Thursday, January 29, 2009

A teaser and a recommendation

I was scheduled to do an interview with Temple Grandin about her excellent new book, Animals Make Us Human, before the Scene axed its book coverage. Since the piece for publication was scuttled, she kindly agreed to answer a few questions for BitterGrace Notes. I just talked to her this afternoon, and she was as fascinating as I expected her to be. Check back for a post next week with a review of the book and choice quotes from Grandin.


The civil rights era has taken on a hazy, mythic quality in the minds of most Americans, especially those under forty. It only moved further into the realm of legend with the constant invoking of Martin Luther King Jr.'s ghost during the Obama inauguration. Clay Risen's new book, A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination is an antidote to that collective memory fade, taking us back to April 1968 with a detailed dissection of the violence that ravaged U.S. cities after King's murder. The book also offers a fascinating look inside the Johnson White House, where alarm about the civil unrest was accompanied by bitterness over the apparent failure of liberal policies.

Risen is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, and was formerly an editor at The New Republic. A Nation on Fire is the sort of popular history journalists tend to write--exhaustively researched, carefully sourced, but still written to engage the general reader. It includes a wealth of anecdotes, the prose is lively, and Risen keeps the action moving by shifting from city to city, and from the streets to the halls of power.

Risen depicts a nation that is not united in mourning, but divided by rage and fear. He quotes Lady Bird Johnson recalling the night of King's death, when she describes feeling "poised at the edge of another abyss, the bottom of which we could in no way see." Her sheltered anxiety is juxtaposed with this sentiment from civil rights leader Floyd McKissick: "The next Negro to advocate nonviolence should be torn to bits by the black people." Those words don't fit very well with the narrative of uplift we've imposed on the civil rights revolution, and therein lies the chief value of this book. Risen conveys the intense, often ugly emotions of the time, which have been obscured by our contemporary platitudes.

Photo of Temple Grandin, (c) Joshua Nathaniel Pritikin and William Lawrence Jarrold, from Wikipedia.


Flora said...

How well I remember those times! I am well over 40, and I grew up in a small New England town where the riots never reached, but I happened to be in Washington, D.C. on a school trip in June 1968 - Resurrection City was still up, the tent camp that bloomed in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, and while I was there, Robert Kennedy was also killed. I have never felt such heavy tension in my life and I hope I never do again. We went to the Capitol and saw some Senators in the hallways - they were moving in zombie-like shock and looked about as bad as anything I had ever seen.

To think that we have come to having Barack Obama for our President since that time makes me think we have come a long way - I feel that we must do everything we can to ensure that those awful days never come back.

I am looking forward very much to your Temple Grandin interview; she is an amazing person.

BitterGrace said...

I think you would really enjoy the Risen book, Flora. My husband was a child in DC during the riots and he has always talked about how tense the time was. The book gave me a real sense of that.

Mary said...

We lived in Seat Pleasant, Maryland which is almost literally a stone's throw from DC (we could see the fireworks over the Washington Monument on July 4th). I was 8 years old and I'll never forget how scary that time was. The next day, one of my black friends who lived across the street pointed at me and said, "you killed our king".

I'll have to look for this book....

BitterGrace said...

Wow, Mary, what a sad moment for two little girls. One of these days I want to write about what it was like to be a white kid in the South during the civil rights era.