Anne Bartlett

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is a treasure trove of world art, with its own stately corps of guardians: the hundreds of people in blue uniforms who keep order and help perplexed visitors find the Renoirs and the restrooms. Behind their sober miens, the Met security guards are an interesting bunch. For example, there’s Joe, who fled political persecution in Togo; Emilie, a working artist with a Brooklyn studio; Mr. Haddad, who moonlights as a professor of Islamic art history; and Patrick Bringley, who has written a lovely book about all of them and their unusual workplace called All the Beauty in the World.

After college, Bringley had a promising job at The New Yorker magazine. Then his adored older brother, Tom, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Emotionally gutted by Tom’s death, Bringley realized he needed a different path while he healed. So he applied for “the most straightforward job I could think of in the most beautiful place I knew.”

Bringley liked working at the Met so much that he stayed for 10 years. A lifelong museum lover, he reveled in his daily proximity to masterpieces, formed friendships and never stopped enjoying the museum’s visitors, especially the newbies. Among the book’s most delightful passages are those detailing Bringley’s encounters with harried moms looking for dinosaurs (there aren’t any, so he sent to them to the mummies instead), rambunctious school kids who want to touch everything and stunned first-timers who can barely fathom it all.

Bringley gives readers sensitive descriptions of his personal favorite artworks, as well, and directions for how to find them. Even better, he describes what’s below ground, outside the public gaze: forklifts carting around crates of priceless art, the security command center, the locker room, the craft workshops—even a real armory.

The author eventually decided to move on from the Met, but his joyous experience there still lives within him. If you’ve been to New York, there’s a good chance you’ve been one of the Met’s millions of annual visitors. If you go back, pack this memoir; you will see the museum with new eyes.

If you’ve been to New York City, there’s a good chance you’ve been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This memoir by a former museum security guard will allow you to see it with new eyes.
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When word of emancipation reached them, the last men and women kidnapped in West Africa and sold to American enslavers just wanted to go home. They’d only been in the Mobile, Alabama, area about five years; they belonged in Yorubaland. So they saved their tiny wages and offered $1,000 to the captain of the Clotilda, the ship that had illegally brought them to the U.S. in 1860, to take them back. He refused.

Stuck in Alabama, they made the best of it. They paired off, bought land, built a church and founded the communities on Mobile’s north side known as “Africatown.” It’s still there, and its residents are still fighting for justice.

Nick Tabor’s absorbing Africatown: America’s Last Slave Ship and the Community It Created tells the story of these “shipmates” and their neighborhood up to the present day. The timing of its publication is auspicious, just a few years after the wreckage of the Clotilda was identified off the coast of Alabama in 2018. Zora Neale Hurston’s book Barracoon, based on interviews in the 1920s with shipmate Cudjo Lewis, was finally published that same year.

Africatown was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, an action that was long overdue. If you are looking for a single community that epitomizes the Black experience in the American South, Africatown is a contender. It thrived as industry brought decent jobs, locally owned businesses prospered, and churches and an excellent school provided centers for civic life. But the factories polluted the air and water, then shut down. The residents were targets of white supremacist violence and voter suppression. Highway projects destroyed homes and commerce.

Tabor tells this history seamlessly through key individuals such as Lewis; Henry Williams, a welder who became an early activist; and Joe Womack and Anderson Flen, contemporary native sons who work to protect Africatown from continued environmental racism and to redevelop it as a heritage tourism center. Progress has been halting. The Mobile city government is happy to install laudatory plaques but reluctant to spend the money for real preservation. But the spiritual and biological descendants of that first Africatown generation, dragged from their homes and enslaved by racist white criminals, push on.

Nick Tabor’s absorbing Africatown tells of the Alabama community founded by the last Africans to be kidnapped and enslaved in America, and their descendants’ continued fight for justice.
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Most American history buffs have seen the terrifying photograph of the Ku Klux Klan’s parade on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1925, with the U.S. Capitol visible in the background. Sadly, that’s just a minor glimpse of the klan’s sway during what we prefer to remember as the Jazz Age. But in fact, there are more white robes concealed in musty attic trunks than we may realize; at its height, the klan had 6 million members. 

