As fall approaches, it’s time to take down the awning, pull out the afghan, make sure the firewood is chopped, and cozy up with books that will transport us to some other place or time. Here are five worth the trip.
For the past decade, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates’ expansive PBS documentaries have shown us how interwoven our black and American ancestries really are. This fall, his massive six-part, six-hour series The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross chronicles the cultural, political, religious and historical evolution of black Americans from 1513 to the election of President Barack Obama. The same-titled companion book (Smiley Books), co-written by fellow Harvard scholar David Yacovone, elaborates and expands on the documentary, with evocative illustrations, photos and interviews by a multitude of African-Americans notables, from journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault and former Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. The book is a superb literary soundtrack that marks the rise of a people from slavery to freedom.
Philadelphia is as important to African-American history as it is to American history. University of Michigan professor Michael Awkward’s Philadelphia Freedoms: Black American Trauma, Memory, and Culture After King (Temple University Press), drives that point home in this searing book that captures all of the turbulent civil rights struggles that took place in the City of Brotherly Love, from the ‘60s to the ‘90s. From a tense Philadelphia 76ers game that took place after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 and the impassioned, empowering themes of black fatherhood and family on Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label of the ‘70s to his examination of Andrea Lee’s novel Sarah Phillips and Toni Morrison’s Beloved alongside Barack Obama’s 2008 speech on race at the National Constitution Center, Awkward dives right in. He brilliantly juxtaposes Philadelphia’s mythic image as the city where American democracy was born with the real life, bitter struggles of African-Americans and their quest to obtain those democratic rights guaranteed by the Constitution signed her two centuries ago—and still being sought today.
Just as Soul Train brought black soul music into the homes of mainstream U.S.A. back in the ‘70s, locally, radio stations like WDAS-FM played music by hip white groups like Chicago, the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, the last of which consisted of the songwriting duo Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who jointly penned hits like “Black Cow” and “Deacon Blues.” With the release of his first book, Eminent Hipsters (Viking), the North Jersey-born Fagen crafts a revealing, dry humor-ridden memoir that waxes philosophic about growing up in the Cold War-’50s and ‘60s as a nerdy Jewish kid who was down with sci-fi novels, jazz and R&B. Fagen also writes about meeting Becker at Bard College, the origins of Steely Dan and the perils of traveling as an aging rocker. What one gets from this book is how Fagen transforms his life into the kind of aural artistry that still makes him relevant; he’ll discuss the book with WXPN’s David Dye on Oct. 24 at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
The incredible Philly-born, Europe-based Temple graduate and novelist/visual artist/poet Barbara Chase-Riboud is also a master of transmutative artistry. Her new book, The Malcolm X Steles (Yale University Press), is the literary version of her stunning 13 sculptures of Malcolm X, currently on exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The author of The President’s Daughter and Echo of Lions—two historical novels that dealt with the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings affair and Amistad slave ship rebellion, respectively—looks at the former Nation of Islam leader with the kind of oblique angles that only sculpture can reveal.
And who can talk about Philadelphia museums without dealing with the newest kid on the block, the Barnes Museum, and all of the drama its controversial arrival to Center City from Merion County ensued? That’s exactly what journalist John Anderson’s Art Held Hostage: The Battle Over the Barnes Collection (W. W. Norton & Company) does. Originally published as a hardback a decade ago, the new paperpback edition features a new epilogue that updates this sensational, tangled web of class, race, prestige and politics. The book details how the art collection of industrialist Albert C. Barnes was taken from the trusteeship of the historically black Lincoln University and transported downtown, against the will of Barnes’ estate. Though there is no question that the Barnes’ addition has added some well-needed spice to Philly museum culture, Anderson makes it very clear that the dust on this matter is far from settled.
Fall author appearances
Resa Aslan. (Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.) Wed., Sept. 18. 7:30pm. $15 ($7/students). Free Library, 1901 Vine St. 215.686.5322. freelibrary.org
Terry McMillan (Who Asked You?) and Jesmyn Ward (Men We Reaped). Thurs., Sept. 19. 7:30pm. $15 ($7/students). Free Library, 1901 Vine St. 215.686.5322. freelibrary.org
Lauren Mandel (Eat Up: The Inside Scoop on Rooftop Agriculture). Valley Green Inn, Forbidden Drive, Wissahickon Valley Park. Tues., Sept. 24. 6pm. Free (registration required). 215.247.0417x109. fow.org
David J. Wagner (American Wildlife Art). Thurs., Sept. 26. 6:30p;m. Free (registration requested). Academy of Natural Sciences, 1900 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy. 215. 299.1000. ansp.org
Natasha Tretheway (Poet Laureate of the United States). Wed., Oct. 2. 6:30pm. $10. College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 19 S. 22nd St. 215.563.3737. collegeofphysicians.org
Salman Rushdie (Joseph Anton) and Martin Amis (Lionel Asbo: State of England). Tues., Oct. 1. 7:30pm. $15 ($7/students). Free Library, 1901 Vine St. 215.686.5322. freelibrary.org
Emma Marris (Rambunctious Garden) on how urban nature changes lives. Mon., Oct. 7. 6pm. Free (registration requested). Academy of Natural Sciences, 1900 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy. 215. 299.1000. ansp.org
Charles Vess (Drawing Down the Moon) and Allen Steele (Apollo’s Outcasts). Nov. 8–10. Philcon, the Philadelphia Science Fiction Convention. Crowne Plaza Hotel, 2349 W. Marlton Pike, Cherry Hill, NJ. philcon.org
Malcolm Gladwell (David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants). Wed., Nov. 20. 4:30pm. Penn Museum, 3260 South St. 215.898.4000. penn.museum
Anjelica Huston (A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London and New York). Thurs., Nov. 21. Noon. $15 ($7/students). Free Library, 1901 Vine St. 215.686.5322. freelibrary.org
Autumn in Philly: a veritable carnival of awesome. It’s a hit musical at the Walnut; it’s Janelle Monae at the Electric Factory; it’s Dali at the Art Museum; it’s Charles Vess at a science fiction convention.
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide