Posts Tagged ‘VA Festival of the Book’

Last night, as part of the VA Festival of the Book, Bob and I attended a program at the Paramount Theatre; a gorgeous art-deco building that once had African Americans sitting in the balcony, a la To Kill a Mockingbird. We were there to hear Bryan Stevenson speak about his book, Just Mercy, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/books/review/just-mercy-by-bryan-stevenson.html?_r=0 …and about the injustice of the criminal justice system in our country.

Stevenson graduated from Harvard Law, lives modestly, and runs the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. He has been called America’s Nelson Mandela, and last night I was a witness in a very spiritual way to his testimony.

The statistics tell only a fraction of the story, but they are a good place to start. In 1970 America imprisoned 300,000 of its citizens. Now it imprisons 2.3 million people. A quarter of a million children have been sent to adult American jails in that time, including 3,000 sentenced to life without parole. One in every three black male babies born today can expect to be incarcerated (for the white population it is one in 15). In some states, including Alabama, a criminal record means disenfranchisement for life. http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/feb/01/bryan-stevenson-americas-mandela

He said some pretty provocative things. For instance, he told us that today Germany is placing memorial stones at the places where Jews once lived; Stevenson would like to see us place stones under the trees where Blacks were lynched. The problem is that we have erased, or denied so much of our Jim Crow history, we just don’t even know where all these killings happened.

Did you know that in Alabama MLK day is officially recognized – probably because it is now a national holiday, mandated by law – and called  “Martin Luther King/Robert E Lee Day?” What if Germany decided to have a holiday and call it “Dietrich Bonhoeffer/Joseph Goebbels Day?” Think about that – a dissenting theologian and a Nazi general.

I have likened our privatized prison system to apartheid before, but Stevenson thinks we can actually change things. By changing our war on drug policy to a public health model, by not privatizing our prisons, by ending capital punishment and appointing, not electing judges…and more. I wasn’t taking notes like a good journalist, because I was actually listening to every word.

As a country, he said, we haven’t gone through a Civil Rights era “truth and reconciliation” period, like Rwanda and South Africa, as evidenced by the fight over the Confederate flag. Many Southern White people see that flag as a symbol of their heritage. All Black and Brown people see it as sign of bigotry and hate. We need to confront the awful truth of enslavement and institutionalized segregation and racism in order to heal as a country.

Listen carefully next week while the Charlottesville City Council fights to remove the statue of Robert E Lee in one of our most beautiful parks, Lee Park. “Robert E Lee never came to Charlottesville and was never part of our local history. This statue was erected for the sole purpose of celebrating the Confederacy and establishing the supremacy of its cause. It has no place in our community.”

Stevenson has gone into the belly of the beast in Alabama, and he is still fighting for social justice. How can we treat children as adults in our courts? He has to be “brave, brave, brave,” as King’s widow once told him.

“We will ultimately not be judged by our technology, we won’t be judged by our design, we won’t be judged by our intellect and reason. Ultimately, you judge the character of a society . . . by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated.”   Photo: Caleb Chancey-Tireless-advocate--Bryan-010


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Almost by accident, I bumped into an author event at the Virginia Festival of the Book yesterday.

“Searching for Home and Life: Fictional Journeys” caught my attention while I was roaming through Barnes and Noble, looking for something to read at the gym. Instead, I stayed to listen to three authors read from their novels.

LaShonda Barnett’s “Jam On the Vine” is a coming-of-age story that takes place in the Jim Crow South. Barnett wanted to depict a “normal” Black family, not some dreary, dysfunctional stereotype. She told us that before Plessy vs Ferguson there were 20 Black universities, all in the South, and she brings to life a family that revered the written word. Her young heroine becomes a journalist, moving from Texas to Missouri in the process. I loved the way Barnett spoke about her characters, how they came to life, almost of their own accord. When I mentioned her voice was so beautiful she should record the audio book herself, she told me Phylicia Rashad had just finished doing it!                              http://www.npr.org/2015/02/08/384695774/black-and-female-in-jim-crow-era-a-reporter-in-kansas-citys-vine

Hiary Holladay’s “Tipton” is about a young woman searching for her departed husband. She starts her journey at the Tipton Home, an orphanage in Oklahoma, traveling by car to Virginia with her best friend. Holladay told us she was commuting to James Madison University, a treacherous trip in the winter over Afton mountain, while she dreamed and wrote about her characters’ road trip. Her voice gave us a hint of her melodious language skills, later I found out she was also a poet, which didn’t surprise me. The action takes place in the 30s, the same time period of the Flapper’s story. I asked Holladay is she was able to speak with anyone, or knew of someone, from that orphanage. She said she hadn’t, which made me think of my half-sister Shirley and brother Brian. How poor single, widowed women had to use an orphanage like a pawn shop for their children for centuries. This is an intriguing novel I can’t wait to start.                                           http://hilaryholladay.com/2014/12/19/how-i-wrote-tipton-2/

