slavery. But what about James Williams, a California Gold Rush miner and runaway, who journeyed to Mexico? What about the fugitives who wound up in Haiti, Nicaragua and the Caribbean? . . ."
The book hasn't received much notice outside DeRamus' home state. "many of the stories take place in Michigan, especially Detroit, though anybody interested in the fight for freedom would sympathize with DeRamus' subjects," Michael Jackman noted in Detroit's Metro Times.
Adera Causey, curator of education at the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, Tenn., had this caution: "DeRamus does an excellent job presenting these and other fascinating fugitive tales. Unfortunately, perhaps due to her enthusiasm for the topic, she far too frequently employs florid prose and utilizes homey or anachronistic analogies that are ill placed at best (and at times are simply distracting)."
June O. Nicholson, Pamela J. Creedon, Wanda S. Lloyd and Pamela J. Johnson are co-editors of "The Edge of Change: Women in the 21st Century Press" (University of Illinois Press, $75 cloth, $25 paper)
The editors of this book, along with women whose stories are told inside, are gathering at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Thursday and Friday. for "a thoughtful, wide-ranging conversation about the past, present and future status of women in journalism." Katharine Weymouth, publisher and CEO of the Washington Post, kicks off the event on Thursday evening. The event is to be liveblogged on Poynter.org.
In its 33 chapters, this compilation addresses the subject of women in the news media from multiple angles. Lloyd, executive editor of the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser, explained to Journal-isms how it came together:
"Five years ago, when I was executive director at the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, I got a call from Pam Johnson (formerly editor of the Arizona Republic, now director of the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri), who was then at the Poynter Institute. She and two women journalism professors were putting together a book about women in journalism. They asked me to be the fourth person on the project.
"Our mission was to get women from many walks in journalism to write essays on topics that we would define. That was the start of 'The Edge of Change.'
"We did most of our work by phone and email, with just a couple of face-to-face meetings between us. We held brainstorming meetings at ASNE conventions, where we knew some of the women we would want to reflect in the book would be present, and we also used that time to pick their collective brains about the direction we were taking. We met once at Poynter to go over some details, and to start a dialogue with Poynter President Karen Dunlap.
"But most important, week after week after week, we held Friday-morning conference calls (7 a.m. Central Time) to plan, discuss, brainstorm and make assignments for who would do what — writing, editing, book proposal, book publisher ideas and calls to potential contributors. Then we were pretty much on our own to execute the plans individually, with June Nicholson at Virginia Commonwealth University being the strong point person to pull things together and keep us on track. Our fourth partner was Pam Creedon of the University of Iowa.
"We knew we wanted one of journalism's stars to write the foreword and we were excited when Ellen Goodman accepted the challenge to do that. It was a huge leap toward success with the project to get Ellen on board.
"I took on the diversity chapter, 'Beyond Gender Diversity,' and made calls to potential contributors, plus Dorothy Gilliam, who wrote essays and conducted interviews for 'Historical and Contemporary Perspectives' at the front of the book. One of her interviews was with feminist Gloria Steinem. I wrote the first diversity essay, 'Civil Rights and Searching for Community Values,' and we contacted Catalina Camia, Deb Price and Arlene Morgan to write the chapters that followed.
"We knew that we wanted the book to end with a forward look toward the future of journalism. That became increasingly difficult as the 'future' kept looking different.
"As for our partnership with Poynter, we have signed an agreement to give all proceeds from the book to Poynter. Our hope is that Poynter will use these resources to develop training content around topics of women in journalism, and will also be able to support grants for women to be trained in all areas."
Robert E. Pierre, local weekend editor at the Washington Post, and Jon Jeter, his former Post colleague, have "A Day Late and a Dollar Short: High Hopes and Deferred Dreams in Obama's 'Postracial' America" (Wiley, $25.95). "This book is not particularly preoccupied with Barack Obama," Pierre said in a book-tour appearance televised on C-Span. "We really wanted to tell the story of us — what does it mean to be black in the age of Obama? And Obama becomes sort of peripheral to that process of asking who we are. What's black? What is race?"
The book begins with the story that sold the book to the publisher, Jeter said, one that traced the life of Pierre's grandmother Daisy Mae, "who grew up on a sugarcane plantation and turned 79 just after Election Day. . . Faith had seen her through, certain a better day would come. It did, though it came slowly." The night Obama won, the headline in the St. Mary and Franklin Banner-Tribune was, "McCain favored by state voters," with the Obama victory a sidebar saying he was to begin receiving intelligence briefings.
Jeter, a former Johannesburg correspondent for the Post, closes the book with the story of Lee Alexander, a 28-year-old South African who now lives in New York. Alexander fears that the election of Obama will be like the ascension of Nelson Mandela was in South Africa: full of pride but raising false hopes.
