I have had some dim and unformed sense, a sense which strikes me now and then, and which I cannot explain coherently, that Joan Didion is an extraordinarily gifted and prescient writer whose enterprise seems to me to be poisoned by something that may or not be fatal: she can be cloyingly precious.
Didion’s preciousness is on full display in her new book, South and West, a sampling of notes for two magazine articles that never got written. The “Notes on the South” section consists of observations Didion made as she drove aimlessly from New Orleans through Mississippi and Alabama in a rented car with her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, in the torpid summer of 1970. The shorter “California Notes” section is a series of stray reflections while Didion was trying to write about Patty Hearst’s trial in San Francisco in 1976.
The prescience that justifies this slight book’s existence is contained in a single sentence:
I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.
This “unformed sense” may have seemed outlandish in 1970, but the election of Donald Trump has anointed it with an aura of prophecy. But was it so outlandish? In Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in the presidential election of 1964 — the year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act — five of the six states that voted for the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, were in the Deep South. Before 1964 it would have unthinkable for Southerners to vote wholesale for the party of Lincoln; today it is unthinkable that they would not. So 1964 marked the beginning of the wholesale tipping of the country to the right, toward the Republican party, toward the red-state ethos that spread from the South and became strong enough to elect the unlikeliest of presidents. Joan Didion was one of those rare people who voted for Goldwater. After segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace took up Goldwater’s far-right mantle in the 1968 election, with nearly identical results, Didion would write, “The thought that the reason Wallace has never troubled me is that he is a totally explicable phenomenon.”
Six years after the 1964 election, Didion and Dunne set out on their road trip along the Gulf Coast. One day the couple drove through Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, which Didion calls “peculiar country.” Here’s why:
There were run-down antiques places, and tomato stands, and a beauty shop called Feminine Fluff. The snakes, the rotting undergrowth, sulphurous light: the images are so specifically those of the nightmare world that when we stopped for gas, or directions, I had to steel myself, deaden every nerve, in order to step from the car onto the crushed oyster shells in front of the gas station.
I had a visceral reaction to this passage, something close to anger. I thought, Get out of the car and pump the fucking gas, already, or catch a plane back to L.A. where you belong. Later, Didion reports:
It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?
My anger resurfaced. What horseshit, I thought. You couldn’t bring yourself to kill a mosquito.
After reading South and West three times, I have come to realize that my visceral reaction to such passages misses the central point. The central point is that ever since she burst onto the scene in 1968 with her stunning collection of New Journalism, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion has been playing a role. Her fragile, remote, bewildered, haughty persona is a construct, a fiction, a way for her to give voice to the writing. She is not the first writer to do this — Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer come immediately to mind – but she is arguably the first to get readers to conflate reality with her fictionalized persona and its hardware: the cigarettes, the Corvette, the cool gaze, the Céline sunglasses ads, the perpetual drip of dread. As Emmett Rensin wrote recently in The New Republic, “Her constructed personality is so well rendered that we are often willing to suspend our judgment and believe in its reality.” I believe he’s right about this, and I also believe that this is the central problem with Joan Didion. She gets a pass because, well, because she is capable of prescience, wisdom, and gorgeous sentences. She is allowed to inhabit a constructed — and frequently annoying — personality because legions of readers are convinced that the payoff has earned Didion a suspension of judgment, a disinclination to remain aware that her constructed personality is merely a pose.
In his introduction to South and West, Nathaniel Rich writes words that are intended as high praise but that strike me as an unintended exposure of the source of this problem. Rich lauds “the cool majesty of her prose, written as if from a great, even empyreal distance.” The operative words here are cool and empyreal. “Cool” has long been the default adjective to describe Didion’s personal style and her approach to observing people and turning her observations into sentences. But “empyreal” seems to me to be the true killer — this notion that a writer operates from on high, far above the grubby lives of people who set their husbands on fire in Volkswagens, people who live in trailers with the air-conditioning on all night, who go to cosmetology school and wear pink Dacron housedresses and drink beer out of cans and name their daughters Kimberly or Sherry or Debi. There is no possibility for such a writer to inhabit the lives of her subjects, to achieve empathy; the only possibility is preciousness and cool detachment, which produces observations that always come back to the primary importance of the observer, and the secondary status of the observed.
