15 June 2018

A More Beautiful and Terrible History, by Jeanne Theoharis

The Preface to the book lays out its compelling thesis: that civil rights history has been sanitized, transformed into a "narrative of dreamy heroes and accidental heroines." (xiii) Radical critiques of structural inequality have been replaced with feel-good stories of individual heroism that furthermore place their struggle firmly in the past, allowing them to be safely celebrated in the present without threatening the status quo. Everyone is allowed to feel good about themselves for being part of a nation whose history includes such glorious heroism -- indeed, she says, such revisionism casts the movement as "an almost inevitable aspect of American democracy rather than as the outcome of Black organization." (x)  Theoharis offers a clear, compelling, evidence-laden explanation of how "the recounting of national histories is never separate from present day politics." (xi) -- one I will very likely assign to students in the future. What we need, she says, is more honest, uncomfortable history, so as to act more effectively in the present, to perceive current injustices and more effectively strategize how they can be overcome.

The book is frequently a blistering critique of the complacency wrought by a comfortable ignorance. To see the press, for instance, as a powerful instrument within the struggle is to overlook the fact that the press regularly did not cover -- and continues to ignore -- the various efforts of Black organizers, presenting protests as isolated incidents, the actions of an ungrateful populace. We frequently see movies as powerful political statements, but over and over, Theoharis shows us how films like Detroit or The Butler are guilty of the same kinds of misrepresentation. She is particularly excoriating in writing about how people in the North, in cities such as Boston or Detroit, congratulated themselves for open-mindedness, even as they enacted policies every bit as vicious as those in the supposedly more racist South. The book is a fascinating and truly eye-opening account, an absolutely necessary corrective to a history that is frequently invoked but rarely, we realize, engaged with in any meaningful way.

But it is also extremely repetitive, and structured in a somewhat befuddled way, such that it keeps doubling back to add another point to an earlier example, to remind us of how something discussed before is relevant here as well. I wondered, first, whether this was because it was written for a popular audience rather than an academic one, but then, whether this was a product of the author's anger and frustration.

One of the things that is really striking about the book -- and this could be because I listened to the audio version, and the narrator added a certain inflection, or it could be me projecting, but I really don't think so -- is that it radiates pure rage. How could it not, talking about Jeff Sessions touting his appreciation for Rosa Parks, or Trump's comments about Frederick Douglass "being recognized more and more"? Did you know that FBI training now includes a trip to the MLK Memorial in DC, where future agents pick a favorite quote to discuss? It's absolutely crazy-making. And then you layer on a discussion of how Black Lives Matter or Standing Rock activists are unfavorably compared to their predecessors, and you can see how someone with a detailed knowledge of the past would be inclined to LET ME JUST SAY THIS ONE MORE TIME IN CASE YOU MISSED IT BEFORE.

But I do also wonder about the differences between academic and mass-market non-fiction. I've been reading a lot more non-fiction in the last few years, mostly because there are things I want to learn about. Often as not, I find myself wishing they were more academic. I think people see the books for a general audience as being written with less jargon, in a more approachable style, but the writing often seems grating and flat to me (I *hated* Devil in the White City, for instance, even though the story was pretty cool, and a lot of Ghettoside came off as trite to my ears). What I really miss though, especially in a book like China's Second Continent, is an argument, or at very least, some active reflection. Less facts, more ideas! You'd think that such directness would be more typical of the mass-market works, and you do find it in more political writing (like this book, or The New Jim Crow), but it still seems more typical of academic books, to me. Admittedly, though, when I think of academic monographs, I do think of something dense (and I don't just mean the spacing on the page, though that honestly is probably part of it), that I can't just pick up and read casually. Whence this sense of weight, I wonder?

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