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Austin Chronicle Juneteenth Reviews

JUNE 22, 1998:  Recent events in Jasper utterly changed my reading of Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow by Leon Litwak (Knopf, $35.00 hard). My initial, academically conditioned response to this long-awaited sequel to Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, Litwak's 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning study of blacks under Reconstruction, was grumpy: Yes, Litwak is a giant in the field of African-American history, yes, the book is impeccably researched and beautifully written, but do we really need another 496 pages on the daily experience of blacks in the Jim Crow South written in a traditional (read "not theoretically informed") way? Jasper changed my mind.

Litwak is a devoted blues fan, and his love for this quintessential black idiom of pain and sorrow deeply conditions his historiographical point of view. While less obvious in the earlier book, this perspective leaps from every page of Trouble in Mind. The book has rhythm. Black history, seen through the lens of Deep South blues, cannot help but be despairing, and Litwak's narrative is certainly that. He unflinchingly examines the period known as "the nadir" in all its horror, cataloguing in exhaustive detail the narrowing of oppor-tunities for black folk occasioned by the restoration of white supremacy in the South following the end of federally mandated Reconstruction in 1877, giving special emphasis to the physical manifestations of Jim Crow. The book contains graphic descriptions of the dangers black folk faced in school, in work, in prisons, and in their daily lives in every single village and town throughout the South between 1880 and the 1920s. I'm talking unflinching descriptions of thousands of lynchings, assaults, and rapes. These painful stories are brought into full relief by the inclusion of a startling photo section - not the usual grainy photos of dangling black bodies, but beautifully crisp, posed photographs of ordinary black Southerners from the period, who clearly show in their faces the soul-scarring effects of the events Litwak describes. Life was worse for Southern black folk in 1915 than it was in 1865. Promises made had not been kept. Freedom was a very relative term, with much more relevance for whites than blacks, and much more substance in the North than in the South. Life was cheap, with a lynching occurring on the average of once every three days between 1880 and 1920.

Most recent histories of this period have made a point to focus on black achievement in the face of daunting odds. Litwak does some of this, but his focus never really swerves from the message he derived from his title lyric: "Trouble in mind... life ain't worth livin' - feel like I could die." This is the different message in this book, resulting from a lifetime's study of blacks in the South. Litwak is saying, out loud, what most black folk and a great many white folk have always known: Race relations in the South have always been about winners and losers, about mastery and power, and, for the most part, every bit of self-determination blacks have ever gotten has been paid for in blood.

Grace Elizabeth Hale's Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (Pantheon, $30.00 hard) is the newfangled cultural history (theoretically inspired). The title is a dead giveaway - "whiteness" meaning an attempt to give color, spice, and difference to the norm. I've been a big fan of this kind of book since they started appearing about five years ago. This one is absolutely one of the best.

Grace Hale is doing something very different here. She is looking at the same period as Litwak, and cataloguing many of the same atrocities, but her concern is not the lived experience of Jim Crow, but rather its mental universe. How could so many good Christians keep blacks in virtual bondage for a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation and still sleep at night? How could so many good Christians participate in so many lynchings with such enthusiasm for so long? What were the cultural mechanisms that permitted so many folks to see separate but (non) equal as equitable and right? Hale addresses these questions and more in a delightfully provocative book.

For Hale, the "culture" of segregation is made up of a dense web of interconnecting forces. These include the equally complicated culture that made up the pro-slavery antebellum South, the culture of defeat and the "Lost Cause" of the Reconstruction era, as well as the interplay between different "spheres" like home, work, and marketplace. The web was constructed out of interaction between blacks and whites, and men and women, and conditioned by the full range of life experience from childhood on. The culture she describes is, most importantly, of white authorship, meant to provide a grounded identity in a world that often seemed dangerously insubstantial to its inhabitants. Hale brings together cultural elements that most often have been described separately - the various mythical worlds of the South; efforts to control and free women; the spectacle of lynching as a precursor to the motion picture; and advertising's role in the creation of stereotypes - to depict what may be the most nuanced picture yet of the world view of segregationists.

My only quibble is that, much like your critic, Hale is too much given to long sentences composed of many compound phrases that can be hard to follow. She doesn't quite fall into the category of academic doublespeak, but she comes close. Persevere. I think you'll find it worth the effort. -Robin Kilson




Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, by Tony Horwitz (Pantheon, $27.50 hard) is a fascinating, funny, and disturbing account of the author's travels through the South, in which he hangs out with Civil War combat re-enactors, visits battlefield sites and museums, and tries to fathom the reasons that so many Americans (especially Southerners) are still deeply haunted by the Civil War - and not just as a quirky hobby, either. A former war correspondent for the Wall Street Journal (Horwitz's previous book was Baghdad Without a Map), the author excels at chronicling strange situations and people with extreme viewpoints, and he does it without making fun of them and at the same time makes sure we miss none of the irony and weirdness of it all.

Scowling at the reader from the book's dust jacket is the bearded face of Robert Lee Hodge, the star of this story. Hodge is a Civil War buff who serves as Horwitz's guide in the world of hardcore re-enactors, an odd group of hobbyists who take their play very seriously. Hardcore re-enactors, as opposed to the amateur play-warriors (who are known by the insulting term "farbs"), eschew any modern comforts when participating in a re-enactment, including deodorant, insect repellent, and chow. The idea is to get as close as possible to the experience of the real thing. A "farb," on the other hand, might even commit so gross a faux pas as wearing a digital watch into battle. And, by the way, Hodge's specialty is "doing the bloat" - impersonating a dead soldier whose corpse has turned ripe. One of the most amusing realities of the world of battlefield re-enactments Horwitz uncovers is the reluctance of the re-enactors to "die" in battle. Oftentimes, a battle will rage on and on without a single simulated casualty; then it's time for someone in charge to intervene and establish a protocol for who is to "die" and in what order. Re-enactors, naturally enough, don't go to all the trouble of dressing up and driving for hours to a battle re-enactment just to fall down and play dead five minutes after the shooting starts.

