Carousel: Jeanne Powell’s Timeless Contrapuntal Essays on Racism, Jesse Jackson, and the Kindness of Strangers

Photograph Source: O’Halloran, Thomas J. – Public Domain

Berkeley’s Regent Press published Carousel ($14.95) in 2018. It’s been around for a while and reading it may feel like entering a time capsule, though much of the book is timely. Most of the reviews and essays “and such,” as the author Jeanne Powell calls them were written between 2009 and 2013. That’s when Obama occupied the White House. He wasn’t Powell’s first choice as she makes clear in the first essay in the book which is titled “2008 Election: Why Hillary Lost.” Powell provides six reasons, number one being “the fear of women,” number five “Barack’s relative ‘nonblackness.’” Her explanations ring true more than a decade later.

The second essay is titled “Rev. Jackson’s Tears.” It probably has more punch, (or is it a counterpunch?), than any other in the book. “Racism remains the bloodstained elephant with broken tucks in the center of the room as people tiptoe around it, eyes averted, looking for an easy way out,” she writes.

That perspective seems as timely now as it was when first expressed in 2009, though the murder of George Floyd and the birth of Black Lives Murder make it even more difficult to ignore racism today. In 2023 there are no easy ways out, except perhaps more prisons and bigger prisons, too. Those who seek escape routes from racism will likely find themselves tangling with grassroots movements and progressive politicians.

The biographical note at the back of Carousel offers Powell’s academic achievements, the titles of her previous books and her history as a publisher and performer of the spoken word. She’s a public intellectual. In the essays themselves, she reveals aspects of her personal life: shopping at Whole Foods, reading Carlos Castaneda and running behind schedule.

Nowhere does she explicitly define herself as African American or Black, and perhaps that wasn’t necessary. After all her essays sink or swim on their own merits, not on the color of her skin or her ethnicity.

Curiously, in a review of Robert Redford’s movie, The Company You Keep, which was inspired by a novel about the Weather Underground, Powell mentions two of the white people involved in the botched robbery of a Brinks vehicle in 1981. She does not mention the members of the Black Liberation Army (BLA) who planned and executed that job who were captured, arrested and who went to prison. Powell knows a thing or two about the FBI and its methods of surveillance. Of the FBI agent who is portrayed in The Company You Keep, she writes that the agency that he represents now has sophisticated technology it did not have just a short while ago.  It’s harder to be a criminal now than ever before.

Carousel includes balanced movie reviews and trenchant essays about politics, culture and lifestyle. Powell can be sharp when she writes about New Age entrepreneurs in northern California. She can be impassioned when she writes about sexual assault and rape in the U.S. military. In passing, she offers comments about the sexism of video games and popular music.

At the end of the essay, “When a Legend Visits,” she says “Thank you” to an unnamed person on a bus. “It is never too late to say thank you and always wise to recall that others may not have done so, or realized the need,” she writes. She is almost always polite, even when she’s hard hitting, as she is in her essay on Jesse Jackson. Powell also expresses her unalloyed admiration for the Black minister who “walked and sat with other ministers, founded the Rainbow Coalition and ran for president in 1984 and 1988.”

It’s never too late, as she knows, to honor Jesse Jackson, who had and still has more Blackness in his soul than Obama ever had. “Jackson’s tears,” she writes, “spoke of many rivers to cross, of dreams deferred and the absence of a crystal staircase for generations of African Americans.” When Powell taps into her own passion her prose is positively poetic and inspired.

Readers can learn a lot about American history, including the history of slavery and the Civil War, from reading Carousel. Perhaps if more citizens knew about the past they might not find themselves going around and around again and again with no forward movement or progress. History does repeat itself as tragedy times after time.

On a crowded bus in San Francisco, her hometown, Powell finds herself on a bus with standing room only and with windows that won’t open, all of which make her feel uncomfortable. Suddenly, “some sweet soul” says to her, “Would you like a seat?” Racism and sexism are nearly everywhere in the world Powell describes, but so is kindness, including the kindness of strangers.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.