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Maximum Insight: Selected Columns by Bill Maxwell

Maximum Insight: Selected Columns by Bill Maxwell

by Bill Maxwell

"One of the most distinctive and independent voices in American journalism . . . a voice that can inspire and infuriate . . . a voice that must not be ignored, especially if we Americans hope to create in this next century something that looks vaguely like a multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy."--Roy Peter Clark, Poynter Institute, St. Petersburg



"One of the most distinctive and independent voices in American journalism . . . a voice that can inspire and infuriate . . . a voice that must not be ignored, especially if we Americans hope to create in this next century something that looks vaguely like a multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy."--Roy Peter Clark, Poynter Institute, St. Petersburg

"Maxwell’s level of erudition is unusual among columnists . . . he often alludes to history, philosophy, literature, and the social sciences as he puts the news of the day into context."--Sam G. Riley, professor of communication studies, Virginia Polytechnic Institute

"An original and significant contribution to the literature of journalism and Florida culture."--Jay Black, Poynter-Jamison Chair in Media Ethics, University of South Florida

With syndication in more than 200 newspapers and a faithful readership nationwide, Bill Maxwell’s status as one of the country’s preeminent black journalists is unquestionable. This collection of his columns, primarily from the St. Petersburg Times, forms a body of commentary on humanity (and lack of same) that will capture the hearts and minds of Americans.

 Maxwell covers a sweeping range of subjects, including race—a central but not exclusive theme. He asks hard questions that courageously attempt to understand hatred and injustice in America; and he takes on controversial issues many columnists avoid and a wide spectrum of national figures—from Jeb, George W. and Clarence Thomas to the Pope and Jesse Jackson. 

 Maxwell writes movingly about his childhood as the son of migrant farm workers in rural Florida, his love of books—beginning with those plucked from garbage cans—and his everyday encounters with the white world and the black one. With a voice that is provocative and insights that are deep and passionate, he tackles the plight of migrant workers, the devastation of the environment, religious intolerance, homophobia, affirmative action, illiteracy, public education, civic responsibility, politics—and racism. He criticizes blacks and whites alike in his search for truth and right, especially in his exploration of what he calls “resurgent bigotry and Republicanism” and “the black writer’s most agonizing task—and duty—being dispassionate about the foibles and self-destructive behavior of African-Americans.”

 Setting a standard for the newspaper column as social criticism, Maximum Insight illuminates the role of the black writer as an interpreter of the forces that define a diverse America.

Bill Maxwell writes a twice-weekly column for the St. Petersburg Times. Syndicated by the New York Times News Service and by Scripps-Howard, his columns appear in 200 newspapers worldwide and have received many writing awards, including the Florida Press Club’s plaque for general excellence in commentary twice in and the Community Champion Award from the American Trial Lawyers Association.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this compendium, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times syndicated columnist Maxwell offers his perspective on the environment, education, politics, migrant workers and his life as an African-American. This is journalistic writing at its best. Each piece features spare, direct sentences illuminating fragments of individual lives that convey the beauties, frustrations, failures and complexities of living in modern America. Maxwell is most compelling when writing about what his readers likely are not poor, black, migrant workers or homeless. He excels in conveying an understanding of these experiences, and creating empathy for his subjects. In one column, he captures the sense of liberation reading offers to a poor young girl living with her grandmother in a Florida town labeled "the AIDS capital of the world." In another, he describes a painful incident in a restaurant during which he and his white companion were subjected to humiliating racism, an experience that left him in tears. Maxwell forcefully addresses the intractable problem of race relations. His approach is provocative and exhibits a hard-edged intellectual rigor that is pragmatic, rational and constructive, and never doctrinaire: he believes it is counterproductive to mark one's race as "victim," so is against seeking general reparations for slavery. But he favors affirmative action because he sees the opportunities for African-Americans and whites as unequal. Maxwell is a generous writer. Many of his columns are poignant, many hopeful, others funny, and he does not hesitate to share his anger or his vulnerabilities when it is important to his point. Maxwell's world is well worth exploring. (Nov.) Copyright 2001 Cahners BusinessInformation.

