Thursday, March 15, 2007

Good Books You Should Know

AT&T has decided to get pissy and refuses to repair my DSL connection at home. So I'm just going to spotlight one nonfiction title today and add on more during the day. Hope you'll forgive me.

Today's book is a must-read: Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America. Elliott Jaspin researched the secret history of "all-white" communities that have successfully fooled themselves into believing that they are that way because blacks chose to vacate, if they were ever there.

Ethnic cleansing is something that happens far away among the unenlightened. Right. This Basic Books title came to my attention this weekend during Scott Simons' Weekend Edition on NPR. The piece was an extended retelling of racial cleansing in Corbin, Ky.

The fabricated history of Corbin, as told on the radio, was fascinating. Here's where it hooked me (I'm paraphrasing):

Corbin lies astride I-75 in southeast Kentucky. I grew up with Corbin as much a part of my consciousness in the same way locals would know about Columbus, Ind. A woman, roughly my age, tells the story of a trip she took with her Mom to Lexington, Ky. Along the way, their car broke down.

"This nice man stopped to help and offered to drive us to a garage. He was a black man. After some small talk, he said 'Where are you all from?' First looking meaningfully at me, my mother replied, 'We're from Williamsburg.'"

"That was the first time I knew there might be a reason to be ashamed of where I came from."

In 1919, after veterans of World War I returned, racial tensions rose, ostensibly because of petty criminal acts by black railroad workers. Within days, several black men were lynched, and more than a dozen blacks were killed. Fed up, a mob determined to get rid of every black in town. At gunpoint, the black population was forced from their residences, marched to the railroad station, and ordered to leave town forever. They did.

It became a national scandal that blighted the name of Corbin...everywhere but in Corbin itself. The town became a place that blacks throughout the nation knew to avoid. But for current residents, a fable arose to cover the shame. The blacks were moved away by the railroad. There was nothing racial about it, is the meme that lasts to this day.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Jaspin researched examples above and below the Mason-Dixon Line of racial cleansing between reconstruction and 1920. These effectively lily-white communities, including one in Washington County, uniformly maintain a fable that the blacks left voluntarily, without violence, and simply abandoned their homes and lives.

I'm no babe, but I couldn't help but be shocked by what I've read so far. One patron today passed on the recommendation. Fatigued by health factors and by an even greater fatigue with injustice, she begged off, requesting something escapist. I'll be reviewing that book later this week.

If you can stand the stark reality, don't miss this book. I'll try to add more later.

Buried in the Bitter Waters by Elliott Jaspin
ISBN 9780465036363, Basic Books, March 2007 (Hardcover) $26.95

Hear Kentucky novelist Silas House tell the fable of Corbin here. Listen to the original Weekend Edition piece and read an excerpt here.

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