December 08, 2011


Black & White: The Confrontation between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene “Bull” Connor. By Larry Dane Brimner. Calkins Creek/Boyds Mill Press. $16.95.

Saga of the Sioux: An Adaptation from Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” By Dwight Jon Zimmerman. Henry Holt. $18.99.

     History books with a distinctive educational purpose, these stories of fairly recent and less-recent injustices and battles may be tough going for young readers, even though they are well-presented. Both bring up painful parts of the past of the United States – events that young 21st-century readers may have difficulty understanding and relating to if they are not already familiar with what happened or involved in the events’ consequences. Black & White revisits a particular time (1950s and 1960s) in a particular place (Birmingham, Alabama) in the context of a larger event, or series of events (the civil rights movement). It is also a memorial to Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, although Larry Dane Brimner’s book was completed before Shuttleswoth’s death on October 5 and does not mention it. There is no attempt at “balance” here: the victors write the history, which means that the personality profile of Bull Connor is not balanced against Shuttlesworth’s but contrasted with it, to Connor’s detriment. Despite this, there are interesting elements in Connor’s background that those aware only of his intransigence in Birmingham may not know: he knew how to decode telegraph messages and used the skill to become a highly popular play-by-play sports announcer on radio (at a time when up-to-date information was available only via telegraph); he won his first political race, for a seat in the Alabama House of Representatives, “without ever campaigning or gaining the support of a political machine”; and, having won, he successfully pushed through a bill establishing civil-service laws and getting rid of the old, corrupt patronage system that was endemic at the time. Most of the book, though, is written to show Connor meeting more than his match in Shuttlesworth: “Bull hadn’t reckoned on Fred’s confrontational nature and faith that he was doing God’s work in Birmingham,” for example. As the story of attempts to bring integration to Birmingham progresses, Brimner makes the contrasts between the two men clearer and clearer: “Bull intensified his intimidation tactics [and] frightened away more people, but Fred still had a contingent of followers attracted by his growing reputation and his willingness to put himself in harm’s way for the sake of social justice.” Brimner sprinkles contextual history throughout the book – the generally understated role in the civil-rights movement of celebrities, for example, and the killing in Mississippi of Emmett Till – and includes numerous period photos that are extraordinarily helpful in telling the story. Black & White continues through the climactic 1963 demonstrations at which “Connor became the face of segregation, the face of everything that was evil in the South,” beyond that to the actions of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, on to Connor’s death in 1973, and even to 2001, when President Clinton awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal to Shuttlesworth. An effectively told story in which one side is 100% good and one side 100% bad, Black & White makes no attempt to be nuanced – and there can be no nuance in this matter, many would argue. But at a time when so many politicians seek to demonize rather than reason with their opponents, it would have been helpful if Brimner had found a way to show that not all white Southerners who opposed integration were rotten to the core, and had tried to get a little more deeply into the motivations of Bull Connor and those who backed him – no matter how far on the wrong side of history they turned out to be.

     It is hard today to be sure who was on the wrong side of history and even to know who won and who lost in the story of Native Americans’ mistreatment by the U.S. government and its representatives. To be sure, Native Americans lost a great deal – lives, property and their very way of life, which they had practiced for centuries. By any pragmatic measure, they were the losers as the European-American nation followed its “manifest destiny” from the Atlantic to the Pacific. But starting with Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in 1971, more and more books have been told from Native Americans’ points of view and fewer and fewer from the viewpoint of the “conquerors,” with the result that the last 40 years have led to a victory of Native Americans in many hearts and minds – although it has scarcely translated into prosperity for most tribes (excepting those that successfully operate casinos). Brown (1908-2002) was an authority on the history of the American West and wrote several dozen books, but it is for Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee that he is most remembered. Now historian Dwight Jon Zimmerman has taken the portions of Brown’s most famous book relating to the Sioux, tightened and simplified them for young readers, and added an explanatory introductory chapter and a final chapter discussing the Sioux after 1890. The result is Saga of the Sioux, a highly earnest and well-meaning tale of depredations done by whites and the tremendous nobility of those who were oppressed, hunted and so often killed. Like Brimner’s story of Bull Connor and Fred Shuttlesworth, this is scarcely an even-handed account: Brown’s book was in fact intended as partial redress for decades of one-sided books portraying Native Americans as no more than vicious savages. But Brown’s work was written for adults who presumably were familiar with the typical portrayal of native peoples – indeed, that is why the book became hugely influential and a major best-seller. Young readers who have not been told repeatedly about the “savages” of the American West – who in fact have grown up after the pendulum swung the other way, with whites and their government becoming the ones deemed savage – will find no balance of interests or viewpoints in Zimmerman’s book. What they will get is a series of remarkable period photos that emphasize, again and again, the nobility of their Native American subjects, plus a text that celebrates Crazy Horse’s engineering of the Fetterman Massacre in Wyoming Territory, the much-better-known Little Bighorn battle (here called “Victory at Little Bighorn”), and other killings of whites – including but scarcely limited to soldiers. Chapter headings drive the point home again and again: Red Cloud’s “When the white man comes in my country, he leaves a trail of blood behind him,” for example, and Spotted Tail’s “These promises have not been kept – all the words have proved to be false.” Saga of the Sioux is a story of unremitting, conscienceless enmity, of betrayal and murder and the destruction not only of individuals but also of an entire way of life; indeed, almost of an entire people. Simplified though it is from Brown’s original, it accurately conveys that book’s viewpoint, which was set so tellingly against the views of many books that had come before and had whitewashed a deeply shameful period in United States history. Where Zimmerman’s book falls short is in providing young 21st-century readers with a context that Brown correctly assumed his 20th-century adult audience would already have. Those who are not of Native American ancestry will surely find Zimmerman’s book deeply disturbing, its story entirely out of keeping with the world and the attitudes now known to most of the young people who will pick the book up. The events in Saga of the Sioux are likely to seem well-nigh unbelievable – which, from today’s vantage point, they are. But they did happen, and although the United States eventually learned from them, it was much too late for most of the Sioux and many other Naïve American tribes. This is the context missing in Zimmerman’s book, whose readers will have to seek perspective on their own.

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