I highly recommend this April 23rd diary by the always-interesting mohistory2, if you didn’t already see it: A Primer On Why Our Discussions Of Race Continue To Be So Regularly Frustrating And Fruitless. Here is a tiny excerpt of a very deep discussion.
When we get on a site like DKos and have what we think are frank and open discussions of race, and the politics of race (“because, after all, we're all Progressives here”), we're still unknowingly psychologically having two sets of extremely, extremely, extremely separate discussions depending on whether we're either white or so-called nonwhite….[snip]….Because racial segregation has very, very intentionally prevented them from ever truly experiencing, in anything close to any particularly real sense, what white supremacy has actually been doing 24/7/365 to every single living nonwhite person for five unbroken centuries.
It spoke to something I think about a lot (and I realize that phrase in itself is ironic, or contradictory in some respects,) and that I was specifically grappling with as I read Down Along with That Devil's Bones: A Reckoning with Monuments, Memory, and the Legacy of White Supremacy, by Connor Towne O’Neill, and considering it for this nonfiction series. I think it’s a very good book about how racism is woven completely into the fabric of America, it draws powerful lines from slavery to Reconstruction to the present day, and it gives voice to Black activists along with a heavy dose of his own musings and personal history. Still, I was conflicted about using the book as the basis for a diary, as it is, in the end, a white guy writing about racism.
It is, of course, part of a deep publishing genre. First that comes to mind is John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, published in 1961. I remember the book being discussed briefly in my mid-1960s grammar school class, though that small, religious, Missouri Synod Lutheran school didn’t do anything so bold as to actually assign it for reading. But this book, in which the white author medically darkens his skin to a deep brown and travels through the South, caused a stir at the time and may have helped build understanding and support for the civil rights movement. Greg Early, author of the 1994 Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation, had this to say about the book around the time of its 50th anniversary:
“Black Like Me disabused the idea that minorities were acting out of paranoia. There was this idea that black people said certain things about racism, and one rather expected them to say these things. Griffin revealed that what they were saying was true. It took someone from outside coming in to do that. And what he went through gave the book a remarkable sincerity.”
Down Along With That Devil’s Bones reminded me of the 2016 book by Patrick Phillips, Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America. Here we have a white journalist coming to grips with horrendous racist terrorism in 1912 in Forsyth County, Georgia, where he grew up in the 1970s and 80s. He fully recounts the lynching, murders, burnings and other acts of white terrorism that drove 1100 Blacks to flee for their lives, and also fully connects it to how alive that terrorism is in the present day. It’s an excellent book, but still, it is interesting that his advocacy has its origins with his white-guy shock at learning about this history.
Less personal, but a book written by a white scholar that seeks to draw a clear line from the Confederacy through all of US history to the present day, is historian Heather Cox Richardson’s How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, published last year. It’s a searing book that is opening a lot of eyes, and I’ve seen it referenced often, including here on Daily Kos. Ms. Richardson writes regularly on these topics HERE.
And it’s not that I don’t have a pile of books and advance copies here on my desk that I’m dipping into that are actual Black people talking about racism. I recently read Michael Eric Dyson’s What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America. Ben Philippe’s just-published seriocomic book of essays Sure, I'll Be Your Black Friend: Notes from the Other Side of the Fist Bump reminded me of an old fave, Baratunde Thurston’s 2012 How To Be Black. Sitting here I also have Boyz n the Void: a mixtape to my brother, by G’Ra Asim and coming out May 11th, essays on race, gender, culture and youth, which has as its epigraph the Amiri Baraka quote: “To understand that you are black in a society where black is an extreme liability is one thing, but to understand that it is the society that is lacking and impossibly deformed, and not yourself, isolates you even more.” And I have Chad Sanders’ Black Magic: What Black Leaders Learned from Trauma and Triumph, published in February. And I have Loud Black Girls: 20 Black Women Writers Ask: What's Next?, an anthology of British writers, also published in February. And I have Until Freedom co-founder Tamika D. Mallory’s State of Emergency: How We Win in the Country We Built, coming out May 11th. And I have Pregnant Girl: A Story of Teen Motherhood, College, and Creating a Better Future for Young Families, by Nicole Lynn Lewis, just published today. I asked Beacon Press for an advance copy of that last one because a friend of mine did the audiobook, but though I am neither a teen, pregnant, Black or a mother, I’ve found Lewis’ passionate activist voice about how systemic racism impacts teen Black mothers to be gripping.
