Tension and Endurance: The Year in Books from Baltimore/DC

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BmoreArt’s Picks: December 21-27

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In such a prolifically literary city as Baltimore, it’s hard to keep up with each year’s local releases. Here’s a roundup of 12 of 2021’s book highlights—in no particular order—that lean heavily on art and artists as well as stories of the city.

Most are by local authors, several of whom are BmoreArt’s colleagues, peers, and contributors. Okay, there are also some 2020 releases included here, but let’s give each other some grace as we enter another pandemic year and another supercontagious coronavirus variant phase. Time isn’t real anymore, also. Stay safe, and treat yourself to a few of these books from your favorite local bookstores if you can. 



Exploring Presence: African American Artists in the Upper South edited by Angela N. Carroll (Merkaba Publications)

Exploring Presence is both a catalogue and a documentary series curated by Angela N. Carroll that focuses on African-American artists in the places between “northeastern art metropolises and the South.” The catalogue features such luminaries as Schroeder Cherry, Linda Day Clark, Oletha DeVane, Espi Frazier, Aziza Claudia Gibson Hunter, Martha Jackson Jarvis, Ed Love, Tom Miller, Joyce J. Scott, and Paula Whaley. Contextualizing these artists’ work within a period of sociopolitical upheaval and an era of “reclamation” for BIPOC artists, from the 1970s through the present, the book also includes artworks that “mark significant intervals of experimentation with process, material, and form for each artist.”


Black Collagists: The Book by Teri Henderson (Kanyer Publishing)

You should recognize the author’s name already because Teri Henderson is a BmoreArt staff writer whose beautiful words you’ll often find right here on this website. (She is also the curator of BmoreArt’s Connect+Collect gallery.) We are excited to see the print evolution of the Instagram-based initiative Black Collagists (@blackcollagists), which Teri started in the fall of 2020 to highlight collage work by modern and contemporary Black artists. The account has grown in popularity since its debut, and the book features an international selection of both emerging and established Black artists. Although the book contains several essays and more than 300 images of work by more than 50 artists, it “does not claim to be a complete record, but rather a door that invites others into a conversation about representation in Black collage art, both historically and currently, and challenges others to expand their own research.” We are obviously, unabashedly biased because Teri works here, but that should just mean you can trust the recommendation even more.


Black Women as/and the Living Archive edited by Tsedaye Makonnen and Jordan Martin (Washington Project for the Arts)

There is something so lovely about a publication that functions as an extension of an exhibition. It is its own thing, an addendum, an intimate extrapolation of the physical and spatial experience of a show. This book is part of Tsedaye Makonnen’s multimedia and virtual series Black Women as/and the Living Archive (2020), which explored the ways that Black women “encode, preserve, and share memory through community.” Supported by Washington Project for the Arts, the publication “serves as a repository for the conversations and intimate interactions amongst the participants and the audience.” Designed by Rheagan King, the book literally shines, and features themes of “Space, Moving Image, Memory; Collective Memory; Pleasure Memory; and Mama Memory [& Care]” through writing by Jessica Lanay, Jo Stewart, Ladi’Sasha Jones, and Yona Harvey, documentation of the project’s public programs, and an annotated bibliography by Ola Ronke, creator of The Free Black Women’s Library. The first printing sold out, but a second one is on the way.


If You Love Baltimore, It Will Love You Back: 171 Short, But True Stories by Ron Cassie (Apprentice House)

Ron Cassie is one of Baltimore’s best reporters, in our humble opinion. At Baltimore Magazine, where Cassie is senior editor, he reliably covers in-depth and important stories about the city, often through literary longform journalism. However, nearly 200 stories comprise his 400-page-book, released in the fall of 2020, which tells another story of the city in much shorter form. The stories create a complex image of Baltimore through recognizable characters such as former Senator Barbara Mikulski and former Representative Elijah Cummings, but they’re largely populated by “people few Baltimoreans have heard of—a blind police detective, old Jewish boxers, a flower shop owner, the city native who created the statue of Billie Holiday in Upton.”