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University Press of Florida
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6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Native Son

A Christmas bicycle illuminates the spirit of giving

December 25, 1994

The gift, to be true, must be the flowing of the giver unto me, correspondent to my flowing unto him. Ralph Waldo Emerson

By now, most Americans have bought and received Christmas gifts. This annual ritual of mandatory giving and receiving has fascinated me since I was a young child.

    Today, at age 49, I have vivid memories of some of my earliest gifts: cap pistols and colorful cowboy outfits; a hunting knife and a bolt-action .22-caliber rifle; a yellow tricycle; baseballs and gloves; footballs and basketballs; a bugle and a guitar; a Timex watch; a pedal-operated car that I drove onto a busy street, nearly getting run over by a real car; a wind-up train set; two red wagons.

    Although I enjoyed these gifts, none meant very much to me at the time. They were routine, like those that other boys received. Another reason these gifts were not important then was that I had gotten them while my parents were living together, when we were a normal family, when we had extra money after the bills were paid. Even though we were poor, I had yet to comprehend the true meaning of poverty.

    By my ninth birthday, however, my parents had separated. Because my mother, five siblings, and I had no money and lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a government housing project, I had begun to relish even the smallest gifts. For good or bad, I was learning to equate the value of gifts with the degree ofsacrifice and wisdom of the giver and the appreciativeness of the receiver.

    As the oldest child, I worried mostly about the cost of gift-giving in our family. Because my mother confided in me, I was fully aware of the paltry wages she earned as a maid on Ft. Lauderdale Beach. My siblings and I took nothing for granted, especially gifts.

    When I was 11, my mother gave me a bicycle for Christmas. It was my first bike. I had set my heart on a slick one in the window of the downtown Western Auto and had shown it to my mother one morning in late October as we waited for the bus. I do not recall the bike's price, but it was a sum that made my mother shake her head. I had no real hopes of getting the bike.

    But I was constantly encouraged when I would discover my mother secretly counting money. And my heart pounded with expectation after the bike was removed from the store window the week before Christmas. On Christmas Eve night, I lay awake listening to my mother plundering in the darkness, taking gifts out of hiding, putting them under the tree. My siblings were awake, too, whispering and giggling. As "the man of the house," I had to pretend to be asleep. At daylight, the other kids dashed into the living room and began ripping open gifts. I strolled in, fingers crossed, praying that the bike was there.

    It was not.

    Instead, a turquoise monstrosity that vaguely resembled an American Flyer stood near the stove. My heart sank. Aware of my disappointment, my mother said: "I couldn't afford the new bike. I had Mr. Dennis fix up one for you. He said it's just like new." Mr. Dennis was a piddler, scavenger, and handyman par excellence. With trembling hands, he could put together any contraption.

    Initially, I hated the bike, a hulk of discarded parts and brush-streaked paint. The neighborhood boys laughed at it, calling it the "Mack truck." After about two weeks, though, when most of the new bikes were banged up or stolen, the laughing stopped. My turquoise monster was right at home. In fact, it was a godsend, with its three big baskets, one on the handlebar and one on each side of the rear fender. My mother did not own a car, so we rode the bus or walked everywhere. As the oldest child, I did a lot of the grocery shopping and running around for incidentals. When I shopped alone, I sometimes would have to walk to the store three times to collect all of the bags. With the bike, I could make one trip.

    Why, of the many gifts I have received in my life, do I remember that bicycle so fondly? Because, for me, the experience related to it epitomized the spirit of gift-giving. Not only did my mother know how badly I wanted a bike, she also knew that, because of my duties as the oldest child, the bike would make life easier for me. She knew that it would give me some dignity. I would not have to walk everywhere or piggyback on another boy's bike. It gave me something in common with the boys whose families had more money.