At the Mississippi Broadcasters’ Convention in Biloxi, for instance, Didion writes:
The isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down. Does it matter where Taos is, after all if Taos is not in Mississippi?
And yet Didion’s aloofness from these people has gotten her snared in a trap. “When I think about New Orleans,” she writes, “I remember mainly its dense obsessiveness, its vertiginous preoccupation with race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of style.” In her best books — among which I would include Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Where I Was From – Didion is obsessed with the very things she disparages here about New Orleans, particularly the absence of style. The San Bernardino Valley, as she wrote in the ground-breaking essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” is “the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or Sherry or Debi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school.” Style doesn’t get any more absent than that.
This obsession with class, heritage, style, and the absence of style has opened Didion, inevitably, to charges that she is an “elitist.” This is a serious sin in a society that tells itself it is “classless,” but it strikes me as a perfectly reasonable thing for a writer to be, provided it doesn’t negate the capacity for empathy or lead to preciousness. Was any writer more of an elitist than Marcel Proust? Or Henry James? Or Virginia Woolf? Or Flannery O’Connor? Arguably not, but that didn’t stop the late Barbara Grizzuti Harrison from writing a takedown of Didion way back in 1979, in an essay so dyspeptic that it flirts with both lunacy and hilarity. “Didion’s lyrical angst strikes me as transparently ersatz,” wrote Harrison, who went on to call Didion “a neurasthenic Cher” and “a lyricist of the irrational” whose “imperialist mentality” led her to vote for Goldwater, among other unpardonable sins. Grizzuti identified Didion’s preciousness as a source of her popularity: “That coddled singularity/superiority is, I am afraid, one of the reasons readers love Didion.” But in Grizzuti’s eyes, there is no worse sin this: “Didion’s heart is cold.”
The charges have merit, but since South and West is a Joan Didion book, you know there will be gem-like sentences. Here are a half-dozen random samples:
“A little girl with long unkempt hair and a dirty periwinkle dress that hung below her knees carried around an empty Sprite bottle.”
“A somnolence so dense that it seemed to inhibit breathing hung over Hattiesburg, Mississippi at two or three o’clock of that Sunday afternoon.”
“When I left Basic City a train was moaning, the Meridian & Bigbee line. One is conscious of trains in the South. It is a true earlier time.” And: “Maybe the rural South is the last place in America where one is still aware of trains and what they can mean, their awesome possibilities.”
“We crossed the Demopolis Rooster Bridge over the Tombigbee River, another still, brown river. I think I never saw water that appeared to be running in any part of the South. A sense of water moccasins.”
“On weekday afternoons in towns like Winfield one sees mainly women, moving like somnambulists through the days of their lives.”
“The kudzu makes much of Mississippi seem an ominously topiary landscape.”
“The time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.”
Another of the book’s delights is Didion’s portrayal of the Deep South through its motel swimming pools. Like Neddy Merrill swimming home through a string of Westchester County pools in John Cheever’s indelible short story, “The Swimmer,” Didion swims her way across Dixie, filing regular reports on the water quality. In Biloxi: “The swimming pool is large and unkempt, and the water smells of fish.” In Birmingham: “I went swimming, which occasioned great notice in the bar. ‘Hey, look, there’s somebody with a bikini on.’” In Winfield: “There was algae in the pool, and a cigarette butt.” In Oxford: “Later when I was swimming a little girl pointed out that by staying underwater one could hear, by some electronic freak, a radio playing. I submerged and heard news of the Conservative victory in Great Britain, and ‘Mrs. Robinson.’”
