I’d like to use the library I curated for this site as a jumping-off point for me to go into detail and depth on various subjects that apply readily to activism in the modern age. The books are primers on very labyrinthine, complex issues, and I will use them to give the most condensed overview of a topic that I can using the literature and resources that I have. I am not an expert, and can only share what I have learned, which means I can’t and won’t always be able to know everything or be as completely representative as I’d like to be.
No. 2 // September 2017 // The American South
I was inspired to choose the South as a topic because it is so very relevant right now, and also very personal to me (it is the region where I make my home). It’s important that we not get mired in stereotypes while also not forgetting the grotesquely deep wounds that will not heal while ignorance persists. We need to learn the history from many different perspectives so that we can truly understand how we go to this point.
This book is a shattered gasp of short non-fiction. It’s the creak of a screen door and mixes Faulkner gothicism with post-modern morbidity and honesty. Experimental and utterly unique, Crapalachia subtly dissects on a deeply personal level the psychology of the residents of rural West Virginia. This is not a history lesson or a guide to Southern politics or anthropology, but it is an unsettling and offbeat tableau of a culture that is so often romanticized or, worse, ignored. McClanahan plays with the memoir genre and gives us a piece of literature from the South, rather than being about the South. There is nothing pedantic here – this is a character portrait of many different types of people from Appalachia, narratives which our country needs and deserves to hear.
This is a fantastically accessible book that spans many Southern states, covering the inexplicable and unusual remnants of the Civil War in our society. From staged battle re-enactments to Confederacy clubs, Horwitz traverses the region to discover and share the ways in which the Civil War continues to define our lives and play a role in our communities, roughly 150 years after its conclusion. The oddball stories and unusual characters help us to understand the current mindset of Southerners while also learning about Civil War history in a way that is amusing and enlightening. The travelogue has a sense of the empiric about it, as if the subjects were part of a study, which gives the narrative a surprising sense of authority (and detached entertainment). This is a good place to start if you’re not really a “history person.” The basic thesis is that the Civil War never really quite ended, and the arguments and examples used to defend this are fantastic to read.
This is essential reading. Narratives from black women are not often taught in the common curriculum. We know a lot about the big picture of pioneers such as Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells (and maybe Phyllis Wheatley or uncensored Harriet Jacobs in college), but the everyday lives of women are often overshadowed unless you are explicitly looking for them. The book explores minute and personal aspects of many slaves: the sexual stereotypes, the unique specificities of daily life for enslaved women. White gives them a chance to talk, to tell their stories, and to not be forgotten. This is a book of details, of the niche, and of the utmost import; it is well-researched and wonderfully analyzed, a superb academic text that is also quite readable. Fascinating, horrifying, necessary.
In some ways, this is the other side of the coin to Deborah Gray White’s book. Mothers of Invention looks primarily at the white end of female life in the plantation South. From the same writer of the exquisite This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War comes another essential work about the role of women in a fractious time in our nation’s history. It’s very similar in content and thesis to Arn’t I a Woman?, although I’d argue perhaps a bit more aloof. It is exquisitely detailed, and enviably rich in its research and attention to the little bits of life that are so revealing. It’s deliciously textured while also being raw, unemotional, and honest in the way it depicts the negative and positive (mostly white) women in the South during the Civil War.
This is the least like any of the other books on the list. It’s from a small publisher and is written in an Appalachian vernacular. A true story of violence and predation, hopelessness and poverty, this is an outstandingly negative depiction of the South done in a way that no one else quite delivers. A bit rough around the edges, the book speaks of domestic violence that plagues small Southern communities and its cyclical, sometimes inevitable presence. This is not a well-known book, and I see it as a counterpart to J.D. Vance’s memoir (below) – where Vance goes optimistic, Mowery lays out the truth in a way that makes it difficult to imagine a way forward. I see Tragedy in Tin Can Holler as being a microcosm, or distillation of the deep South. Though it adheres to our preconceived notions of these communities…it’s not wrong, either. And this is not an uncommon story.
This is one of the most popular books in 2017 – with good reason. Although not quite as groundbreaking as some would make it seem, it is still earnest, eye-opening (but not in a Crapalachia way), and helpful in understanding our Trumpian world. It provides some useful explanations for why the 2016 election went the way it did, and was a sincere (though sometimes condescending) story of avoiding a circle of violence that Vance says is endemic to Southern culture and is hard to shake. The author doesn’t pull any punches and isn’t afraid to apportion blame or hold people accountable, and his descriptions of his grandparents are heartwarming but unflinching. It is a big-hearted book. It’s a quick read and well worth it. Hillbilly Elegy will get you that much closer to understanding a part of the country that otherwise might continue to be enigmatic.
If you’re looking for the book that will give you the best historical overview of the Confederate South, this is the one. It’s straightforward, serious, and authoritative on its subject. Of all of the books I’ve chosen, this is the closest to a textbook that you’ll get, and it’s just as important as the colloquial memoirs and personal narratives. This is the backbone of what helps to inform us about the South as we know it today. This is it – this is the origin story (although not necessarily the beginning – you have to go back to Jamestown for that). This will not answer every question, nor is it meant to fulfill every need. We must have different narratives, including the fictitious, to help us understand this region of contradictions, achievements, and shames.
Photo: Appropriately, the Manassas National Battlefield in Manassas, Virginia. I have a lot of feelings about memorializing the Civil War and national parks…don’t get me started.