I Got a Monster by Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg (St. Martin’s Press)

These authors are my friends as well as my former editors/comrades so, again, very biased here. But this was one of the most important and most devourable books of 2020, chronicling the unbelievable but true story of the Baltimore Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force. Written like a crime novel, I Got a Monster is not merely a thrilling exposition, nor is it 300 pages of Black Baltimoreans’ trauma. Rather, it pulls from testimonies, court documents, and interviews with GTTF victims to show how these police officers exploited their power and, up to a point, got away with their crimes. Following the paths of a few victims, it also tracks the tragic aftereffects of this corrupt unit and deftly implicates as-yet-untold other accomplices to the schemes. Originally published in summer 2020, the paperback version came out September 2021. 


Trial in the Woods by Stephanie Barber (Plays Inverse) 

Described as “one part crime procedural and one part fable,” Stephanie Barber’s play Trial in the Woods takes on the concept of justice. The narrative centers on the trial of Ovelia Otter, who murders Pennstin the young wolf at Bear Chondra’s Mix Flow Get Up And Go exercise class. Otter’s defense attorney is a squirrel, the prosecutor is a lynx, and the judge is a boar—so yes, it’s an examination of human behavior through non-human vectors, but this choice adds far more than levity, as Barber said in conversation with Rahne Alexander: “It’s horribly fraught, isn’t it? Just how human animals use non-human animals as metaphors and lessons and models. As if these creatures were living on a separate plane from us, placed here to teach us lessons.” With her trademark rigor and humor, Barber explores the yawning gray arbitrariness that truly comprises our senses of “justice,” as opposed to some absolute decision determined with all the proper caution and fairness. 


Space Forces: A Critical History of Life in Outer Space by Fred Scharmen (Verso Books)

It’s crazy how many billionaires we witnessed “going to space” this year—or was it just the upper atmosphere? Who knows, who cares, none of us poors will get the chance when the wealthy leave behind the burning Earth to go fuck up the Moon or Mars. In his second book, Baltimore architect and professor Fred Scharmen presents a “radical history of space exploration,” showing science and fiction’s influence on the idea of space travel and its “real implications for life back on earth.” Scharmen looks at the Russian Cosmists of the 1890s who viewed space as “a place to pursue human perfection away from the Earth,” and examines the visions of sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke. He also covers the intersection of space engineering and “destructive geopolitics” through the imprint left by Wernher Von Braun, the engineer who got his start within the German Nazi Party before moving on to… what eventually became NASA. Great! Moving forward to the present day, in which space travel is “the plaything of superrich technology billionaires, who plan to privatize the mineral wealth for themselves,” Scharmen’s book asks: “Are other worlds really possible?”


The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America by Lawrence T. Brown (Johns Hopkins University Press)

In April 2015, after police killed Freddie Gray and the city erupted on the day of his funeral, no one could ignore the obviousness of the violence—the manner in which Gray died—or the rage and mourning in response. Working for City Paper at the time, I remember a strong sense of urgency within local media trying to get the story and context right, in part to combat national media’s distortion and spectacle show. A critical voice then and now, Dr. Lawrence T. Brown sees present-day hyper-policing as connected to Baltimore’s hyper-segregation, a tail of historic racism and redlining. He coined the term “Black Butterfly” to refer to the predominantly Black regions of east and west Baltimore, and six years later he published this book, an examination of the ways law and policies have harmed Black neighborhoods. Brown uses research, policy analysis, and archival materials to study “racial segregation’s impact on health, from toxic pollution to police brutality.” Importantly, and with some measured hope, Brown also offers up solutions in the book, “persuasively arguing that because urban apartheid was intentionally erected it can be intentionally dismantled.”


West Baltimore Ruins by Shae McCoy 

It’s wise to pair Brown’s book with Shae McCoy’s “photographic story” West Baltimore Ruins, which documents the architecture around Northwest, Southwest, and Central West Baltimore—areas depleted by cycles of divestment-and-revitalization schemes. In the introduction, McCoy writes that the book “tells the stories of disappearing stores, the absence of child laughter, diminished business, and the families striving to make ends meet while still enjoying the simplicity of life.” McCoy recalls growing up in West Baltimore and seeing it “as a hood paradise” of good food, games, parties, and community; she writes of her hometown’s changes as evidence of city officials’ “irresponsibility and disservice” within Black neighborhoods that previously thrived.

