Monday, December 24, 2012

Status Quo Antebellum

In the last year I've tried unsuccessfully to read two long, landmark books on Reconstruction, A Nation Under Our Feet and Race and Reunion, prompted by a short, almost young-adult level novel called Where The Southern Cross The Dog and some thoughtful blogging by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The novel is a pretty basic crime story, written from the point of view of a white boy and a black girl who solve a murder and uncover a conspiracy by a Nazi spy in the days just before WWII.  The story is set in Mississippi in the heart of the Delta, in the Mississippi Delta of Clarksdale, Helena, East Monroe, Parchman Farm, Stovall Plantation - the literal crossroads where the American people made a deal with the devil and got perhaps the most powerful culture in the history of the world in exchange for a legacy of slavery that makes Hegel's musings look just retarded.

What struck me about the book, which would make good reading for my 10-year-old. was the author's casual explication of the basic violence of the Jim Crow South.  He doesn't exaggerate, and he doesn't play for sympathy; he's just describing, based on what the rules were and how they were interpreted what its like to live in an apartheid system.  And effectively, as we know, the Jim Crow laws governed all interracial behavior, and those laws were enforced by death squads both formally organized in men's civic groups (i.e. the KKK) and informally whenever enough drunk guys got mad and decided they needed to blow off some steam by say raping someone, or murdering them, or torturing them to death.

The African-American people in the novel keep to themselves as best they can and are suspicious of unofficial contact with whites, and the reason, we're given to understand, is because any contact with a white person not acting in an official capacity can be fatal (for the men; for the women, fatal or entail sexual assault), at the whim of the white person.  Again: this isn't an exaggeration, and I was reminded as recently as this morning that the terror and distrust African-Americans have for white society is a very real and present thing - "The officer decided the teens were suspicious and got out of his car to talk to them. Brosnan declined to say what was suspicious about the boys."

The novel I succeeded in finishing.  Coates I read regularly.  But the other two books - and a third, which I added months after I started this post, American Slavery, American Freedom, tells the true story of the first American Thanksgiving - I can't finish. 

Its not that the books aren't compelling, or well-written.  Its not even that I don't feel a certain obligation to read them, and I suppose at some point I'll return to them, the way I typically do with other books that are difficult - it took me three tries to finish Gravity's Rainbow, and I've since read that more than a couple of times. 

No, the problem is me.  (There's a lot of I in this post, which is atypical of my writing.)  I can't finish these books because I know the ending, and the redemption doesn't happen, there is no resolve from the discordant IV chord to the satisfying V.  These books, which track the history of the people brought to this continent as slaves, have a happy ending about half-way through.  Even the last one, American Slavery, American Freedom, which is ostensibly about the early development of the notion of slavery in the US, has a happy ending half-way through.  What they don't have is a genuine happy ending.  In the first two I mentioned the Civil War frees these people who were enslaved, and then these very same people exchange de jure for de facto, and while things get better, little by little, it turns out that the Civil War didn't do much and more than another century was necessary, much more.  In the latter book the Revolutionary War plays the same role: proof that hope and blood aren't enough to change all the minds that need to be changed, and that really all you can do is wait for the old regime to die.

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