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Notes of a curious mind

Category: Biography (Page 1 of 3)

“What is happening in this country? That’s the most important question” – The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

James Baldwin was one of the most captivating speakers, one of the most important voices of the civil rights era.  He died 30 years ago, in December 1987 but he remains one of the most powerful and insightful writers in American history.

The Fire Next Time is an astounding autobiographical account written as a letter from Baldwin to his nephew, James. It goes back to Baldwin’s teenage years as Christian minister and his departure from the church and the church culture. He recounts a dinner/meeting he had with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, an African American political and religious movement which supported the creation of a separate state for African- Americans. He pictures America as seen through the eyes of the black people, the difficulties of black life in a white dominant country.

“What is happening in this country? That’s the most important question”, he says.

“I have always been struck in America, by an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable organic connection between his public stance and his private life. This failure of the private life has always the most devastating effect on American public conduct and on black –white relations. If Americans were not so terrified of their private shelf, they won’t never become so dependent on what they call “The Negro Problem”. This problem which they invented in order to safeguard their purity, has made of them criminals and monsters and it is destroying them.”

Is James Baldwin still relevant today?

During his speech in the famous 1965 Cambridge debate with William F. Buckley, Baldwin mentioned Robert Kennedy’s statement that “it is conceivable in the next forty years a Negro to achieve the same position that my brother has.”

“It sounded like a very emancipated statement”, said Baldwin, but the real question, he added, is not when there will be the first black president in America. The crucial question is what country he is going to be president of.

In 2008, Barack Obama became the first black president of the United States. How did this change things for African Americans?

In a beautiful and emotional letter to his son, 50 years after Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Ta-Nehisi Coates, exposes America’s racial dilemma. He shows just how much the country’s racist past is still very much alive today, and how much it affects the way the black Americans think about themselves and their lives.

 “The Story of the Negro in America, is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”

Baldwin is lively and bold, passionate and deeply humane. He does not mince words. He condemns the American dream as a nightmare. He points out the contradiction of the United States as the leader of the free world while the battle for racial justice continued at home.

“If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfilment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”

Take yourself to see Raoul Peck’s powerful documentary  I Am Not Your Negro,  a portrait of James Baldwin. It is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and the words are from Remember This House, Baldwin’s unfinished book about the three freedom-campaign activists, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers.  Very highly recommended.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Every time I browse through the selves or I pick up an autobiography or a memoir, I wonder … why? Why this man /woman has the need to write the story of his / her life. What’s his /her motive?

Writing the story of one’s life it is challenging; writing about your life must be one of the hardest things that one has to do. Autobiographies is one of most beloved forms of writing. A good autobiography can be fun and fascinating.  A good autobiography must also be brutally honest.

An autobiography can take several forms, historical, philosophical, or poetic. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is an experimental memoir, a blend of autobiographical writing, literary realism, analysis, and philosophical quotations and comments.

At a job interview at a university, three man sitting across from me at a table. On my cv it says that I am currently working on a book about the colour blue ….. One of the mean asks? “Why blue?” People ask me this question often. I never know how to respond. We don’t get to choose what or whom we love. We just don’t get to choose.

Bluets is a personal exploration, a captivating, candid, funny at times, book about the blue colour, about what blue means to Nelson, where blue is identified with love, loss, depression, sex, loneliness, shame, pain.

It is easier, of course, to find dignity in one’s solitude. Loneliness is a solitude with a problem. Cn blue solve the problem, or can at least keep me company within it? – No, not exactly. It can not love me that way; it has no arms. But sometimes I do feel its presence to be a sort of wink- Here you are again, it says, and so am I.

Bluets is written in fragments, the way Wittgenstein did, in order to think sequentially. Some of the fragments may seem district but together they create a unified, intense and beautiful narrative

The Dream of a Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa

This is a fascinated story of a complex man who lived an extraordinary life as a hero of human rights only to die as a traitor in the eyes of British officials.

Roger Casement was born in Kingstown, County Dublin, to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother. He was secretly baptised into the Catholic faith by his mother at the age of four but for most of his life, he considered himself as a Protestant and only a few weeks before his death, he was formally converted to Catholicism. In his youth, Casement worked briefly as a clerk for a Liverpool shipping line, before he moved to Africa in 1884 to work with Henry Morton Stanley, where later as British Consul, began investigations into slave labour in Congo. His report on the atrocities to the indigenous people by the Belgian Force Publique was published in 1904 and it caused a public outrage all across Europe.

