Category: History

On Tyranny

Cover image for On Tyranny by Timothy Snyderby Timothy Snyder

ISBN 978-0-8041-9011-4

“The mistake is to assume that rulers who come to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions.”

In On Tyranny, Yale History professor Timothy Snyder offers twenty principles for resisting authoritarian government, drawing cautionary examples from twentieth century European history. It grew out of a Facebook post Snyder made in the aftermath of America’s 2016 election. In it, he attempts to bring his wide knowledge of European history, and the collapse of democracies, to bear on the current political moment.

On Tyranny follows an arc that moves from the early days of rising authoritarianism, through the arrival and culmination of overt authoritarian government. Snyder’s first principle is “Do not obey in advance,” and the final principle is “Be as courageous as you can.” On that last point, he offers only one sentence of explanation: “If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.” In between, he offers, and expounds upon, suggestions such as “Remember professional ethics” and “Investigate” the truth for yourself, detailing how the compromise of such values led to problems in the past.

A significant number of the examples used in On Tyranny are drawn from Nazi Germany. This makes sense given that this is part of Snyder’s area of expertise, but will no doubt prove problematic with some readers, for whom comparing anything at all to Hitler or Nazism is tantamount to hysteria. But central to Snyder’s argument is that the collapse of German democracy is not as unique as we might like believe. “Never again” is a commitment to remember and prevent such tragedies, not a statement that such things are no longer possible. Combine that with a certain strain of American exceptionalism that holds that the United States’ love of freedom makes such a thing impossible, and you have a dangerous brew. However, fascist Italy, Communist and modern Russia, and Czechoslovakia also provide cautionary examples that show this is not merely about the Holocaust. Synder is also explicitly concerned with the current political moment, and when relevant, he provides contemporary American examples of things that might be cause for worry.

Snyder is perhaps a little too dismissive of the internet. This is not to say that he does not make valid points about the vulnerabilities it opens us up to. But he warns against it even as he cites the example of Ukrainian success at countering Russian attempts to disseminate misinformation online. Moreover, he completely misses the warning sign that authoritarian states often seek to control the internet, in order to keep dissidents from sharing information, or spreading the truth about what is occurring in their country. Whereas the Nazis only allowed state-sanctioned radiobroadcasts, and banned listening to overseas stations, modern dictators seek to control television programming and internet access. We should be just as concerned about authoritarian attempts to control the internet as we are about curtailments in freedom of the press.

On Tyranny is a brief tract that can be read in an hour, but offers up thoughts and ideas that deserve much longer attention and consideration. It is a very short and accessible primer on the warning signs of authoritarianism, and the early actions that can be taken by ordinary people to guard against it. It is by no means comprehensive, but is excellent food for thought nevertheless. Think of this as politic disaster preparedness. You hope that you’ll never need that earthquake kit in your closet, but if the big one hits, you’ll be happy you prepared.

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March: Book Three

Cover image for March: Book Three by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin with art by Nate Powell by John Lewis and Andrew Ayden

Art by Nate Powell

ISBN 978-1-60309-402-3

“For so many months I’d kept my emotions bottled up to be strong for those counting on me to lead, but there I was alone in the dark with it all.”

Politician and civil rights leader John Lewis has been representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district for the past three decades. Before that, he enjoyed a long career as a civil rights activist and organizer, and served on the city council in Atlanta. The script for the March graphic novel was written with his congressional aide, Andrew Aydin, who wanted to capture some of the memories Lewis had shared with him in their time working together. This is the third and final volume in the trilogy. Catch up with March: Book One and March: Book Two here.

March: Book Three opens where March: Book Two left off, with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963. The third volume is by far the longest in the trilogy, and has the most ground to cover, not necessarily in terms of time, but in terms of significant events in the civil rights movement, when participation and media attention gained critical mass. This installment includes the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcom X, the Freedom Summer voter registration project, the Selma march, and the passage of the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act. The frame narrative that anchored the first volume has mostly slipped away, with only occasional references back to the inauguration of Barack Obama. It concludes on a meta note, with Lewis and Aydin discussing the idea of turning Lewis’ memoirs into a comic book.

Book three continues to chronicle the violence faced by peaceful protestors, particularly in Mississippi and Alabama as the civil rights movement gained steam. Scene after scene shows demonstrators beaten by police, or police standing by while they are attacked by white supremacists. Volunteers knew they might face violence when they signed up to register black voters in the South, but no one expected three volunteers to be intercepted and murdered before the Freedom Summer even began. Nate Powell’s black and white art chillingly depicts dredging the Mississippi swamps in search of the bodies of the three missing young men. Over and over, it shows the terrible price paid to bring in the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act.