But in the end, I am very aware that I can read until my eyes fall out of my face, I can learn and advocate and fight, but I’m still a white guy, and no matter how much I listen, there will always be a serious gap in my understanding. So for this review, I’ll stick with the white guy’s Down Along with That Devil's Bones: A Reckoning with Monuments, Memory, and the Legacy of White Supremacy. (After that lengthy introduction, do I still have space for a review?!)
As I said at the outset, author Connor Towne O’Neill places his own personal history and navel-gazing at the forefront a bit too often, and I feel that’s the weaker part of the book. In a book about white supremacy vis-à-vis Black history in America, his two epigraphs are from Viet Thanh Nguyen and Jean Rhys, an odd choice. Still, I think it is a good, informative book. The narrative swirls around Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who he first learns about at the Confederate Memorial Circle in Selma, Alabama, at the empty pedestal from which a bust of the general had disappeared, but was about to be replaced. Forrest still looms large in the hearts and minds of many, despite his fighting for the Confederacy, his pre-Civil War business of selling slaves and his post-War involvement in Ku Klux Klan and in the “slavery by another name” of using the forced labor of Black convicts often arrested on the flimsiest of charges. The book focuses on the fight over four different monuments to Forrest.
The author, who grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, does acknowledge his white perspective at the outset:
“When I first started writing about Forrest, I conceived of myself as an outside observer….[But} as I logged thousands of miles...I was prompted to ask questions about race that I’d never asked before, had never thought to ask before.
So much about American life encourages white people to take our whiteness for granted. It is the stock photo, the room tone, of American life, meant to be conflated with the norm. It is insidious that way. Growing up, whiteness often went without saying. But that’s precisely it: it goes without saying because white people don’t want to talk about whiteness, don’t want to see it, don’t want to think about what it means, where it came from, or why we still seem to need it.”
That said, much of the book is about white supremacists who very much think about whiteness. The book dives deeply into the slave-owning Confederacy, the violence and repression against Blacks after the Civil War, the denial of rights, segregation. Forrest was an early leader in the Ku Klux Klan. A major early proponent of honoring the Forrest legacy was Thomas Dixon, Jr., author of the notorious 1905 novel The Klansman, on which the racist early movie Birth of a Nation was based; another was Jack Kershaw, who founded White Citizen’s Councils and was responsible for the garish statue pictured above. And he traces this older history directly to the leaders of today’s white supremacist organizations, from William Luther Pierce (the National Alliance, The Turner Diaries,) Richard Girnt Butler (Aryan Nations.) He brings in Timothy McVeigh and Oklahoma City, Dylann Roof and Charleston, the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, and the election of Trump, delving into all the flavors of white supremacy. He discusses how while earlier supremacist movements sought to preserve the government’s role in maintaining a racist regime, as civil rights legislation began to erode that regime, the supremacist movements morphed into the more anti-government organizations that predominate today.
The author also interviews many of the Black activists who are fighting for the removal of Confederate monuments, and others who discuss how the presence of those monuments affects their lives, and he gives their voices extensive room.
In all, a good read, both for a history of racist movements in this country, and for some white guy’s grappling with the reality of racism and the gulf that exists for him in trying to understand it.
I also wrote this diary last week: Publisher W.W. Norton pulls Philip Roth bio after sexual assault allegations against biographer, in case you missed the news. Slate published a very deep dive into Blake Bailey’s grooming of middle school students he taught. Quite alarming. Though I still find the issue of conflating the author’s behavior with the author’s work to be difficult.
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