In 1910, Roger Casement was sent by the British government into the Amazon jungle to investigate alleged abuse of workers in the rubber industry in the region of the river Putumayo, a no man’s land between Peru and Colombia that today belongs to Colombia.  At the end of the nineteen century, a Peruvian merchant called Julio César Arana, taking advantage of the rubber boom, begun to collect wild rubber in the disputed region of Putumayo. Before long his Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company became million-dollar company and Arana decided to registered it in London in order to attract more capital.  Soon, the alleged atrocities to indigenous populations and to British subjects, such as the Barbadians, by the employers of Casa Arana, forced the British Parliament to order an investigation.

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Tα αστραφτερά πεδία της Σώτης Τριανταφύλλου

Δυσκολεύομαι να χαρακτηρίσω το τελευταίο βιβλίο της Σώτης Τριανταφύλλου. Ως συνήθως είναι πολύ διαφορετικό από τα προηγούμενα.  Η ίδια γράφει ότι είναι μια περιδιάβαση σε πόλεις, μουσικές, βιβλία.  Σημειώσεις για την πολιτική, τις διεθνείς σχέσεις, την πολυπολιτισμικότητα.  Δεν είναι ημερολόγιο, ούτε κάποιου είδους βιογραφία. Είναι ένα βιβλίο-αμάλγαμα με σκέψεις, αναμνήσεις, ένα βιβλίο περιπλανήσεων, φυσικών και νοητών.

Σκέφτομαι αν μου άρεσε. Όσο περισσότερο το σκέφτομαι τόσο περισσότερο νομίζω η έκφραση ‘μου άρεσε’, δεν ταιριάζει στα Αστραφτερά Πεδία, δεν ταιριάζει στα βιβλία της Σώτης Τριανταφύλλου, είναι λάθος. Κοιτάζω πάλι τις σημειώσεις μου, είναι πολλές και πυκνές.  Υπάρχει κατι που με ενώνει με την Σώτη, δεν την ξέρω, αλλά είναι σαν να την ξέρω,  τη νιώθω τόσο κοντά μου, που πάντα την λέω Σώτη. Ίσως είναι το γράψιμο της,  απλό, ειλικρινές  και άμεσο, σε φέρνει κοντά της, σε γοητεύει.

Ίσως να είναι κάποιες κοινές εμπειρίες και παραστάσεις, στα βιβλία της φαίνεται να περιγράφει κομμάτια της δικής μου ζωής.  Ίσως  να είναι η περιπλάνηση, τα κοινά αναγνώσματα, το rock n roll. Στο τέλος δεν εχει σημασία, το σημαντικό είναι ότι η Σώτη μπορεί να συγκινεί, να προβληματίζει, σε προκαλεί να σκέφτεσαι, να μπεις στην ουσία των πράγματων. Αυτό το τελευταίο βέβαια μόνο αν θέλησεις να αφήσεις πίσω σου τη φασαρία και το σκουπίδι του ημερήσιου τύπου και των social media και μπεις στο κόπο  να κουραστείς για να σκεφτείς.


Αυτό το σημείωμα γράφτηκε τις μεταμεσονύχτιες ώρες. Μόλις είχα διαβάσει ένα μακροσκελές άρθρο του Jan-Werner Müller για τον λαϊκισμό και τους λαϊκιστές, στις Ηνωμένες Πολιτείες και στην Ευρώπη.  Αντί να κοιμηθώ σκέφτηκα τη Σώτη.

Το ξαναδιάβασα το πρωί και αποφάσισα να το αφήσω όπως ήταν. Ένα μεταμεσονύχτιο σημείωμα.