In addition to such gems, this book produces an outsized irony. The meat of the book — if a 126-page book can be said to be meaty — was supposed to lead to a magazine article, a “piece” in Didion-speak, that her editors at Life magazine referred to as “The Mind of the White South,” a nod to W.J. Cash’s masterpiece, The Mind of the South. Indeed, Didion doesn’t talk to a single black person, preferring instead to spend her time with New Orleans aristocrats, white women in laundromats, the white owner of a black radio station, and Walker Percy, who serves up gin and tonics. The closest Didion comes to acknowledging the plight of black people in the South is a memory of a girlhood visit to her father’s military posting in Durham, N.C., when a bus driver refused to leave the curb until the Didions had moved to the front of the bus, where white people belonged according to the iron dictates of Jim Crow. Here is Didion’s closest encounter with a black person during her 1970 trip: “On that same afternoon I saw a black girl on the campus: she was wearing an Afro and a clinging jersey, and she was quite beautiful, with a NY-LA coastal arrogance. I could not think what she was doing at Ole Miss, or what she thought about it.” Tellingly, Didion doesn’t bother to ask. This section ends with a simple epitaph: “I never wrote the piece.”
The irony is that the 13-page section of the book called “California Notes” also failed to produce the hoped-for magazine article, but it led to something much bigger. “This didn’t lead to my writing the piece,” Didion reports, “but eventually it led to — years later — Where I Was From (2003).” That book, a reappraisal of Didion’s long-held myths about her family, her native California, and the rugged individuals who settled the place, is among her very finest writing, and it’s entirely driven by her thoughts on class, heritage, style, and the absence of style. With deadpan scorn, she sums up the bankrupt myth of the “frontier ethic”: “Show spirit, kill the rattlesnake, keep moving.” The inconvenient reality, from the railroad tycoon Leland Stanford on through big agriculture and the aerospace industry, is that the rugged individualism of the frontier ethic has always been supported by generous infusions of federal tax dollars. Where I Was From is such a richly reported and deeply reasoned book that it’s hard to believe it grew from the closing pages of South and West. But one thing must be believed: the fact that a major publisher has brought out these jottings in a handsome $21 hardcover is proof that Joan Didion can do no wrong because, quite simply, she was canonized a long time ago and readers have come to love her constructed personality and its coddled singularity/superiority.
Danville, Va., the gritty Southern mill town where my parents were born and raised, is a city born out of slavery. Before the Civil War, tobacco planters living upstream along the Dan River sent their field slaves on flatboats laden with freshly harvested tobacco to Danville where slaves from many plantations cleaned and dried the tobacco for shipment. After the war, the emancipated slaves and their descendants, excluded by law and custom from most other work, worked in Danville during tobacco season for the next 120 years, well into my own lifetime.
This naturally boosted the city’s black population, and in the early-1880s, Danville had a majority-black city council, along with black policemen and justices of the peace. Shortly before a bloody race riot in 1883, in which four black people were killed, put an end to this brief period of black rule, local white investors founded a cotton mill that, by adhering to a strict policy of hiring only white workers, made Danville once again a majority-white city government by often ruthless segregationists.
This history, and my own observation of its aftermath, is the lens through which I read Nancy Isenberg’s provocative new history White Trash, and it’s the reason I found Isenberg’s book by turns fascinating and exasperating. The Danville I knew as a child was really three cities. One, where my grandparents lived, was a Mayberry-like Southern town of tree-lined streets where children set up lemonade stands and frolicked in backyard swimming pools. A mile away was the old mill village where thousands of white mill workers lived in tiny whitewashed homes that had once been owned by the mill, which rented them at reduced rates to its workers. A mile or so from the mill village, across the tracks of the Southern Railroad, was black Danville, where the poorest of the migrant tobacco workers lived in mud-floored shacks standing in the flood plain of the Dan River.
Danville’s rigidly enforced social geography lasted into the late-1970s when globalization began eating into the profits of Dan River Mills, which at its height had employed some 14,000 people, the great majority of them white. From the time of its founding in the 1880s, Dan River Mills made an implicit deal with its white work force: work in its mills would be arduous, hot, and poorly paid, but white workers could count on having food for their families, a roof over their heads, and freedom from having to compete with black workers, who, quite obviously, would have worked the same job for less pay.
When this social compact crumbled, undone first by the Civil Rights Movement, which forced a greater integration of the work force, and later by the global economy, which bled the mill dry, it left thousands of white Danvillians, many of whose parents and grandparents had worked in the mill, without a way to make a living. A generation later, those white Danvillians, along with millions of other disaffected working-class white people across the South and the Rust Belt, are lining up for Donald Trump, who is running for president on a promise to bring back an America that existed before globalization, immigration, and racial integration destroyed the world I knew as a boy in Danville.