The KKK originated in defeated Confederate states after the Civil War, but the epicenter of the revived klan in the early 1920s was well to the north of the Mason-Dixon line. The Upper Midwest was a stronghold—particularly Indiana, where the klan effectively controlled the state’s political system. In his latest enthralling historical narrative, A Fever in the Heartland, Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author Timothy Egan charts the klan’s rapid rise and spectacular collapse in 1920s America.

The new klan rose in reaction to the convergence of four things: high levels of immigration from Catholic and Jewish people, the Great Migration of Black Americans, the release of the racist movie The Birth of a Nation and the widespread popularity of fraternal organizations. The KKK pretended to benignly uphold “Americanism” but not-so-secretly terrorized anyone who wasn’t a white Protestant, with the complicity of a staggering number of clergypeople.

Egan, author of bestsellers including The Worst Hard Time and A Pilgrimage to Eternity, homes in on Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, “the most talented psychopath ever to tread the banks of the Wabash,” who ran the Indiana KKK, of which the governor was a proud member. A serial sexual predator, Stephenson had not-unrealistic aspirations for high office—even the White House. But his plans were derailed when he sexually and physically abused Madge Oberholtzer, an educated young professional whose brave response helped turn public opinion. Egan skillfully leads readers through the horrifying experiences of Oberholtzer and a handful of other beleaguered klan opponents. 

American democracy had a close call in the 1920s. The KKK disintegrated as a powerful political force, but not before its influence helped pass much of its anti-immigrant and Jim Crow agenda. Its malevolence went underground for a while, but history shows that it has resurfaced again and again, like in the 1950s and ’60s. A Fever in the Heartland is just one important chapter in an ongoing history.

The latest enthralling historical narrative from National Book Award-winning author Timothy Egan focuses on the rapid rise and spectacular collapse of the KKK in the 1920s.
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The most famous moment following the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling is probably the day in 1957 when National Guard intervention was required to get Black students into Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. But that was just one small example of the vast changes that swept through the Jim Crow South. The first court-mandated desegregation in the former Confederacy was actually in Clinton, Tennessee, in 1956—and the effort was just as fraught with violence, fear and fortitude as the more well-known event in Arkansas.

Historian Rachel Louise Martin (Hot, Hot Chicken) first visited Clinton in 2005 as a researcher involved in an oral history project. Her fascination with that town’s story has now culminated in A Most Tolerant Little Town: The Explosive Beginning of School Desegregation, a day-by-day account of the desegregation of Clinton High School. The book’s title is sadly ironic. After desegregation began, it didn’t take long for a racist intimidation campaign to form, including mob assaults and dynamiting.

At the center of Martin’s tale are the 12 Black students who initially integrated Clinton High and who braved threats and violence against them and their families. But another interesting faction stands out in A Most Tolerant Little Town: the significant number of white people who opposed desegregation but opposed lawlessness even more. Their ranks included judges, National Guard leaders, the high school principal, teachers, student football players and jurors.

Little as many white Tennesseans liked it, desegregation was continually enforced. Tellingly, one turning point on the way to the community’s acceptance of desegregation was the conviction, by a local white jury, of the bigoted rabble who attacked a respected white Baptist minister shortly after he said from the pulpit that Black students in Clinton had a right to attend the high school. The Black victims in town seldom got such justice.

For decades, residents were reluctant to reminisce about these events in Clinton, where Black desegregation pioneers continued to interact daily with their former tormentors. Today, the Clinton 12 are honored with statues and a mural. But in her moving conclusion, Martin stresses that de facto segregation is surging across the U.S. and that the challenge to work together for lasting change is as great as ever.

In A Most Tolerant Little Town, Rachel Louise Martin captures the violence, fear and fortitude that accompanied the first court-mandated school desegregation in America.
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Even though Shakespeare refers to the great Egyptian queen as both “tawny” and “black” and his English contemporaries understood Egyptians to be dark-skinned, why did a major British production of Antony and Cleopatra not cast a Black Cleopatra until Doña Croll in 1991? Because too many of the Bard’s admirers have failed to address, or even notice, race in his plays.

Farah Karim-Cooper, a Pakistani American professor of literature and Shakespeare studies at King’s College London, challenges that willful ignorance in The Great White Bard: How to Love Shakespeare While Talking About Race. Karim-Cooper, who also serves as Director of Education at Shakespeare’s Globe, argues that the bad alternatives to an honest conversation about race in Shakespeare are either to dismiss his work or stubbornly cling to the stale tradition of brushing aside race—both of which oppose her desire for the plays to speak to a wider public.

