On the book that helps us think about how the most appalling histories can happen—and what we can do about it.
As we learn more about the darkest human histories, the toughest question is often not what happened—as hard as it can certainly be to get at, and then to understand, historical truths—but how it did. That is, if we’re not willing to believe that much of humanity is essentially evil (and I definitely am not willing to believe that), we are left with the question of how, in the case of so many historical horrors, large numbers of people directly contributed to (and at least generally supported) them. Probably the most telling example would be the Holocaust; while there is significant scholarly disagreement over exactly how much most Germans—or even most in the Nazi military—knew about the final solution, the very question has led to extended and important works, such as Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996).
The same complex and challenging question can be applied to dark, communal American histories such as the lynching epidemic or the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan—it’s relatively easy to acknowledge racial discrimination and violence as overall presences on our landscape, but far more difficult to think about all of the ordinary men and women who comprised those brutal efforts. I know of no book, scholarly or otherwise, that better engages with precisely that question than James Goodman’s Stories of Scottsboro (1994). Goodman’s book narrates the dark and tragic history of the Scottsboro Boys, nine African American men who were falsely accused of raping two white women on an Alabama train, railroaded (pun intended) into convictions and then (after the Supreme Court twice vacated the verdict) re-convictions, and wrongfully imprisoned for years (with one dying in prison and the others all dramatically affected in their own ways by the experience). But Goodman goes one step further—through a combination of deep research and (limited but effective) imaginative extension, he constructs the perspectives of many of those involved in the case, including the two accusers (one of whom eventually recanted), the authorities who prosecuted the boys, and those who served on the juries that repeatedly convicted them.
It would be possible for such a kaleidoscopic approach to make it seem as if there’s no such thing as historical truth, but through a deliberate balancing act Goodman does the opposite: keeping the case’s most significant truths in front of us, while at the same time helping us to see how those truths could be elided, ignored, and destroyed by so many Americans for so many years. That the boys’ persecutors come across as complex and even sympathetic figures does not lessen in any way the horror of what happened to the boys—but it does make those events a bit more understandable. And as a result, I would argue that Goodman’s book offers an implicit model for how we can respond to such dark histories—not by turning them into mythologized narratives of good and evil, with their accompanying comforting but also limiting effects; but instead by engaging directly with how we (and I do mean “we”) come to support, take part in, and produce such histories. We cannot change the past’s injustices, but we can confront them, and what they tell us about our own capability for injustice as well.
Next case tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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