I am presenting my synopsis of Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South by Beth Macy at the Urban Engagement Book Club today in Dallas (sponsored by CitySquare). It is another book that leaves me a little more knowledgeable, a little more enlighted, and maybe more than a little more disgusted and ashamed.
This story is about two young albino boys who landed in the freak show of traveling carnivals, and then the biggest show of them all. Were they kidnapped; stolen; or maybe an arrangement was made between a freak show recruiter and their mother? That issue is never quite settled. But either way, it was absolute exploitation. And, in the telling of this story, there is plenty about the racism seen over the long-haul.
By the way, Truevine is near Roanoke, Virginia. A place of poverty and long-lasting racism.
Recently, someone asked me whether or not I thought there were any good slave owners in the South. It was a question from someone objecting to the removal of statues of Confederate “heroes.” I wonder if this question would be asked by someone who really knew the history of slavery and then the succeeding years of the Jim Crow south… Because, even if there were slave owners who were not quite as “bad” as others, the entire system of slavery separated families and led to the ongoing abuse of black people for decades and decades. Good slave owners? I have a problem with such a question.
(By the way, in Viktor Frankl’s classic book Man’s Search for Meaning, he described a few of the concentration camp guards as ones who had traces of humanity. But, the very idea of and existence of the camps was evil, through-and-through).
This book reveals much about such racist history.
Here are the four reasons I included on why this book is worth our time:
#1 – It is a thorough, painful reminder of the horrors of the all-too-accepted behaviors of the Jim Crow South. We need to know this.
#2 – It is a reminder that (too many) people who can will exploit people who are vulnerable to such exploits.
#3 – It is a reminder that way too many people turn a blind-eye to the exploits and the inhuman treatment of others.
#4 – It is a compelling story, well-told.
Here are a few excerpts from the book, describing especially the racist ways:
Emancipation had transmogrified into a “race feud” in the southern states. “Not a single Southern legislature stood ready to admit a Negro under any conditions, to the polls; not a single Southern legislature believed free Negro labor was possible without a system of restrictions that took all its freedoms away; there was scarcely a white man in the South who did not honestly regard Emancipation as a crime, and its practical nullification as a duty.”
Roanoke Times—the newspaper that had once opined, “Lynching has its place”—devoted most of a page to an open letter titled “The Negro Question.” It claimed black crime was endangering “the future of our beautiful southern land.” The solution, the editorial writer proposed, would be the formation of a white man’s league that would exert a repressive influence on the “lawless negroes.”By the mid-1920s, Ku Klux Klan membership had surged to five million members, with chapters from California to Maine, including a thriving Klan in Roanoke, named after Robert E. Lee.With the government’s permission, a national parade of Klansmen marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital in 1925 and past the White House, then occupied by Calvin Coolidge, to express superiority over not just blacks but also Jews, immigrants, Catholics, and radicals.
The entire country was obsessed with the notion of separating people into greater and lesser breeds.
“Whatever the Southerner had surrendered at Appomattox, he had not surrendered his belief that colored people were inferior to white.”
In Florida, a black person could be given thirty-nine lashes for “intruding himself into any religious or other assembly of white persons.”
(Even parrots were taught racist phrases): She still remembers, word for ungrammatical word, the taunt of those parrots when they spotted her and her friends. “See them little niggers coming,” they squawked.
Beth Macy, the author, spent a lot of time gaining the trust of family members of George and Willie Muse, those two brothers. And, she writes with the sure hand of a good, thorough, local journalist. If you ever wonder if you should support good local journalism, like you find in your local newspaper, then read this book. (Yes, my wife and I still pay for our daily newspaper, delivered to our house, as we have every day of our married life).
This book has more to offer than just the story of these brothers. It is kind of an education in the world of the circus, traveling carnivals, and the “freak shows.” Underlying it all is the idea that human beings can be really good at finding ways to exploit other human beings. Here is one paragraph from my book synopsis handout:
People who are truly poor, outcast, and then face additional challenges, are also, sadly, easily exploited. Add in racism, and things are even more unfair; inhuman. Truevine is a story of such great unfairness and inhumanity.
And here are my four lessons and takeaways from the book:
#1 – We really do need to know more about our history; including, and especially, our racist history. This book will teach you much about this history.
#2 – We need to try to grasp how our history shapes our present. This book will help you understand such connection.
#3 — It helps to grasp what is important in human relationships; especially the importance of family. This book reveals much about this human trait.
#4 – We all need to become better at practicing persistence. This story is a great story of persistence; never-giving-up persistence!
This is a book worth reading. Special thanks to Beth Macy . As I said (my reason for reading, #4); It is a compelling story, well-told.