Aiming to include non-academic readers in her audience, Karim-Cooper takes a close look at characters who are clearly people of color: Othello, Aaron the Moor and the Prince of Morocco. She considers more ambiguous cases, like Cleopatra and Caliban, and also ranges farther afield to depictions of otherness such as the witches in Macbeth, noting how Shakespeare routinely relies upon racialized imagery and dehumanizing language: white/fair equals good; dark equals bad and ugly.

Like his contemporaries, Shakespeare employs racist and antisemitic tropes in his characters, yet also writes them as multifaceted individuals. “Shakespeare often challenges us to hold two contradictory views simultaneously,” Karim-Cooper states. Indeed, Othello is brave and forthright as well as lethally jealous; we hear Caliban’s side of the story as well as Prospero’s. The evidence of Black people and interracial marriage in Tudor England introduces the possibility of Shakespeare having actually encountered people of color. And Karim-Cooper’s analysis of The Merchant of Venice might make one wonder whether Shakespeare knew any Jews passing as Christians for safety.

Our perception of Shakespeare’s work is ever-evolving: It wasn’t until the 18th century that he was even glamorized as “the Bard” by theater star David Garrick. Karim-Cooper’s candid discussion of more nuanced and informed approaches to interpreting Shakespeare can only help his work endure.

Karim-Cooper's candid discussion of more informed and nuanced approaches to interpreting Shakespeare can only help the Bard’s work endure.
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If Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt had an idle moment when they met in 1941 to hammer out the Atlantic Charter, they might have talked about Roosevelt’s stamp-collecting or Churchill’s painting. It is perhaps less likely they chatted about one big thing they actually had in common: Strong, intelligent American mothers, widowed young, who provided them with plenty of runway for political takeoff.

Not that Jennie Jerome Churchill or Sara Delano Roosevelt would have liked each other much. Although both were daughters of rich upper-class New Yorkers, their personalities were starkly different. Jennie had a reckless streak (like her father and Winston) and was prone to problematic romances, while Sara waited to marry until she found a wealthy, serious older man in her own social circle. Nevertheless, as well-known Canadian author Charlotte Gray shows in her dual biography Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons, 19th-century culture shaped both into women who believed influence was only attainable through men. 

Jennie’s life was sufficiently flamboyant that she has attracted a number of biographers; Sara was more conventional, and she tends to be dismissed by historians as possessive and overbearing. She was indeed formidable, but her real story is more complex. Through detailed historical research and scenic retellings, Gray makes a persuasive case that Franklin and Winston depended on their mothers’ devotion, influence and money.

FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt had to battle out of what they saw as Sara’s smothering embrace, but Sara effectively raised their five children while the couple built public careers. After Sara’s death, Eleanor consistently denigrated her mother-in-law, but the children spoke of Sara with affection and gratitude. In contrast, Jennie was no grandmotherly nurturer. Aside from the important political help she provided her first husband and eldest son, her accomplishments included chartering wartime hospital ships and learning piano from a friend of Chopin.

Had they been born a century later, one can imagine Jennie as a supermodel-turned-Hollywood producer and Sara as a Fortune 500 CEO. Instead, Gray tells us, they funneled their prodigious energies into their statesmen sons, both of whom were profoundly impacted by their fascinating and formidable mothers.

Charlotte Gray paints a new, insightful portrait of two mothers who gave their statesmen sons the irreplaceable gift of total self-confidence.
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As political tension over slavery grew in early 19th-century America, flashpoints were most likely to occur not in the Deep South or North, but in the borderlands, where the enslaved lived within striking distance of freedom. These borderlands were the stomping grounds of a free Black shoemaker named Thomas Smallwood, who ought to be as famous as the remarkable Harriet Tubman. Over just a couple of years in the 1840s, he helped hundreds of enslaved people escape from Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. He wrote vivid, funny abolitionist polemics under a pseudonym derived from a Dickens character. And he was the first to write of the escape network as the “underground railroad”—initially as a joke at the expense of the slave-catchers.

New York Times journalist Scott Shane brings Smallwood’s story to much-warranted wider attention in Flee North, an exciting narrative of Smallwood’s partnership with Charles Torrey, a radical white abolitionist. For a short but fruitful time, the two stayed ahead of enemies like the major Baltimore trafficker Hope Slatter.

