Tag: CivilRights

Review: Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard

Review: Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard

I received a digital ARC of this book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on NetGalley. I’m grateful to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for their generosity and am happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

Visible Empire: Epigraphs

Atlanta has suffered her greatest tragedy and loss.
-Mayor Ivan Allen

Many people have been asking, “Well what are you going to do?” And since we know that the man is tracking us down day by day to try and find out what we are going to do, so he’ll have some excuse to put us behind his bars, we call on our God. He gets rid of one hundred twenty of them in one whop…and we hope that every day another plane falls out of the sky.
-Malcom X at the Ronald Stokes Protest in L.A.

Foundation/Synopsis
The foundation of Visible Empire is the 1962 fatal crash of an Air France jet transporting 121 of Atlanta’s art patrons—the wealthy, white, upper-crust of the city. From there, Pittard builds her tale of those left behind—the grieving remainder of the muckety-mucks, the white serving class, and the subjugated black population of the city. From here we meet Roger, grieving the loss of his mistress and parents-in-law; Lily, reeling from the double-yet-different-losses of her parents and Roger; Piedmont, an African-American youth pulled into Roger and Lily’s orbits at a time of upheaval in his own life; and Stacy, a white serving class woman who sees an opportunity and takes it.

Invisible and Visible Empires
The title Visible Empire is actually a nod to the full name of the Ku Klux Klan—the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. If the Invisible Empire of the KKK is the shadowy, hooded phantoms that move at night, the overt racism of 1962 Atlanta is the Visible Empire. It is the status quo of wealth and privilege that is ignored until tragedy literally falls from the sky. Black men and women were beaten and died every day in the South in the 1960s and no one batted an eye. Over one hundred white people from Atlanta die, and suddenly the world is watching.

Pittard makes her intentions clear in the quotes she chooses for her Epigraph, including the two quotes I started this review with. The loss is seen as monumental to the city—The New York Times runs articles on this great loss and its impact to the city. In contrast at the time, The New York Times hadn’t once run an article on the massive loss of black life in the city in the preceding years. While most of us see the KKK as extremist and wrong, far fewer examine the status quo of white privilege that sees the loss of one hundred white lives as catastrophic and the poisoning of hundreds of black lives in Flint, Michigan as old news. Visible Empire was set in 1962 but in many regards could be set today.

Characters
The story is presented through a series of alternating character vignettes. Roger is a journalist, embroiled in an affair with a younger colleague who was on the doomed flight. Lily is Roger’s wife, pregnant with her and Roger’s first child, sent reeling at the loss of her parents and her abandonment by Roger. Intersecting with their story is that of Piedmont, an eighteen year-old black youth on the precipice of identity—faced with the choice of whether he will accept the status quo, keep his head down, and stay safe or whether he will stand and fight, link arms with other black men and women in the south saying that they have had enough. Finally there is Stacy, a character whose story is only tangentially connected to the Roger-Lily-Piedmont narrative. Stacy has grown tired of her hardscrabble life, believes she deserves more, and takes an opportunity to impersonate one of the left-behind upper class Atlantians.

Roger
Roger’s character is interesting—when I sat down to describe him, I can only come up with negative descriptors—he’s the epitome of white privilege, married into money, selfish, and willing to throw away everything—and yet—of course!—because he’s white, his bad choice roosters don’t really come home to roost. I should hate him. At times I did. But damn it, Pittard make me want the best for him. There’s something about him that made me want him to stop throwing everything he had away, to stop making bad choices, and to set things right.

Lily
Much like her name, Lily is the pure white character in the book. She’s the virtuous, wronged woman, the woman in need of rescue. While she’s one of the muckety-muck class, her tragedy makes her sympathetic and her treatment of Piedmont shows the reader that she’s not really like one of them. Lily is perhaps the most trope-y of the characters, acting her part as the damsel in distress. When Roger leaves, Lily starts to learn to stand on her own. Though Piedmont quickly enters her life and she gets another man she can lean on. I’m torn on whether I think she ultimately learned to stand on her own or just switched out her men. She’s likeable and it’s clear Pittard made an effort to make her seem independent. I’m just not entirely sure it worked. Where Piedmont became a vehicle to present Lily to the reader, in many ways Lily served that role for Roger. I had no problems with Lily as I was reading and was sympathetic to her and what she was going through; yet the longer I sit with the book, I’m not sure I really got to know her.

Piedmont
Pittard is a white author and I’m a white reader so my ability to analyze the characterization of Piedmont, the only black main character, is limited. With that said, of all the characters, Piedmont seemed the most well-rounded to me and was my favorite character. Where Roger’s wrestling with who he is as a man reeks of privilege and self-pity, Piedmont’s exploration of what it means to be a black man coming of age in 1962 Atlanta seemed real and drew me in. The choices he makes are understandable, though often unwise (so, fairly typical of an eighteen year-old). And yet, as a reader you still root for him. When he stands on his own or interacts with Roger, he is at his strongest. When he interacts with Lily, he faded a bit for me—partially as a consequence of Pittard using his interactions with Lily to provide opportunities for growth for her. I want the best for him and though I recognize he is simply a fictional character, there’s a part of me that hopes wherever he is, he turned out ok.

