Tope Folarin’s A Particular Kind of Black Man

No one fits precisely into a cubby marked this, that or the other.  No one.  So why do we, much like hermit crabs, try to squeeze into one shell after another to see which one fits, to find the one in which we feel at home?  We all do it, but for young Tunde Akinola there are so many shells, so many identities to try and nothing feels like home.  In this coming of age novel, Tunde grows to be a “particular kind of black man”, a first generation African-American, born in the U.S. to Nigerian parents.  But what is that?

Tunde begins school in Utah where he looks around and sees… one like himself.  Utah is mostly white and Mormon.  What, then, is he?  His mother develops mental illness and returns to Nigeria, leaving Tunde and his brother with their father, hard-working, deeply religious and now a single parent.  Enter a Nigerian-born step-mother and her two Nigerian-born sons, a family blended in name only.  His Nigerian grandmother, a voice on the phone, is a constant and steadying influence, but he never meets her face to face.

Small town Utah, next small town Texas, then Dallas, college in Atlanta and Maine, on to D.C.  Son, brother, Nigerian, black, white, juju, pop, Western, Southern, small towns, rural, hip-hop, urban, New England, American, male.  How does a wide-eyed child born into this kaleidoscope find his way, navigate, come to grips…….when, more often than not, exploration is squelched, and welcome is never guaranteed?  And how does one such child grow with assurance into the kind of man he is to become?  What will the essence of this man be?  Tope Folarin’s book is not a “how to”.  It is simply the story of Tunde growing up, but it is revelatory, and, I believe, will leave you changed.  A recommended read.

In bookstores everywhere on August 6 from Simon & Schuster.  Shop your local indie bookstore here.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Simon & Schuster via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

The western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad was built almost entirely by immigrant Chinese, 20,000 or so of them.  I expect most of us are vaguely aware of that, and I expect most of us are aware this was hard, dangerous work.  Begun in 1864, finished in 1869, this portion stretches from Sacramento across the Sierra Nevadas, to the desert scrub of Promontory Point, Utah, a distance of 690 miles.  This is history we think we learned in eighth grade.  Gordon Chang takes our tiny tidbit and returns a thoroughly human story, extensively researched and rich in detail.

There was an impression then, and I suspect now, that the “Railroad Chinese” were enslaved workers, but California (the Gold Mountain of the title) was a free state, so it was important that incoming Chinese laborers were not being traded as slaves.  Most of these men were contract workers who came willingly, following opportunity.  However, Chinese women were bought in China and sold here as prostitutes, primarily for the “Railroad Chinese” – hmmm, the sex trade, as old as time and still with us today unfortunately.

All the work was done by hand – men with hand tools, wheelbarrows, black powder (a Chinese invention), horse carts and supply trains as the tracks extended.  Teams of three men using an eight-pound sledge hammer and a pole with crude bit-end could tap roughly three blasting holes a day, mile after mile, for roadbeds and tunnels.  Avalanches, explosions and fire, rock slides, entrapment, maiming injuries that would, as likely as not, ultimately kill a man.  We can only estimate the number of deaths, however.  Complete and/or accurate records of workers don’t exist.  The railroad united our country coast to coast, but, except for a scant few, we don’t even know who these men were – the survivors or the fallen.

After the railroad was completed, some of the “Railroad Chinese” went back to China as they’d planned to do.  Some continued as railroad workers here, in Canada, and elsewhere.  Some remained, took jobs or opened businesses, and their descendants live among us.  However, federal law immigration law prohibited anyone born in China from becoming a naturalized citizen, and that law was not changed until 1943.  Nothing brings today into focus as blindingly as history does, and so I offer you Ghosts of Gold Mountain, a thorough, scholarly work and a good read as well.

Available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on May 7.  Click here to order/pre-order from your local indie bookstore or, if you prefer, from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.