Shane depicts an unsettled world where no Black person could live without crushing anxiety. The free could be kidnapped and enslaved; the enslaved could be sold south on a whim to hellish cotton-growing labor camps. Police departments were created primarily to suppress Black people. As Shane notes, the usual narrative of the underground railroad tells of tiny groups fleeing on foot, aided by white sympathizers. Smallwood’s and Torrey’s efforts were bolder and more open, involving crowded cities, wagons, boats and actual rail cars, with helpers—and betrayers—as likely to be free Blacks as whites.

It couldn’t last. Smallwood and Torrey had to part ways for safety, but both wrote memoirs. Torrey and his supporters never once mentioned Smallwood; Smallwood never once denigrated Torrey. Torrey was a brave, if reckless, man, but Shane’s hero is Smallwood, whose calculated daring, wit and foresight still inspire.

Scott Shane depicts Thomas Smallwood as an abolitionist hero whose calculated daring, wit and foresight still inspire.
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The Mennonite community is at once an evangelizing religious group and a “tribe.” As novelist Sofia Samatar (A Stranger in Olondria) explains, the tribe consists of the white descendants of its Swiss, German and Dutch founders, but the religion is growing fastest in Africa. Samatar embodies that duality: Her white American mother met her Black Somali father on a church mission. They raised their family in the United States, where Samatar went to Mennonite schools.

So how does Samatar make sense of her identity? To answer this question, she set out to explore how Mennonites have interacted with other cultures and chose an extreme example: The 1880–84 trek of a small, sturdy group of “Volga” German Mennonites led by minister Claas Epp Jr. Inspired in part by an 18th-century German novel, he thought Jesus would return to Central Asia in 1889. The trekkers landed in what is now Uzbekistan, and while the world didn’t end the way Epp expected it to, the Soviets did eventually force his community out of the country.

The White Mosque is Samatar’s thoughtful, gorgeously written account of a tour she took retracing the trekkers’ challenging path to their new settlement, where they lived for some 50 years. But her pleasantly digressive book encompasses much more: Central Asian culture, the memoirs of teen trekkers, Mennonite martyrs, doomsday beliefs, her father’s disillusionment, her own searching adolescence at a Mennonite boarding school. She even includes a beautiful reverie on how the settlers must have felt on the day that Jesus did not return. (Epp just kept moving the date until he suffered a mental collapse.) 

Samatar’s trip culminates in what remains of “White Mosque” village, where current Muslim residents have established a museum commemorating their odd but fondly remembered former neighbors. Back in 1935 when the Soviets rounded up the Mennonites for exile, their distraught local employees wept.

Understandably, when Samatar embarked on her pilgrimage, she was seeking a kind of self-understanding as a brown girl in a Germanic tradition. Instead, she learned to love the trekkers’ “wrongness.” After all, fragmentation can make a lovely mosaic.

The White Mosque is Sofia Samatar’s thoughtful, gorgeously written account of a fringe Mennonite group in Central Asia, and her own search for self-understanding as a brown girl in a Germanic tradition.
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By and large, our enterprising American ancestors hated swamps, which they saw as obstacles to travel and agriculture. In the timeless war between swamp folk and swamp drainers, most were firmly in the latter camp—supported with vigor by the government.

Count Annie Proulx as one of the swamp folk at heart. The acclaimed author of The Shipping News, Barkskins and “Brokeback Mountain” turns her perceptive eye to the calamitous destruction of the world’s peatlands in Fen, Bog & Swamp, an information-packed short history that argues for their preservation and restoration.

As a nonscientist, Proulx explains in accessible language how fens, bogs and swamps differ by water level and vegetation, and how crucial each of these ecosystems is to a balanced environment. The very short version is that they store carbon dioxide and methane, so when peatlands are disrupted, those gases are released and contribute to the climate change crisis, which is itself one of the things causing those disruptions. Peatlands are also home to a staggering number of plant and animal species integral to a healthy ecological community.

