Mark your calendar to buy this book in October

Or rather marking my calendar to buy this book. You may mark your calendar to do whatever in October.

Pam’s House Blend has a post on a new book by Jim Loewen that’s due to be released in October, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of Segregation in America”.

A quote that Pam supplies from Publishers Weeky:

Located mostly outside the traditional South, these towns employed legal formalities, race riots, policemen, bricks, fires and guns to produce homogeneously Caucasian communities—and some of them continue such unsavory practices to this day. Loewen’s eye-opening history traces the sundown town’s development and delineates the extent to which state governments and the federal government, “openly favor[ed] white supremacy” from the 1930s through the 1960s, “helped to create and maintain all-white communities” through their lending and insuring policies.

“While African Americans never lost the right to vote in the North… they did lose the right to live in town after town, county after county,” Loewen points out. The expulsion forced African-Americans into urban ghettoes and continues to have ramifications on the lives of whites, blacks and the social system at large. Admirably thorough and extensively footnoted, Loewen’s investigation may put off some general readers with its density and statistical detail, but the stories he recounts form a compelling corrective to the “textbook archetype of interrupted progress.” As the first comprehensive history of sundown towns ever written, this book is sure to become a landmark in several fields and a sure bet among Loewen’s many fans.

One of those sundown towns was Highland Park, Texas, which didn’t have a home-owning black family un til 2003. Highland Park, Texas is home to G. W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and the book reports that eleven Presidents and recent presidential candidates came from sundown towns.

So did Spam.

Spam? Really? Should I confess that sometimes as a child I was fed Spam and that I liked it? And I liked it a whole lot when it was fried? Should I confess that I never bought a can of Span after the age of 17 because (a) it was too expensive (b) I was horrified by the idea of it but also horrified that I might still like it and then (c) horrified to open the can and look at what I used to eat as a child.

We have both James Lowen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong and Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong on our bookshelves. “Lies My Teacher Told Me” is fairly well known, but the less popular “Lies Across America” is worth having. Following is a sizable excerpt from the introduction.

People who put up markers and monuments and preserve historic houses are usually pillars of the white community. The recent spate of Martin Luther King avenues and monuments notwithstanding, Americans still live and work in a landscape of white supremacy. Especially in the South, but all across America, even on black college campuses, the names on the landscape and the markers and monuments glorify those who fought to keep African Americans in chains and those who, after Reconstruction, worked to put them back into second-class citizenship. What person gets the most historical markers in any state? Not Lincoln in Illinois, it turns out, nor Washington in Virginia, but Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate cavalry leader and founder of the Ku Klux Klan, in Tennessee. And if white Southerners were misguided enough not to be racist, they are left off the landscape entirely or converted into “good white Southerners” when remembered on it. Thus Helen Keller’s birthplace flies a Confederate flag, while she was an early supporter of the NAACP.

Other monuments express white domination over Native Americans. A later introductory essay, “Hieratic Scale in Historic Monuments,” shows how sculptors typically place Native Americans lower than European Americans on historic monuments. Lame Deer, a Dakota leader, sees the same message in the four European American faces carved on Mount Rushmore:

What does this Mount Rushmore mean to us Indians? It means that these big white faces are telling us, “First we gave you Indians a treaty that you could keep these Black Hills forever, as long as the sun would shine, in exchange for all the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana. Then we found the gold and took this last piece of land, because we were stronger, and there were more of us than there were of you, and because we had cannons and Gatling guns. . . . And after we did all this we carved up this mountain, the dwelling place of your spirits, and put our four gleaming white faces here. We are the conquerors.

The language at historic sites is also warped. All across the country, Americans call Native Americans by tribal names that are wrong and even derogatory. On the landscape Indians are “savage,” whites “discover” everything, and some causes are portrayed as stainless today that were drenched in blood in their own time. Distorted as well is the art on historic monuments. Whites inevitably wind up on top, in positions of power and action, while people of color are passive on the bottom.

