Saturday, July 27, 2019

Book Reviews: Invisible

Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster
by Stephen L. Carter
People have always seen the African-American elite or upper middle class differently. People who think everything is fair use this class to support their belief that nothing needs to change. Racists are often threatened or angered by this class's existence and may single them out for degradation or violence. 

White Americans began many race pogroms because they were upset that a Black person had the unmitigated audacity to compete with whites economically or be better off than any white person. Some nationalist or more left leaning types think that a black upper class makes mass progress more difficult. There are many more gradations of these arguments, which vary by time and place. 

Author and Yale law professor Stephen Carter wrote this biography of his paternal grandmother, Eunice Hunton Carter, in part because of his annoyance at responses to HBO's Boardwalk Empire's depiction of a black woman prosecutor in 1930s New York City. Some viewers mocked the idea of a black woman prosecutor, viewing it as hyperbolic political correctness.  Untrue. Eunice Carter really was a prosecutor who worked for Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey during his 1930s racketbuster days. She was the only member of Dewey's team who wasn't a white man. Eunice Carter, initially shunted away to taking complaints about streetwalkers and brothels, was the first to realize that the Mob, directed by the most powerful boss, Lucky Luciano, had taken over the prostitution business. Eunice Carter conceived the legal strategy that saw Luciano convicted and sentenced to a thirty to fifty year prison sentence. 

Though the Mob hook gives this book its subtitle, Stephen Carter said he had long wanted to write this biography. Eunice's story influenced his previous fiction. This is not, repeat NOT a story, about the Mob. It IS a story about Eunice Carter. If you're looking for a book on organized crime, look elsewhere. 

Although Eunice Carter's takedown of Luciano brought her fame in the Black community, Carter doesn't focus on that. Carter's focus is that although racism impacts every black person there have always been black people who have excelled. His grandmother Eunice, born in 1899, was one such person. 

The book starts with the 1906 Atlanta Racial Pogrom in which Eunice's friends and family may have defended themselves against the white mobs burning down Black owned homes and businesses. The family left for Brooklyn. Eunice's father was a Black YMCA leader while her mother was a social worker and NAACP activist who traveled around the South and elsewhere (often alone!) documenting discrimination and hate crimes.  Both of Eunice's parents were college educated, a trait they passed on to their children, Eunice and her brother Alphaeus. 

Eunice would graduate from Smith college in just four years with a Bachelors and Masters. She became a friend to the future President Calvin Coolidge. After doing some social work and dabbling in writing and editing (the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing) Eunice decided to become a lawyer, becoming the first black woman to receive a law degree from Fordham. After some private practice she joined prosecutor's Tom Dewey's team. And the rest is history.

Or maybe not. Maybe it's just repetition. In the 1920s, 30s and 40s the relative position of the Republican Party and Democratic Party with regards to Black Americans was reversed from today's.

The Republican Party was still receiving a sizable though declining portion of the Black vote while the Democrats were trying to increase their share of the black vote without giving up the more openly racist Southern white voting bloc.

Dewey and Eunice Carter were both Republicans. Dewey's 1944 Presidential campaign platform was explicitly anti-racist, which was part of the reason he lost. Stephen Carter explains how politics and what would today be called respectability politics shaped his grandmother's social and professional life. 

Eunice's brother, Alphaeus , became a Communist, something which almost certainly damaged Eunice's career in the prosecutor's office and beyond. Eunice certainly believed it did. When Alphaeus (along with the novelist Dashiell Hammett) was imprisoned for refusing to name names, his sister all but disowned him. 

I think the author was harsh on Alphaeus. Eunice was interested in or least tolerated the various Black Harlem society galas and intrigues and rivalries. She was temperamentally conservative. She almost certainly stayed in an unhappy marriage because of societal expectations. Alphaeus on the other hand didn't give a good god**** about what anyone else thought, something which endeared him to his friends W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robseon, even as it strained relationships with his family.

Eunice had a fascinating life and globe-trotting career. Eunice was fluent in German and French; she spent a lot of time working for non-governmental organizations dedicated to improving the lives of blacks and women in the US and beyond. 

If the book has a weakness it is the author's tendency to conclude what his grandmother thought about this or that life event. I thought Carter too often wrote definitively of something about which, absent family stories or diaries, we don't know what his grandmother thought. That small quibble aside this is a fascinating story about a time and place long gone. It's an important corrective to the idea that Black people only entered American public life after 1964.
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