    In the spring, that bike did let me become "the man of the house." It gave me the opportunity to become a carrier for the Fort Lauderdale News. I was able to earn enough money to help my mother pay several household bills each week. That jerry-built bike gave me independence—a way to become self-reliant. My mother knew that, even as a child, I was driven by the desire to do for myself, and her gift was her way of acknowledging me. She has since told me so. To this day, my mother and I exchange gifts of mutual acknowledgement—if we are inclined to exchange gifts at all.

    I am certain that I view gift-giving too seriously. Even so, I am convinced that Ralph Waldo Emerson captured its true meaning more than a century ago:

Next to things of necessity, the rule for a gift ... is that we might convey to some person that which properly belonged to his character, and was associated with him in thought. But our tokens of compliment and love are for the most part barbarous. Rings and other jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts.

The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me. Therefore the poet brings a poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, a coral and shells; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing. This is right and pleasing, for it restores society in so far to its primary basis, when a man's biography is conveyed in his gift....

    Is Emerson asking too much of us? Should we, especially during the Christmas season, think more seriously about our motives for giving? Should we measure our feelings with greater care when we receive? If the day marking the birth of the Christian savior is important enough to honor, should the rituals related to this day signify more than a grand celebration of materialism?

With equal passion for all

November 12, 1995

In the wake of events such as the slaying of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the furor over Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, I, like most other Americans, have been thinking about hatred.

    As a black columnist who receives daily hate mail, I am acutely aware of this most destructive of human sentiments and my uneasy relationship to it.

    Like most African-American children of my generation, I experienced hatred on a personal level as an ember that flared each time my presence intersected the lives of white people. I felt it, say, when I wanted to try on clothes in a downtown store, when I boarded a city bus, when I had business in a government office.

    And, like my peers, I had no real sense of hatred as a system of thought, as a social, cultural, or philosophical construct that traps human beings in time, that makes groups and individuals blood enemies. Although I grew up reading the Bible and knowing that Jews were "different," for instance, I did not—and still do not—comprehend the world's profound hatred of them. My parents and grandparents were too unlettered, too unsophisticated, too busy making ends meet to teach me hatred as an abstraction.

    I carried this ignorance with me to Wiley College, a small, historically black school in Marshall, Texas. There, in wonderful isolation, I became a voracious reader, fearing that if I did not have a book, journal, magazine, or newspaper open every second, I would miss out on something vital to the rest of my life.

    Not until the second semester of my sophomore year did I learn that I was a freak on campus, one warily observed by many of the white faculty, by most of the black faculty, and, as far I knew, by all of the black students who knew me. I learned of my outsiderness one afternoon after overhearing one of my professors, a white Woodrow Wilson scholar from Rutgers University, tell a black colleague: "Our Mr. Maxwell hugs Anne Frank with one arm and Martin Heidegger with the other—all at the same time." Was this an insult or a compliment? Indeed, I had written a paper on The Diary of a young Girl. I was gripped by Frank's horrible experiences, especially the depictions of Nazis hunting Jews as if they were animals, of Jews having to huddle in smothering dens. But I was just as moved by this Jewish child's humor and insight, by her ability to remain an adolescent and fall in love under such circumstances.

    At the same time, I had thrown myself into writing a paper on the development of existentialism, on Heidegger's discussions of "human existence" and "nonhuman presence." I was pulled into his complex prose, fascinated by the notion that, the more human beings become absorbed by "things," the less "authentic" their existence becomes. And I pondered then—and still do—Heidegger's expression: "Language is the house of Being."

    I was considered an outsider because I did not discriminate among writers. I read and discussed all of them with equal passion and tolerance.

    Even though I, like other students, had learned in lectures that Heidegger, a great German philosopher, was a Nazi who admired Adolf Hitler, I wanted to read him all the more. Unlike most other students on campus, I did not reject Being and Time, arguably Heidegger's most important work. Why should I have? It was not a tract of hatred. It did not discuss the man's private feelings. It laid the groundwork for his existentialist philosophy. To me, Being and Time was nothing more than the intellectual product of a brilliant mind. Furthermore, I wanted to know how such brilliance could accommodate hatred.

