Yang Jisheng's Tombstone, the Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962, is not the kind of book I could rate based on nothing more than how much I did or did not like it. The subject matter is much too deep for that and the dangers the author endured to write this phenomenal work far too real.
Jisheng's account as presented to us in the English-language edition of Tombstone is a single-volume 629-page condensed version of the original Chinese-language 1,200-page 2-volume set first published in Hong Kong a decade ago. There's no need to question what may or may not have been lost in translation because Jisheng provided so much fact-based data with which to work in the original publication.
Moreover, Tombstone is much more than just a triumph of historical writing. It represents in many ways the triumph of a movement to shed light on "the worst famine in human history." As an integral part of that movement: "Yang got people who experienced the famine to describe it in their own words. He found local journalists who'd witnessed and reported on murders and starvation and got them to write their memoirs. He located and interviewed local implementers of the fatal policies. He got surviving resisters to recount their experiences" (pp. X-XI).
Magnitude of the Horror
It took a while for me to adjust my brain to magnitude of the fact that the horror described actually occurred less than 70 years ago. In that hellish avoidable atrocity an estimated 30 to 45 million people died within a four-year period basically because of authoritarian arrogance and a total disregard for the freedom of individuals. Yet my shocked incredulity as a reader is nothing compared to the painful awakening Jisheng experienced as a member of the Communist Youth League proudly committed to promoting the policies of Mao Zedong's "Great Leap Forward" initiative only to discover those very policies in 1959 caused his father's death.
Ironically, it was while working in the late 1960s as an official journalist that he learned "how 'news' was manufactured, and how news organs served as the mouthpiece of political power." (Very different dynamics from what U.S. President Donald Trump's so often proclaims as "fake news.") However, it was not until the late 1970s that the awful deadly scope of the great famine became apparent:
"Now we knew that it was a man-made disaster that had caused tens of millions of people to starve to death... In my effort to shake off deception, I came to understand the social background of my father's death and to reflect more profoundly on his life..." (pp. 11-12).
That "deception" has remained hard for a lot of Chinese to shake off in part because of many official's refusal to acknowledge the famine for what it was and insist on referring to it in such euphemistic terms as "the three years of natural disaster," or "the years of difficulties." Another seems to be to avoid the appearance of discrediting the legacy of People's Republic of China founder Zedong.
Tombstone is not easy reading by any means. Where Jisheng narrates the actions leading up to the abuses of power, and fear of the same, which led up to the famine, he is straightforward and factually dense. That is a quality hardcore historians relish but average readers might find less entertaining. And in a way that is the point.
Jisheng's objective as a journalist is to share awareness of an event which it would seem impossible for the entire world not to know about already, but which it appears relatively few actually do. As a human being and the son of foster-parents who gave all they had to raise him and support his education goals, he is determined to honor those parents and the dozens of millions who lost their lives to the famine. Therefore, the title selected for the book: "A tombstone is a memory made concrete." (p. 3)
The result his investigative labors is indispensible documentation of officials' motives for allowing the tragedy to occur; and, how many hypocritically gorged themselves on the good life while entire villages literally starved to death. Yet such documentation is balanced with reports difficult to read for a very different reason. In short, Jisheng does not censor the stories of people describing acts of cannibalism which they either witnessed or committed themselves.
We learn about: people in villages who wait for strangers to come along so they can kill and eat them, an adolescent sister who kills and eats her younger brother after their parents have died, people who wait a few hours after funerals so they can dig up corpses and consume them. These and other actions seem too extreme to believe they really occurred in a civilized nation. But we are aware now that they did. Some people even describe which parts of the human body they found most delectable.
If you're a fan of the movie Bone Tomahawk, starring Kurt Russell, Lili Simmons, and Patrick Wilson, and you did not flinch watching the scene where "Troglodytes" split a man in half to eat him, then the above accounts of cannibalism might not bother you too much. Anyone who did flinch, throw up, scream, or faint, can empathize to some meaningful degree with those who survived the horror of the Great Famine and with Jisheng's determination to tell their collective story.
The Record of This Particular Memory
The importance of the history provided in Tombstone is evident enough in its own right, or at least it should be. "Human memory," the author tells us, "is the ladder on which a country and a people advance. We must remember not only the good things, but also the bad; the bright spots, but also the darkness" (p. 3).
The record of this particular memory is a significant indicator of the dangers that can befall populations which opt for authoritarian rule by a single individual, or small group of individuals, versus government by a robust engaged citizenry exercising some form of democracy. Even more than pitting one political ideology against another, it is about accepting some share of communal responsibility that automatically comes with living in any society hoping to make great strides forward, or just to maintain for its citizens peace, security, and decently-stocked refrigerators.
