Cynthia Carr. Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America.
Cynthia Carr's Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America is an investigation of race and racism in the United States that is focused on the town of Marion, Indiana, site of one of the most infamous lynchings in US history. On the night of August 7, 1930, two young African American men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, were beaten and dragged from the county jail and hung from a tree in the courthouse square. A third young African American man, James Cameron, was also beaten and taken from the jail that night, but just as the mob was about to hang him, something made them stop, and Cameron was allowed to limp back to the jail, becoming one of the US's best known lynching survivors. Thousands of white people participated as witnesses to the mob murder in Marion, and some of their faces were caught in the flash of Lawrence Beitler's famous photograph of the lynching.
As a white girl, Cynthia Carr grew up knowing about this lynching, and knowing Marion itself, because this town is where her grandparents lived, both at the time of the mob murder and throughout Carr's childhood. Carr knew her grandfather had probably seen the lynching itself, or its aftermath. What she did not know as a girl, however, was that her grandfather was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. This detail she discovered only after his death, and her book is, in many respects, an attempt to come to terms with it. Our Town is, then, a white woman's effort to reconcile the history of racism in her own family, to begin what she calls "the process of atoning" (27), and in so doing to participate in a larger anti-racist endeavor in which "white people enter the dialogue about race" (14), breaking the silence of omission (26).
Carr's is an important project and her commitment to it is serious. She spent 10 years researching the book, and one entire year living in Marion. Through her interviews and extensive archival research, she provides an intimate look at the culture of US white supremacy and its effects on people from all walks of life. Her interviews especially interrogate the complexities and contradictions of lives structured by white racism. Carr is at her best in the guise of investigative reporter, tracing the disturbing history of Marion's lynching and its aftermath, and revealing its reverberating effects on the lives of Marion's residents. Her willingness to confront racism in her own family is also noteworthy, and even brave. Ultimately, however, Carr's personal responses prove to be a distraction and disservice to the powerful materials she has gathered. Some of Carr's personal confessions and reactions simplify and even reproduce structures of white privilege that her book otherwise seeks to illuminate and complicate.
The book has three intersecting narratives. The first concerns Carr's own complicated family history, and addresses the gaps and silences in a genealogy marked by her grandfather's unspoken illegitimacy. The second focuses on a history of the Klan in the United States, and particularly in Indiana, the state with the largest Klan membership during its heyday in the 1920s, when Carr's grandfather would have joined. The third is about the lynching itself, and here Carr tries to piece together who was most directly responsible for the mob murder, and then she traces the effects the lynching has had on race relations in Marion over the course of the twentieth and early twenty first centuries. Through these intersecting narratives Carr poses Marion as a microcosm of the nation's race problems, and situates her family and herself in the middle of this complicated legacy.
Each of these stories is fascinating in its own right, but together they are a lot to manage, and Carr uses her own position as researcher, interviewer, and granddaughter to bind them together. This personal point of view is part of the book's strength, but also its greatest weakness. For while Carr's personal relation to the events she describes gives her investigation a certain lively immediacy and very real investment, the presentation of her own reflections and emotions limits the potential effect of her material. For example, after describing an interview with Nevada Pate, an experienced African American teacher whose career was "interrupted" for 12 years after she was unable to find work in Marion in 1953 because "Marion was not ready for a black teacher with white students" (202), Carr confesses: "My visit with Nevada Pate left me feeling sad. I wasn't just there to gather facts, after all, but to try to take responsibility as a descendant of that place. To do that, I had to hear such stories. I found this one quite painful to take in, and there was nothing I could do to fix it. It did not feel good to acknowledge that we white people had thwarted and stunted so many lives" (204). Carr's feelings about Nevada Pate's experience of racism are mundane and beside the point. It would have been significantly more powerful and respectful to let Pate's story stand on its own, permitting readers to have their own response to it, rather than collapsing it into an occasion for Carr's sadness. As readers we are asked to feel for Carr, and this trivializes the very stories Carr honors with her illumination of them. Here, then, Carr's responses get in the way, as she perhaps inadvertently makes herself and her whiteness the ultimate reference of other people's stories.
