Books: September-October 2007

October 1, 2007
BookMarks: Reading in Black and White, A Memoir

BookMarks: Reading in Black and White, A Memoir
By Karla F.C. Holloway. Rutgers University Press, 2006. 223 pages. $24.95.

Flying home from London this summer, I looked around to see what the passengers close by were reading. My eyes soon fixed on a three-inch-thick tome that lay on the tray table of an elegantly dressed woman who sat across the aisle. She was not reading it; her eyes never left the video screen. Still I was curious enough to glance occasionally in her direction for the rest of the flight. I thought I would figure out something about her if I could see the title of her book. I had already reached doubtlessly unfair conclusions about my seatmate, who offered me the tabloid newspapers she finished before the plane took off.

My curiosity was stirred in part because of the book I was reading, BookMarks: Reading in Black and White, A Memoir by Karla Holloway, who is the William R. Kenan Professor of English at Duke. Holloway analyzes how the books they read "marked" African-American writers from Frederick Douglass to Rita Dove. She argues that the mark of one's reading had a special meaning for those who carried a legacy of slavery and segregation. But as the subtitle confirms, her book is very much a reflection on the role that books have played in her personal history as a source of pleasure, refuge, and enlightenment. Although she is a prominent scholar whose deep literary knowledge shines throughout, Holloway writes here for the general reader. In BookMarks' most memorable passages, the narrative that charts a signal aspect of African-American literary history converges with Holloway's personal narrative in clarifying and poignant ways.

 Although we think of reading as a solitary practice, readers and their locations have social meanings. American history reveals this truth unmistakably. In the nineteenth century, it was against the law in several states to teach an enslaved person to read and write. Until the 1960s, segregation deprived many black Americans of access to public libraries. Some of the most famous scenes in black literature represent the struggle for literacy. I think, for example, of Frederick Douglass' 1845 Narrative in which he describes giving white boys bread in exchange for surreptitious reading lessons. When the twelve-year old Douglass secures a copy of The Columbian Orator, a forbidden abolitionist tract, he finds his desire for freedom affirmed. A century later, in Black Boy (1945), Richard Wright recalls taking a forged note to the main desk of the Memphis Public Library and borrowing books by H.L. Mencken, whose unpopularity among whites in Memphis was one reason Wright was so eager to read his books. Douglass and Wright had to break the law in order to read. No wonder they took such pride in letting their readers know what books they had read.

Most of the writers in BookMarks grew up on the classics of Western literature. From W.E.B. Du Bois to Maya Angelou, they embraced the books that promised a world in which they could transcend racial barriers.

As Du Bois writes in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), "I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls…. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil." Holloway interprets Du Bois' stance as elitist. I disagree. It impresses me as a bold act of self assertion. What Holloway documents persuasively and eloquently is that for generations of black readers, books opened up possibilities of self definition that the society denied.

The illustrations in BookMarks tell a story of their own. They include the whites-only Memphis Library that Wright described as well as the Durham Colored Library, which nurtured the spirit of writer Pauli Murray. The 135th Street Library in Harlem, where writers from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s immersed themselves in books by and about black people, is pictured. Most strikingly, the illustrations include prison libraries, such as the one in Massachusetts where Malcolm X began his transformation from petty criminal to visionary leader. A chapter in BookMarks is devoted to accounts of writers whose reading room was the prison cell.

Holloway, who grew up in Buffalo, New York, recognized early on that adults inferred something about who she was based on what she read. Even in upstate New York, reading was a racialized experience. Holloway's mother, a language-arts teacher, once protested the inclusion of a Tarzan story in a reading textbook. Several years later, she and Holloway, then a teenager, selected texts by black writers for inclusion in a revised anthology. For Holloway, reading was also a precious and private way of knowing the world and the self. It was a gift she received at home and in school. It was a gift she wanted to pass on to her own children. How she succeeded and failed is a story that inspires and breaks the heart.

It's Not About the Truth: The Untold Story of the Duke Lacrosse Case and the Lives It Shattered

It's Not About the Truth: The Untold Story of the Duke Lacrosse Case and the Lives It Shattered
By Don Yaeger with Mike Pressler. Threshold Editions, 2007. 336 pages. $25.