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
To fully appreciate reading former Savannah mayor Otis S. Johnson's From 'N Word' to Mr. Mayor, Experiencing the American Dream, you might want to note some important clues he shares at the book's beginning. The first is his identification of himself as a "scholar activist." Take that for exactly what it sounds like: he has long been devoted to the cultivation of knowledge within himself and others, as well as to the reversal of heinous social and political injustices.
A second shared hint is his struggle over whether to spell out the word "nigger" in this book's title or employ the more politically-accepted abbreviation. Following his publisher's suggestion, he chose the latter but felt the original more "symbolic of my struggle as a black male in American society." With that in mind, the book in general, he states, "documents my struggle to achieve the American Dream while having to confront the vicissitudes of being black in a racist society" (p. 11)
A Timeline of Powerful History
The above words may sound, to some, like little more than sensationalistic jargon employed to grab attention. It would be more accurate to describe them as precise when considering Johnson was born in 1942 and, from the beginning until the present era, his experience of the American dream has unfolded along a timeline of powerful history-shaping events on personal, national, and international levels.
For its precisely-balanced combination of social history and personal memoir, Johnson's book under any title is one of the most valuable written in recent years by an African-American man, and one of the most important for any time by a native of Savannah, Georgia. Being the former dean of Savannah State University's College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, and current Scholar in Residence and Professor Emeritus that he is, Dr. Johnson's text often reflects the language of his intellectual leanings. That allows him to place his life and his times within an analytical context similar to important works by some of his scholarly heroes, like Harlem Renaissance strategist W.E.B. Du Bois and political scientist Hanes Walton Jr.
Yet, at the same time, he is a very down-to-earth writer who engages readers with stories of his family's Gullah culture heritage, what it meant to lose his father at an early age, learning about racism for the first time, falling in love and getting his heart broken, discovering the world as a young sailor, and confronting the challenges of leadership within a demographically-evolving community.
The city of Savannah and the state of Georgia as Johnson experienced them while growing into maturity during the 1960s were much like America at that time as a whole. African Americans with many White Americans alongside them were calling for an end to Jim Crow apartheid and battling against the system by staging public sit-ins, conducting protest marches, and targeting racial barriers ripe for breaking.
Of his position in this history, Johnson writes, "My life has been full of being in places where I shocked non-blacks with my presence" (p. 88). One such place was on the campus of Armstrong State College (now Atlantic University) where in 1963 he famously became the first African American to enroll in the school. Another was the campus of the University of Georgia, Athens, where he was the first Black from Savannah to attend that institution. At UGA, he walked out of one class after a white professor discussing the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision proclaimed the only reason African-Americans wanted to integrate schools in Georgia was to marry white women.
Most of the kind of anti-racism activism Johnson chronicles is to be expected given the time-frame. In his chronicling, however, he provides important snapshots of black leaders in Savannah, like Wesley Wallace "W.W." Law and Hosea Williams, in political action. But his reportage goes beyond the dynamics of blackness clashing with whiteness.
Through his account of how segregation laws prevented Whites from attending the historically black Savannah State College, founded some 45 years prior to the establishment of Armstrong (as a junior college) in 1935, he demonstrates how racism has caused grievous injury on both sides of the color line. It has also been extremely absurd when considering that in order for him to become the first African-American to integrate Armstrong in 1963 for sake of racial progress in the name of democracy, he had to switch from Savannah State's senior college program curriculum to Armstrong's junior college curriculum.
Navigating Major Changes
Early in From 'N Word' to Mr. Mayor (2016, Donning Company Publishers) Johnson discusses three types of black leadership attributed to sociologist Daniel C. Thompson (author of Sociology of the Black Experience) and with which many readers of African-American literature are familiar: "...the Uncle Tom...racial diplomat...and race advocate" (p. 48). He places himself closer to the third category but more as a "human rights advocate" who believes the following: "'We are all God's children,' but I live in an institutional and structural racist society. 'Self-preservation is the first law of nature'" (p. 49).
By the time Dr. Johnson took office in 2004 as the sixty-fourth mayor of Savannah, and its second consecutive black mayor (after the late Floyd Adams), the city was well on its way to navigating major changes in its multicultural and economic make-up. His determination to meet that challenge at every level resulted in 2006 in a major heart attack experienced while attending the National Conference of Black Mayors in Memphis, Tennessee. Consequently, he writes, "How I approached the job of being mayor during the period before and the period after my heart attack were two very different periods" (p. 291).
As it pertained to his labors as mayor, Johnson's professed sense of racial "self-preservation" took a back seat to his role as a servant leader committed to advocating "for improving conditions that impact people of all races and classes" (p. 261). In the wake of the Great Recession that would create chaos in American cities during his second term, he worked with city council members to help Savannah avoid the kind of disastrous lay-offs and cancellation of services which occurred in cities like Atlanta and Camden. As he points out:
"In 2011, we were still in the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. We had to find a way to continue providing all of the services to citizens with about $8 million less than we had in 2010...while the 2011 budget was extremely difficult, it was balanced with minimal impact to our citizens and without an increase in property taxes. That was due to strong leadership, clear priorities, and tough resolve by this council, which chose not to spend wildly when times were good" (p. 325).