Katia Ulysse presented us with her novel, “Drifting”, a collection of stories she likened to leaves, drifting to the ground in a haphazard way, that is also well choreographed. Ulysse is an ESL teacher who is also an immigrant herself from Haiti, At times her native language, Creole, would take over her writing; as she told us, some words defy an easy translation. Her heroine is packing, eager to reunite with her husband in the United States, and we immediately feel her urgency, and her pain. “…in their drifting, they find not only their progenitor, but themselves by way of artificially produced calamities and natural disasters. Thus, no matter how far one drifts, one will always find himself or herself back home to an ethereal world created within the solace of one’s mind and heart despite misfortune, pain, and suffering.”                                               http://www.blackstarnews.com/entertainment/books/books-katia-d-ulysses-drifting.html

What is home to you? What kind of courage does it take to risk it all and set off on a journey? And are we ever too old for a second or third act? Barnett told me her heroine was an accidental journey woman, that “…that’s the best kind.”

I thought of my “accidental” stop at this event. and I thought of my Mother, the fearless Flapper, moving deliberately from PA to NJ to be closer to me, her last child. In doing that, she ensured my vista would expand beyond the lilac tree outside my bedroom window. Home isn’t a place, it’s the smell of lilacs and the touch of Bob’s hand.


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Imagine yourself fresh out of high school. Someone tells you that you can make 79 cents an hour, but he can’t tell you where, or what exactly you’ll be doing. It’s the middle of WWII, and your family had just survived the Great Depression; 79 cents an hour is really good money. Would you say goodbye to your family and friends, pack a suitcase and get on a train the next day?

Well, it’s the middle of the great Virginia Book Festival http://www.vabook.org/index.html/ and this glorious, spring-like afternoon I found myself at the New Dominion Bookstore on the historic Downtown Mall listening to Denise Kiernan talk about her book The Girls of Atomic City. I learned something new today. The race to build an atomic bomb wasn’t just happening in New Mexico. Over 80,000 people were assembled in Oak Ridge, TN – a town that was built for the sole purpose of enriching uranium. Only no girl knew exactly what they were doing there. All of their jobs were so well compartmentalized; plus they had been advised not to talk or write home about their work, or they would be fired. http://www.girlsofatomiccity.com/the_book.html

I wanted to ask her, after she explained how she had interviewed some of the surviving women now living in an assisted living community at Oak Ridge, if they felt any remorse when they found out what they had been working on, in their later years. But I didn’t because the bookstore was packed and I was squeezed under the stairs on a stool. I’m just going to have to read this book myself, and draw my own conclusions. Or maybe I’ll email the author and ask her!

I love the Book Festival, it’s quintessential Charlottesvillian. There was a beautiful carousel that was whirring in the middle of it all, and gown and town were mixing it up with alacrity. I bought the Love Bug a few books naturally, and visited with Anita and Skip who come over every year from Richmond. I told them how we had just seen the movie Monuments Men. I learned a few things during that movie as well. And who doesn’t love George Clooney? Plus his dad does a cameo at the end.

This was a week to go back in time, to the 1940s. Of all the programs so far this weekend, I can honestly say Ms Kiernan was the best. But I doubt I’ll be attending any other festival events because poor Bob has finally come down with that flu-like illness I mentioned earlier. Not to worry. I just made him some delicious Jewish chicken soup, he should be feeling better in no time.

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“Women’s rights are human rights.” Do you know who has made this the mantra of her life’s work? Well today, I looked out my windows at extremely dense fog, just barely glimpsing the evergreens that stand guard against the mountains. And as I walked upstairs to the aviary office, I began formulating today’s post in my mind about Cville’s glorious Festival of the Book; it began yesterday and the plan is to meet cousin Anita in town for an author’s program. Instead, Anita sent me an email with this link:


We all know Meryl can act, but she’s also a darn good public speaker. Sometimes it’s hard for an actor to play themselves. Witness Mitt doing laundry, trying to seem like everyman. But seeing the genuine love and admiration for our Secretary of State, hearing the praise and accolades of the women Hillary Clinton has touched, had a calming effect. Being totally ADD, I changed course from books to being real…and then back again. In the children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit, the Skin Horse who was always truthful, explained to the Rabbit what Real really is: “Sometimes, when you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

Real means getting a country to care about fertility rates, and women’s reproductive health, while her own country is slowly and deliberately cutting away women’s rights state by state. Real means having the media focus on what you are wearing, or how your hairdo differs from last month, instead of her speech at the US Afghan Women’s Council where she stated: “Any peace that is attempted to be made by excluding more than half the population is no peace at all. It is a figment that will not last.” The room burst into strong applause. Clinton admonished the Taliban for walking away from peace negotiations saying, “What the Taliban do is up to them.” She said it is their choice, in very much the same way our mothers might have said “I’m disappointed in your poor choice.”

On some days, the world gets foggy. On those days it’s good to know we have “The Real Deal” speaking for our great nation. Now, should Anita and I attend a reading by Award-winning foreign correspondent Kimberly Dozier from her memoir “Breathing the Fire: Fighting to Survive, and Get Back to the Fight?” Or a discussion with author Charles Flood on his book “Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year?” How to survive a war, or how to win one? Of course I’d love to go to one about how not to start a war in the first place. It’s our decision.

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