    I went on to read Hitler's Mein Kampf, Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, Ezra Pound's Cantos, H. L. Mencken's commentaries, and the works of other well-known Caucasian haters. I also read black haters, such as Marcus Garvey, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Elijah Muhammad. I wanted to understand them all—black and white.

    My interest in this subject was rekindled by William H. Honan's recent New York Times article detailing Heidegger's longtime affair with his student and fellow philosopher Hannah Arendt, a German-born Jew who, in the name of love, forgave Heidegger his anti-Semitism.

    These new findings have ignited brush fires in academia. "Some of the greatest philosophers were despicable people," Arendt scholar Sandra Hinchman told the Times. "Rousseau abandoned his five children to a Catholic orphanage before writing Emile, his treatise on education. My fear is that if we concentrate on the lives of some philosophers, we may become prejudiced against their work."

    Hinchman's is a tantalizing question: To what extent should we judge the works of influential thinkers by the vileness of their private acts?

    Obviously, I do not have a definitive answer. I do suggest, however, that when we seek truth, we must try to keep the private acts of important thinkers separate from their work. And if we are trying to understand hatred, we must engage it intellectually. More often than not, hatred is irrational and emotional, and it cannot be countered with equal doses of irrationality and emotion.

    Above all, we should not try to avoid hatred. It destroys us when we try to avoid it and those who espouse it. Avoiding it may give us the illusion of safety, and we may become smug in the process. But understanding hatred—reading about it, studying those who espouse it—remains the best way of defeating it.

Sunshine State's glitz melts the holiday spirit

December 22, 1996

Christmas in Florida is, like the state itself, a tropical bazaar. As a native Floridian, condemned to the perpetual heat, humidity, and greenery of Ft. Lauderdale, I always have had ambivalent feelings about Christmas in the Sunshine State.

    Even as a young child, I knew that Christmas in Florida was a substitution, a contradiction, an overcompensation. I knew that Christmas was a time for Jack Frost; snow and snowmen; horse-drawn sleighs and bells; kids sledding down steep inclines. And I had witnessed scenes of carolers entombed in thick sweaters braving bone-chilling cold.

    But, like other south Floridians, I baked on December 25. We went fishing, golfing, tanning, water-skiing, swimming. And believe it or not, many of us drank lemonade beneath sprawling banyans. Some of us even mowed the lawn.

    And, of course, if venturing near a major roadway, past yards dotted with plastic pink flamingos, we worried about being run down by pale Canadians, Yankees, and Midwesterners. Christmas in Florida was and is the time of the tourist, when strangers have more relevance than relatives.

    This old yuletide angst returned the other day when two colleagues invited me along to watch one of this area's plethora of annual boat parades. Instead of sleigh rides, Floridians deploy armadas of decorated watercrafts.

    While living in Ft. Lauderdale, I never missed the boat parade, a bona Fide Florida spectacle, some years attracting crowds as energetic as those at New York's Time Square celebration on New Year's Eve. Now, as then, most of the boats are wonders unto themselves, decorated with thousands of blinking lights in complex designs and topped off with live trees fastened to their guide towers.

    The obscene, aerodynamic cigarette boats and their cargo are my favorite. Invariably, handsome young men, their deep tans the picture of wealth, guide these glossy, rumbling machines over the lightly chopping water. Hanging on to the men are beautiful, bikini-clad women, displaying perfect white teeth and waving to admiring crowds. Male spectators, many of them drunk on their duffs, especially love the flirtatious female boaters wearing those little red-and-white Santa caps.

    As the evening grows darker, the colorful flotilla dips and twists like a too-long water creature coming apart.

     This is Christmas in Florida.

    So, too, are the mega-celebrations near Disney World, in the shadow of the now-familiar Earffel Tower, the municipal water tower decked out with Mickey Mouse ears. At the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Universal Studios, Sea World, and other sites, carolers and spectators grasping candles throng the narrow walkways and plazas. Parades, complete with elaborate floats and human and animated celebrities, pass by with eye-popping regularity.