Candidates lining up for the 2020 presidential race in America could take a few helpful lessons from this former mayor's playbook. One might be committing to running a campaign based on proven abilities and a strategic comprehensive vision rather than one based on negative personal attacks. In fact, though he won his first election to mayor before former U.S. President Barack H. Obama won his first election to the White House, their campaign styles bore striking similarities. (The president and mayor met when Mr. Obama visited Savannah in 2010.)
At times, From 'N Word' to Mr. Mayor reads a bit too much like a college paper, or lecture, as Johnson parenthetically informs readers where he will continue the thread of a particular subject or on which page he has already discussed it. This is easy enough to overlook, and even smile about, when remembering these pages are coming to us from a master scholar at whose literary feet we are fortunate indeed to sit and learn as much as possible.
Author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
William Anderson’s The Wild Man from Sugar Creek: the Political Career of Eugene Talmadge is one the most engrossing and compelling portraits of a complex American political figure in American literature. It was, in addition, an essential source of the biographical information and historical insights needed to complete the essay titled “The Bridge and the Monument: A Tale of Two Legacies,” published in the book The American Poet Who Went Home Again.
Mr. Talmadge was a controversial figure when he was elected governor of the state Georgia (USA) four times (he died shortly after the fourth election). He has remained one in the twenty-first century while residents of the city of Savannah repeatedly debate the wisdom of retaining or removing his name––so indelibly associated with white supremacy– on or from the magnificent bridge spanning the Savannah River from the city’s downtown area to Hutchinson Island.
The Eugene Talmadge we meet in the pages of The Wild Man from Sugar Creek is a fierce champion of the supposed underdog white political demographic he adopts as his constituency/tribe. To them he famously declared: “You all got only three friends in this world: The Lord God Almighty, the Sears Roebuck catalog and Eugene Talmadge. And you can only vote for one of them.” They heard him and many apparently believed him.
We also meet in this biography Talmadge the vehement die-hard racist who advised white citizens of Georgia to follow his lead by “flash[ing] to the world the news [on September 10, 1942] that Georgia recognizes white supremacy and is a white man’s state.” That declaration and many others like it make it difficult to win any arguments in favor of keeping Talmadge’s name on the bridge that currently bears it.
Putting Talmadge’s Wild Legacy in Contemporary Context
The value of Anderson’s unflinching report, however, goes beyond regional or even national policies governing the names of public facilities and spaces. It speaks boldly to the international dilemma of how best to correct grievous historical atrocities of the past.
Talmadge’s legacy and the lessons which may be gleaned from it cannot be ignored as members of diverse cultural groups attempt to establish peaceful coexistence in a twenty-first-century world flooded with political and social discontent, be they due to wars, unyielding immigration issues, the wealth divide, gender concerns, or cyber disruptions.
Truthfully, on many levels Talmadge’s political strategy was not very different from that of the current POTUS Donald Trump’s when it comes to over-emphasizing the plight of one demographic to the exclusion of America’s cross-cultural population as a whole. That observation circles back to the question of what lessons should contemporary citizens take from the xenophobia-inspired rise of The Wild Man from Sugar Creek and which of his pronounced values and practices should be vigorously denounced. The answers should be clear enough but a thorough reading of Anderson’s expert volume can help make them more so.
Aberjhani is an American poet, historian, essayist, editor, journalist, social critic, and cautious artist. He recently completed work on a nonfiction book about cultural arts, race relations, immigration, and human trafficking in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia (USA). He is currently writing a play about southern traditions and legacies.
What was at the center of Sartre’s sometimes mercurial passions and obsessions? Perhaps it was less a rejection of personalities and movements that it was a devotion to something which likely was not always apparent: the facilitation of an organic dialogue on how best to steer humanity toward acknowledgement of the ways it engineered unspeakable tragedies and why it is imperative we accept collective responsibility for correcting them.
To read part 1 of this article please click here.
In this, he was much more a world citizen, or internationalist, than a nationalist. Cohen-Solal demonstrates as much through accounts of his physical and psychic immersion into different cultural and political environments as a traveler, and through applied adjustments of his literary focus as an engaged philosopher. Referring to the aftermath of a 1945 trip to the United States:
“What Is Literature?, Anti-Semite and Jew, The Respectful Prostitute, these are some of Sartre’s works that in the months to come, deal with the reality he has discovered in America. His recent awareness of the black problem [Jim Crow racism] is enhanced by his friendship with the American writer Richard Wright, whose autobiographical novel, Black Boy, was published in March 1945” (Cohen-Solal, p. 242).