Many of McCoy’s photos depict rowhomes and businesses in various states of disrepair: missing their front or back half, opened up like a dollhouse; vacant, burnt shells; overgrown and boarded up houses; historic structures reduced to fenced-in brick and rubble; exteriors braced and advertising some forthcoming renovation. McCoy’s style is intensely vivid; you can hear the tattered tarp moved by the wind and you can feel the peeling paint. Explanations of terms like gentrification and blight, as well as memories from people who live in or came from these areas, weave through the full-color pages which amount to a testimony and a memorial. As a whole, the book exists in a state of tension, asking a question of what comes next—the same tension prompted by those cranes, fences, and signs promising “transformation.”


Out of Place: Artists, Pedagogy, and Purpose edited by Zoë Charlton and Tim Doud (Punctum Books)

This weekend, my alma mater’s Open Studies division’s tweet got ratioed to hell for advertising an “intro to NFTs” workshop. As one person (out of hundreds) replying to the tweet put it, “Good to know that my tuition went to teaching future generations how to join a pyramid scheme and support the acceleration of the destruction of the planet for funny money.” (Criticism led to the workshop being canceled.) Universities and colleges are always changing things up, but never really in the ways that we want them to. Thank god for the good people and professors in art colleges who struggle against their institution’s dysfunction to actually prepare students for the real world. Out of Place, edited by Zoë Charlton and Tim Doud, lets artists and collectives working both within and outside of art academia examine the ways they teach and have been taught and how this informs their own practice. People familiar to BmoreArt readers, such as Charlton, Doud, Jordan Amirkhani, and George Ciscle, join a wide-ranging discussion about art and pedagogy in our present moment with other artists and scholars such as BFAMFAPhD’s Caroline Woolard and Susan Jahoda, Tiger Strikes Asteroid’s Alexis Granwell, and dozens more.

Amirkhani sets the scene marvelously in the book’s foreword: “the state of our world is in a kind of emergency, and it is the university itself that connects to many of our social and public crises, specifically, white supremacy and capitalism. Universities are now million-dollar businesses, students are now customers, and aggressive marketing strategies and branding campaigns that continue to espouse the university as a common good, accessible and available to everyone, functions now more as mythos than fact.”


We Used to Live at Night (Culture Crush Editions) and Shuttered (Baltimore Museum of Industry exhibition catalogue) by J.M. Giordano

It’s hard not to get sentimental—or just, frankly, sad—at the end of the year, especially after another harrowing and traumatic year of an ongoing pandemic. Trying to make sense of anything at the moment, extracting a lesson from these experiences, seems futile and foolish. I personally would like to sit down for a bit in the gray abstraction of life right now, just a little rest. I’m pickier than usual with media and books and find more comfort and possibility lately in the visual rather than the textual. A friend of BmoreArt (and another former coworker of mine), J.M. Giordano is a great photographer of Baltimore, capturing scenes of the city as various as drag performances and protests and dive bartenders and ghostly remains of industry. We Used to Live at Night presents 25 years’ worth of photographs Giordano took around Baltimore City while he was “off-duty” from his official work as a photojournalist. “From its bars, night clubs, inaugurals, casinos, strip clubs, drag nights, hip hop battles, and the too often encountered crime scenes, this incredible work paints an intimate portrait of Baltimore culture,” reads the publishers’ description.

Another recent book of his, Shuttered, is the catalogue to his 2020 exhibition with the Baltimore Museum of Industry, documenting the steel industry’s collapse in Baltimore. Good union jobs at Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point brought thousands of people to Baltimore in the 20th century. The factory officially closed in 2012 after many years in decline, and now there’s an Amazon warehouse in its place. The grandchild of a steelworker, Giordano began this project in 2004, working for the Dundalk Eagle. The photos are stark and human and, like everything around us right now, they present more tense questions than answers.


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