Then there is the matter of who gets memorialized and who gets left out. All too often memorials heroify people who should not be forgotten, but who should never have been commemorated — Jeffrey Amherst for example, who initiated germ warfare in the Americas and for whom Amherst College and Amherst, Massachusetts, are named. Across America the landscape commemorates those men and women who opposed each agonizing next step our nation took on the path toward freedom and justice, while the courageous souls who challenged the United States to live out the meaning of its principles lie forgotten or even reviled. Markers and monuments in many states leave out women, sometimes so totally as to be unwittingly hilarious. The only white woman to get a historical marker in Indiana, to take one offending state, gets remembered for coming into the state minus a body part that she lost in Kentucky! Kentucky, meanwhile, erected (the right word) a female Civil War horse with an extra body part that turns her into a he! Historic sites also cover up or lie about the sexual orientations of the people who made their history if those orientations were gay or lesbian.

A special form of these omissions occurs at war museums, which present war without anguish, instead focussing genially on its technology. The USS Intrepid in New York City leaves out the Vietnam War — too “political” for its board of directors — but most visitors never notice it. Omissions can be hard to detect, especially for visitors who come to a site to learn some history and do not bring a knowledge of the site with them. People don’t usually think about images that aren’t there.

And some images don’t exist anywhere. Scottsboro, Alabama, became world-famous for exactly one incident — the Scottsboro Case — but although downtown Scottsboro boasts four historic markers, none mentions the Scottsboro Case. “Pay attention to what they tell you to forget,” poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, and this book does — it covers the Scottsboro Case and three events in Richmond, a city that truncates its public memory on the day that the Confederacy ceased to rule it, because of their importance — and because they are not recognized on the landscape. Nowhere have I seen portrayed the multicultural nature of pioneer settlements, where Native Americans, European Americans, and often African Americans lived and worked together, sometimes happily. Only an obscure marker in Utah offers any hint of the trade in Indian slaves that started in 1513 and continued at least until the Emancipation Proclamation. All across America, the landscape suffers from amnesia, not about everything, but about some crucial events and issues of our past.

When the landscape does not omit unpleasant stories entirely, it often tells them badly, compared even to the mediocre standards set by U. S. history textbooks. Except for the Chief Vann house, a state historic site in Georgia, historic sites and museums in the United States offer few depictions of Native American farms, frame houses, or schools, compared to the enormous number of tipis they display. Thus they portray American Indians as mobile and romantic — even when they weren’t! What tourists learn about slavery from visiting most historic sites is far inferior to the somewhat improved information that textbooks now provide to high school students. On Reconstruction, that period after the Civil War when the federal government tried to guarantee equal rights for African Americans, the landscape is almost silent; most sites that do mention it present a distorted “Gone With the Wind” version that never happened. There is little trace on the land today of the lynchings and race riots that swept the United States between 1890 and 1925, the “nadir of race relations.” All across America, monuments to the Spanish-American War, which was over in three months, say “1898-1902”; few visitors realize that those dates refer to the larger and longer Philippine-American War, which otherwise has mostly vanished from the landscape and from our historical memory.

The antithesis of omission is overemphasis, and the history written on the American landscape is largely the history of the federal governments — United States of America and Confederate States of America — and particularly of their wars.

Source: Introduction to “Lies Across America”

I’ve done my share of sparring with individuals attempting to claim that the Ku Klux Klan had nothing to do with Stone Mountain or Mount Rushmore.

Amazing the misinformation and flat-out lying the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the Confederacy spread around? No.

Many of the Great-Field-Trip-Outing-For-The-Homeschooler ideas that come rolling around involve such landmarks and other often-touted places of historic interest. In the Deep South, historic sites are quite often focused on Civil War battles and the glorification of Antebellum life and its plantations. With these Antebellum home restorations, one is typically invited to experience the “luxury and elegance”, and the “grace and beauty” of the Antebellum south. Slavery as the muscle and bone and blood that made the Antelbellum south, if mentioned, seems often a reluctant concession.

When they say that people in period costumes will be on hand, you can pretty well guarantee what period costumes won’t be welcoming you.

The first two James Loewen books have been read several times over, whole, and in bits and pieces. If this third book is half as instructional, it will become another essential reference.

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Juli Kearns

Juli Kearns is the author of Thunderbird and the Ball of Twine and Unending Wonders of a Subatomic World (or) In Search of the Great Penguin. She is also an artist/photographer, and the person behind the web alter of "Idyllopus Press".

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