Politics for the People Book Club Recordings — A Conversation with Lois Leveen

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On Sunday, June 3rd the book club had the pleasure of spending an hour in conversation with Lois Leveen, the author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser. You can listen to our full conversation at the end of this post.

Lois says that she “dwells in the spaces where literature and history meet.” She has degrees in history and literature from Harvard, USC and UCLA and has taught at UCLA and Reed College.

In addition to being a novelist, Lois is a frequent essayist and contributor to the New York Times, LA Review of Books, Huffington Post and many other publications, literary and scholarly journals.

In the opening section of the call, you can hear Lois and I discuss how she first met Mary Bowser and decided to write the book.  We talk about the relationship between Mary and Bet Van Lew, the woman who freed her and was her collaborator in spying on the Confederacy.

Give a listen here or below:

 

Caroline Donnola, who orginally recommended The Secrets of Mary Bowser to be a Politics for the People selection, asked Lois how she created and built out the characters of the book, especially Mary Bowser.  How did she decide what she should sound like, how she should think, how she would respond to her many life challenges?  You can hear their conversation here or below:

 

Helen Abel from CA shared that one of the most astonishing parts of the book for her was how Mary Bowser extended the Civil War by withholding particular information so that slavery would become a main issue for Lincoln and not just preservation of the Union. She asked Lois whether she this part of the book was something she uncovered in her research and whether there were other spies who impacted the civil war in this or in similar ways?  Listen to Lois’ answer:

 

Alice Rydel was eager to ask Lois if she considered herself a social activist? Give a listen to her answer:

 

Dr. Jessie Fields shared with us how much she appreciated The Secrets of Mary Bowser, and how much it “…conveys a great deal of African American history in a very intimate fashion, that history also being integral to American history. ” She asked Lois how her study of African American literature influenced the writing of the novel. Lois talked about how much she learned from authors like Richard Wright, James Baldwin and many African American women authors about “how difficult it is to negotiate protecting your family in a place where you legally really have very few or no protection of them.”  She talks about the creation of Mary Bowser’s voice, and the private school education she received.  You can hear the full response here and below:

 

Jenn Bullock, the coordinator of Independent Pennslyvanians commented on how “powerfully and unapologetically” Lois portrayed the racism in Philadelphia, particularly among white progressives.  You can listen to Lois’ response.  She talks about how “not everybody who was antislavery would have described themselves as an abolitionist.”

 

Harry Kresky and Lois talked about Clarence Thomas, Thurgood Marshall, the movie Black Panther and, as Harry put it, the complicated and controversial “issue of what African Americans and others do with opportunity, giving back so called…”  A fascinating conversation to listen to:

 

Julie Leak shared how much she loved the book and some of her reminisces of growing up in the South.  Lois talked about a visit to Richmond during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and emancipation and a visit to Lumpkin’s Alley with an African American woman whose family lived in Richmond for generations.  Give a listen:

 

You can listen to our entire conversation below:

 

And if you would like to learn more about Mary Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew, take a look at this wonderful CSPAN video, “A Spy in the Confederate White House” from 2013. The video features Edward Ayers, President of the University of Richmond; Lois Leveen; and Elizabeth Varon, Professor at the University of Virginia and the author of Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. 

Lois’ second book is Juliet’s Nurse, which tells the story of Romeo and Juliet through the eyes of Juliet’s nurse.  I have added this to my summer reading list.

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STAY TUNED
We will announce our next selection soon.

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Reader’s Forum — Alice Rydel. Reminder: Call at 7 pm EST

I never heard of Mary Bowser before reading Lois Leveen’s historic novel. Such a range of experiences and imagery! From the sadness of having her shiny ribbon thrown into the fireplace, being separated from her mamma and papa, her papa’s iron cross, getting kicked off the omnibus in the liberal north to Mary shooting the soldier in the head. Her

Alice-1remorse for this action unnecessary and her decency and bravery inspiring. I had to keep reminding myself this was an historic novel and yet left wondering about all the unknown people and actions of bravery that took place.

There were the humorous yet serious depictions of Aunt Piss and Queen Varina. And maybe this wasn’t so humorous as an “Aha!” moment: The slaves were invisible until there was the realization the Confederacy was losing, to paraphrase the leaders, “We have millions of slaves, we can recruit them too!” Then realizing what that would really mean!

