Books for People Uncomfortable on the Fourth of July
Happy Fourth! Some of the best memories in this ex-pat's head are the Fourths when I would walk around Prospect Park in Brooklyn and see Hasidic Jewish men eating kosher hot dogs next to women in burqa, surrounded by children running and screaming in Spanish. Brooklyn was, in many ways, dope. I love this holiday because of those memories. I also love books.
This list is by no means comprehensive; they’re just titles I think of every time the Fourth of July comes around. I reread at least one of these every year to remind myself of where I come from and what my country’s legacy is.
Rebel historian Howard Zinn (A People’s History of the United States) said, “Born on the Fourth of July brings back the era of the Vietnam War at a time when the Establishment is trying to make the nation forget what they call the 'Vietnam syndrome.'"
My degree is in East Asian Studies, but I studied virtually nothing except the Vietnam War for a solid year of my college career, and the one thing that terrifies me is how my generation does not know.
Born on the Fourth of July is Kovic’s memoir, from patriotic soldier to injured veteran to outspoken anti-war activist.
At only 186 pages, you can do it! Yeah, there are meatier books I also recommend for an understanding of the Vietnam War, like the classic Embers of War and this meaty biography on Ho Chi Minh, but this is an entertaining and terrifying recap of the last four years of the war. It highlights how completely batshit insane the Nixon administration was and it is really, really important for Americans to know this.
An interview of the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade. White people literally weren’t ready to read this book until 2018. I wrote about it in my June reading round-up.
This is the story of the ex-slave Callie House, who spent her entire freed life—seventy years—fighting for the ex-slave reparations that had been promised to her and many other, formerly enslaved African Americans.
“Mrs. House was just a black woman with the audacity – and no money – to stand firmly on claims of citizenship rights for herself and freedmen and freedwomen. She had much to fear.” Callie House faced 19th-century style government surveillance, censorship, false charges, and prison. She didn’t succeed, but her movement matters in United States history.
“The U.S. Marines issue this warning: THE U.S. MARINES WILL NOT HESITATE TO DESTROY IMMEDIATELY, ANY VILLAGE OR HAMLET HARBORING THE VIETCONG. WE WILL NOT HESITATE TO DESTROY, IMMEDIATELY, ANY VILLAGE OR HAMLET USED AS A VIETCONG STRONGHOLD TO FIRE AT OUR TROOPS OR AIRCRAFT. The choice is yours.”
Another short and info-packed read. YOU NEED TO LEARN ABOUT THE VIETNAM WAR YOU YOUNG HOS.
A difficult, academic read that will make you feel slimy as heck, but this is one of the few places where first-person accounts of what Korean women went through during the Korean War, at the hands of Americans, is meticulously recounted. Even reading an excerpt can make you a more worldly person.
In Jonathan Schell’s The Military Half, he discusses how the U.S. army used language to dampen the awful violence they were inflicting on Vietnamese civilians. “Hootch” was slang for a Vietnamese house. The more proper military term for a Vietnamese person’s home was a “structure.” It’s fun to burn a hootch; a duty to bomb a structure; unbearable to destroy someone’s home. The language desensitized the soldiers, so that they could joke about killing children, pregnant women, and the disabled and elderly without facing reality.
Our military’s issue with language goes way back. Words matter – these layers of euphemisms make way for real violence that harms real people. Sharif offers a creative way to think about the effect that language has. She takes the words out of the perpetrators’ mouths, phrases from the Department of DefenseDictionary of Military and Associated Terms, and flings them back. She carves those words open and exposes the awful truths that lie inside.
In “Inspiration Point, Berkeley,” she starts with, “Consider Kissinger: / the honorary Globetrotter / of Harlem who spins on fingertip / the world as balloon, the buffoon / erected and be-plaqued here … ” We honor a man with the blood of millions on his hands, and she compares this ingeniously to how “the conquistadors dropped / armored mission after armored mission after saints — / Luis Obispo, Francisco, etc.”
I’m going to leave you on a bright note, with a heartwarming book of fiction that I really wanted Oprah to pick for her book club in 2014. This is about three black women, Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean, who are known as “The Supremes” in their small town in Indiana. It's the story of their lifelong friendship, and it’s one of my absolute favorite books of all time.
“[This] was the tender [consideration] that came with being a member of the Supremes[:] We overlooked each other’s flaws and treated each other well, even when we didn’t deserve it.”
I think a lot of people read scraps of words on the Internet and then feel like they’ve learned something. Blog posts, articles, even just article headlines. I do this. Maybe you feel like this list is teaching you right now, but it’s not, not in the way a book could. Go read a fucking book.