    This is Christmas Florida style.

    Here, commercial giants compete for who can do Christmas the biggest. Last year when I visited Mousedom, Sea World boasted that its 400-foot metal Sky Tower was central Florida's biggest Christmas tree. Not to be outdone, the folks over at Universal Studios had fake snow that looked very real on the park's lifelike New York Street set.

    Disney-MGM Studios, never runners-up, sported a 70-foot tree with 2 million lights. And what is this monstrosity called? The wall of angels. And, still in the yuletide spirit, Disney-MGM flew in Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Bo Peep, and other characters from the hit movie Toy Story.

    I try my best to avoid such gross commercialization because for me, Christmas is a time of remembrance, pure nostalgia, and sentimentality. Although many transplants fondly remember their first Christmas here, I cannot recall one that I truly enjoyed. I fondly remember my first white Christmas, however. It was in Chicago in 1952, at my uncle's home on the South Side. I was seven years old. Christmas has not been the same since.

    Snow fell for two days, and I stood outside for hours, getting sicker than I had ever been. But I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of sailing down snow-packed slopes on trash can lids; flying off a snow-laden roof on an ironing board we had found in an alley; learning how to ice-skate on a real frozen lake.

    And the snowballs. Instead of throwing chinaberries and oranges at my friends, I threw snowballs. My cousin and I even made a snowman in the front yard, trimming him with an old red coat, a brown stingy brim, and a Prince Edward cigar hanging punkishly from his mouth.

    After I returned to Ft. Lauderdale, none of my friends believed that an entire lake could freeze over. And, for sure, no one could turn a trash can lid into a sled! But I had photographs and became something of a hero.

    I long for that Chicago Christmas, when toys were simple, when the fellowship of family and friends was enough, when the atmosphere and weather were Christmas per se. Christmas in Florida has never been an intimate affair for me—but an event for serving the material needs of strangers. Here, cold temperatures are considered "bad weather."

    Here, almost everyone is "from somewhere else," making Florida an escape, not just from bad weather but from bad lives, as well.

    For most Florida residents, natives and transplants alike, Christmas is a state of mind. It has to be. Otherwise, few of us could tolerate its reality—its superficiality and commercialization.

Redeemed by Dali in half a day

December 3, 1997

Ferris Bueller had his day off. On Monday, I had mine. Actually, I had a half day off.

    En route to work, I drove, unaccountably, to the Salvador Dali Museum to see what time it opens: 9:30 A.M. During my nearly four years in St. Petersburg, I had not been inside the place. Because it is within walking distance of my house and because I pass it nearly every day, I had taken it for granted.

    After our Editorial Board meeting, I left the St. Petersburg Times building. The day was perfect—the morning sun glistening in the bay, the boats in Bayboro Harbor gently rocking in the breeze, the sky an uninterrupted mellow blue.

    Entering the museum, I immediately knew why I had come. Like Ferris Bueller, I needed a day off. I had to get away from the office, away from writing, away from my too serious self. I declined the guided tour, put away my reporter's notebook, and entered a world of, among other things, disturbing visions, eccentricity, "critical paranoia," irrational hallucinatory imagery.

    The early works and those of the transitional period were interesting, but the surrealist works awakened all of my senses. I was particularly struck by Eggs on a Plate without the Plate. Dali claimed that it was inspired by an intrauterine memory. In other words, the vision came to him while he was in his mother's womb.

    Lost in the richness of the colors—blue, orange, red, yellow—I ignored the periods of the works and began to appreciate them for their own sake.

    Daddy Longlegs of the Evening—Hope! pulled me into Dali's psyche, and I identified with the artist's rejection of man's inhumanity to man, especially the human horrors of World War II. I could hear the unearthly sounds of war and the cries of pain and feel the anguish of the young artist, who had an aversion to organized mayhem, trying to understand himself.

    Something in the room—perhaps a shadow or a voice or an odor—made me realize that I had traveled outside of myself and that I was no longer depressed, that Dali's very abhorrence of human cruelty had made me hopeful.