This was the history I was hoping to find explicated in Isenberg’s study of working-class white society, which appeared in bookstores last month eerily well-timed to help Americans understand the social and economic forces propelling Trump’s rise. What I found instead was half that story. In White Trash, Isenberg sets herself the task of puncturing the myth of American exceptionalism when it comes to social class. “Above all,” she writes, “we must stop declaring what is patently untrue, that Americans, through some rare good fortune, escaped the burden of class that prevailed in the mother country of England.”
This case Isenberg makes convincingly. The early — and best — chapters of White Trash detail how 17th-century British elites saw the American colonies as a vast dumping ground for England’s lower classes in order “to drayne away the filth” from the homeland. Each succeeding generation of colonial elite further distanced itself from these lower caste British settlers, many of whom arrived in America as indentured servants, until they formed an essentially permanent white underclass known variously as “squatters,” “crackers,” “clay-eaters,” “mudsills,” and more recently, “rednecks,” “hillbillies,” and “trailer trash.”
But even as Isenberg debunks one politically convenient fiction, she perpetuates an equally pernicious one, that of the special victimization of the white poor. Time and again, Isenberg soft-pedals the long and ugly history of white-on-black violence and minimizes the myriad ways — legal, economic, social, and cultural — the poorest of poor whites have been privileged over black and brown Americans.
Perhaps the most glaring example of this is Isenberg’s handling of the Civil Rights Era, which in White Trash all but boils down to a single, curiously framed discussion of the standoff between poor white Arkansans and black students trying to integrate Little Rock’s Central High in 1957. Isenberg builds this brief section around a famous news photo of a 15-year-old white Central High student named Hazel Bryan hurling epithets at Elizabeth Eckford, a black student making her way through an angry white crowd on the first day of school.
“Eckford looked calm, was dressed modestly, and appeared earnest,” Isenberg writes of the photo. “Her white adversary [Bryan] wore a dress that was too tight, and as she propelled herself forward, menacingly, mouth agape, she projected the crude callousness of the recognized white trash type. That contrast was precisely what the photographers intended to record.” In images sent out over the news wires, Isenberg writes, Bryan appeared as “the face of white trash. Ignorant. Unrepentant. Congenitally cruel. Only capable of replicating the pathetic life into which she was born.”
This framing is just plain odd. In her discussion of Civil Rights Era, surely a crucial period in any account of the role of poor white people in American history, Isenberg says nothing of the lynching of Emmett Till, the vicious mob attacks on the Freedom Riders in 1961, Bull Connor’s dogs, or the four little girls blown up in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. The Ku Klux Klan, that 150-year-old force of white violence and intimidation, rates just four glancing mentions in the entire book, most noting in passing that this or that historical figure had once been a member or said something nice about the organization. Instead, Isenberg’s lone substantive discussion of the Civil Rights Era focuses on how one white teenager was stereotyped as “the face of white trash,” effectively turning the aggressor into a victim, a mere pawn of a manipulative national media eager dismiss poor whites as somehow less than human.
Of course, in an important way, the Hazel Bryans of the world were pawns of a white Southern elite that happily left to poor whites the dirty work of enforcing segregation. As Isenberg notes, Bryan’s school, Central High, the students of which were poor and white, was scheduled for integration, while another high school on the city’s tonier west side was to remain all-white. And Bryan needed, desperately, the advantages that Central High offered. Bryan’s parents were high school dropouts who had moved the family from rural Arkansas where their home had no indoor plumbing. Her father, a disabled veteran, didn’t work, and her mother worked at a Westinghouse plant in Little Rock. “Permeable racial boundaries would pull down people like her even further,” Isenberg writes of Bryan.