One of Proulx’s chapters is called “Discursive Thoughts on Wetlands,” which sums up her approach. She ranges widely, both thematically and geographically, from the small Limberlost Swamp in Indiana to the huge Vasyugan Swamp in Siberia. She considers plenty of archaeology (the Shigir Idol), history (the Battle of Teutoburg Forest) and literature (A Girl of the Limberlost) along the way, sprinkling in reminiscences of her own wetland encounters as well. Among the most interesting discussions are her explorations of the interactions between human and peatland, as in the ritual sacrifices later turned up as “bog bodies” by terrified peat cutters.

In truth, Proulx argues, humans are able to coexist very well with peatlands if they harvest their bounty with respect. When the drainers win, they’re usually sorry in the long run. She notes that luckily, there are a number of promising restoration projects around the world, but they’re small. It turns out it’s a lot harder to re-create a swamp than to preserve one.

Acclaimed author Annie Proulx is one of the swamp folk at heart, and in Fen, Bog & Swamp, she argues for the preservation and restoration of peatlands the world over.
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When actor Michael K. Williams prepared for his iconic role of Omar in “The Wire,” he turned to his memories of a dear neighborhood friend from Brooklyn: an unconventional, swaggering lesbian named Robin. She had helped him survive a sad adolescence. She had also introduced him to crack cocaine.

Williams’ path from bullied, frightened boy to respected actor and advocate for justice ended tragically in 2021 when he died of a drug overdose at 54 after decades of struggling with addiction. He leaves behind the poignant, vivid memoir Scenes From My Life, written with Jon Sternfeld, which will cement Williams’ legacy as a kind, thoughtful man who used his public prominence to give back to his community.

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As Williams often noted, his personality was far from that of ruthless Omar. Growing up in an East Flatbush housing project, Williams was a fragile outsider, tormented for his dark skin and his fluid sexuality. But he did have some luck in the form of a determined mother and loyal friends who helped him break loose from his neighborhood’s insularity.

As he grew older, Williams progressed from Manhattan dance clubs to a nascent modeling career, which was truncated when a razor wound from a bar fight left a deep scar across his face. Ironically, the scar gave him the distinctive appearance that led to a successful dance career, then to acting.

Williams’ fans remember him for his roles in “The Wire,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Hap and Leonard,” “The Night Of” and so many other productions—but his memoir offers relatively few details about his acting career, drug use or romantic relationships. Instead, it is a sensitive exploration of his journey to become an advocate for young people from backgrounds like his who get stuck in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Despite Williams’ own challenges before his death, he made important progress in his aspiration to scatter what he called “breadcrumbs”—pathways to help others escape poverty and injustice.

Scenes From My Life cements “The Wire” actor Michael K. Williams’ legacy as a kind, thoughtful man who used his public prominence to give back to his community.
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When Ethan Allen Hitchcock, a white U.S. military officer who in 1842 was sent on a mission to what is now Oklahoma, wrote in his diary about a smart, skilled Black man who was serving as a language interpreter for a Native Creek chief, he assumed “Negro Tom” was enslaved by the chief.

That Black man’s descendants would beg to differ. According to their family lore, the man more widely known as Cow Tom (because of his livestock holdings) was not enslaved. He later became a Creek Nation chief, honored for negotiating a landmark treaty after the Civil War that established Black Creeks as full tribal citizens. But they lost their status in 1979 because of the same racist perspective that skewed Hitchcock’s vision. Journalist Caleb Gayle’s absorbing We Refuse to Forget: A True Story of Black Creeks, American Identity, and Power explores how this happened, and what contemporary Black Creeks are doing to reclaim their legacy.

Gayle, a Black American of Jamaican descent who was raised in Oklahoma, traces the history of Black Creeks from the early days, when some but not all were enslaved by Native Creeks, through the considerable prosperity of many Black Creeks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Cow Tom’s descendants, such as the Perryman and Simmons families, became wealthy pillars of the Oklahoma civic establishment, largely because their Creek status gave them access to capital that other Black Americans did not have.

Gayle blends that story with his own encounters with racism and his personal identity: Is he Jamaican or Black? The Black Creeks’ ongoing legal fight to reclaim Creek heritage has inspired him to reexamine his own perspective, he writes. He is Black and Jamaican and American, just as the Black Creeks are “fully Black and fully Creek.” The United States, he argues passionately, would be a richer, more beautiful society if we recognized and honored those complexities.

In We Refuse to Forget, Caleb Gayle chronicles the history of Black members of the Creek Nation and their descendants’ ongoing fight to reclaim their legacy.

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