    The sight of Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man enhanced this feeling, and the haunting eyes of The Sick Child made me think of the innocence and beauty of childhood, even though these paintings contain what I interpret as hints of nihilism left over from the long-gone Dada movement.

    Perhaps the desolation of the landscape and the forlorn characters in the background influenced my thinking.

    I marveled at Broken Bridge and the Dream. I did not try to understand this work. The imagery alone was satisfying: a damaged bridge is a stairway for angelic, fantastic creatures who float into the heavens. I wondered what awaits them beyond that dreamy horizon.

    I learned later that, between 1948 and 1970, he produced 18 significant oil paintings that the museum's founder, A. Reynolds Morse, called masterworks, meaning that each painting measures at least five feet in one direction and intellectually preoccupied Dali for a year or longer. Partly because of their sheer size, Dali's masterworks are mesmerizing.

    For more than an hour, I lost myself in the disturbing beauty of the masterworks—among them Still Life—Fast Moving; Velazquez the Infanta Margarita with the Lights and Shadows of His Own Glory; The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus; Ecumenical Council; and Hallucinogenic Toreador. How, I wondered, did Dali manage to juxtapose the seemingly conflicting forces of destruction and healing, birth/death/rebirth, pain and suffering and love and redemption, and despair and hope to form an organic whole?

    In Galacidalacidesoxiribunucleicacid, for example, the DNA molecule, the tragic flash flood in West Barcelona, Spain, in 1962 that killed 450 people, Arabs pointing guns at their neighbors, the Resurrection, and other surreal images are woven into a vision of hope for the human race.

    Pulling myself away from this giant oil, I felt buoyant for the first time in weeks. I thought of Ferris Buelter, of how he and his two friends raised hell in downtown Chicago, of how one of the film's best moments occurred as the characters contemplated works at the Art Institute. Although Ferris Bueller, Sloane, and Cameron were escaping a world where adults took themselves and their affairs too seriously, the art scenes defined the truants as being worthy of respect.

    Leaving Dali's masterworks, I was drawn into the Man Ray exhibit.

    But that's a story for another day off.

Confessions of a bibliophile

January 11, 1998

During my recent travels to southern Virginia, I realized anew that, as surely as some people are addicted to drugs, I am hooked on books.

    Indeed, I am a bibliophile, a lover of books. My bibliophilism has driven me to strange places, introduced me to interesting people, and forced me to commit acts that might call my sanity into question. I am also a bibliomaniac, one preoccupied with collecting books.

    If I had enough money, I would become a bibliopole, a dealer of rare and curious books. Alas, my journalist's salary will not let me become a bibliopole. Just the other day, I considered buying an autographed copy of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. I left this gem on the shelf because it would have set me back more than a month's rent.

    Of course, I am a bookworm, a person devoted to reading and study. One of the world's best-known bookworms was author Katherine Mansfield. In 1922, while battling tuberculosis, she described her loneliness in terms of reading, expressing an ambivalence about the urge to read and her desire for human companionship: "Should I be happy with anyone at my side? No. I'd begin to talk, and it's far nicer not to talk."

    No one should take reading for granted, for it is a complex process. Listen to Laura Furman and Elinore Standard, editors of the book Bookworms, describe book lovers and their obsession: "For the true bookworm it is sometimes hard to distinguish between what one has experienced and what one has read. We know that this is odd and even a little demented.... We are uneasy in a void with no book.

    "Reading is a socially accepted form of hallucination. Through words we react to the ideas, memories and fantasies of people we'll never meet, whom we believe we know.

    "Reading may be the last private act of our lives."

    Reading, moreover, is powerful and inscrutable, so much so that dictators commit unspeakable crimes against writers (remember Russia's Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was exiled for his books depicting life in the Soviet Union?); powerful enough to cause seemingly normal Americans to ban books from public schools and libraries.


Excerpted from Maximum Insight by Bill Maxwell. Copyright © 2001 by Bill Maxwell. Excerpted by permission.

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