I always feel absurd writing these little reviews when what I am reviewing is a work of genius, a masterpiece of literature. Like what do I have to add to the conversation around Beloved? Basically, nothing. I’ll say that it’s massive popularity may lead one to think it’s an easy book. It isn’t. Emotionally, and intellectually, the reader has to work here, but my god is it worth it.
Dr. King’s last book and as relevant now as the day he wrote it. It’s easy to forget how radical King was, especially in his final years. Calling not only for Black liberation, but for an end to the Vietnam war, and demanding economic equality. In turning him into a saint, we have left out the parts of him that don’t fit the narrative we want to place on him. We downplay the incredible, almost unimaginable, courage it took to commit to nonviolence when white supremacists are actively trying to kill you. And we forget his demands for truly just society, one far different from the one we have today. Instead we act as if his dream was realized and the work is done.
It is, to state the obvious, not.
There’s a lot going on in this book. King is laying out a broad agenda for social change, but the thing that stuck with me the most in the early section, where he discusses his difference with Kwame Ture (at the time, Stokely Carmichael). King and Ture were on opposite sides of black power. The differences were real, and serious, but in discussing their disagreement King takes the time to honor Ture’s position, explaining how Ture arrived where he did, how much white violence played a part in that journey, and argues against Ture from a place of love. It’s remarkable and so different from much of our modern discourse. I hope we can get back there.
When I was in my twenties, this was a favorite book of a number of friends. I don’t know why I never read it. This is Baldwin at the height of his powers writing with a kind of restraint that makes the themes of the novel even more explosive. I’m not literary critic, I don’t know why Baldwin set this novel of gay love in Paris. I don’t know why everyone is white. I sympathize with the critique that too much of queer literature is centered in tragedy, but that is the story Baldwin wanted to tell and what a story it is.
Audre Lord would go on to be one of the cornerstones of the contemporary poetry, a woman referenced by anyone who cares about the art form. An activist who taught a generation that “”Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”
But when she wrote Coal, she wasn’t famous yet. She was already a powerful writer, shaping language to address the political through the lens of the human, writing about social justice, yes, but also love. This is a slim volume by a relatively young woman finding her voice and better scholars than I might say the work is not yet mature, but I found it deeply compelling, human, and real. A strong introduction to a powerful voice.