Stacy
Distinct from the Lily-Roger-Piedmont story line is that of Stacy/Anastasia. I have to admit that I hated her character, though this seems intentional on the part of Pittard. Stacy has a sympathetic enough backstory to give her a likeable dimension, though the choices she makes reveal fairly quickly that her brother’s accusation of her narcissism is accurate. Just when I was at the point of thoroughly hating her, there’s an unexpected twist in her story. She goes from being the con artist to the mark. This created a conundrum for me—I didn’t like her as a character, I felt sorry for her victim; but then these roles shifted. Stacy’s entire storyline, while intersecting with Lily-Roger-Piedmont enough that it didn’t feel entirely disparate, stood alone. It raised questions of who we consider victims and who we consider perpetrators. It introduced a “poor white” element to the story that was otherwise missing within the exploration of rich Atlanta’s relationship with its black population.

My major issue with Stacy’s storyline is the treatment of the two LGBTQ characters who appear in Stacy’s chapters. We are given enough background to see how they came to be the way they are (which isn’t to say how they came to be gay, but how they came to be the kind of people who make the kind of choices they make). Neither is portrayed particularly kindly and both are villains in their own rights—this negative portrayal felt stereotypical to me. An LGBTQ character can absolutely be a villain in your book; however, if you’re going to have negative gay characters, it feels like you should damn well include at least one virtuous one. To Pittard’s credit, everyone in this book is behaving badly except Piedmont and arguably Lily so it’s not like the only evil characters are gay; yet this treatment still felt unbalanced.

Recommended
Ultimately, I do think the point Visible Empire attempts to make is an important one.   The book is well-written and it moves at a good pace—my dislike of Stacy made her chapters feel long at times, though this had more to do with my feelings for the character than it did with missteps in Pittard’s writing. Pittard is obviously skilled at making you feel strongly about her characters—I rooted for Roger while being exasperated with him and thinking he did not deserve my affection. I felt sorry for Stacy at the same time I would never want to actually meet her in real life. Visible Empire isn’t going to make my top ten list for the year but if you are interested in historical fiction and/or books that explore racial themes that still apply, I do think it is worth your time. It is one I would recommend for someone looking for a book that reads a bit lighter in writing style but packs a message and for book clubs, since I think this book will draw a diversity of opinions.

Notes
Published: June 5, 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (@hmhbooks)
Author: Hannah Pittard (@hannahpittard)
Date read: May 22, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

Review: A More Beautiful and Terrible History by Jeanne Theoharis

Review: A More Beautiful and Terrible History by Jeanne Theoharis

I received a free copy of this book from Beacon Press via LibraryThing. I’m grateful to Beacon Press for their generosity and, because I was fascinated by this book, was happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

The recounting of national histories is never separate from present-day politics. What of the past is remembered, celebrated, and mourned is at the core of national identity—and the process of what is told and not told is often a function of power…Racial injustice is America’s original sin and deepest silence. The ways the country came to honor the civil rights movement were not simply about paying tribute to these courageous acts and individuals in the past but also about sanctioning what will—and will not be—faced about the nation’s history and presence….While these tributes honored the movement, they simultaneously depoliticized the scope of the struggle, distorted the work of the activists honored, demonized Black anger, and obscured ongoing calls for racial justice through a celebration of a nearly postracial, self-correcting America.

Synopsis
In A More Beautiful and Terrible History, Professor Jeanne Theoharis examines the myths of the Civil Rights Movement and contrasts these

myths with the real history, the forgotten youths and women and the ignored cities in the North and West that featured prominently in the actual movement. While I was not terribly surprised by what Theoharis presented as the unvarnished history of the Civil Rights Movement (of course women were involved. of course segregation was occurring in the North), the history presented in this book is a sharp contrast to what I learned every February (and only in February) from grade school through high school. While memory fades over time and its been over twenty years since elementary and middle school, I will go so far as to say I think I learned more from this book than I ever learned in my history classes growing up.

In many ways, A More Beautiful and Terrible History reminded me of Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen. Theoharis goes one step further than Loewen (or than I remember Loewen going) and explains why these myths are so useful to those interested in maintaining the status quo. She demonstrates how these myths are weaponized against the current movement to delegitimize Black Lives Matter, #NoDAPL, and others.   These connections were the icing on the cake for me in this book—it is not enough to acknowledge that we have made history convenient in our retelling but to see why these myths were created, how they were useful then, and how they are being used now made Theoharis’s work an urgent, timely read.

