Showing 1 - 3 of 3 annotations tagged with the keyword "Inequality"


In 1902, an unusual structure was erected on South Dakota’s windswept prairies. It was not a silo, farmhouse, or barn—buildings that would be perfectly commonplace in that corner of the state. This conspicuously odd edifice, a “two-story building, with its jasper granite foundations,” was called the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, a first-of-its-kind and federally managed institution based outside of Canton, South Dakota (Joinson 24). The asylum, which operated from 1902 to 1934, was designed to incarcerate and treat Indigenous peoples deemed ‘mad’ by powerful political authorities, such as reservation superintendents and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. According to the historian and disability studies scholar, Susan Burch, the facility “ultimately held four hundred men, women, and children from seventeen states and nearly fifty tribal nations.”

In Vanished in Hiawatha: The Story of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, Carla Joinson provides an incisive institutional history of the Canton Asylum, examining the political motivations for its establishment, its different periods of (mis)management, and, ultimately, its demise in the early 1930s due to inspection findings and Indigenous affairs advocacy spurred by John Collier. In writing the book, Joinson seeks to answer her chief research question: “why an institution like this asylum could exist for so many years, and what made it tick as a viable part of the Interior Department” (2). Her research explores the mechanics of institutional longevity, specifically how, despite government inspection reports that revealed appalling evidence of neglect and abuse, the facility remained in operation for over three decades. Joinson’s book also corroborates the staggering fact that many of the asylum’s patients were not, in fact, ‘insane,’ but sent to the institution only so that the federal government could detain and surveil people who may have experienced difficulties with reservation authorities back home. Other Indigenous peoples, such as those with epilepsy and ‘feeblemindedness,’ were also deemed ‘mad’ and in need of medical detention. Many instances of abuse are chronicled: unhygienic conditions, patient restraint, fraudulent diagnoses and misdiagnoses, suicide, and failure to quarantine tubercular patients. Joinson also unearths decades-long dysfunction among the facility’s administration: staff backbiting and high turnover rates, lack of medical treatment, poor medical training and recordkeeping, and refusal to employ translators to communicate with Indigenous patients and understand their different cultures. Vanished in Hiawatha documents that Canton’s patients suffered years of neglect, and those who would have potentially benefitted from psychiatric treatment never received it because the facility was little more than a rural prison for unwanted, troublesome, and chronically ill Indigenous peoples.

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Behold the Dreamers

Mbue, Imbolo

Last Updated: Jul-05-2022
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


In the basement of the apartment building where I live, down the hall from the small exercise room, there are two plain wooden bookcases. Each one has five shelves, and they are filled to overflowing with books that people have finished reading and that are now available for the taking. The books cover the gamut of fiction to history to self-help and everything in between. Under pressure to unclutter our apartment, I have added about 30 books to this library. The books do not come with any recommendation and so there is no way to know if the original owners liked the book or got rid of it because they could not get passed the first chapter. I am a frequent borrower. About two weeks ago, I scanned the shelves again and on one of the lower shelves, I noticed this book by Imbolo Mbue. I remembered that one of her books had been selected by the editors of the New York Times as one of the Best Books of the year 2021 so I picked up this earlier book. Two weeks later, I am here to report that I am glad I did.

The novel is a moving story of two families whose fates get intertwined in the year 2008. One family is a couple, Jende and Neni Jonga, with their 6-year-old son. They have recently come to the United States from Cameroon. They chose to try their luck in New York in the hope of escaping the dreary life that they see in their future if they stayed where they were. The other family, Clark and Cindy Edwards, is a wealthy couple living in a posh apartment on the upper East Side of Manhattan. They seem to have it all -- health , wealth, and the freedom to do whatever they want. Clark is a high-level executive at Lehman Brothers, and he interviews Jende for a job as his chauffeur in the opening chapter. Jende gets the job, and it is a game changer for the Jongas. It gives Jende the self-confidence that he is a traditional provider for his family and allows Neni to enroll in school and actualize her goal of becoming a pharmacist. For both of them, they can feel more comfortable with the idea of a growing family. They have received their ticket to the American dream.

