The Solidarity Dividend

The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee: A cover full of color blocks resolves as a diving board into swimming pool with a white boy jumping off the end and a black girl climbing the ladder.

“I’m a white male, and I am prejudiced.” In August 2016 on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, public policy expert Heather McGhee, answered the challenge presented by Garry, a caller from North Carolina. He asked, ”What can I do to change, you know, to be a better American?” The video went viral due to McGhee’s reasoned, compassionate response. Thanking the caller for being honest while acknowledging we all have prejudices, McGhee proceeded to offer advice including, “In order to be a demos that is united across lines of race and class and gender and age, we have to foster relationships. We have to get to know who one another actually is.” When McGhee’s book, The Sum of Us, was published, I was curious to learn more from her. After reading it, I especially appreciate McGhee’s insight into how the mentality of “us and them” was built and how we can break it down. 

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together describes how all ethnic and class groups suffer when racism influences government policy. McGhee researched the roots of economic disparity in the United States and explored causes and solutions from a perspective of unity rather than division. She argues that many problems with wage distribution, education, health care, housing, and environmental policy arise from the concept of a zero-sum game. When citizens perceive one racial group’s gain as another group’s loss, we cannot work for a common good. She documents how everyone loses out when racial hierarchy guides legislation. When public pools are filled with cement to circumvent enforcement of desegregation legislation, all the kids whose parents can’t afford private pools can’t go swimming. Using the concept of the public pool as a central metaphor, McGhee deconstructs how the US reached today’s level of political division and how American society can move forward, allowing all races, ethnicities, and classes to thrive. 

Of course, the idea of “what helps you, hurts me,“ goes beyond kids not being able to cool down in a pool in the summertime. The Sum of Us carefully traces trade union busting, healthcare access gaps, rising costs of public colleges, and the sub-prime mortgage crisis back to racial profiling. The resulting wage stagnation, benefit cuts, student debt, and foreclosures affected all racial groups.  

McGhee’s empathy raises The Sum of Us to a higher level than some other books I’ve read on similar topics. For example, as a self-proclaimed data nerd, she clearly explains the economics of the 2007-2010 financial crisis but then goes beyond the numbers to show, “what was risky wasn’t the borrower; it was the loan.” I gained understanding not only of the economics of the crisis, but the societal toll. Although predatory loan practices were initially targeted at low-income Blacks, later, the loans were pitched to everyone, regardless of their credit status. Many borrowers were eligible for prime mortgages but were manipulated to accept sub-prime mortgages because of the financial bonanza for the lender. McGhee presents this as yet another situation where racism eventually hurt everyone. 

McGhee has coined the phrase “Solidarity Dividend” for the benefits arising from communities collaborating across the racial divide. From minimum wage increases to investment in affordable housing development to improvement in air and water quality, the Solidarity Dividend boosts the economy while enhancing quality of life. “Getting white support to address those different levels of need, and to acknowledge the racism that caused these differences, is never easy – particularly when the zero-sum mental model turns every concession into a threat of loss,” McGhee writes. The Sum of Us demands to be read both for the well-researched documentation of the past and the message for our future.  

By the way, Heather and Garry, a disabled Navy veteran, built a friendship. Garry continues to work on understanding racism and realigning his own thinking. 

Cherise Tasker is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch. When not immersed in literary fiction, Cherise can be found singing along to musical theater soundtracks. 

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore

The book cover depicts a dust storm across a dry landscape of orange dirt,  with oil rigs and a solitary tree in the distance and purple stormclouds in the sky above.

by Aimee Z.

Content warning for book: sexual assault

1976, Odessa, Texas. The wild oil boom brings equally wild young transients from as far away as Arkansas and the Carolinas. These “roughnecks” work and play hard, drinking all night at the local cantina. When Gloria, a rebellious fifteen-year-old Mexican girl, accepts a truck ride from such a blue-eyed stranger who calls her “Valentine,” she doesn’t expect to be raped, beaten, and left for dead on the dusty Texas range.

She surely doesn’t expect to awake at dawn, shoeless, black-eyed, her spleen ruptured, ribs and jaw busted, watching her rapist sleep off his drunk in the cab of his old truck. But she does. Stealthily, Gloria wills herself over sagebrush and shale, to what first seems a mirage – a farmhouse. 

Gloria bangs on the door and a child answers followed by one of the most gloriously grounded characters in recent fiction, the very pregnant Mary Rose. Gloria is in the worst shape Mary Rose has ever seen. She sees something else, too – way out on that dusty red road, a sky blue truck is racing toward her. 

Mary Rose yanks Gloria inside, shushes her little girl, and waddles out to the front porch to meet Gloria’s sweet-talking rapist with her rancher husband’s Winchester .22.  He’s intent, too, in getting back “his little Mexican gal.”

I found the prose taut and gorgeously written by first-time novelist Wetmore, whose affection for Texas is only surpassed by her fierce and pragmatic women — Mary Rose, Corrine, Gloria, and more. You’ll love them for their pushback, for their ‘Me Too” attitude against the structural racism and ingrained misogyny that defined West Texas oil boomtowns in the 70’s.

