Hands up if you’ve ever thought about the experience of black people living in Europe during World War II? If you did put your hand up, you’re probably lying. I’m just saying.
Now I’ve always been fascinated with the Second World War in general, and I love reading stories about the Jewish experience (Those Who Save Us anyone?), but not once in all those history classes in school or in any documentary have I heard anyone talking about blacks living in Nazi Germany at the time. Their experience is not well documented. And while it’s certain that we’re not talking about millions of people here, like the Jews, I understand that there was still quite a large number of black people affected (mixed-race kids were sterilised!).
So that’s why I was surprised when I picked up Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues. I’ll confess that part of the reason I picked it up is because the book is published by the publisher I’m currently interning with (haha). HOWEVER, my opinion on the book has not been affected in any way. Hands on heart.
The story revolves around a single incident that took place in 1940s Paris; Hieronymous Falk, a gifted jazz musician (trumpeter) is arrested in a cafe, and never heard from again. He was a German citizen. And also black. Sid, his Black American bandmate, is the narrator and the only one to witness Hiero’s arrest. We move back and forth in time and place (from Berlin to Paris in the 30s and 40s, to Europe and America in the 90s) to understand what led these men to this desperate situation, and what has happened to them since.
The voice in which the tale is narrated (jazz vernacular and slang of the time) gives a great sense of place and really helps to immerse you in that time, with Jazz music almost becoming a character in its own right. I’m not a fan of jazz and can sometimes find all this stuff a little annoying, but my ever-growing desire to know of Sid’s betrayal really helped this story along.
The men’s struggle to stay alive, the strength of their friendship and the ferocity of loyalty creates an atmosphere that is at times so intense that I almost couldn’t turn the page! So this idea of betrayal is all the more heart-breaking.
Edugyan was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011, and has now been shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize for fiction. All for a reason. Read it (to make the company I’m photocopying for really rich!).
This book is recommended to anyone who’s interested in learning about the black experience in Nazi town.
This book will make you laugh. A lot. This is a guarantee. So if you want to laugh, buy this book. Or the ebook. Simple.
What isn’t quite as simple are the ideas explored in this book. It looks at the notion of ‘blackness’ and how these perceptions are formed. These concepts are essentially rooted in stereotypes (mostly negative), and ‘are limiting and simply inadequate to the task of capturing the reality of blackness. The ideas of blackness that make it into mainstream thought exclude too much of the full range of who black people are.’
For someone who doesn’t necessarily fit into this stereotypical mould, this book was comforting as I’ve grown up with my ‘authentic blackness’ constantly being questioned. I wrote about my experiences on the How To Be Black blog a few weeks ago, check it out here.
Through reading this book, I re-evaluated my sense of self and grew more comfortable with the notion of creating one’s own identity. Don’t get me wrong, this book is very much tongue in cheek and effing hilarious, but ultimately, it goes one step further and looks at what it means to be an individual, irrespective of your race. I believe Derrick Ashong, (musician, entrepreneur, TV host), explains this perfectly:
"People will always find ways to determine who is in and a part of us, and who’s an outsider. And part of that is because…I define me to some degree in the context of you. I’m not just me existing in the world. I am, in part, me because I’m not you. We are part we because we’re not y’all."
And failing that, you can always read this book to learn how to be the Black Friend, how to speak for all Black People, how to be the Black Employee, and of course, how to be the Angry Negro. Skills that are important for everyone to have.
And p.s., this book is for all races.
If you’ve read this book, get involved in the conversation! Let me know what you learnt (if anything) from reading it, or even just share your experiences with identity (we all have a story!). Go to http://howtobeblack.me/ for more.