Other stories touch on unions, health care, interracial families, young African American men, schools and the inability of well-off African Americans to lift up others. The book was published in January, though it has received surprisingly few reviews.
Wilbert Rideau, author of "In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance" (Knopf, $26.95) has been called the nation's most famous prison journalist, certainly the most famous African American one. He was convicted in Louisiana of first-degree murder for killing a woman during a 1961 bank robbery, when he was 19.
"After a trial in which his defense team did not call a single witness, Mr. Rideau was sent to America’s most notorious prison, Angola, and put on death row," Dwight Garner wrote in the New York Times. "That’s where this memoir, a soul-stirring account of one man’s long road to redemption, begins in earnest. In Angola, Mr. Rideau became a reader, and then a writer. He eventually became the editor of The Angolite, the prison’s magazine. He was the first black editor of a prison magazine in America and also, under some enlightened wardens, the first to edit one that was essentially uncensored.
"Under Mr. Rideau, The Angolite ran painstaking exposés: about sexual life at the prison, about poor medical services, about a cruelly malfunctioning electric chair. Mr. Rideau was good at what he did. The Angolite was the first prison publication to be nominated for a National Magazine Award, and he won a George Polk Award, one of the highest honors in American journalism. He became a correspondent for 'Fresh Air' on National Public Radio, and was a co-director of a documentary, 'The Farm: Angola, USA'” that was nominated for an Academy Award."
Asked why journalists of color in particular should be interested in this book, Rideau told Journal-isms, "After I was turned down to write for The Angolite in 1973, I read in the local newspaper that prison administrators said there were no blacks on the staff because they couldn't find any who could write. I had to start a competing prison publication and get published in mainstream newspapers to prove them wrong, I became the nation's first black editor of a prison publication in 1976, at a time when there were no black editors of non-ethnic publications in this country. Unfortunately, the mindset that held back then has not entirely disappeared even to this day, and journalists of color are still radically underrepresented in newsrooms and editorial offices."
After his 2005 release at age 63, Rideau was unable to find work in journalism. "I always knew, given my high-profile and the politics of crime, that I would have to be self-employed," he said in 2006. Linda LaBranche, who helped secure his release and became his wife, told Journal-isms, "He stays busy speaking at legal conferences and CLE training seminars around the country, offering his insights on attorney/client relations and giving advice on how to improve them. And he is a consultant for capital defense teams around the country." The "CLE" reference is to continuing legal education.
Investigative reporter Steve Weinberg wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Perhaps no book written by an inmate has ever conveyed so much factual and emotional information about day-to-day prison life. The cornucopia of information rarely seems overwhelming because Rideau is a first-rate stylist, a man of letters despite sparse formal education."
Garland L. Thompson
Garland L. Thompson, veteran journalist, former Baltimore Sun editorial writer and columnist and contributing editor at US Black Engineer & Information Technology magazine, has written "Unheralded but Unbowed: Black Scientists & Engineers who Changed the World" (CreateSpace, $21.95, paper).
Thompson told Journal-isms, " 'Unheralded but Unbowed: Black Scientists & Engineers' is my contribution to the history of blacks in science and technology. It's not a book of profiles, though profile information is included. Rather, it's a book of historical reportage and analysis, tracing the rise of black access to top-level careers in the Knowledge Enterprise against the backdrop of blacks' long struggle for equality of rights and opportunity in American society. It centers on 23 top Black Engineers of the Year but it's really not about the awards series, either. Instead, it uses the life stories of the . . . winners to illustrate particular points about black history."
Referring to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields, Thompson continued, " 'Unheralded but Unbowed' is not a textbook, though. It's written in lay language for a broader audience, because this era is full of opportunities for young black achievers to go into the STEM fields, but few in our community can see the what's happening. You know the story: the face of technological advance in America looks extremely white, with a few super-smart Asians thrown in, when you see it through the lens of popular media. I've spent so many years working with USBE and the BEYA awards program, and I know the real story, but it's hard to cut through the static these days. So I put together a book that traces most of the history of blacks' rise in the technical professions through the 20th to the 21st centuries, sketching in the background of geopolitical challenge in worldwide conflicts and the Cold War as I traced the progress of civil rights in America.
"There's lots of reportage about discoveries and technological exploits, to be sure. Career Communications Group, publishers of USBE and promoters of the [Black Engineer of the Year Awards], has the most extensive archive documenting black accomplishments in the technology enterprise in existence, and I've been about the only person allowed to go through it. So a lot of the book's reportage about technology advances developed by Black Americans will not be found anywhere else."
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