The borrower bee doesn’t always follow the news, but today she turned on the radio to hear about immigration chaos in Texas, followed by news of someone tweeting about it, followed by … and oddly enough it reminded her of the first chapter of a book in our own Behrens library, called How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?, by Moustafa Bayoumi. The title is taken from W.E.B. du Bois’s book The Souls of Black Folk, and racism directed against black people in the United States is a recurrent theme in the book, but a minor one. Mostly the book presents what its subtitle says: Being Young and Arab in America. It is an expansive book, but engaging, well-researched, well written and well-constructed. We have the book in our library because the author gave a lecture at UUCL (March 2018), but the book was first published in 2008. It won several prizes then and our edition is a later edition that offers additional materials, including questions for discussion. What has struck me, to my regret, is how well the book continues to speak to current events and provide useful background. Each chapter presents the story of one person, and the stories are arranged in a way that, among other things, starts at what you might think of as the beginning, namely with an experience of an immigrant family’s detention. They were not, however, detained as they were entering the United States, but instead after they had been living here for years and without having done anything whatever that ought to have led to their detention, except for being Arab in Brooklyn in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. The chapter (called “Rasha”, for its heroine) is helpful for us today, in at least two ways. First, Bayoumi provides historical background and statistics about immigration detention in the United States. Although September 11 provided special impetus, the system, with much of its physical manifestation and its financial incentives for abuse, had been in place long before. And, second, thanks to his ability to transform narrative into art, Bayoumi shows what this experience meant for the young woman whose life he is writing about. Since the issue of detaining entire families in immigration facilities (or other facilities into which they are off-loaded) is sometimes treated as new, this opening chapter in How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? is a good introduction for those of us who are fortunate enough not to have needed to think about it deeply before. Highly recommended.
Even an expansive church library will still be different from a general public library: we offer resources for our ministries and also serve as a repository of materials that can remind us of our history. That doesn’t mean all our books will be about religion or how we practice our faith. There is also space on our shelves and in our hearts for writing that looks at the foundations of our faith and of our identity. Faith, identity, and the tension between individuality and social connection are all pretty fraught these days, and sometimes we get tired and confused and don’t ever want to hear those words again. And that’s a good time to pick up the latest of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s books on ethics, social categories, and identity. Until recently a philosophy professor, Appiah is known both for his approachable style (he writes a popular newspaper column “The Ethicist”, dealing with readers’ daily-life dilemmas) and for his nuanced response to what may seem like cut-and-dried situations. He views religion not only or even mainly as a matter of belief but also as shared behavior: what people do together as their shared spiritual practice — an approach well known among anthropologists but in the world of the Christian faithful, not so much. Since Appiah’s approach to religion chimes so well with our own UU faith, readers at UUCL can take pleasure in Appiah’s nuanced exposition as he lays out his evidence for how world religions actually work.
In addition to the one on religion, other chapters in The Lies That Bind discuss race, class, country, and culture. Perhaps most important, the book will surely interest anyone concerned about how societies try to make sense of sexual and gender complexities. The first chapter takes up sexuality as the leading example of how categorizing people works, and how it fails, while later chapters offer abundant discussion of the rich varieties of human sex and gender expression. One of the appealing aspects of Appiah’s writing is that, while appealing to a vast range of information about many different world cultures and subcultures, he often starts from the complexities of his own situation: he is Ghanaian but has never held Ghanaian citizenship, he is both English and American, the pairing of his British accent with his milk-chocolate complexion startles taxicab drivers in the United States, and he is gay and married. His parents’ marriage created a family scandal not because it was biracial but because the bride was Anglican and her bridegroom Methodist. He writes with verve and good cheer, no small thing in a time when everybody seems to be angry with everyone else and people often rightly worry about their place in society if they don’t fit in the suffocating categories their little worlds assign. Read this book! You’ll feel better!