Two Memoirs for Black History Month

My Note: I feel very fortunate to have met Krista Nelson at a networking meeting last fall and we are now co-hosting a Women’s International Day/ Networking meeting on March 7th. She gave me a review copy of her book, My Secret Barack: Crowning the King and her mother’s memoir, Sylvia’s Story. Her mom, 10 years my senior, now lives in California and I hope to meet her when I go there to see my children.

Sylvia’s Story is quite a story! Her memoir reaches back to her ancestors and the time of “Ignorance and Racism” (one of her chapters) through the Civil Rights movement and includes her and her husband’s quest for The American Dream.

While I am close enough to Sylvia’s age to identify with much of the history of mid-20th century, I found the author’s view of life different from mine, because being Black in America then was still quite different from being Jewish. Even though there was/is anti-Semitism in America, the color of my skin allows me a certain amount of anonymity about my background.  So I found her chapters about growing up in a White man’s world quite different from my childhood and the contrast held my interest.

We both come from working class families (my Dad was an auto mechanic) and one of the best stories is “Growing Up Behind the Counter,” in which she describes how she and Freddie worked in her parents’ dry cleaners, much like my children worked with my (ex) husband and me in our health food store. Like Sylvia, I went to college and became a teacher. So there’s another similarity we share.

The author’s story about “A Love Affair with Horn and Hardart” could be put in a time capsule for young people who do not even know the restaurant existed. As a child, I went to a Horn & Hardart in New York City with my aunt and was fascinated with the whole experience. Sylvia brought it back to life for me.

Sylvia writes smoothly and effortlessly, it seems, making her stories enjoyable and illuminating. Wonderful photos that must have come from Sylvia’s personal photo albums are found throughout the entire book, adding visual information and interest to the text. Her memoir ends in 2008 with a move to Los Angeles. (Two of her children live in California and two live in the East.)

Sylvia’s memoir makes for a good read, especially if you share some of her history as I do. She is an African American and I am a Jewish American, but we are both Americans sharing similar dreams for our families and our country.

Sylvia’s Story (soft cover) costs  $28.00 and is available from Signed copies can be ordered directly from the author.

Sylvia’s daughter Krista starts her book, My Secret Barack: Crowning the King with the first inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009, just about where her mother Sylvia’s book ends. But Krista descriptive writing has a totally different flavor from her mom’s. Using the ball and inauguration as her backdrop, Krista goes back and forth between her past and the weekend of  “crowning” Barack.

Early in the book, Krista explains her heavy involvement in the first Obama campaign and her role as a delegate. But the most exciting part about this is her blow-by-blow description of actually getting to the ball and inauguration from Philadelphia with her partner Mark. Part of the book reads much like a daily journal with all the details of that week-end that was so important to Krista she made it crucial to her memoir.

The way we learn about Krista’s life is when she explains something or someone who helped her get to the inauguration: people who promised her a room, people who she worked with during the campaign, and people she met on the week-end of the inauguration. She brings those characters along as important to her story.

She fills us in on her life in between the excitement of the inauguration. For example, she writes about a chair at her Aunt Dellie’s house where she and Mark stay the inaugural weekend. Focusing on an unusual chair, she remembers one almost exactly like it in her home, and seeing her Aunt’s chair triggers memories of her ex-husband and the problems she faced. So from the chair she segues to the chair in her house as well as her house itself, and from that, her difficult life with her ex. Here’s how she makes the link:

It was freakish how familiar and yet so completely unfamiliar Dellie’s house was for me. I moved forward to look back…She had that chair just like mine. She had the exact same rope of brass from her doorknob as I had hanging from mine.

Krista pays a great deal of attention to descriptive details. As such, the people in her book become “living characters.” For example, she writes about going to a meeting where a woman wore mittens that were actually dog-head sock puppets. She writes how the woman smiled and then turned the face of one of the mittens towards Krista and moved the dog head around in a circle. This breathes life into the people and activities that the author writes in her inaugural “tale.”

Her excitement about the inauguration is contagious and her descriptions so acute that I could almost find myself standing with Krista with all the winter gear she describes in great detail, waiting for a glimpse of Obama.

She ends the book noting that President Obama “Asks us to believe in the change we wanted to see.” She fulfilled her dream of seeing Obama become president and because she was a delegate, she was one of the individuals who not only believed in that change, but made it happen!

My Secret Obama: Crowning the King costs $13.00 and is available from

P.S. I never liked studying history in school because the facts and dates we had to memorize bored me, and besides, everyone we studied was dead! These two books make history come alive and fall into the category of “Living History” for me. Very refreshing!

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