In addition to teaching the history of the civil rights movement, Lewis also provides a behind the scenes perspective on the growing pains of a swelling movement, and the ideological differences that arose. He highlights disagreements about the role of white people in the movement, and the role of gender equality as more women began participating. Different organizations often had profoundly different ideas about how to approach their advocacy, which Lewis presents in a diplomatic fashion. We also see Lewis beginning to move in powerful circles, not just the leadership of the student movement, but also among other civil rights organizations, and even meeting the president. This might be a little inside baseball for some readers, but it does drive home the amount of behind the scenes work and debate involved in bringing about change.

Throughout March, Lewis emphasizes action over legislation, highlight the fact that while laws are important, they mean nothing without practical enforcement or compliance. Even as it concludes at a triumphal moment, with the inauguration of the United States’ first black president, there is a note of sadness and caution. One of the last scenes depicts Lewis listening to his voicemail. “I was thinking about the years of work, the bloodshed…the people who didn’t live to see this day,” Ted Kennedy says as Lewis listens in the dark, head in his hands. March is dedicated to “the past and future children of the movement.” And the next day, Congressman Lewis is back at his office, planning to educate those future children about what was lost, what was gained, and the work yet to be done.

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Maus

Cover image for The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelmanby Art Spiegelman

ISBN 9780141014081

“At that time it wasn’t anymore families. It was everybody to take care for himself.”

Polish Jews Vladek and Anja Spiegelman survived the Holocaust and immigrated to America with their son, Art, who was born in Sweden after the war. But the atrocities of the war cast a long shadow over their family. Beginning in 1978, Art Spiegelman interviewed his father about his experiences during the war, and serialized them in comic form. He would ultimately spend thirteen years of his life capturing this history, grappling with the legacy of the Holocaust, and his complicated relationship with his father.

Maus is famous for depicting the characters as anthropomorphized animals, in the tradition of Aesop’s Fables or Animal Farm. However, the visual medium really emphasizes this narrative choice, which allows Spiegelman to approach the unspeakable. Jews are depicted as mice, and Nazis as the cats that prey on them. Nazi propaganda often compared Jews to rats and vermin, so Spiegelman’s technique is an interesting way of turning that prejudice around into social commentary. The metaphor does occasionally become overextended, such as the scene where Anja is hiding in the dark, and is afraid that there are rats, while Vladek reassures her that they are only mice. Spiegelman also sometimes deliberately breaks the metaphor, as in the early pages of Volume II, where panels showing characters from the side show that the mouse faces are only masks.

Maus is certainly a story about the Holocaust, but it is also about Art and Vladek’s tense and complicated father-son relationship. Because he interviewed and recorded his father, the dialogue really seems to capture Vladek’s voice in an authentic way. The story of collecting and preserving the story is as significant to Maus as the Holocaust narrative itself. Maus includes material that Vladek asked Art not to put in the book, and this question of what to preserve is grappled with publicly rather than privately, since Spiegelman puts this scene in the book. On page scenes also show his worries about how to depict his father honestly when “in some ways he’s just like the racist caricature of the miserly old Jew.” Much of the power of the narrative comes from this grappling with the lingering effects of the war on those who survived it. The effects are multigenerational, as Art also confronts his own feelings about being born after the war, while the older brother he never knew did not survive.

If Vladek heavily defines the narrative by his voice, and combative relationship with Art, Anja’s influence on the story is largely a question of her absence. Because she died before Art began documenting the family’s history, the narrative rests squarely in Vladek’s hands, even if it is Anja’s story as well. Art can provide limited memories of his mother from his childhood, but we have access to her experiences during the war only through Vladek’s eyes. Seeing how Vladek behaves with his second wife, Mala, there is much to wonder about how Anja saw things, and what her perspective would have added to the story. Vladek’s destruction of her diaries only adds to that sense of loss, and wondering what more Maus might have been if her voice could have been heard.

Spiegelman’s unusual metaphor of cats and mice approaches the Holocaust in a unique way that lends a fresh perspective to a period of history that is much covered. But Maus stands out just as much for its complex depiction of familial relationships, and the inter-generational consequences of such tragedies. The story of the story adds context and depth to Vladek’s recollections.

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You might also like John Lewis’s March 

March: Book Two

Cover image for March: Book Two by John Lewis and Andrew Aydinby John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

Art by Nate Powell

ISBN 978-1-60309-400-9

“The fare was paid in blood, but the Freedom Rides stirred the national consciousness, and awoke the hearts and minds of a generation.”

Politician and civil rights leader John Lewis has been representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district for the past three decades. Before that, he enjoyed a long career as a civil rights activist and organizer, and served on the city council in Atlanta. The script for the March graphic novel was written with his congressional aide, Andrew Aydin, who wanted to capture some of the memories Lewis had shared with him in their time working together. This is the second volume in what has become a highly-acclaimed trilogy since its 2013 release. Catch up with March: Book One here.