Credentials
I will admit that one of the first things I did upon receiving this book was flip to the author’s picture. I was surprised to see that Theoharis is white. Her author’s note reveals that Theoharis’s family escaped the Armenian genocide that the United States still refuses to acknowledge. As she notes, “[g]rowing up Greek-Armenian in my politically active family made the importance of the histories we tell and those we deny potent and visceral.” With this foundation, Theoharis has published or co-published numerous works on African-American history, including an NAACP award-winning biography on Rosa Parks. (Unfortunately for me, this means that Rosa Parks isn’t addressed as deeply in A More Beautiful and Terrible History as I would have liked because Theoharis didn’t want to repeat herself.   The only logical result of this is that The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks was added to my TBR.)

A Readable Academic Work
A More Beautiful and Terrible History is a bit more of an academic book than I typically pick up for a non-fiction read. I tend to stick to more narrative non-fiction—having been a history major in college, I’d prefer my history now come in story form, please and thank you. And yet, when LibraryThing posted this book as a giveaway, I found myself drawn to it. Theoharis’s work is an academic work that I can see a professor assigning in American history or historiography classes. Her work is thoroughly researched and her sources are well-cited (the last thirty-plus pages are notes). The writing, while clear and concise, is not a narrative. And yet, with the minor caveat that it dragged a bit in the middle (as noted below), I found A More Beautiful and Terrible History to be surprisingly readable for a popular audience.

The depth of her writing made me take this book one chapter at a time—I only picked it up when I had the attention span to really dig into a chapter and sit with what she was saying. If I was tired or limited for time, I picked up something else. I recommend this as the way to read A More Beautiful and Terrible History. This isn’t a narrative to fly through, nor is it a book that deserves to be skimmed.

Organization
The book is organized thematically, with chapters examining the forgotten Jim Crow North, the long struggle that preceded the successes (i.e., the Montgomery Bus Boycott didn’t happen in a vacuum, nor was Rosa Parks an accidental activist), the racism of the “White Moderate,” the media’s bias against the movement, the placement of the Civil Rights Movement within the larger global anti-poverty and anti-war movements, the young people who pushed the movement forward, the women who led, and the active demonization of the movement by the government. Overall I liked this organization—I highlighted my copy on almost every page and this thematic structure will make it easier to find things later or revisit specific chapters. The only downside to this meant that certain examples were used repeatedly and, at times, started to feel repetitive. The fight to desegregate schools in New York, for example, appeared in chapters on the Jim Crow north, the long struggle, the media bias, and the importance of students to the movement. While a different point was made each time this example was raised, it did start to make the book drag a bit. I’m not sure there is a solution to this since a purely chronological presentation would have been difficult to follow and these large-scale but forgotten events were the perfect examples for the points Theoharis was making. If you decide to pick this one up and similarly feel the book dragging a bit, know that after chapter six (young people), these examples are replaced by new ones and the last third of the book picks back up.

Exceptionalism & Austin, Texas
As an Austinite, it is easy to believe we live in an exceptional city—we are the blue dot in the red sea. If we are exceptional then, the things that apply to everywhere else—racism, sexism, and homophobia—do not happen here. We are enlightened. We are different. We keep Austin weird.

And yet, several months ago, when there was a bomber leaving packages around the city, the first bomb barely made the news. The second bomb didn’t make national news until there was a third. The first bomb killed an African American man. The second an African-American teenager—a teenager whose talent and exceptionalism is highlighted every time he is mentioned. It is a grave loss to our community and to music that Draylen’s life was cut short. But this would be true even if Draylen had not been a rare talent at the bass but simply a C student who loved to play pick-up basketball. The city wasn’t really brought to its knees in fear until a bomb went off in an affluent, mostly white neighborhood. Austin’s greatest sin is that it believes it is exceptional while being just as racist as much of the rest of the country.

I have a friend who moved from Austin several years ago because, among other reasons, it just became too hard to be black here. To have her child be the only black child in his class. To be attacked in the carpool line by a angry Lululemon-wearing mom because her talk at Blogher about America not being here for people of color went viral. To know that if she called the police from that carpool line, it was likely Lulu-Mom who was going to be believed.

Conclusion
In many ways, Austin is a microcosm of what Theoharis presents in A More Beautiful and Terrible History. We have, as Austinites and as Americans, bought into the lie of our exceptionalism. We believe that this history was inevitable because America will always do what is right. We are self-correcting and needed only the nonviolent encouragement of Martin Luther King Jr. to correct what was an exclusively Southern problem.

As members of BlackLivesMatter and others calling for racial justice as demonized daily in the news, it is more vital than ever that we read works like this to see where we came from, what really happened, and the ways those in power and in the media use the lie of our exceptionalism to maintain a white status quo.

Notes
Published: January 30, 2018 by Beacon Press (@beaconpress)
Author: Jeanne Theoharis
Date read: May 26, 2018
Rating: 4 ½ stars