Elizabeth Wetmore’s Valentine is also available in eBook and eAudiobook format from Libby/OverDrive. 

Aimee Z. is part of the adult research staff at HCLS East Columbia Branch. She lives on a lake with her two labs, Dixie and Belle, who enthusiastically approved the content of this review in exchange for a peanut butter and jelly biscuit.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

The book cover shows two boys running in silhouette against a dark foreground and blue sky with clouds, between two leafy trees.

by Aimee Z.

In a small, forgotten Mississippi town, a vicious crime and a missing girl are like déjà vu for hapless farmer and hermit, Larry Ott. Decades before, the man the whole town still calls ‘Scary Larry,’ took local girl Cindy Walker on his first and only date. The girl never came home, and her body was never found.

Blame fell on Larry Ott, and he became a pariah to everyone, including his parents. But the one person Larry could not bear to lose was his best friend from childhood, Silas Jones. Silas “32” Jones, a black man, once dirt poor, worked hard over the years to earn the respectability he covets as the town’s lawman.

Now another girl – a politician’s daughter – has gone missing. Once more, the town is certain Larry did it. The last thing Silas needs is anything to do with Larry Ott – until he responds to the 911 call: Larry Ott’s been shot by an intruder and is now in intensive care. It doesn’t look good.

Silas’s struggle to do the right thing is what makes this book a small gem. Readers will settle in to assume that this is another insignificant southern town, bristling with economic despair and racism, but they’ll be wrong. Sure, Franklin creates an oppressive atmosphere where heat and kudzu vines flourish, and neighbors get back at neighbors with the occasional cottonmouth snake in the mailbox. Urban legends, racism, ignorance, child abuse, and the small-town need for a whipping boy abound. We need a hero, and refreshingly, Franklin has given that role to Silas.

At the same time, any connection to Larry Ott could put Silas back on that precipice of racism. But as he investigates and pursues the perpetrator, unearthing the bones of an old crime, Silas’s conflicted emotions press to a breaking point. Will he admit to the complicated part he once played in the harrowing life he shared with Larry Ott? If only he could forget turning his back on Larry when Larry needed him most.

Part thriller, part literary fiction, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is still a book I want to press into everyone’s hands. I think it should also be part of the high school curriculum. An eloquent and tender story, it will shape any reader’s collective consciousness regarding race and what it means to be a friend. 

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is also available from HCLS as an ebook from Libby/Overdrive, and in audiobook format on CD.

Aimee Z. is part of the adult research staff at HCLS East Columbia Branch. She lives on a lake with her two labs, Dixie and Belle, who enthusiastically approved the content of this review in exchange for a peanut butter and jelly biscuit.

Slay by Brittney Morris

A slightly pixelated picture of a young Black woman with long natural hair and glasses features the quote, "I am a queen and this is my game."

by Eliana H.

“We meet at dawn.” Characters in the online virtual role-playing game Slay confirm duels with that line. In Slay, author Brittney Morris builds two worlds. She shows us the real-life world of high school senior Kiera Johnson, one of the only Black students at Jefferson Academy. We also get a glimpse inside the world of Slay, a video game that Kiera built from the ground up to celebrate Black cultures from around the world. In the game, Kiera is Emerald, a queen who cares for the tens of thousands of players, who use cards inspired by everything from Louis Armstrong to natural hairstyles to battle virtually. But the game Slay is a secret from everyone in Kiera’s real life, as she is confident that none of her friends or family would really understand and appreciate it. The only person Kiera can talk to about the game is Cicada, a friend she met through the game who is now a moderator, but Cicada and Emerald only exchange messages on Whatsapp and don’t know each other’s real names or locations. 

Kiera is preparing to graduate high school, looking ahead to her life in college and beyond, and planning for her future with her boyfriend, Malcolm. She is doing pretty well handling the stress of keeping her worlds separate, until one day when she sees on the news that a boy in Kansas City was killed in his sleep over a disagreement based in Slay. Kiera is devastated, tortured by the guilt she feels that what she created could lead to such a horrific event. Was it her fault? Adding to her distress is the analysis from pundits discussing whether Slay – which is designed specifically for Black players, and which you need a passcode to join – is racist. Of course, many “experts” declare that anything made for Black people and not explicitly welcoming white people is inherently racist. But all Kiera wanted was a place where others like her, who so often find themselves in a world trying to erase them, could shine as the kings and queens that they are. 

Over the course of the book, readers see snippets of other players’ experiences and journey with Kiera through her struggles to face the hard truth of who is threatening to destroy everything she worked so hard to build. 

Slay is also available from HCLS as an ebook through OverDrive/Libby.

Eliana is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. She loves reading, even if she’s slow at it, and especially enjoys helping people find books that make them light up. She also loves being outside and spending time with friends and family (when it’s safe).