Monday, November 28, 2016

David Welky

David Welky is the author of The Thousand-Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937, The Moguls and the Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II, and other books. He is a professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas.

Welky's latest book is A Wretched and Precarious Situation: In Search of the Last Arctic Frontier.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Welky's reply:
Having a family and a full-time teaching job – both of which I’m grateful for – leaves me with precious little time for discretionary reading. Most books I read are related to my current writing project. When I do reach beyond my field, my choices tend to be eclectic. I not only enjoy history and biography, but also books about biology, geology, and astrophysics written for general readers.

But a trend is evident in my recent reading. Events over the past several months have left me thinking deeply about race in America, and much of my “outside reading” has focused on that fascinating and thorny subject.

By now, most readers have heard of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me, the author’s spellbinding message to his son. There’s not much point in adding another handclap to the thunderous applause Coates has already received, but I will say that I found his writing utterly devastating, and was particularly struck by the way in which he made the fragility of the black body central to the African-American experience. Between the World and Me is the kind of book you plow through in one sitting, then immediately return to the first page and start reading again.

Mat Johnson’s Pym had been on my list ever since I read Edgar Allan Poe’s bizarre novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a shambling travelogue about an Antarctic expedition that encounters a cartoonish tribe of black people. The protagonist of Johnson’s Pym, a modern-day professor of African-American studies named Chris Jaynes, uncovers evidence that Poe’s story was fact not fiction; there actually is a lost civilization hidden in the Antarctic. His pursuit of the truth becomes a charming, witty, satirical, provocative meditation on the relevance and irrelevance of race. Jaynes interacts with a hilarious array of stereotypes ranging from a hip-hop theorist to an old-school Black Power advocate to a group of “super ice honkies.” Best not to say much more lest I spoil a novel that revels in the unexpected. But anyone curious about what would happen if a band of intrepid African Americans stumbled across a Thomas Kinkaid-like painter who lives in a giant ice dome should check out Pym.

My wife kept raving about a book called Underground Airlines. I patiently (probably patronizingly) told her it was called Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award-winning novel. I was wrong. Ben Winters’s Underground Airlines is set in a familiar world of cars and computers and cell phones, but with a twist: The United States never fought the Civil War, and slavery still exists in the Deep South.

Victor is an African-American bounty hunter who returns fugitive slaves to their owners. His self-acknowledged hypocrisy – maintaining his own freedom by denying it to others – becomes the central paradox driving the narrative. In less adept hands the theme could become trite: No one is free so long as anyone is deprived of their rights. But Winters creates a complex, nuanced environment that leaves space for the reader to empathize with multiple perspectives while fully grasping the horror of a modern-day, industrialized form of chattel slavery.

Underground Airlines’s world is utterly believable. Winters conveys big themes in small ways, whether by describing the economic ties between southern manufacturers that exploit slave labor and the supposedly “clean” northern retailers who sell their products, or by showing the intricate network of mechanisms that keeps the slavery system in place while minimizing white people’s exposure to it. Ugliness is easy to ignore when you can’t see it. Most people are content to leave the slaves to their fate so long as their suffering doesn’t inconvenience the lives of the free.

Finally, I just completed Patrick Phillips’s Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, a searing tale about how and why Forsyth County, Georgia expelled all of its African Americans in 1912 and remained all white until quite recently. Violence lies at the heart of this true story. African Americans fled following a series of hangings, some extralegal and some carried out by a prejudiced legal system. Persistent vigilantism kept the area all white for decades to come. Forsyth County’s “racial cleansing” also stemmed from white residents’ fears of losing their privileged status. The presence of successful black farmers and businessmen in the early twentieth century inspired a backlash grounded in a sense of white victimhood. Subsequent attempts to re-integrate the area failed amid angry denunciations of so-called outside agitators and cries for black people to stay in their place. Residents claimed, apparently without irony, that there were no racial problems so long as the area remained entirely white.

Phillips exhumes this sad story from old newspapers, local records, and oral histories. But what really makes Blood at the Root special is that Phillips himself spent his formative years in all-white Forsyth Country. The book therefore straddles the line between history and personal discovery.

Although many of us think (whether consciously or unconsciously) in terms of race or are troubled by our fractured race relations, we as a nation are uncomfortable talking about how race has affected (and continues to affect) the United States. Instead of frank discussions and forthright action, we employ coded references to “other communities,” “inner cities,” “assimilation,” and “post-racial societies.” Taken collectively, these four books poke at our hang-ups, urging us to thrust our fears into the open. In order to make progress, we must acknowledge inequality and deal with the consequences of it. We must accept that present-day racial inequities and suspicions have grown from deep roots. And, as all of these books demonstrate, we must stop pretending that race doesn’t matter.
The Page 99 Test: The Thousand-Year Flood.

My Book, The Movie: A Wretched and Precarious Situation.

--Marshal Zeringue