Reading Amazing Grace Jones

grace jonesOne of the things I want to do more of this new year is read and review books here.  I get so many books for free to read from publishers and publicists, that maybe I should take more advantage of these opportunities.

A great way to kick this off is with Grace Jones’ new memoir ironically titled I’ll Never Write My Memoirs.  I was first introduced to Jones by way of the 1990s film Boomerang, where she plays an crazed supermodel who throws her panties around and says p*ssy a lot.  She also had a few hit songs back in the day, notably Slave to the Rhythm, My Jamaican Guy and La Vie En Rose – all songs I have currently on my iPod.

She is best known for her androgynous look and wild antics, but I didn’t much much about her beyond that.  With David Bowie’s tragic death this week, it is easy to say that she is his female equivalent. She popped up last summer at AfroPunk in all her glory.  I think her performance was amazing.  So I was happy to hear that she was finally releasing her memoirs a few weeks afterwards.

Her book really gave me a chance to get to know her better.  She is a little before my time, but she is still very relevant. There wouldn’t a Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj or even Madonna if there wasn’t a Grace Jones.  But as she says in the book, unlike many of the today’s singers, she wasn’t putting on an act, she really is a unique wild child.  

She has always been out there long before she became famous; she not putting on an act.  Jones is an original, and not, as she calls Kim Kardashian, a “basic commercial product.” “I cannot be like them, except to the extent that they are already being like me,” Jones says in her book.

So how did Grace Jones become Grace Jones?  The author goes back to her humble beginnings in Jamaica, where she was raised in a strict family of Pentecostal ministers.  When her family moved to Syracuse, New York in the 1960s, it was an opportunity to break away from her religious upbringing.  The book goes into her hippie years doing theater in Philadelphia and living in a commune.  She then moves onto Paris via New York, where her modelling and music careers take off.  She also talks about the many lovers she had over the years, including her on-and-off relationship with Jean Paul Goude, the father of her only child, Paulo, actor Dolph Lundgren, and her brief marriage to a Muslim man who is half her age.

There is also so much name dropping in the book that you start to wonder what famous people Jones doesn’t know!

grace jones

What I was really disappointed in was that there wasn’t much discussion in the book about her androgyny, from the vantage point of what people at that time thought of her look, since it was still pretty taboo in the 1970s and 1980s for a masculine looking, black woman wearing a suit.  

I was specifically hoping that would have addressed the accusation of racism in her image that was created by Goude, who said in 1979 “I had jungle fever… Blacks are the premise of my work.” I get from the book that she was equally responsible for her image, and most of it draws from exploring her Jamaican upbringing and cross gender feelings.  She also says that she connects more with men, or really gay men, who tended to collaborate with her the most throughout her storied career.

But I am looking at her from a more nuanced perspective. She comes from a different era where a lot of her racial imagery wouldn’t be scrutinized like it would be today.  She was asked in a recent interview about how young people today might feel uncomfortable about her image.  In true Grace Jones fashion, she essentially said she really didn’t give a …  “Somebody feels uncomfortable with a certain type of art,” she said. ” But it is an art form to me.”

Despite her public image as a wild child, she lives a pretty normal life as a tennis fan and jigsaw player in between being a grandmother.

As a veteran of the entertainment world, Jones gives sage advice, like don’t live in superficial Hollywood and eat pumpkins to stay young instead of Botox.  That is probably why she looks so young and fabulous on her book cover!

“In the end, I am quite normal,” Jones says.  “I don’t have odd habits.  I might dramatize things a bit, but only because I take things seriously, or sometimes not seriously enough.”

Give The Gift Of Literacy

My Librarian is a CamelI recently purchased a book for a young family member called My Librarian is a Camel: How Books Are Brought To Children Around The World by Margriet Ruurs.  Living in a Western country, we tend to take for granted our public libraries, where you can easily have access to millions of books.  This is not the case in most parts of the world, where access to literacy is far and few in between.

This children’s picture book shows how books are uniquely brought to different communities, whether by boat, bicycle, wheelbarrow, and, yes, even by camel.  In Thailand books are delivered by elephant in rural areas. In many countries like Australia and Azerbaijan, specialized library trucks go into underserved communities and also act as classrooms with built-in computers with WiFi and air conditioning.  For many users, this is the only way to access the outside world.

According to UNESCO, approximately 781 million people worldwide are illiterate, and many schools in the developing world have few, if any, books to use for educating students. Better access to books not only improves literacy, but also opens up more doors for social and economic mobility.

The gift of literacy is the best gift you can give someone. Worldreader is an organization that provides e-readers and digital libraries to children in developing countries.  If you are looking to make a donation to a worthy cause this holiday season, please consider them!

My Books Of The Year 2015

booksI read a lot of great books this year.  They were thought-provoking, educational and downright fascinating!  Some of them are review copies I received from publishers for free, but I never let that influence my opinions of the book.  Most of them are older books, but are still relevant.   

If you missed any of my book reviews and literary discussions, here are the links to them.

