Books

Muse Brothers: Human Rights for the Vulnerable

A couple of years ago I read and enthusiastically reviewed Pamela Newkirk’s Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga. It was not just a story about racial discrimination, but also about the lack of protections for the most vulnerable in our society.

This issue is what attracted me to another great book, Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South. The book is about George and Willie Muse, two black albino boys who were taken from their home in Virginia and became world famous performers for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for the next 30 years.

Like Ota Benga, the circumstances around how the Muse brothers came into the circus world are cloudy. Descendants of the Muse brothers still living in Virginia today hold the position that they were kidnapped from the plantation by a bounty hunter, or “freak” hunter. However, author Beth Macy gives some evidence that puts doubt on the family’s long-held story. It is entirely possible that their mother Harriet knew the hunter intentionally took her sons in exchange for a hefty fee.

Most likely we will never know the truth of how they came to the circus. Harriet Muse was an illiterate, black female sharecropper in the Jim Crow South. She had no rights and no say over most things happening in her life, including her sons. It is highly likely that her children were just snatched up from the plantation by people who took advantage of her weak position. But it is also likely that she sold her kids into the circus to make money and give them a better life, who would have otherwise been limited by their albinism. The author interviews the Muse brothers’ grand-niece Nancy, who holds the strong opinion that they were kidnapped. I don’t know if this woman is lying, in denial or telling the truth. Who would want to admit that a mother essentially sold her sons in child slavery for money? And who are we to judge the mother if she really did sell her children to the circus? Unfortunately, there is very little documentation to prove anything and the Muse brothers were never interviewed about their experiences during their lifetimes, so we just don’t know.

The author interviews the Muse brothers’ grand-niece Nancy, who holds the strong opinion that they were kidnapped. I don’t know if this woman is lying, in denial or telling the truth. Who would want to admit that a mother essentially sold her sons in child slavery for money? And who are we to judge the mother if she really did sell her children to the circus? Unfortunately, there is very little documentation to prove anything and the Muse brothers were never interviewed about their experiences during their lifetimes, so we just don’t know.

The author interviews the Muse brothers’ grand-niece Nancy, who holds the strong opinion that they were kidnapped. I don’t know if this woman is lying, in denial or telling the truth. Who would want to admit that a mother essentially sold her sons in child slavery for money? And who are we to judge the mother if she did in fact sell her children to the circus? Unfortunately, there is very little documentation to prove anything and the Muse brothers were never interviewed about their experiences during their lifetimes, so we just don’t know.

However, we do know that they were not allowed to go back home for many years, as they were told their mother was dead. They were part of a larger group of “freak show” performers who were exhibited because of physical “deformities” and special abilities – the bearded lady, people eating swords or fire, conjoined twins, people with dwarfism, etc. This type of entertainment was quite common at a time long before radio, television, Facebook, and Game of Thrones, and making fun of and gawking at other people’s deformities was politically correct.

The Muse brothers accentuated their albinism by growing their hair out and up into dreadlocks and playing instruments. They were marketed as Eko and Iko and had different names over the years, ranging from “White Ecuadorians” to “Ambassadors from Mars.” Although this book focuses mainly on the harsh realities of being black and poor in the early 1900s, it is also the story of why we still need to protect the rights of children and people with disabilities.

The brothers were briefly reunited in 1927 with their mother, who would later successfully sue the circus for back pay. However, the brothers did go back on the road to help their mother out financially, who would die a few years later.

Luckily for them, they were able to “retire” and live comfortably for the rest of their lives in a house that was purchased from the lawsuit money. Unfortunately, Ota Benga and many others who performed or exhibited in circuses, world’s fairs and human zoos were never adequately compensated and lived sad lives.

Truevine is a fascinating read, as they were many lessons from it that we could use today.

More Compassion and Joy Is Needed Today

dalai-lama-desmond-tutuThe holiday season should be a time to think about our common humanity.  This has been a really ugly year, and now is a good time to step back and to maintain our courage under fire.

My favorite book from this year was The Book of Joy:  Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.  These two men have faced harsh adversity in their lives and it was great to read their perspectives and advice on dealing with life’s struggles.

Desmond Tutu has been a role model to me for many years and I have had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of times.  He is a true fighter and definitely someone that everyone should listen to when he speaks.

My Books of the Year 2016

booksLike I said last week, I have been doing a lot of reading lately.  Below is a list of all the books I have read in the last year.  I made a list not only to share my reading habits but also to hold myself accountable to continue reading.  My new year’s resolution this year was to read more books, and I think I have achieved that!

Some of them are review copies I received from publishers for free, while others are older books that I reread because of their relevance.

Native Son by Richard Wright

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World By the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu

Police State: How America’s Cops Get Away With Murder by Gerry Spence

Invisible Man, Got The Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education by Mychal Dyson Smith

Reskilling America: Learning to Labor in the Twenty-First Century by Katherine Newman and Hella Winston

Facing Mount Kenya by Jomo Kenyatta

The United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists by Peter Bergen

The Longest Trail: Writings on American Indian History, Culture, and Politics by Alvin Josephy Jr.

When Books Went To War: Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning

The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe

Waiting Til The Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America by Peniel Joseph

Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique W. Morris

Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich by Peter Schweizer

The Art of the Deal by Donald Trump and Tony Swartz

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

Between The World and Me By Ta-Nehisi Coates

Here Comes The Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Radio Girls by Sarah Jane Stratford

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Middle Passage: The Caribbean Revisited by V.S. Naipaul

Reading to Soothe the Political Pain

knowledge-1052010_640Since the terrible defeat of Hillary Clinton a few weeks and the pending disaster that will be Trump’s presidency, I have tried to zone out and concentrate my mind on other things.

I have been watching a lot less cable news and most TV in general since the elections. As a matter of fact, I am seriously considering cutting the cord altogether in the very near future.

But for right now, I have been reading books a little more than I usually do. I have read (and reread) five books since the elections. Four of them were about women’s lives. Since we won’t have a lady president for at least another four years, I thought I would read books with strong female protagonists.

Here Comes The Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
A fascinating study of women’s lives in Jamaica. When most people think about this Caribbean island, they think of the beaches, jerk chicken, and reggae music. However, Jamaica’s extreme poverty and colonial legacy don’t likely come up in discussions. The author creates rich characters of a mother and her two daughters to discuss current issues facing Jamaica women, such as sex tourism, class, skin tone divisions, especially about skin bleaching, homosexuality, and abuse.

The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe
This historical novel is about real-life trailblazer Anita Hemmings, the first black woman to graduate from Vassar College. The catch here is that the school didn’t know Hemmings was black until a few days before her graduation. It was 1897 and most colleges at the time either didn’t allow or permitted a small number of black students. Hemmings was able to get into the school because she was fair-skinned enough to pass for white. This book is also another study of class and race intertwining at the turn of the last century.

Radio Girls by Sarah Jane Stratford
This book takes place in London during the nascent years of the BBC. Maisie Musgrave is a newly-minted Beeb secretary. Based on the real-life BBC radio pioneer Hilda Matheson, Radio Girls gives insights into the struggles of women working in broadcasting at the time.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Cora is a slave in Georgia who goes along with fellow slave Caesar to escape their misery by following the Underground Railroad. All kinds of drama ensue. This book just won the National Book Award – a must read.

I also reread The Middle Passage by V.S. Naipaul, which also to a lesser degree looks at women’s lives in the Caribbean.

I plan to write more in-depth reviews of these great books in the very near future. In the meantime, if you have any other books that you want to recommend to me, please let me know.

It’s going to be a LONG four years, and I want all the reading I can get my hands on to get through it!