The first book we read was The Cold Millions by Jess Walter, which I had already read and wrote about here.
The second selection was In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck, which I had read a long time ago, and enjoyed re-reading.
Our third and most recent title was God's Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sebème. Not only was this a fantastic read -- it was something I never would have found, had I not been researching titles for this project. Huge win!
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God's Bits of Wood is a fictional account of a railroad strike that took place in Senegal, then a colony of France, in 1947-48.
Labour activists often talk about how past workers struggled to win the rights we have today, and our obligation to honour and continue that work. I will often say, "People fought and died to make this possible." Nothing could illustrate this better than God's Bits of Wood.
The railroad workers and their families lived in total poverty. The men were practically slaves, and the women were slaves to their men and children. They lived in tarpaper shacks without running water or electricity. They had formed a union, but the colonial system ensured it had no power.
During the strike, the workers and their families suffered extreme hardships and deprivations. The bosses turned off their water. They cut off their food supply. They were attacked. People were killed.
A strike is a transformative experience: it changes everything. And again, nothing illustrates this better than God's Bits of Wood.
While the men were gathered at the railyards and in the union hall, the women were alone in the village. They begin to move out of their submissive roles, to harness their anger, and to take charge of their lives. First one woman takes action. Then another. Leaders emerge. They plan collective actions. Not all the actions are successful, and some have dire consequences. But bit by bit, day by day, their lives are utterly transformed.
At one point, a group of teenagers invent a campaign of their own. Every night, they slip into the European quarter, and use their slingshots to cast stones at windows and lampposts. The whites are terrified -- not so much of the broken glass, but of the knowledge that natives have breached their compound.
This goes on for many nights -- until one day, one of the worst of the colonizers pops out of a hiding place and fires his revolver. Two boys die.
This is a turning point. The women organize a march to the capital. The men organize to support them and keep them safe.
The women walk for four days. They walk through heat, and thirst, and desperation. News of their march spreads, and they are welcomed into the capital as heroes.
The French give in. The workers win every demand.
The workers -- and more than that, the women -- changed their culture and their lives.
This was an intense, gripping story. It wasn't always easy to read, because the workers' suffering is so intense, but I couldn't put it down.
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Here are some passages from GBOW that I wrote in my notebook.
From an organizer:
For the first time in his life, an idea of his was going to play a part in the lives of thousands of others. It was not pride or vanity he was experiencing, but the astonishing discovery of his worth as a human being.
As the men discuss what to do about a scab. Many argue for beating or even killing him. One man says:
If you imitate the hirelings of your masters, you will become like them, hirelings and barbarians. . . . You have shamed him before his friends, and before the world, and in doing that you have hurt him far more than you could by any bodily punishment. . . . I do not think that there is one among us who will be tempted to follow in his footsteps.
The company sees its once iron grip on the workers has turned to straw. The bosses are desperate to divide the workers and crush their solidarity. One worker, who struggles to see himself as a leader, remembers this:
One day Doudou had had an argument with Drame, the lynx-eyed deputy supervisor of the shop. 'Why should the white men have ten minutes off for their tea when we don't?' he had demanded. Drame had reported the words to Isnard, who immediately summoned Doudou and told him, in front of all the other men, 'Go and make yourself white and you can have ten minutes, too!' Doudou had controlled his anger, but the humiliation had never left him. He had never again spoken a word to the supervisor except when it was absolutely necessary.
Now the hated Isnard offers Doudou three million francs, for him alone, if he will tell his comrades to abandon their demands and return to work. That's when the union activists know that the company has cracked. Doudou says:
Three million francs is a lot of money for a Negro lathe operator, but even three million francs won't make me white. I would rather have the ten minutes for tea and remain a Negro.
The book was so vivid and gripping, I actually shouted out loud when I read this.
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Ousmane Sebème (1923-2007), who I had never heard of before this project, was a Senegalese author, playwright, and filmmaker. Often called "the father of African cinema," he was the first serious filmmaker from any African country.
Sebème worked as a fisherman, a bricklayer, a mechanic, a plumber, and other trades. He taught himself how to read and write. He was drafted into the French army, and served in World War II.
As a dockworker, Sebème discovered Marxist and Pan-African worldviews. When an injury prevented him from doing manual labour, Sebème decided to become a writer. He went on to write novels, plays, and films, and to practically invent African cinema.
There is a documentary about him, called "Sebème!", made in 2015. I will definitely look for it.