Thinking about today, I’m fortunate to live in a comfortable building complex, about three blocks from a run-down housing project. There are many neglected housing projects throughout NYC, occupants are people of color who are starting to fight back for being treated as invisible. I walk out my door and there are homeless people on the streets. If you walk by the grand U.S. Post Office early in the morning, dozens of invisible people are sleeping/living on the stairs.

Then I turn on the news and hear that the economy is better, unemployment is down. Where are these people? Simply dropped from their statistics? Invisible?

Alice Rydel is a long-time activist with the independent development community.

 

 

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Join us tonight for the 

Politics for the People

Conference Call 

With Author Lois Leveen

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Dial In and Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

641-715-3605 and passcode 767775#

 ***

Talk with Lois Leveen Tonight

MaryBowser_StewartLeveen

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Join us tonight for the 

Politics for the People

Conference Call 

With Author Lois Leveen

 

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

 

Dial In and Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

641-715-3605 and passcode 767775#

 ***

Reader’s Forum — Lou Hinman and Sheryl Williams

LOU HINMAN

While I was reading The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen, I saw Call Mr. Robeson, the one-man show written and performed by Tayo Aluko, at the Castillo Theatre in New York. Like Paul Robeson, Mary unnamedBowser made a political choice: she rejected the life of relative privilege that was open to her as a talented, educated, free black person living in the north.  She chose instead to return to Virginia, and risk her life in the war for the liberation of her people.

Ms. Leveen’s account of Mary Bowser’s heroic life also shows very clearly that an entire nation cannot abuse and degrade a whole group of human beings without corrupting and degrading itself.  The injustice of slavery corrupted not just the southern “slave power”, but the northern “free” states as well.  Ms. Leveen shows us how racism infected even the abolitionists in the north.

Today, one hundred fifty-three years after the end of chattel slavery, the corruption of racism is still degrading, poisoning, shaming, and holding back America.  Three generations ago, President Truman (DP) told Paul Robeson that the time was “not right” for anti-lynching legislation.  This past week, the NFL ruled that its players would face sanctions if they kneeled during the national anthem to protest police violence against the black community.

The racists – and this includes Roger Godell, the smooth-talking Commissioner of the NFL – reserve their most rabid hatred for people of color like Mary Bowser, Paul Robeson, and Colin Kaepernick who have the unmitigated temerity to lay down their privilege to stand with their people.  The rest of us reserve for them our greatest respect, admiration, and love.

Lou Hinman lives in New York City and is an activist with IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs.

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SHERYL WILLIAMS

In reading Lois Leveen’s book, “The Secrets of Mary Bowser” I am reminded again of the importance of reading American history. A very richly textured book about the life of a real person, a former slave, Mary Bowser. The level of detail in both the hardships and the mundane have had quite an impact on me.

 

IMG_20171125_084439I can’t but help think about how some of the themes in the book are common to present day African American families. For example, I grew hearing from the oldest generation of my own family stories of the lack of certainty about who was born when given the lack of record keeping as it applied to a people who were once enslaved. The conflicting emotions of pride and loss at just the possibility of access to education. As an adult, attending the with my parents the very same church I attended as a child, listening to announcements about young people in the church who were graduating from high school and soon to be going away to college accompanied by cheers and tears.

The thing that probably surprised me the most, was from the very beginning to see slavery through the eyes of a child. Maybe it’s because I’m older now, have a better sense of what it means for a parent to want better than they had for their children. And since I don’t have any children myself, think about my own parents, and their parents for before them and the strength it must have taken to send children off into nearly unimaginable hostility only to hope against hope that would that they not only survive but also thrive.

A very powerful book, I hope everyone reads.

Sheryl Williams is a long-time independent; an activist who believes in the power of the people.

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Politics for the People

Conference Call

With Author Lois Leveen

TOMORROW

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Join us and Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

641-715-3605 and passcode 767775#

 ***

Reader’s Forum — Lowell Ward, Diana Dakey, Harriet Hoffman, Maureen Albanese and Helen Abel

 

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

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LOWELL WARD

 I love the book, it’s brilliantly written.  When I’m reading it I feel like I’m there among the characters, and part of the 20180529_100153conversation.  The book is hard to put down to because of the adventure and intrigue that comes with a story as powerful as Mary Bowser’s is. I also find it fascinating how the Willy Lynch syndrome had already kick in. The self-hatred, envy and jealousy we were taught to have for each other ,way back when, let’s replace it with self-esteem, decent, and love. Mary Bowser is my HEROINE.”

