Wednesday, July 3, 2019

What I've Been Reading: May 2019

Since I write fiction, most of the time I post reviews about fiction, but I'm a big advocate of reading a wide variety of genres and subjects in order to cultivate a multifaceted and unique sphere of influence on oneself. Thus, I certainly pick up non-fiction from time to time. Lately, I haven't written about those titles much because they've seemed to lean toward topics relating to being a self-published author. For example, not so long ago, I read a book about writing compelling author newsletters. If you happen to subscribe to mine, how am I doing?

This month, however, I came across a new book by Dr. HenryLouis Gates, Jr. called Stoney the Road, Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow. I've been interested in Dr. Gates's genealogy PBS series and specials for quite a few years. After hearing a bit about it, I supposed Story the Road would be a challenging book, emotionally, personally, and academically, but it sounded interesting and while heavy, an important topic. My intuition was right, of course. It is challenging, but more than worth the read.

Parts of the book were surprising. For example, with what is probably an above average concept of American history but by no means a scholarly mastery, I came into this book with a loose understanding of a timeline between slavery in the United States and today. That includes antebellum plantation slavery, pre-civil war abolitionist movement, southern resistance, of course, the civil war and emancipation, but also the Jim Crow era, segregation, integration, and the ongoing battle for civil rights. However, I must admit that my working understanding probably saw that history as a mountain. Slavery was at the bottom, true equality was at the top. A difficult climb, no doubt. One that has not yet been summited, no doubt, but a fairly straight incline.

This I suspect is where the title is derived, a stony road is full of bumps, some parts are rougher than others, there are a lot of ups and downs, and progress is slow. As to what came as a surprise, was the rights that were essentially granted post-civil war, and then taken away during and after reconstruction, either directly, or simply through a failure to protect the supposedly given rights. I don't mean to imply that I didn't think the progress was difficult and many times achieved through tremendous personal sacrifice, including lost lives. I knew that, but I don't think I understood how many times it appeared a step of progress had been made, only to be pulled back time and time again.

Some elements of the book were not surprising but are worth revisiting. Stony the Road did not spend much time establishing the pitfalls of slavery or the horrors of its practice. Those things are worth discussing, but this book was more targeted on the ways African American's were attacked after emancipation and how in many cases people were driven back to a life more akin to slavery than our notion of living free. One topic of example was how depictions in literature and film were used to disparage African Americans and aid in an intentional war of ideas against them. This topic was not unfamiliar with references to D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and several period novels where white authors depicted freed slaves as either monsters or as essentially wishing they could go back to the lives they had before emancipation. As a student of history, at least a little, and more so a student of film and literature, this didn't come as a revelation but was still powerful, and as I mention, well worth exploring again and perhaps with more depth.

Finally, some elements also challenged my thoughts beyond the discussion of race. I'll pose another very personal example. Many people are aware of the anti-vaccination movements in the US and globally. I am a devout science lover and often take issue with the un-scientific thinking and research backing the anti-vax sentiment. Stony the Road, however, delved into a topic I was only tangentially familiar with, that of scientists, doctors, and social scientist of the era it focuses on using scientific words, loose if not intentionally misleading applications of emerging principle of science, and even miss-guided and out-come oriented experiments and observations to bolster anti-African American sentiments with scientific-sounding conclusion. Horrific and miss-guided as that is, which it is. It led me to imagine how the targets of such junk science would almost certainly feel deep mistrust for the institutions who supported the ideas.

Now, such ideas have been discredited and disregarded by credible medicine, scientists, and institution, as is the process of science. Also, I haven't changed my mind about vaccine conspiracy theorists. I still think they're wrong, but I am perhaps more open to considering why they might feel that they have been targeted with what they believe is false science. While I still disagree with them, maybe I'm more willing to forgive?

At any rate, the book is very well researched, very well written, eye-opening, immensely powerful, and remarkably topical to current affairs, both racial and non-racial. I'm glad to have experienced it.

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