If you like FOX News, with its simplistic, partisan portrayals of complex issues, you'll probably love It's Not About the Truth, the exculpatory tome cranked out by writer Don Yaeger with the cooperation of former Duke lacrosse coach Mike Pressler. Like The O'Reilly Factor, it's part polemic, part primal scream, and its message comes in loud and clear. Lacrosse players: good. Duke faculty and administration: very, very bad.

The Duke lacrosse scandal deserves better than this. A lot has happened since the infamous party at 610 N. Buchanan, and while we now know that the allegations were false and the conduct of the prosecutor was reprehensible, plenty of important questions still hang in the air. Such as: Why did the lacrosse team's pattern of bad behavior go unchecked for years by the university's student and athletics administration?

Why was athletics director Joe Alleva apparently unwilling or unable to hold lacrosse and golf, with their relatively high numbers of alcohol-related citations, to the same tough standard that is seemingly applied to higher-profile basketball and football, not to mention the Greek system?

And why shouldn't a coach, in any sport, be held responsible for what happens on his or her watch? Wasn't that precedent set years ago in the ACC when Lefty Driesell '54 of Maryland, and later Jim Valvano of North Carolina State, got the gate?

I have no connection with Duke at present, beyond rooting for the basketball and football teams (and taking plenty of heat for it from my colleagues) and occasionally writing for this magazine. Like a lot of alumni, I feel as if I need delousing every time I read about the principal elements of the lacrosse scandal: athletes who thought it was a good idea to hire strippers to come to a party; strippers who showed up wasted and then told fanciful stories to Duke-hating cops eager to promote them; a desperately incompetent D.A.; a credulous faculty; a grasping media.

Last summer I was the editor of an ESPN The Magazine feature in which we struggled to represent fairly the viewpoints of six people on all sides whose lives had been changed. Not an easy task, because the story wasn't, in the end, a black-and-white one. In Yaeger's world, as in O'Reilly's, there are no shades of gray. The Duke faculty is pointy-headed and hopelessly liberal, and there's no possible way to imagine that at least some of the eighty-eight signers of the "What Does A Social Disaster Sound Like" ad in The Chronicle actually were responding as human beings to the legitimate concerns of their students.

According to this view, President Richard H. Brodhead had no business defusing a potentially explosive situation by cutting short the lacrosse team's season in the wake of a player's racially inflammatory e-mail message at the worst possible time. And now, Pressler and the players are to be remembered as heroes–martyrs, even—despite the willful ignorance and youthful stupidity that led to this whole dreadful episode in the first place? Come on.

As a window into the experiences of fundamentally decent people swept up in a maelstrom, the story of Pressler and his family had every chance to be insightful and compelling. But the coach made the unfortunate choice of throwing in with Yaeger, a Florida lobbyist best known as the author of a Sports Illustrated "exposé" on former Alabama football coach Mike Price's big night out at a strip joint in Pensacola a few years ago.

Price filed a $20 million libel lawsuit over sensational, but hotly disputed, anonymous quotes. The magazine eventually settled, and Yaeger quietly disappeared from its masthead. Now he's back in print, which is great news if you enjoy sentences like "In these clubs the drinks are cheap and the women, even cheaper," and "Nifong jumped on his media opportunity like a fat kid on a cake."

It's Not About the Truth, which takes its title from something Alleva allegedly told Pressler as the scandal blew up around them (a claim Alleva denies), is not without its high points. Although there are no footnotes or chapter notes, Yaeger says he interviewed more than 100 people in addition to mining a vast trove of clips, and he produces the most credible minute-by-minute walk-through I've seen of what actually occurred in and around the "lacrosse house" that night.

The book also offers a lively portrait of the Durham cop who delighted in harassing Duke students, and while its treatment of Mike Nifong is cartoonish, it's also as irresistible as turning your head to check out a wreck on the highway.

Unfortunately, there are twenty-three more chapters. Toward the end, Bill O'Reilly himself makes a cameo, and Ann Coulter, who has perhaps done more than anyone else to lower the level of America's public discourse, also takes a turn as an analyst. Which leads me to one last unanswered question: At some point, can we please have a treatment of this case that is more fair and balanced?