There's a lot more of that kind of stuff here, but Confederates in the Attic is much more than a funny 406-page postcard from Dixie. In addition to being a serious exploration of just what the Civil War means to people in the former Confederacy, it's a meditation on the divisiveness and enmity that still exists in America over 130 years after that war supposedly ended. The war between North and South may have ended (and some Southerners will even debate that fact), but it didn't go away. And the scars of the conflict, it seems, run much deeper than the burial pits and trenches that still dot the landscape. Horwitz encounters so many gonzo ideas about what the war was really about, and what its legacy means today, that he eventually concludes that there may in fact be no politically correct way to remember it. Many revisionist ideals - such as the innate superiority of antebellum Southern culture, the unassailable gallantry and bravery of the Confederacy's soldiers and leaders, or the fact that the war was in fact fought to combat Northern oppression, not to abolish slavery - happen to be engraved on marble and granite monuments across the South that commemorate the war and its fallen.

Along the way, Horwitz also digs up great, gory factoids about the war: Many of the casualties of battle were caused by flying teeth, bones, and other parts of men whose bodies exploded after being hit by ordnance. A great many wounds were to the groin area, since commanders usually ordered their men to aim low, so as not to fire over the enemy's heads. And as the trenches that served as mass graves quickly filled up to capacity, the burial crews often resorted to burying corpses on their sides, to save room. Horwitz also dispels many of the war's most cherished myths: Sherman's March, he finds, was not nearly as brutal as is generally depicted; civilian casualties, for example, were few, and the swathe of destruction was not nearly as complete - a great many homes and other structures in the path of this infamous operation were left standing. And some places in the South that advertise themselves as bastions of rebel solidarity were, in fact, pro-Union during the war.

There's a lot of humor in this story. As Horwitz embarks on his journey back in time and across this fractured landscape, suburban sprawl often seems a much more heinous threat to the war's revered landmarks than the much-reviled scourges of Yankee-controlled big government, liberal political correctness, and the idea that the Lost Cause deserved to be lost because it was indeed the Wrong Cause. But there's a lot of depressing aspects, too. One of the bleakest chapters in the book is the one in which Horwitz boldly queries angry whites in a town where a local white youth was fatally shot by a black teenager who thought the rebel flag flying from his pickup truck was just "the 'Dukes of Hazzard' sign." In Vicksburg and other places, he discovers that segregation is still so ingrained that black and white World War II veterans celebrate different holidays and belong to separate veterans' groups. Horwitz interviews author and historian Shelby Foote, who opines that the issue of slavery in the Civil War has been greatly overemphasized. Whites tell the author that blacks are taking away their rights, and activists for preservation of Confederate heritage mimic the tactics and slogans of the Sixties-era civil rights movement. And he interviews both blacks and whites whose knowledge of the past ranges from the woefully misinformed to downright revisionist, from being colored by nostalgia to being twisted by anger and alienation.

A descendant of Russian Jewish immigrants, Horwitz was a Civil War buff as a youth, a passion he shared with his father and great grandfather. Later on in life, the fact that he had no family members who fought in the Civil War, and therefore, no real connection to it, seems to represent a mysterious puzzle. As the author grew older, his interests were diverted from the Civil War to civil rights, and he did time as a union organizer in the South before moving to Egypt and becoming a war correspondent. Returning to the U.S. a few years ago, Horwitz and his wife moved to Virginia where, one morning, his fascination for the Civil War was reawakened by the sounds of a nearby battle re-enactment. Why, the author wondered, does he feel this deep connection to a war that tore this country apart 130 years ago, whose memory still divides people along racial lines today?

Interestingly enough, Horwitz never comes up with a satisfying answer to that particular question, but he provides the reader with more than enough food for thought along the way. Among the abundant gems of this great work are the many great quotes by notable authors and personalities who have traveled down these roads before. One of the most poignant of these, by William Faulkner, sums up the whole dilemma: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." -Jesse Sublett



Volma - My Journey: One Man's Impact on the Civil Rights Movement in Austin, Texas, by Carolyn Jones (Eakin Press, $18.95 paper) chronicles the life and achievements of Volma Overton, 20-year president of the Austin branch of the NAACP and a crucial figure in the Austin civil rights movement. Born in 1924 in the rural central Texas community of Maha, Overton attended the still-segregated local school there before moving to Austin where he attended the still-segregated old L.C. Anderson High School. During World War II, he served in the Marine Corps., which was still segregated and didn't trust blacks enough to send them into combat. Returning to Austin after the war, Overton was riding a city bus one day when he was ordered to give up his seat to a white person. "A young and rebellious Volma at first refused to move," writes Jones. "He finally got up, but did not move to the rear of the bus. He simply got off, with the determination that he would do something about the Jim Crow practices that were taken for granted in Austin and throughout the South."

Over the coming years, Overton became a force to be reckoned with as, one by one, those who stood in the way of civil rights in our fair city crumpled under the iron will and Christian determination of this man. The City Council in the late Sixties, the Austin Independent School District, and the U.S. Postal Service all learned that Volma Overton was a force to be reckoned with. The book is not only a biography of one of Austin's true heroes, but a road map of the civil rights movement in our city, and it's a good tonic for all of us who might need to be reminded that laid-back, liberal Austin has not always been (and still isn't) an equally pleasant place for all of its citizens. -Jesse Sublett


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