Monday, May 3, 2010

It’s a totally interesting book, enviably well-written. But how many New York City public high school kids could read it?


If you were in the same room, even in the same house, with me, I’d have interrupted whatever you were doing and read out loud to you a score of passages from David Remnick’s The Bridge. Obama is the most important guy in the world. He’s young, and unique among people in power for being cool and coordinated. He’s from Hawaii, and he’s half-black and half-white, and he’s under siege by idiots. And what could you be doing that was more interesting than hearing about this guy. That’s what I would think as I went Yo, and said, “Listen to this!”

Here’s one about Michelle when she was at Princeton:
One of Michelle’s freshman-year roommates at Pyne Hall, a girl named Catherine Donnelly, from New Orleans, moved out midway through the year. Donnelly’s mother was so upset at the notion of her daughter rooming with a black girl that she telephoned influential alumni and hectored the university administration to get Catherine another room.

Just before I read that, ‘Conde Nast Traveler’ magazine arrived with a picture of Michelle on the cover, in the White House, in a beautiful sleeveless, rose-colored dress, wearing pearls and pointed low-heeled shoes. And that great face. And I thought, screw you Mrs. Donnelly, look where Michelle Robinson is now.

There are all sorts of things about Obama’s mother and father and grandparents, and his days in Hawaii and Indonesia. His high school is a big factor in his growth. So is coming here to New York to go to Columbia (which he did in junior year; he started at Occidental College in California). Harvard is huge. Chicago even more huge. Remnick evokes each of these stops along the way with a great writer’s great details. It all moves like a wonderful magazine article that you don’t want to end. Even as you approach the 586th page, you want to stay in it.

One of the reasons is that Obama is always moving. He’s going somewhere. Ambitious. Destined. Genetically endowed to stand out. Graceful. Curious. Brotherless. Neither all-black nor all-white, he keeps looking to define himself. He glides. You go along with him. He’s irresistible even on the page. You’re taken with him, like everyone is. Even the Black pols in Chicago, who’d been at it long before he showed up — all J.Crew-looking with his Harvard law degree — have to respect his intelligence and his drive. He won’t be denied. You know as you read it that he’s in the White House now. And you see why, all along the way. His eye is never not on the prize. You don’t resent him for it. You just watch the glide. You roll with it. You want to be him. You turn the book in your hands and look at the cover; more than once. You’re inspired by the story.

Yo, listen to this, I’d say again. I’d like to be a teacher and say it to Black students in the city schools. Listen to this:
As a young man, Obama searched for clues to his own identity by very purposefully reading his way through DuBois, Hughes, Wright, Baldwin, Ellison, and Malcolm X. He has also mentioned texts by Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Martin Delany, and a range of novelists—in particular, Toni Morrison. In fact, reading as a way of becoming is a feature of African-American autobiography, as it is of so many outsider-memoirists of any ethnicity. In memoirs of all kinds, a young person in search of a way to rise above his circumstances or out of his confusion invariably goes to the bookshelf. Malcolm X, for one, provides an extended account of his self-education. He reads histories by Will Durant and H.G. Wells, which gave him a glimpse into ‘black people’s history before they came to this country’; he reads Carter G. Woodson’s ‘The Negro in Our History’, which ‘opened my eyes about black empires before the black slave was brought to the United States and the early Negro struggles for freedom.’ In ‘Soul on Ice’, Eldridge Cleaver recounts his reading of Rousseau, Paine, Voltaire, Lenin, Bakunin…as a means of detailing his own radical catechism. Young autobiographers also read other memoirs to learn the form. Claude Brown told an audience in New York in 1990 that he carefully studied the structures of Douglass’s slave narratives and Richard Wright’s ‘Black Boy’ before writing ‘Manchild in the Promised Land’, his memoir of growing up in Harlem in the nineteen-forties and fifties. Even Sammy Davis, Jr., in his Harlem-to-Hollywood autobiography, ‘Yes I Can’, is eager to tell the reader that, while he was on ‘latrine duty’ in the Army, he became an obsessive reader of Wilde, Rostand, Poe, Dickens, and Twain; and that helped him endure the racism of his fellow soldiers.

