Racism was not only present in the former Confederacy. Yes, in the South, oppression was written into law and deepened by local violent traditions. But when black migrants went north and west, what they found was all too familiar. Black people were forced into cramped, run-down residential districts by restrictive covenants, “steering” by realtors, mobs of angry white people, and the impossibility of securing mortgages at the same cost as white people. State-sponsored violence against black people took different forms, but it did not stop at the Mason-Dixon Line. Urban police departments inspired fear and anger in all the cities where large numbers of migrants settled. It was not only backward white folks in Selma who saw racial hierarchy as a key component of American culture.
And yet, there is no doubt that television news did help the civil-rights cause, helping activists and politicians push key legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. More recent (and honest) research about how this really happened reveals the genius of King, the institutional imperatives and racial tropes that guided coverage, and the enduring limits to racial equality in every part of the nation.
Kindness is not new. It’s old, pretty old. Aristotle said: “It is the characteristic of the magnanimous man to ask no favour but to be ready to do kindness to others.” Kindness is mankind’s “greatest delight,” said Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. And yet, for a long time it has been seen as sort of… suspicious. As religion’s hold on our culture has weakened, and with it the insistence upon loving thy neighbour, a certain selfishness has come to be expected. To be kind is also to be weak, unfocused on achievement. Unsuccessful. Kindness is seen as a nostalgic throwback to simpler times, or worse, a con. A man who throws his coat over the puddle is a man who onlookers suspect must be protecting something valuable in the mud. To go out of one’s way to be kind suggests an ulterior motive – who has time to look up from their phone, let alone expose themselves to the discomfort of empathising with a stranger?
At the West Plano location of Barnes & Noble Kitchen, the food is real, but the books, strangely enough, are fake. Resting atop wooden shelves that jut out from the back wall, they have neither pages nor titles, functioning merely as decor. To find the real books, diners need only push back their blue upholstered chairs — which, appropriately, resemble furniture that might be found in a public library — and stride to the opposite side of the bar. Smaller than a typical Barnes & Noble, with a book selection largely focused on best-sellers, the entire West Plano store occupies approximately 10,000 square feet. Half of that is devoted to the bookstore, and the other half to the restaurant, with its quiet color palette of wood tones and serene blues.
The 10 stories that make up Mothers resist superficial analysis in a way that is interesting in itself. Power is an extraordinarily unshowy craftsman, so that discussing the writing itself feels like trying to focus on the glass of a window, rather than the view beyond. This is partly a function of the transparency of the prose, which so lacks ornament as to almost feel bald in places, and partly to do with the disposition of his narrators, all of whom share a kind of emotional reserve that is close to affectlessness. The risk in this kind of writing is that it leaves the reader unmoved; the reward is that it can more closely mirror daily life, which plays out without a string section or a set of filters to indicate or intensify the mood.