God’s Bits of Wood By Ousmane Sembene

Ousmane Sembène: The Making of a Militant Artist By Samba Gadjigo and Moustapha Diop

Mules and Men By Zora Neale Hurston

Tell My Horse By Zora Neale Hurston

The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference By Richard Wright

The Case For Diverse Literature

A Brief History of Seven Killings By Marlon James

The Politics of Change By Michael Manley

Kehinde Wiley: The World Stage: Haiti By Cynthia Oliver and Mike Rogge

Kehinde Wiley: The World Stage Jamaica By Ekow Eshun and Kehinde Wiley

The Untold History of the United States By Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick

Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga By Pamela Newkirk

Banned Books Week 2015

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking By Brendan Koerner

Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas By Emory Douglas and Sam Durant

One of my new year’s resolutions for 2016 is to read even more books and review them here.  There will be a mix of new and older books.  I like re-reading older, classic books because they are still so relevant to many social and political conversations we have today.   I have a bookcase and a Kindle full of books I just haven’t gotten around to reading, but I will do better in the new year.  Stay tuned!

The Pre-9/11 Hijacking Era Revisited

the skies belong to usMy post about the Black Panther documentary last month inspired my interest in learning more about the BPP international section.  I was browsing through my library a couple of weeks ago and realized that I had a copy of Brendan Koerner’s book The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking

(Disclaimer: I got this review copy of the book for free from the publisher a couple of years ago, but never got around to reading it at the time.)

This is one of the best books I have read in awhile.  Part investigative journalism, part thriller, this book doesn’t disappoint!  I literally couldn’t put this book down and finished it in three days.  The book centers around Western Airlines Flight 701, which was hijacked in 1972 by Roger Holder and his then girlfriend Catherine Kerkow.  This story has everything – sex, drugs, violence, mental illness, racism and politics.

Koerner does an excellent job of describing the hijackers’ backstory.  Holder and Kerkow, other than the both of them living in the same town of Coos Bay, Oregon briefly, couldn’t have been more different from each other.  He was a black man who felt discriminated against because of his skin color; first while living with his military family in Oregon and then as a soldier in Vietnam who was wrongly court-martialed for a petty crime.  She was a white woman who had a typical working class upbringing who became a masseur that gave hand jobs to male clients and sold marijuana on the side.

Holder had gone AWOL, writing bad checks and dealing with the onset of PTSD when he met Kerkow in San Diego.  He came up with the crazy idea of hijacking a plane, swapping the passengers for Angela Davis, who was on trial at the time for the Marin County incident, and bringing her to the Vietcong in North Vietnam.  The plan was to get ransom money that Holder and Kerkow would use to start a new life in Australia.

Sounds pretty crazy me, and unbelievable that the plane crew believed it, but they got away with it – sorta. Instead of going to Vietnam, they took the hijacked plane to Algeria, where they met up with Eldridge Cleaver and other Black Panthers on the lam.

I won’t give away too much of the story, but it is that wild and crazy and worth the read.  I will say that Catherine Kerkow is still on the run, and wanted by the FBI.  She has been rumored to be living in Cuba, but there is no substantive proof.

But the book is not just about Holder and Kerkow.  Koerner spends most of the book giving a substantive history of the “golden age” of hijackings, which was a common occurrence during the 1960s and 1970s.  I am only old enough to understand hijackings through the context of 9/11.  But even before 9/11, I never knew of a time when there weren’t metal detectors and security guards searching your person at the airport.  It seems impossible for me to imagine a time when people could just walk onto a plane without any of the strict security hassles we deal with today.

Apparently, this atmosphere of innocence did exist for a short time 50 years ago when commercial air travel was becoming more accessible to more people.  Many “skyjackers” saw this as an opportunity to use planes as vessels to gain worldwide attention.  Most of the earliest skyjackers were Fidel Castro sympathizers who wanted to fly to Havana.

Over time, skyjackers’ reasons for taking planes became varied and, well, insane.  Some wanted to bring attention to legitimate struggles like the Palestine question or racism in America, while others hijacked planes to avoid paying taxes or just wanted to get ransom money.  A lot of the hijackers were really mentally disturbed, especially the ones that parachuted off planes mid-flight like D.B. Cooper. Hijackings became so common during this time that there was one or two once a week.

These hijackings straddled the fine line between revolutionary acts and terrorism.  It makes you wonder if everyone during this time was crazy… or just high!

The only hijackings I was aware of before reading this book were the ones carried out by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine during the Black September timeline, and specifically PFLP member Leila Khaled – who hijacked two planes – the first woman to ever hijack a plane.  An interesting documentary about her life was done a few years ago.

The book also introduced me to Delta Air Lines Flight 841, which was hijacked by radical black militants who wanted to copycat the Western Airlines incident. They are mentioned in Koerner’s book, but there was also a more indepth documentary done about that incident too.  In the film, the director goes to Paris to interview one of the hijackers George Brown.

Whatever reason a plane was hijacked back then, the skies no longer belong to anyone today.