One of the principal aspects of the book that makes it bright is the brightness of all the people in it. From Obama’s mother and father to the staff he picked for the White House. Books flow through them. Education is the way they made it. They are all aspirants. It makes them percolate. It makes the book move.

You wish young people would read it. You wish it would be assigned. Seniors in high school, let’s say, would undertake it for a month. Get someone to donate fresh copies for all the seniors in the system. Younger students would see the big kids reading it and want to do the same. I can recall when I was a freshman in high school, seeing one of the upperclassmen, a cool guy in my eyes, walking out of a classroom carrying a copy of James Joyce’s [ital]A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man[ital]. It looked so mature, so collegiate, that I couldn’t wait to grow older and read it.

But could it work in the city school system? Could enough of the kids read at a level to understand it, get the magic from it? Maybe have their lives changed by it? Like Cleaver’s life was changed by reading. Like Malcolm’s. Like Barack Obama’s life was changed.

Here’s something the schools could use as a guide. A better one I think than working toward passing the Regents exams. What if the seniors, like I imagined, were in fact going to be given that month in the last semester to read The Bridge. Meaningfully read it. That might give direction to the curriculum-makers. They’d know they would have to prepare kids all along the way, from pre-school on really, to be able to read a book like this one when they were seniors,. Wouldn’t that direct them? Wouldn’t that be some real prize to eye? I think so.

The way it is now, they couldn’t do it — if they even hung around till senior year. Pathetic isn’t it? Isn’t it? After 12 years, going to school most of the year, each of those years, they couldn’t do it. Haven’t the principals noticed? Haven’t they said this is crazy that we haven’t sent these kids off with an ability to read well.

One more Yo from me:

It is from Obama’s famous speech at the Democratic Convention in Boston in 2004. As he was winding down, he went into a Tom Joad-like list of purpose. First thing on his list, and you can imagine, may even remember, how he sounded saying it: If there’s child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child.

Barack Obama would wish, for all sorts of reasons, that that child could read David Remnick’s book.

We should wish that too, and work to see that it happens. It’s a bridge that needs crossing.

Caption: What a shame. The city school kids here can’t get out of books what Obama got out of them.
Taking the Show to Brooklyn

A meeting about charter schools draws a crowd

I went to Brooklyn last month to take in a monthly school board meeting. (They move the meetings among the boroughs.) They call the board here the Panel for Educational Policy. Don’t let the name fool you, like they want it to. Spanky and Alfalfa dressed as G-men would fit right in at their long table. You should go to one of these meetings.

The night’s issue was charter schools and it drew a fervent crowd of supporters. Mothers and their young kids were there in force. Dressed up in same-color T-shirts and same-color baseball caps, carrying signs, they could have been at a union rally or all sitting together at the Little League World Series. They were almost exclusively African-American. This was their cause. These schools. They’re true believers. I’m not. Unless they turn them into reading academies, they’ll not change things much for the kids. And I thought it was a kind of racism to have cute little black girls with their hair done just right come up to the microphones and be cute little black girls with their hair done just right. That’s an old bit. The Panel loved it.

Caption: One of the many signs in the auditorium pleading for charter schools.
What Makes a Perfect Book

The Bridge is the perfect model

Not to beat a cliché, but you know it when you see it: perfection. A just-poured pint of Guinness. A perfectly-flat-brimmed red baseball cap on a Black kid’s head. Long Converse sneakers at the bottom of a long pair of faded Levis. The book about Obama by David Remnick is like that. The photo on the front is by Martin Schoeller, who did the Andre Agassi book cover, and who’s done all sorts of famous portraits. That draws you, like a hot magazine cover does. That photo with the typeface and the way it’s put together by Chip Kidd makes you pick it up. And when you do, its heft and feel make you want to own it, read it. You open it and the weight of the paper and the binding leave the book lying flat like the big book at church, like the big dictionary at the library. It’s by Knopf. Nothing finer.

Caption: It looks at you from the window; you look back.

There’s no magazine that combines
wonderful writing with wonderful photos like this one.