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Biographies to Checkout for Women’s History Month: Rosemary and Goddess of Anarchy

6 Mar

For Women’s History Month I decided to review two biographies of women whose importance is frequently neglected. Rosemary Kennedy and Lucy Parsons have only recently been given comprehensive biographies. Although they remain somewhat obscure figures in American history, they have impacted modern life much more than many people realize. These are just two of the many excellent biographies that the Hoboken Library has in its collection.

Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter
by Kate Clifford Larson
The Kennedy’s are one of the most documented families in American history, but for decades, the public knew little about the eldest Kennedy sister, Rosemary. Unlike her highly ambitious siblings who were being groomed by their parents for elite society, Rosemary struggled with basic skills and had trouble socializing. Had she been born today, Rosemary’s could have lived a comfortable life, but because she was born into a family with impossibly high standards during a time when people with intellectual disabilities were poorly understand, Rosemary was subjected to a series of cruel treatments, the most horrific being a prefrontal lobotomy she was given at 23-years-old that left her severely disabled and isolated from the public for the rest of her life.

Despite the barbaric way in which she was treated, Rosemary’s life had a great impact on the outside world. Eunice Kennedy Shriver was so horrified by what had happened to her sister that she dedicated her life to advocating for people with disabilities and helped begin the Special Olympics. While in the Senate, Ted Kennedy cosponsored the Americans with Disabilities Act, which he dedicated to his sister who he had barely gotten to know but whose life deeply affected him. What makes Kate Larson’s Rosemary such an excellent read is that it is not just a biography of Rosemary Kennedy; it is also the story of the fight for a more humane society for people with disabilities.

You can borrow Rosemary as an ebook or digital audiobook from eLibraryNJ, eBCCLS and Hoopla.

Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical
by Jacqueline Jones
Goddess of Anarchy
During her life, Lucy Parsons was one of the most well-known speakers on America’s public lecture circuit and at times, the most prominent African American woman in such a position. However, Lucy Parsons has remained an obscure historical figure who has not had a strong biography until Pulitzer Prize nominee Jacqueline Jones uncovered newly discovered documents about her early life. With this new insight in Goddess of Anarchy, Jones illustrates the life of a fearless speaker and activist with a very complex legacy.

Parsons identified as an anarchist, communist, and revolutionary. She was a fierce advocate for the downtrodden and oppressed and was involved in many volatile labor struggles. Her controversial statements and writings led her to spend many nights in jail, but she amazingly lived to be 89-years-old and spent her entire life trying to advance her revolutionary beliefs. At a time when black women were mostly shut out of intellectual life, Parsons’ ability to inspire a crowd was incredibly admirable.

Parson leaves behind a difficult political and racial legacy. Although she was born into slavery, she lied about her background and claimed to be Mexican and Native American. Spending much of her life in Chicago, she identified with city’s white working class immigrants and was accused of downplaying issues of discrimination against African Americans during the time of Jim Crow. There are also questions about whether her violent rhetoric hurt the progress of the causes she believed in. Regardless of what the reader conclude about Parsons, she is a fascinating figure whose role in women’s history in worth exploring.

You can borrow Goddess of Anarchy from eBCCLS as an ebook.

Looking for books for the younger members of your family?  You can get some great suggestions for biographies for children in our previous blog post: Well Behaved Women Don’t Make History.  For more books for adults and some also appropriate for teens we have Heroines You Should Know.  What are some of your favorite biographies about women who have changed history for adults or kids? Share them in our comments!

Written by:
Karl Schwartz
Young Adult Librarian

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

6 Feb

warmth of other suns

The Great Migration, the time between 1915 and 1970 when over six million African Americans moved out of the Jim Crow South to dozens of large cities across the country, was one of the biggest demographic shifts in American history. Cities like New York, Baltimore, Detroit, and Los Angeles would develop thriving black neighborhoods that continue to shape the culture and politics of the United States. From Harlem to Watts, these newly changing neighborhoods would experience an explosion in art and culture during the Great Migration, with African Americans from the South bringing their musical, artistic, religious, culinary, and folk traditions with them.

My neighborhood, the Central Ward in Newark, was a major point of settlement for African American migrants and the city would shift from a majority European immigrant population to a majority black population over the course of just a few decades. Local legend always held that the reason Newark became a hub for these arrivals from the South was that people would mishear train conductors calling for “Newark Penn Station” with “New York Penn Station” and get off at the wrong stop. Whether this piece of lore is true or not, I was curious to learn more about how the Great Migration affected my city and so many others across the country. I could not have picked a book more epic in scale than The Warmth of Other Suns to explore this topic.

Wilkerson alternates between the narratives of three different migrants, each of whom settles in a different part of the United States during a different phase of the Great Migration. Their stories all start in the segregated South and their reasons for migrating North were common to millions of others. Fleeing racist violence, leaving behind the abusive sharecropping system that replicated some of the conditions of slavery, and desiring to live in a place where one could have a more liberated existence were all reasons why millions left for northern and western cities. Similar to the immigrant experience, many African Americans were eager to travel thousands of miles to what they hoped would be a better life.

Following Wilkerson’s three migrants is exhilarating and the reader experiences the ups and downs of the journey with each character. Crowded cities with public transportation and industrial jobs would have been foreign experiences to those leaving small, segregated towns in the rural South, but despite the sense of community northern cities provided to African Americans, the Great Migration is not a simple story of upward mobility. While less systematized than the South, racism was still prominent in northern cities. Many migrants were forced into poor quality housing in segregated neighborhoods and worked dangerous industrial jobs for poverty level wages. Some felt that they had simply traded rural poverty for urban poverty. By the end of the 1960’s Newark, Harlem, Watts, and many other northern cities would experience urban great unrest caused by these conditions.

Wilkerson’s book still has many uplifting moments. Lots of African American migrants did experience newfound freedoms and success. Robert Foster, one of the three figures whose narratives Wilkerson highlights, left Louisiana to pursue a medical career. He became one of California’s most respected surgeons and the personal physician to Ray Charles. History is never black and white and The Warmth of Other Suns treats this epic story with the depth and nuance that it requires.

We are celebrating African-American History Month this February at the Hoboken Library and hope you can join us!  You can see all the great events on our calendar page including Black Comedy: No Tears, Just Politics on February 19 at 6 pm and  Thinking In Full Color Empowering Women of Color Through Education & The Arts on February 21 at 7 PM.  All the Maker Mondays in February will have special activities for kids so they can learn about important African American Inventors.

Written by:
Karl Schwartz
Young Adult Librarian

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