Despite this distracting self-referentiality, there is much to learn here. Carr shows how the trauma of the 1930 lynching continues to haunt Marion, a small town in the throes of deindustrialization and economic decline. She carefully follows clues regarding the history of the lynching, to uncover who instigated the crime, who condoned it, and who challenged it. What people are not willing to discuss with her in interviews is as revealing as what they do talk about. The opening and closing of the book are marked by the revelation of Lawrence Beitler's famous photograph of the lynching, and Carr traces the circulation of the image locally, demonstrating how powerfully the photograph has functioned and continues to function as memory mediator and as symbol of repressed communal shame. Through her interviews she identifies for the first time several of the smiling white faces captured in the photograph.
Tracing the racial history of Grant County and its environs, Carr tells part of the story of Weaver, Indiana, a Black town whose founding families continue to live in the area in and around Marion. More time could have been spent on this fascinating place that provided African Americans a space of protection from many different kinds of racism. In Weaver Carr realizes: "This was land that had never been owned by white people" (160). Further attention to this town and its history would have provided a richer understanding of the geography of race in the Midwest.
James Cameron is present throughout the course of Carr's narrative as inspiration and fellow traveler if not exactly as collaborator. Cameron, the man who survived the Marion lynching, told his own story in A Time of Terror. In her book, Carr documents conflicting responses to Cameron, whom she clearly admires, especially among Marion's elderly African Americans, some of whom saw him as an opportunist, a rabble-rouser, and even a liar. Many in Marion, both Black and white, simply want the story of the lynching to go away, and Cameron did much to keep its memory alive, both with his autobiographical book and with his Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee.
Much of the second half of Carr's book is dominated by an examination of the present day Klan in Indiana, a small rag tag group of impoverished white men and women living on the edge of society in rural America. As Carr describes one branch: "So many members were on disability that the group seemed, quite literally, to be a refuge for broken white people" (269). After offering a detailed description of two of the angriest and most destitute Kluxers she interviewed, Carr concludes: "They had little to hold on to but their whiteness. These were failed, damaged people, and joining the Klan was how they made themselves feel better, and it was deeply sad" (285). Indeed. But once again, the rawness of these people's lives, the deep contradictions of their beliefs, and the brutalizing nature of their anger communicates this point far more powerfully than Carr's simplistic emotional editorializing.
The sections on the contemporary Klan hold a certain sordid fascination, and reading them, one is impressed once again by Carr's tenacity as a reporter. Ultimately, however, Carr's purpose might have been better served if she had focused more of her attention on the normative, everyday practices of white racism in Marion, the Midwest, and the United States more generally. As Carr states explicitly: "Acting as a scapegoat for all of white racism is a Klansman's job, part of his function as the 'bad white.' He is the decoy who leads us away from looking at ourselves" (360). The disproportionate attention Carr pays to the contemporary Klan unwittingly reproduces this structure, allowing readers to marvel at the ludicrous and convoluted philosophy of the Klan, while failing to examine many of the privileges that ordinary whites continue to enjoy. Conversely, her interviews with everyday Marion residents, both white and Black, are fascinating glimpses into shame, denial, fear, and remarkable resilience in the face of racist social, economic, and psychological structures.
Carr's focus on the Klan stems from her impetus for writing the book, her own attempt to come to terms with the revelation that her grandfather was a Klan member. Much of her investigation into the lynching revolves around whether or not the Klan was directly involved in planning the lynching. She discovers it was not. But while Carr might rest easier knowing that the Klan did not plan or promote the lynching (thus presumably exonerating her grandfather from murder to some degree), can her readers? Rather, isn't it even more shocking that in the state with the highest Klan membership throughout the 1920s, as we learn from Carr, a spectacle lynching in 1930 could be orchestrated without direct Klan involvement? Here Carr misses an opportunity to explore the workings of racism and white supremacy more broadly, in the community outside of "Klanland."
In sum, Carr's research for this book is impressive, and through the density and detail of her reporting the racial history of Marion comes alive in all of its complexity. At times, however, her personal commentary fails to do justice to the richness of the materials that she has gathered. For those who can look past Carr's self-referentiality and the structures of white privilege that it sometimes (unwittingly) reproduces, the book offers an intimate look at a disturbing history the legacy of which is still all too alive.
Shawn Michelle Smith
School of the Art Institute of Chicago
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|Author:||Smith, Shawn Michelle|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2007|
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