The New Russia by Mikhail Gorbachev

On 9 August 1999, Yeltsin announced the appointment of Vladimir Putin as acting prime minister and named him as his successor. It was then that the ‘Putin Era’ of post-Soviet history began. Putin, had assumed the presidency in very difficult circumstances and during his first years in the presidency, Gorbachev gave him, his “not unconditional but unwavering” support.  He was truly convinced that Putin was committed to democratic governance and had no intention in establishing some kind of authoritative regime. His conviction didn’t last long.  In 2004, in Putin’s second term, it was already clear that Russia was becoming an authoritarian country.

cover80474-mediumIn this last book, The New Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev argues that with the abandonment of Perestroika, the policy of shock therapy brought about an abrupt polarization of society in Russia. There was a sudden privatization of 225,000 or so state-owned businesses, a sudden release of price and currency controls, withdrawal of state subsidies, and trade liberalization, which provoked the rise of Russia’s oligarchic class.  The rise of Putin in power, Gorbachev claims, has further corrupted the achievements of perestroika and created an authoritative and corrupted political system which offers no future for Russia.

Since the late 1980s, Gorbachev has been trying to develop and apply to the conditions of a rapidly changing world. A New Thinking that “incorporates the important principles of international cooperation” is what is needed, he argues. New Thinking made possible to put an end to the Gold War, and it is exactly that that kind of thinking that the world still very much needs today.

“We need a new model of development”, says Gorbachev. “Our world is in a major transition to a new symbiosis of peoples” and this gives rise to pressing and perplexing global problems, such as poverty and inequality, terrorism and the elimination of nuclear weapons, and climate change.  He also provides an insight in regional problems, including the Ukraine conflict, Egypt and Syria, and Russia’s relations with Japan.

“History is not always fated”, says the optimist Gorbachev. There are “always alternatives, alternative solutions”, that can be found to the atmosphere of dialogue and cooperation.

Gorbachev has provided us an insightful analysis of the profound changes in the Russian society over the past 25 years. The New Russia includes letters, interviews, articles and publications, published in the past 20 years, material useful not only to the historians, but also to any concerned citizen.

The New Russia by Mikhail Gorbachev, Polity Press, 400 pages.

net galleyDisclaimer: Maquina Lectora received  a free uncorrected digitised proof from the publisher via NetGalley. No other compensation was received for this review. All images appear here by courtesy of the publisher or NetGalley.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage” says 40 year-old journalist at the Atlantic, to his teenager son. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor. Enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. “It must be rape so regular as to be industrial.”

Between the World and Me is an open letter, addressed to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ son, Samori. It is a powerful and emotional journey that starts with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man by a white Ferguson police officer. Learning that Brown’s killers would go free, Samori went to his room and cried.  Ta-Nehisi did not try to comfort him, he told him what his parents tried to teach him when he was growing up in a West Baltimore neighbourhood dominated by violence and drugs: that this “is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”


He tried to tell Samori how one should live within a black body, with in a country lost in the Dream, where the Dream is associated with the “other world” of suburbia, where people who think they are white live in “perfect houses with nice lawns. …. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.”

Coates recalls Prince Jones‘ death, a friend of his when his was a student at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., at the hands of an undercover police officer. He recalls the fear, the rage he felt, “the old gravity of West Baltimore, that condemned [him] to the schools, the streets, the void.”  It was this gravity and awareness that left him cold and unmoved, when in Prince’s funeral the people asked for forgiveness for the officer.  Forgiveness is irrelevant, Prince “was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.

This premise, that the blacks in America are living in permanent fear, is the underlying idea of Coates’s story. It is a “bodily fear that lies at the heart of the daily lived experience of racism, and the mind-trick” people play by saying that the racism isn’t real.” (1) There are two  great divisions in America, he says, and they are not the rich and poor, but white and blacks. And the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.

A blurb from Toni Morrison declares the book, “required reading” and Coates, the heir to James Baldwin. Following James Baldwin’s steps, Coates also went to Paris. Like Baldwin, he does not see Paris as an escape, as one cannot escape from what the “whole society has decided to make you, a nothing”.

With extraordinary, beautiful prose, Coates exposes America’s racial dilemma. He shows us just how much the country’s racist past is still very much alive today, and how much it affects the way the black Americans think about themselves and their lives. That does not mean that one must see them as permanent victims. As James Baldwin said  in an interview in the Paris Review “…it seemed to me that if I took the role of a victim then I was simply reassuring the defenders of the status quo; as long as I was a victim they could pity me and add a few more pennies to my home-relief check….”

Ta-Nehisi Coates warns his son that he has “been cast into a race in which the wind is always at  your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life.” But he wishes for him to feel no need to constrict himself to make other people comfortable.  He would have him to be a conscious citizen in this terrible and beautiful world”.

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