And, as philosopher and social justice advocate Cornel West points out in his introduction to the biography, despite any criticisms of the man:
“Sartre will always be remembered as the most visible and influential European intellectual who put a limelight on the struggles against U.S. and French imperialism in Africa and Asia and against white supremacy in the United Sates. This is no small matter and it took great courage to do so. His support of freedom struggles in Morocco, Algeria, Vietnam, Cuba, South Africa, and the United States—regardless of the outcomes that resulted—was heroic” (West, p. xviii).
The book publishing industry being what it is in 2017, marketplace titles are often the result of sensational headlines or celebrity personalities rather than the value represented by the quality of a manuscript’s substance. As such, in addition to Cohen-Solal and Cornel West, readers of the American trade paperback centennial edition of Sartre: A Life can thank The New Press for its proven dedication to principles and practices that support the publication of books based on their intrinsic merit. Doing so is not about worshipping someone like-Paul Sartre––whose closest contemporary counterpart may be the African-American Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison—as a cultural icon. It is about maintaining access to the kind of literature on which humanity depends to help preserve whatever hard-won rights and freedoms still exist.
Among the most beguiling of Sartre’s diagnostic tools of philosophical inquiry was how he chose to employ the biographies of others, such as Jean Genet’s and Gustave Flaubert’s, as mirrors. Rather than emulating their approaches to literary form, metaphysical paradoxes, or political conundrums, he used them to “think against himself,” as if his intellect were a knife, or sword, and theirs whetstones upon which he sharpened concepts and strategies. It is possible Cohen-Solal, though she indicates otherwise, has done the same in regard to Sartre with her masterful examination of one of the 20th century’s most engaged, courageous, and influential creative thinkers.
Aberjhani is an American poet, historian, essayist, editor, journalist, social critic, and cautious artist. His many honors include the Choice Academic Title of the Year Award, the Notable Book of the Year Award, Outstanding Journalist Award, and Poet of the Year Award. He is currently completing final edits on a work of creative nonfiction about the cultural arts, race relations, immigration, and human trafficking in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia.
All writers to one extent or another owe a debt of gratitude to writers in general because so much of what of we produce as authors represents a response to what we first experience as readers. Call it the yin and yang of a literary persuasion stemming from a precipitation of language and meaning that storms into our lives and then evolves to become part of the creative cycle itself.
The most obvious example of such literary call and response is that of the book review, now among the most established of aesthetic exercises in cultural debate, affirmation, combat, and reportage. It also just happens to be one of my pen’s favorite indulgences. In fact, my passion for reviewing books has taken many forms: journal entries, poems, interviews, muted ramblings to myself, letter exchanges, etc.
The richness of authorial exchange has fed my life in many ways and for that reason––as well as to pass the joy on to readers––I am happy to launch the new Literary Persuasion section here at Bright Skylark Literary Productions. Those who were dismayed to see my reviews of their books disappear from Amazon earlier this year will be glad to Know I plan to post as many of them here as possible.
What follows below is actually not a book review but a short discussion (previously posted on AuthorsDen) on what it means to be an author in this age of 21st century digital wonders. It belongs here because it illustrates the importance of maintaining the tradition of reviewing books at a time when the very nature of publishing remains in a state of flux on virtually every level.
The Rise of the 21st Century Digital Author
It’s a curious thing to call oneself an author in this early half of the twenty-first century. The word now means so much more than it did when classic authors such as William Shakespeare, Frederick Douglass, or Anais Nin made their claims to literary fame. Although their works may have been as emotionally, politically, and ideologically informed as that of the accomplished twenty-first century author, a number of major differences separate them from their modern counterparts.
The word “technology” might quickly come to mind for some, but, in fact, many of our literary heroes were directly connected to the technological advances of their time and some even owned private printing presses to ensure the publication of their works. Without doubt, few, if any, could have imagined the invention of the Internet or its impact on every aspect of literary culture, from the publication of electronic books to blog tours across the net. But at least two things in particular help distinguish the 21st century digital author from his or her classic counterpart:
NUMBER 1–– is familiarity with the many forms in which books are now presented to the reading public–– through traditional publishing, independent author services, eBooks, audio books, blog-books, media downloads, serialized web posts, graphic novels, film adaptations, etc. Along with this comes some awareness of how each of these forms helps cultivate different types of reading audiences.
AND NUMBER 2–– the level of engagement and communication with local, national, and global communities through an established literary presence enhanced by digital social networks. This is a particularly important quality because it has to do not only with readership, but an individual consciousness that keeps an eye on the crossing cultural currents of the world community; and, with a literary sensibility that fosters some sense of camaraderie within that human species known as authors.
Celebrating Creative Thinkers International’s 5th Anniversary