Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, by Patrick Phillips

W.W. Norton, 2016
301 pp


"... the young fellers are growing up sort of with the idea that this is a white man's county."   -- (119)

Between September and October of 1912, all but a very few of the 1,098 African-American citizens (according to the 1910 census)  living in Forsyth County Georgia had been run out of the county.  The idea of "sundown towns," or communities which purposefully excluded African-Americans from living there, is nothing new, but this book, Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, reveals that not only were these people driven out of the county, but also that a "deliberate and sustained campaign of terror" on the part of white residents kept African-Americans out until the last few years of the 20th century.

The author, Patrick Phillips, had lived in Forsyth county, having moved there as a child from Alabama. It's not like he wasn't used to racism but when he heard some kids on his school bus making racial slurs, he finally asked a friend "why everyone in the county seemed to hate black people so much, especially since there were none of them around."  It was then that he heard a story that stuck with him and prompted him to start a search for the truth, wondering if perhaps it wasn't "just a racist fantasy."  In 2003 he found something that started him on his journey.  Doing some other research, he decided to check out that old story, got online, typed in "Forsyth" and "1912" into an old newspaper database and found out that yes indeed, the story he'd been told was absolutely true.  More than anything, it was a photograph in the October 4th issue of the Atlanta Constitution that gave him his first glimpses of the "faces of black Forsyth," in a story with the caption "Troops on Guard as Two Rapists Are Convicted: Story of Revolting Assault Arouses Great Indignation in Cumming Court."

courtesy of

The "revolting assault" involving those pictured allegedly occurred in September, 1912, when three young African-Americans were accused of the rape and murder of a white girl.  Just about a week or so earlier, another white woman had woken up screaming because she'd woken to find an African-American man in her bedroom, four young men were arrested, and a black minister was horsewhipped for casting aspersions on the woman's character.  The second crime, however,  unleashed a coordinated campaign to get rid of every black citizen in the county -- involving "night riders," threats,   arson, and worse -- any kind of terror imaginable at the time was utilized here to run these people out of the county completely, including threats against the more upper/middle class white residents who had black household help.  As time went on, white people just sort of laid claim to land previously owned by the former Forsyth residents so that soon any vestiges of what were African-American homes, farms, churches, etc. soon disappeared, and life went on in a now-all white Forsyth County, basically erasing the fact that black people had even lived there. Things were so white that even the once-in-a-while visit by other African-Americans to the county would result in threats, which often included loaded guns pointed at the faces of black chauffeurs of visitors. Scariest yet -- none of this changed at all until determined marchers in 1987 came to Forsyth county to hold demonstrations; even then law enforcement wasn't enough to control the white anger and hatred.  Even then, things were very slow to change.

Stop for a moment and think about what I just said here about African-Americans not even being able to even enter the county until 1987.   You might ask "what about the civil rights movement of the 1960s," and the simple answer would be that it didn't happen for Forsyth. You might also ask why a book about events in 1912 is something you should read in 2016.  The answer for me is this: just this past summer I was in the middle of my morning routine of journal reading, perusing the news and going through my facebook news feed, and came across this photo of a billboard for a congressional candidate  in Tennessee:

To say that I was appalled and actually screamed out loud is putting it mildly, but getting back to Blood at the Root, it's obvious to me that the desire to "make America white again" mirrors Forsyth's "this is a white man's county" and this ugliness hasn't died out at all. 

There's so much going on in this book and obviously I can't possibly say everything I want to say about it here.  It's an incredibly difficult book to read on an emotional level -- seems like we're doing a backslide into this sort of intolerant, ugly and just downright frightening behavior yet again.  Just a few nit-picky things: not keen on the connection between the ouster of the Cherokees and the African-Americans -- this part needed a whole lot more, in-depth comparison to make it work for me. Secondly, even though Phillips did a great job in revealing how the president of the United States at the time reneged on campaign promises he used to gain the black vote  leaving many African-Americans poor, without hope of jobs and often fired from the positions they already held in Washington DC, I wouldn't have exactly labeled that as "racial cleansing" in the same sense he uses it regarding Forsyth County.  But once again, the best part of this well-researched book lies in how he traces the sad history of events to give his readers an insight into "the process by which racial injustice is perpetuated" here in the United States. 