Still, Bryan was hardly a victim. Isenberg doesn’t record it, but as the famous photograph was being shot, Bryan was shouting, “Go home, nigger! Go back to Africa!” Around her, other white Central High students were shouting at Eckford, who had mistakenly arrived at school alone that day, “Lynch her! Lynch her! No nigger bitch is going to get into our school!” Will Counts, the photographer who caught Hazel Bryan on film, took an equally famous picture that same day of a black reporter being kicked and beaten by the angry mob.
But it’s just as important to understand why those white kids outside Central High were calling for the lynching of a defenseless black girl and beating a black newsman bloody in front of the national press corps. They were defending a centuries-old system of laws and cultural practices that privileged poor white people over black Americans of all social classes. If the Westinghouse plant where Bryan’s mother worked was anything like most factories in the South, it was every bit as segregated as the local schools, and if the loan on her family’s home in Little Rock was anything like those on most homes in America at the time, it was guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration, which systematically discriminated against black homeowners for decades.
This is the half of the story White Trash leaves out. In the Danville I knew as a child, and in the America one finds in pioneering works of history like C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow and W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, white elites rigged the system so poor whites got slightly better schools, slightly better jobs, and slightly better homes, and then were expected to defend those privileges against people of color, often violently. Poor whites ended up with the short end of the stick, but they fought in the knowledge that they were at least better off than their black counterparts who got nothing.
Isenberg occasionally says things in White Trash that are simply untrue, such as this head-scratcher regarding race and law enforcement: “Poor whites were inexpensive and expendable, and found their lot comparable to suffering African Americans when it came to the justice system.” Far more often, she is merely selective in her facts, playing up the suffering of the white working class while skirting history that might paint them in a bad light. Thus, in her chapter on the Reconstruction Era, Isenberg spends several pages on “scalawags,” the poor white dissenters from white supremacist ideology who tried to build a more racially equitable South after the Civil War, while never mentioning the Klan and its infamous night riders. In a similar vein, in her discussion of the 20th-century pseudo-science of eugenics, Isenberg focuses on the forced sterilization of poor white women judged “feebleminded” while downplaying the fact that much of eugenic theory was openly racist (see “Nazi Germany, influence on”) and that many forced sterilization programs targeted black women.
This all matters because perhaps more than at any time in recent memory, we are in desperate need of a fair-minded accounting of the history of white America. The 2016 presidential campaign is about many things, but one of its running themes is white America and its opposite, be it Mexican immigrants, Muslim militants, or black Americans. Are the working-class white voters at Trump rallies right that political correctness has gone too far and the liberal elite’s coddling of minorities and immigrants has left hard-working white Americans vulnerable? Is the recent spate of shootings of black motorists by white police officers a tragic aberration or the latest twist in a long history of white police brutality toward black men? Is it racist to say “All Lives Matter”? If so, why?
Americans searching for answers to these questions are thrown headlong into a clangorous scrum of cable-news shouters, hashtag revolutionaries, and online conspiracy theorists. Nancy Isenberg is none of these things. She is a tenured professor of history at Louisiana State University and the author of Fallen Founder, a respected biography of Aaron Burr, our third vice president. So it is profoundly dispiriting to find her history of poor white America leaving out such a crucial thread of the story.
This strikes me less a failure of scholarship than a failure of imagination. Isenberg appears to have decided to write a history of poor white America and then persuaded herself that poor black America was only tangential to her story. This frightens me almost as much as news that Trump ranks within the margin of error in national polls. If America’s historians, who have dedicated their lives to understanding our past, who have spent years digging through the archives, can be so blind to the meaning of their own history, what hope is there for the rest of us to confront this very real and present crisis we are facing?
Fifty years from now, Americans may look upon the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the same way we look back today on Martin Luther King’s march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., 50 years ago — as a hinge of history, one of those rare flashpoints that shapes a society.
But like the Selma march, the shooting of Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson last August is just one piece of a longer, more complicated story. Violence against black people is hardly new.
With each new report of a black man dying at the hands of a white cop — such as the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina last week — we pore over the videotape, argue on social media, and rally around hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter. But too often we lose sight of the broader context of the racism that is so deeply rooted in our history and culture.
Below are nine books, some new, some decades old, that shed light on the history and evolution of racism in America. As the case with any list of this kind, this one is incomplete. We invite readers to add their suggestions for further reading on this topic in the comments section.
Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy
This fascinating examination of the epidemic of violence in Los Angeles’s poor black neighborhoods grew out of “The Homicide Report,” an interactive database on the Los Angeles Times website that chronicles all murders in L.A. County. Ghettoside follows a single murder investigation headed by a heroically dogged white LAPD detective, but Leovy’s deeper point is far less uplifting. She likens the relentless gun violence in Los Angeles’s black neighborhoods to a “plague,” one caused in large part by the indifference of the outside world. “This book is about a very simple idea,” she writes; “where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.”
Leovy’s argument that poor black neighborhoods need more policing rather than less may be a tough sell to those outraged by “stop-and-frisk” tactics and strict enforcement of petty crimes, but this crisply reported book bears out her points about the consequences of the failure to vigorously investigate and prosecute violent crimes. “Like the schoolyard bully,” Leovy writes, “our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts, but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery, but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.”
The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
Most accounts of the Walter Scott shooting in South Carolina report that Scott had a long history of arrests, most involving his failure to pay child support for his four children. But as Alexander documents in The New Jim Crow, in many major American cities four out of five black men have criminal records — a statistic Alexander believes reflects America’s warped law enforcement priorities during the long-running War on Drugs. A law professor who once headed the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project in Northern California, Alexander argues that an unholy cocktail of strict drug laws, selective enforcement, harsh sentencing rules, and discrimination against ex-cons has created a de facto “racial caste system” that has, in effect, replaced the de jure caste system that ruled in the Jim Crow South.
Anyone wanting to understand why a police officer like Michael Slager would be so eager to pull over a black man like Walter Scott driving a Mercedes Benz with a broken tail light would do well to read The New Jim Crow.
The Whites, by Richard Price
Price has chosen to half-camouflage himself behind the pseudonym Harry Brandt, but no one should be fooled: The Whites is Richard Price at his ballsy, gritty best. The novel, his ninth, is at once a spellbinding exercise in straight-up genre storytelling, and a haunting meditation on the shadowy line between those who uphold society’s laws and those who break them.
The “whites” of the title are not white people, but murderers who escape justice and live free while the cops who know their guilt continue to pursue them like so many badge-wielding Captain Ahabs. The novel turns, brilliantly, on the moral quandary of how men sworn to seek justice should view those who have slipped through the cracks of the criminal justice system. At the same time, Price, a world-class reporter who happens to write fiction, puts readers inside the minds of New York City cops who serve as the sharp end of the spear of society’s often invisible war against the poor, the luckless, and the depraved.
Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine
This book-length poem aims to document not just the instances of intentional and unintentional racism described in Rankine’s poetry, but the ongoing tide of violence against black men. In its first edition, which went to press in the summer of 2014, Citizen includes the following note: “November 23, 2012/In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis,” reflecting the date that the 17-year-old black man was murdered by a white man after an altercation over loud rap music at a gas station in Florida. A second printing, which went to press in September 2014, was updated to memorialize the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. A third printing, completed in November, not only adds to the list the names of two more slain black men, Eric Garner and John Crawford, but includes a long column of the words “In Memory of,” each left blank, presumably to be filled in with the names of black men whose violent deaths have not yet occurred.
On the facing page, Rankine has tacked on a brief haiku-like epigraph:
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, by Anna Deveare Smith
For her one-woman plays, Twilight and Fires in the Mirror, Smith interviewed hundreds of people involved in two of the most combustible race riots of the 1990s — the Rodney King riots of 1992 in L.A. and Brooklyn’s Crown Heights riots in 1991. Then, with a few simple props, Smith impersonated the people she had met, using verbatim excerpts from her interviews to create a theatrical documentary seeking to make moral sense of these explosions of racial violence.
On the page, Smith distills her characters’ words into a kind of loose poetry, which has literary merit in its own right, but so much of the richness of the plays owes to her performance. I saw her perform Twilight in San Francisco in the mid-1990s, while the O.J. Simpson trial was still on TV every day, and the experience has stayed with me. A light-complected black woman with an infinitely malleable body and voice, Smith could plausibly embody everyone from Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates to a gang member, creating a searing indictment of racism in America while also bearing witness to the human capacity to transcend race and social class. She created a film version of the play in 2000, under the direction of Marc Levin.