Lowell Ward is an activist with the Massachusetts Coalition of Independent Voters.

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DIANA DAKEY

Author, Lois Leveen transported me back to the Civil War era in The Secrets if Mary Bowser.

Although it is fact that its main characters lived, that there were spies for the Union, that the underground railroad existed, that a colored society existed in Philadelphia, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthere is limited record of what it actually was like for people who lived during these trying times. It takes the research and imagination of a writer to create the realistic setting and to develop the characters of the time, masterfully done by Lois Leveen.

Through the eyes of our heroine, Mary Bowser, we learn of the overt and subtle prejudice against colored freed people, as well as the social order among freed (e.g., to sew for charity) and enslaved.

A takeaway from the novel was that one could be sustained in one’s convictions by taking the long view that one’s efforts could eventually make lives better for others (e.g., Mary’s belief that she had a mission in life), embodied by Mary, Wilson, Bet and others, both white and colored. Also, the personal dignity of Mary, who envisioned a life of greater importance for herself than being an accessory to her first beau.  The novel also shows us the compassion of the individual for others, a counterweight to the prevailing inhuman treatment of slaves at the time.”

Diana Dakey lives in Pennsylvania and supports a number of good-government groups.

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HARRIET HOFFMAN

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I loved Mary Bowser, especially her contrariness.  She lived a life that made no separation between the personal and political. She was ruthless and astute in her analyses of the people and events taking place around her. And of course she had enormous courage.  I wish I’d known her.”

Harriet Hoffman is a consultant specializing in grant writing and helping people maximize their Medicare and social security benefits.  She is an activist with  IndependentVoting.org and the New York City Independence Clubs. She is also active with the All Stars Project’s Committee for Independent Community Action.

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 MAUREEN ALBANESE

I had no idea who Mary Bowser was as we Americans are not good at teaching our history certainly not slave history. I want to thank Lois Leveen for giving me a history lesson I didn’t know I really needed.  In reading the book I was awestruck who by a slave who risked everything to get justice for her people.  They say someMaureen Albanese people are born great and other have greatness thrust upon them in Mary Bowser’s case it is both.  Although she was granted freedom and was able to be educated she wasn’t really free.  She realized to be free she would have to take matters in her own hand using a life of lessons learned against those who would enslave her people.  Her foes supposed smarts show they were not the masters of the universe they thought they were.  They never realized that Mary who toiled as a drudge in their midst was the one who ultimately brought them down.  Slavery has not gone away or has the institutional racism that still permeates our society today.  This book should be required reading in every high school in America.  We need to know our history to come to grips with it and this book can help us do that.”

Maureen Albanese is an administrative assistant and activist. She lives in Manhattan.

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HELEN ABEL

I loved this book and read it in 3 days on Kindle. It is a page turner. This is a remarkable story and kudos to the author Lois Leveen for writing such a fascinating and meticulous account of a little known piece of history. Yes it depicts the difference in what racism looked like in the North and South during the era of the Civil War. One of the things that I found interesting was how the house slaves and plantation slaves were treated. Also Mary Bowser was lucky in that one of her masters, the daughter of the plantation was against slavery and helped her get educated and free. It also depicts some of Mary’s conflicts over how slavery was depicted. While it was awful, it wasn’t just people being beaten and hung on a tree which is the way it was portrayed in a lot of the political propaganda of the abolitionists. And since this is historical fiction we don’t know the extent to which Mary might have been abused physically.

She also had a gift of a photographic memory and decided to use that to help end slavery and be a spy.

IMG_7132One of the most astonishing parts of the book for me was how she extended the Civil War by withholding particular information so that slavery would become a main issue for Lincoln and not just preservation of the Union. Was this part true? A possible question for the author.

She was obviously very smart and able to evade detection. However the environment that she was in, i.e. when she lived in Jefferson Davis’s house, shows the level of racism where a black woman slave in particular would never be seen capable of reading, writing or thinking, and definitely not smart enough to be a spy. So she was able to use that to work in her favor. They tried to accuse a white man. And the person who guessed part of her secret was another female slave that she worked with.

As someone who is an activist in the independent political movement it gives the word “perseverance” new meaning. I look forward to other books by this author.”

Helen Abel is a political activist with Independent Voice in California and on staff of Life Performance Coaching in San Francisco.

***

Politics for the People

Conference Call

With Author Lois Leveen

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Join us and Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

641-715-3605 and passcode 767775#

 ***

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