So far, this book is picking up excellent reader reviews; as I said, it's a tough book to get through but it's also a story that needs to come out into the open air. Very well done and highly, highly recommended. 

News of a Kidnapping, by Gabriel García Márquez

Vintage, 2008
originally published as Noticia de un secuestro, 1996
191 pp


When a disclaimer pops up at the beginning of every episode of a tv series I'm watching, to me it's like throwing down a challenge. We recently finished watching Narcos on Netflix, the series that over the course of the first two seasons was focused on Pablo Escobar.  At the beginning of each episode there's a blurb saying something along the lines of  some of what you're about to see has been fictionalized although it's based on real events.  Once we finished season two, my biggest questions focused on the truth behind US involvement, based on the portrayal of the creepy CIA agent running things behind the scenes, interfering with what the DEA was doing in the name of future American interests in the country.  Well, of course I did what any true-blue geek would do when it comes to the involvement of the CIA and the American military in a foreign country, and went to the National Security Archives (here) to try to get the real story on what was going on.  Reading each and every document mentioned in this summary, I saw that journalist Mark Bowden was discussed re his research, which led me to read his Killing Pablo,  which details US involvement in the hunt for Pablo Escobar.  That book, in turn, led me to News of a Kidnapping, which despite a number of readers' complaints, is neither "a snoooze" nor "a mediocre effort." Au contraire -- it's a book I read on the proverbial edge of my seat, hanging on every word.

In the acknowledgments section at the beginning, Marquez explains what's behind the writing of this book. In 1993, one of ten kidnapping victims,  Maruja Pachón  came to the author and "suggested" that he write a book about her abduction and her six months in captivity and her husband's "persistent efforts to obtain her release."  Marquez started working on it, but well into the first draft, he realized that
"it was impossible to separate her kidnapping from nine other abductions that occurred at the same time in Colombia."
Why? Well, by his reasoning, and as will be discussed in this book,
"They were not, in fact, ten distinct abductions -- as it had seemed at first -- but a single collective abduction of ten carefully chosen individuals, which had been carried out by the same group and for only one purpose."
 Behind these particular kidnappings, of course, was Pablo Escobar and his "Extraditables," whose motivation was to force the government into backing down on its stance on extradition to the United States.

In a nutshell, the central focus of News of a Kidnapping is the stories of these abductions, the victims' experiences in captivity, and the families' efforts to get these people released, but to tell that story, the author places these kidnappings in the wider context of Colombia's troubled history of politics, narco trafficking and terrorism.  It also follows how Escobar went from being host to "Politicians, industrialists, businesspeople, journalists..." at his Hacienda Nápoles to becoming "the biggest prey in our history. Of Escobar, Marquez writes that "The most unsettling and dangerous aspect of his personality was his total inability to distinguish between good and evil," which is shown here in terms of the wave of violence aimed at presidential candidates and other political officials, cops murdered for the bounty on their heads, and explosions in the streets that killed innocent victims.

 After reading what other readers have said about this book, it seems that many people were looking for Gabriel Garcia Marquez to give this book the magical realism touch he's applied in his novels.  A number of people were disappointed by the fact that this book is a journalistic take on events, rather than a novel.  I've seen it called "a snoooze," "boring," and "flat," and of course, there are those people who also watched Narcos and were expecting something along those lines, one person noting that she preferred the TV series. Hmmm.  Well, as I always say, to each his/her own, but seriously, it kept me on the edge of my chair pretty much the entire time with stomach twisted in knots. Then again, I'm the sort of person who likes to try to ferret out the truth of what's underneath the fiction, and in this case, it's pretty damn harrowing.

Highly, highly recommended.  And when you finish this one, read his Clandestine in Chile -- another excellent book.