“Sentimental Journeys” from After Henry, by Joan Didion
This essay about New York’s infamous Central Park Jogger case, which first appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1991, is a tart, tough-minded examination of the power of the public imagination to convict young black men of crimes they did not commit. In April 1989, a young white investment banker was raped and left for dead after she was waylaid while jogging at night across Central Park. Five teenagers, four of them black, and one Hispanic, “confessed” to the crime, though, tellingly, none admitted raping the woman, claiming instead that they helped hold the woman down while others raped her.
In her essay, Didion documents how the tale of a rabid gang of black teenagers — early tabloid headlines labeled them a “Wolf Pack” — setting upon an educated white woman fit the public narrative of a city out of control, overwhelming any discussion of the holes in the prosecution’s case. Sharp reporter that she is, Didion also shows how some in New York’s black community sought to demean the victim, claiming she had a black boyfriend and had gone into the park looking for sex. In 2002, another man confessed to the crime, and after DNA evidence confirmed his claims, the original convictions were vacated, though all five defendants had already served out their sentences.
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, by Annette Gordon-Reed
No story better illustrates the deep strangeness of the relationship between powerful white Americans and the black people under their control more fully than that of President Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, the mother of six of his children. Gordon-Reed nearly single-handedly put an end to two centuries of scholarship that had held that Jefferson could not have been the father of Hemings’s children — a line of argument that collapsed in 1998 under the weight of decisive DNA proof that Jefferson had indeed fathered Hemings’s children, four of whom lived to adulthood.
But the Jefferson-Hemings saga is so very much weirder than the mere fact that a sitting American president had a black concubine. Sally Hemings was herself the child of a slave, Betty Hemings, and a white planter, John Wayles, who was also the father of Martha Wayles, the first and only wife of Thomas Jefferson. Before she died, Martha made Jefferson promise never to marry again, and he honored this pledge by carrying on a decades-long affair with her half-sister, who by all accounts, looked remarkably like Martha Jefferson.
The Mind of the South, by W.J. Cash
Anyone looking for a single, book-length examination of the conservative, white racial imagination need go no further than this 1941 classic. Published months before Cash’s death under murky circumstances in Mexico, The Mind of the South offers a scorching view of the damage done to the mind of a people whose power, which they view as theirs by birthright, is threatened by the march of progress.
Among the shocks of reading The Mind of the South is how readily Cash’s portrait of the political belief systems of the post-bellum American South fits with those of the more extreme elements of today’s Republican Party. It’s all there: the evangelical religiosity, the veneration of violence and militarism, the preference of morality over law, the distrust of science and rational self-criticism. One sees in politicians like President George W. Bush and Texas Governor Rick Perry features of the figure Cash calls “the hell of a fellow” — a friendly guy who is not outwardly brainy, but deeply moral, religious, and fervently patriotic.
American Babylon, by Robert O. Self
Self, a history professor at Brown, is an academic, and writes like one, so this book is not for the Sunday browser, but I know of no more penetrating a study of how institutional racism actually works than this history of black Oakland, Calif., and the rise of the Black Panther Party. The sleepy port city of Oakland, once known in Gertrude Stein’s famous formulation as the place where “there is no there there,” became a magnet for poor black Southerners drawn to steady work in the city’s shipyards during the Second World War. But after the war, the shipyard jobs evaporated, leaving black Oakland residents stranded in poverty while the surrounding municipalities attracted factories employing middle-class white workers living out the California dream.
Self’s achievement is to explain how pervasive racism can exist when no one appears to be actively discriminating against anyone. Northern Californians did not need to slap “Whites Only” signs over swimming pools and water fountains, or ride out at night wearing white sheets. They needed only to build factories far from the homes of black workers in Oakland, and then design a public transportation system that made it difficult for those black workers to reach the distant white suburbs. They needed only to pass a property tax law — known as Proposition 13 — which made it easier for white homeowners to pay off their mortgages but slashed government aid to impoverished black renters in the inner city.