Monday, August 25, 2014

The Wilmington Massacre

There was a funeral today for Michael Brown, 18, killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. By coincidence, I picked up a book called Crow a few days ago, and so was reading it today as the funeral took place.

Crow tells the story of the 1898 Wilmington (N.C.) Massacre through the eyes of 12-year-old Moses Thomas. Like the vast majority of white Americans, particularly northerners, I've never heard of the massacre. But because of it, 22 black residents were killed, many more were injured, and dozens of the city's most prominent black men were forced to leave town for good. It's also the only recognized coup d'état in American history, where the local elected representatives (both black and white) were forced out of office at gunpoint.

The book deals with the role of the black press, which I appreciated, and reminds the reader that even as late as 1898, there were places in the South that were close to integrated, with a healthy black middle class. All of that was destroyed by angry whites who strong-armed the black residents until they were cowering in their homes.

The use of guns and militias by white supremacists -- patrolling the city streets, setting up checkpoints -- is eerily familiar in this day of Second Amendment advocates over-arming themselves and patrolling around the Bundy Ranch in Nevada, for instance. It also reminded me of the articles I've read explaining that the Second Amendment was a compromise to placate Southern slave-owners, who needed arms to keep their slaves down. In Crow, and in the factual record of what happened in Wilmington, white citizens used arms to intimidate black men into not voting. But that was just a prelude to the killings that followed.

Crow brought tears to my eyes. If there was ever a time when black citizens needed support from the federal government, this was it. But the feds was nowhere to be seen, either at the time of the violence or later to restore the city's elected officials.

The only fault I found with the book is its title. I guess it's a reference to the birds that Moses discusses with his grandmother, Nanny Boo. But in the text, she more often talks about buzzards than crows, and so I don't know quite what to make of the use of the one-syllable word, other than to think it's a combination of the current youth-publishing fad for one-syllable titles combined with an unexplained reference to Jim Crow. Since the book is meant for middle-grade readers, that lack of explanation is kind of glaring.

As a reviewer named Amy Rae put it on Good Reads,
Today, we think of Jim Crow in the context of segregationist Jim Crow laws, but Jim Crow was originally an archetypal character from minstrelsy, and "crow" on its own was derogatory well before Jim Crow's debut in the 1820s--and keep in mind that this book is set in 1898, when Jim Crow would have been an established stock character. Minstrelsy was easily one of, if not the most popular form of live entertainments in the 19th-century, and while minstrelsy as a whole is mentioned off-handedly in the text, I don't recall acknowledgment of the more fraught aspects of the term "crow."

For these reasons, I didn't think it was appropriate to present a black people = crows metaphor as a neutral idea. Beyond that, the title just doesn't say much of anything about what actually happens in the story; it's inspecific in addition to having a history of controversy attached to it.
Most reviewers on Good Reads saw value in the book, some giving it five stars and a few mentioning Newbery Medal contention, but there were a couple who felt it was unclear on its audience or that it was overly didactic. I disagree with that. Unlike Walter Dean Myers's book Riot, Crow's narrator and his family felt real to me and were a good vehicle for relating what happened in Wilmington.

Given my age and knowledge of the general history of race relations in this country, I found the story filled in lots of gaps. I'm not sure if I would have known what to make of it, had I read it at age 10 or 11, but I think it would have made me want to find out more.

I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand how white people have terrorized black people in this country for more than a century, often while blaming black people for it.

It seems like a fitting read for today.


Another excellent way to get a glimpse of how white supremacy was enforced after the Civil War is to watch the PBS documentary Slavery by Another Name. It covers 1865 to 1945, "revealing the interlocking forces in both the South and the North that enabled neoslavery to begin and persist." It uses archival photographs and re-enactments filmed in Alabama and Georgia to tell these important, overlooked stories.

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