The joke goes: If you want to keep something from black folks, just put it in a book. I'm sure you've heard it before. Did it make you laugh? Are you laughing now? On the other hand, I bet Frederick Douglass' assertion "what my master most dreaded, I most desired," was delivered with nothing less than a straight face. Imagine being told that you are not ALLOWED to read. Are you still laughing? Being the butt of such sad humor relegated the Negro laughing-stock to a world of assumptions, possible miscalculations and certain underestimations of black folks' ability to achieve. Since such has been the case for displaced Africans in America, only a couple of dire options have presented themselves: 1) live a hand-me-down existence well aware of the power of the word and an entire legislated society's design to keep that power from you, or 2) assume for yourself the responsibility of liberty and literacy while laughing in the face of those delivering the punch line.
As Elizabeth McHenry's Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies demonstrates, the quest for learning--the thirst for the brazen knowledge locked away in the pages of a book--usurped sanctions imposed by slavery and Jim Crow literacy laws, and bolstered the plight and purpose of black Americans in the struggle for post-bellum equality. Winner of the 2003 black Caucus of the American Library Award for nonfiction, McHenry's book contends that literacy defined as "the ability to read," disassociates the spectrum of communication--both oral and written--with the resistant dissemination of knowledge that was key to the pursuit of literacy for disenfranchised black people. As with David Walker's 1829 self-published Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World--a pamphlet that made its way from Boston to Georgia, Virginia, and even North Carolina (where it was banned along with all other anti-slavery literature)--the call was made to all literate black folks to deliver its message to those who could not read. McHenry notes that in the third printing of Walker's Appeal, he included a "pre-preamble" in which he encouraged, "all coloured men, women and children of every nation, language, and tongue under heaven ... procure a copy of this Appeal and read it, or get someone to read it to them, for it is designed more particularly for them." By presenting a greater understanding of the sheer hustle behind the distribution of a new public address by a new American voice, McHenry honors the religious ties formed between abolitionists of all shades, as well as the convergence of both message and mode-of-message carrier that defied northern and southern borders. What purpose is fulfilled if you got the goods but no means of getting the goods to the people? No chivalry promoted the sharing of anti-slavery propaganda with illiterate blacks in the south. It was an urgent matter of do or die.
Self-representation became the way it had to be, both literally and ... literally. Newsletters such as Freedom's Journal published in 1825 and subsequent print media orchestrated by African Americans, encouraged a sense of nationalism among blacks by showcasing black authors alongside "classic texts that all Americans should read." McHenry gauges that the dual-consciousness so often associated with African Americans was born of the tug-of-war between the intellectual esteem that educated blacks desired in hopes of achieving an American identity, and the need to procure a body of people who could author the history of the black experience in America, with an appreciation of its uncelebrated beauty. Equally important was the preservation of the feverish disgust for the grim atrocities imposed on blacks in this country in all of its "dreaded eloquence."
From this progressive perspective of literacy, McHenry explores the Women's Club Era, the work of anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells and North Carolina's own Charlotte Hawkins-Brown, who--though their methods varied extremely--were sisters in the fight for cultural development through social resistance.
Forgotten Readers is a textbook-like composition that requires us to dig beyond our predisposition of literature, to consider the tongues that authored black folks before the pen could write the story. From Fredrick Douglass' freedom narratives to the Saturday Nighters of 1920s D.C. (whose constituents included Jean Toomer and other unsung heroes of American literature) to Oprah's now defunct book club, the literary history of black Americans is more triumphant than the words amassed on the page. And with the information that McHenry documents, if black folks don't take the time to crack a book, it really ain't no laughing matter.
Duke University Press, 272 pp., $19.95
A nursing shortage of one kind or another has occurred on and off (mostly on) throughout my 40-year nursing career. The current shortage in the United States--called "critical" and "dangerous"--is projected to grow over the next 20 years. One recruitment remedy that has been successful in the past and is being used again--the recruitment of foreign nurses--has been predicated on finding and importing qualified, English-speaking nurses from countries such as the Philippines, Ireland and India. Currently, the largest number of foreign nurses in the United States are Filipino emigrants.
I agreed to review Catherine Choy's new book, Empire of Care: Nursing and Migration in Filipino American History because I was interested in the resurrection of the previously used solution to our nursing work force problem. I'm also concerned about the ethical issues related to encouraging nurses from countries with lower nurse-to-population ratios--than those in our country--to come to the United States via immigration or occupational visas. Choy's book (derived from her doctoral dissertation) provides an analysis of the political, sociological and, in her terms, imperialistic history of nurse recruitment and migration from the Philippines to the United States during the 20th century. In addition, she clearly describes the development of multiple professional Filipino nursing organizations and their relationship to the American Nurses Association.
Choy presents a compelling view of the colonial history of the United States in the Philippines, the Filipino adoption of an Americanized nurse education system and the growing needs for a new source of nurses in the United States. These relationships are presented as the foundation of the policies that promoted nurse migration to the United States throughout the 20th century. However, Choy's academic writing style, multiple use of acronyms and description of the complex political and bureaucratic dynamics surrounding Filipino nurse migration, make for difficult reading. Empire of Care is likely to be of interest to nurses and health care employers with a strong interest in the subject matter, rather than for lay people or consumers.
I was troubled by Choy's frequent use of the terms "racialized," "gendered" and "classed" to describe the dimensions of the recruitment, immigration and employment processes. Her personal biases color her treatment of her subject and, at times, take away from her important messages. Many of her assertions about the exploitation of Filipino nurses and discrimination against them in orientation processes, work assignments, scheduling and housing, made me uncomfortable. It is not easy to react objectively to repeated accusations against the professional nursing establishment, the INS and nurse employers in our country. However, her research includes extensive interviews with Filipino nurses who reported employment practices and alleged discrimination, and provide powerful evidence of the veracity of her assertions.
Empire of Care is an interesting book, and is helpful for developing a personal, ethical position on the recruitment of nurses from countries who have a greater need of their services than the United States. The issues that Choy raises have strong relevance to the crisis of today's health care labor market and must be considered in shaping current governmental and professional policies.
Sheila P. Englebardt