However, while the Edwards are the picture of success to all who see them at the glamorous parties and fund raisers they host and attend, there are cracks beneath the surface of their dream life. Clark is working 16-hour days to try to stave off the imminent bankruptcy of Lehman and the financial collapse that will follow in its wake. Cindy is a psychologically traumatized person who struggles to keep her family whole and provide a loving and safe haven for her two sons. Ultimately, Clark is forced to leave Lehman and take up a job at Barclays Bank. His wife suspecting infidelity ultimately succumbs to drug and alcohol abuse. The Jendes lose their financial footing and are forced to confront the question -- where will they be best able to live wholesome lives of meaning and self-worth? They have to decide whether to persevere and try to make things work in New York or whether to return to their native country, Cameroon. The book ends with a question from the Jongas’ older son to his parents, “Home?” Mbue artfully asks this same question to  her readers.

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In this age of intellectual sub-sub-sub-specialization, it would be unfair to say that people have completely abandoned grand narratives in their discipline. There are still brave souls who are willing to take on the big picture and try to synthesize what is known in their field as well as allied areas into a cohesive all-encompassing story. Stephen Pinker is a prominent example of someone who has leveraged his expertise in psychology and linguistics to fashion upbeat histories of humanity. But it would be fair to say that it is unusual to encounter a book that takes on the world and confidently asserts, “I think you have it all wrong.” To possibly be correct in the claim would be rarer still. This book by Graeber and Wengrow falls squarely into that small category.

The book has a bittersweet back story that only adds to its appeal. It represents the result of a decade long collaboration between Graebner, an anthropologist, and Wengrow, an archeologist. It originally started as pure academic fun between two colleagues but quickly escalated into a serious dialogue that culminated in a book with 83 pages of notes and a 63-page bibliography. Sadly, Graeber died unexpectedly at age 59 of necrotizing pancreatitis shortly after completing the work and did not live to see its publication.

The book has attracted a great deal of attention because it takes on the accepted grand narrative of human development, namely, a linear evolution from a primordial state of innocence and equality to a society in which hierarchy and inequality are hard wired into existence. The key step in this transition is the move from small groups of hunter-gatherers to agriculture-based groups that gradually grew in size and became more centralized in structure. This resulted in the prioritization of private property and the consolidation of the population into cities that mandated top-down control. Regardless of whether you invoke Rousseau as your intellectual guide or Hobbes as your rationalization for a powerful sovereign state, the traditional view is that you will reach the same endpoint, the loss of equality. Graebner and Wengrow challenge this “myth.” Their operational method is to examine the scientifically sophisticated data that have been gathered by archeologists from prehistoric sites around the world. They conclude that the prevailing view shortchanges human inventiveness in framing how people have chosen to live and undermines our freedom to reconsider the way society is organized. As an example of the scope and originality of the book, in the second chapter, they argue that this Enlightenment notion of “noble savages” and steady linear progress may have arisen among the French intelligentsia in the 18th century in response to the interaction of North American Indians with the French in the New World. Heady stuff that you thought you would not have to think about after college.

The book is loaded with facts and details about burial grounds, temples, houses, and playing fields that archeologists and anthropologists use as the ground truth in their work. They document how there was great variability and fluidity in social structure over course of the year in prehistoric times, demonstrating that though men and women could not control their environment they could do their best to adapt by alternating between planting and food gathering before there were “farms.”  In contrast to the view that agricultural groups, with their need for defined plots of land, created the notion of private ownership, they cite real world evidence from places as far flung as Poverty Point in Louisiana to the Australian Western Desert that the sacred realm was the origin of individual possession. They contrast in great detail the lifestyles of communities living along the west coast of North America, in the region from Washington State to northern California. The evidence is clear that while the northern communities were hunter gatherers, patriarchal, more warlike, and more ostentatious, those in the south were characterized by a less showy land-based public sphere and a more peaceful demeanor that was reflected in a greater role of women in defining the activities of daily living and social structure. The communities were not isolated and had contact with one another, underscoring the fact that the ways of life were active choices and not passive default modes. The start of farming was gradual over thousands of years and was not a revolutionary change, and prehistoric communities could switch their mode of sustenance in the face of changing circumstances.

I will not have to take a final examination on the book so I cannot say that I can repeat the names of all the Amerindian communities living in middle America along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers or recount the details of all the artifacts of and rites performed by the Mesoamerican civilizations. Graebner and Wengrow discuss an incredible number and variety of archeological sites throughout Eurasia and Africa, in addition to those in the New World, so I have to take the authors’ recitation of the facts on faith. I am sure that some of their interpretation is open to question by experts in the fields. But Graebner and Wengrow will certainly get you thinking.

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