March: Book Two opens on Inauguration Day 2009, and then transitions back to Nashville in November 1960. After successfully integrating the city’s department store lunch counters, Lewis and the Nashville Student Movement continued in the same vein by trying to integrate cafeterias and fast food restaurants. They also turned their attention to segregated movie theatres. However, the heart of the second volume focuses on the Freedom Riders and the March on Washington, as Lewis rises to national prominence within the civil rights movement. Despite covering several climactic events, tension remains high, as the volume closes with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963.

Book two recounts the increasing force with which non-violent protests were met as the civil rights movement gained momentum. Powell continues to walk the fine line in depicting the events truthfully but without exploiting the horror. However, the severity of the violence undeniably increases in this installment. The violence did not come as a surprise to the activists. In fact, Freedom Riders signed wills before undertaking their journeys, which were designed to test whether the Supreme Court decision that integrated interstate buses was being upheld in practice. Lewis also describes watching news coverage of protests in Alabama, where activists faced fire hoses and police dogs, resulting in what “looked like footage from a war.”

As in the first volume, Lewis is not afraid to chronicle philosophical differences within the movement, and his worries that as the number of protestors swelled, the new recruits lacked the discipline to adhere to the principles of non-violence. At the back of the book, the original draft of his speech for the March on Washington is included. The comic itself depicts the intense negotiations that surrounded certain aspects of his wording, which led to him delivering a highly revised version. While Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is the most famous address from this event, Lewis’ speech is powerful in its own right, and receives a six page spread. Yet the book also highlights the many other players and contributors, while also remaining Lewis’ story. Malcom X makes a brief appearance, though Lewis clearly disapproves of his philosophy. Dr. King is depicted respectfully but sometimes critically, without the idolatry that often surrounds his legacy. But Lewis is most interested in A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the architects of the March on Washington. Rustin, in particular, was the logistical brains of the operation, but could not play a prominent public role because of his communist connections and homosexuality. March memorializes his key contributions.

March continues to move back and forth between Lewis’ life story, and Barack Obama’s inauguration. The first volume used a slightly stilted frame narrative of Lewis recounting his childhood to two boys who visit his office with their mother, who wants to teach them about the history of the civil rights movement. The second volume is purely Lewis reflecting alone on his experiences as the inauguration progresses, which works more smoothly, and also creates some interesting juxtapositions. Lewis’ election as chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee is placed alongside Obama taking the oath of office. The scenes depicting famous speeches given at the March on Washington are followed by the opening words of President Obama’s inaugural address. Aretha Franklin sings “My Country Tis of Thee” in 2009 as Freedom Riders are beaten in the streets of Alabama in 1963. This creates an effect that conveys the breadth of history, even as the closing on the church bombing creates a sobering, cautionary finish. There is always a backlash.

March: Book One

Cover image for March Book One by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

Art by Nate Powell

ISBN 978-1-60309-300-2

“The thing is, when I was young, there wasn’t much of a civil rights movement. I wanted to work at something, but growing up in rural Alabama, my parents knew it could be dangerous to make any waves.”

Politician and civil rights leader John Lewis has been representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district for the past thirty years. Before that, he enjoyed a long career as a civil rights activist and organizer, and served on the city council in Atlanta. The script for the graphic novel was written with his congressional aide, Andrew Aydin, who wanted to capture some of the memories Lewis had shared with him in their time working together. This is the first volume in what has become a highly-acclaimed trilogy since its 2013 release.

March opens on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as the march from Selma is about to be confronted by troopers armed for a riot, then flashes forward to Inauguration Day 2009, when Barack Obama is about to be sworn in as the first African American president of the United States. The frame narrative takes place in Congressman Lewis’ Washington D.C. office when a black woman from Atlanta arrives with her two sons to see the office of their representative. The congressman begins to tell the boys about his early life, and the beginnings of the civil rights movement, and continues through the desegregation of Nashville’s lunch counters in 1960. The transitions between past and present are not always smooth, but have the effect of emphasizing the currency of the narrative, and its continued relevance to the present moment.

March is part autobiography, and part civil rights primer. It both chronicles Lewis’ childhood on an Alabama farm with former sharecroppers for parents, and his early involvement in civil rights with the Nashville Student Movement. The early days are particularly interesting, as they show differences within the movement, and how the younger generation of activists made an impact by refusing to accept the more modest rollbacks of segregation that some older leaders were pushing for. The book also depicts the organizing and training that goes into building an effective and coordinated strategy for a movement. One particularly powerful scene shows activists roleplaying, insulting and abusing one another in order to prepare for the challenges they will face at the lunch counter sit-ins.

The graphic memoir format is particular suitable for illustrating the abuses faced by early civil rights activists, and Nate Powell powerfully captures the fear and tension in his art. The decision to illustrate the book in black and white renders these events in all their stark ugliness. The violence is not sugar-coated, but nor is it gratuitous. Notably, part of John Lewis’ introduction to the civil rights movement was the 1956 comic Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Story, which was an educational comic designed to teach the principles of non-violent resistance. March carries on in that tradition.

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Becoming Queen Victoria

Cover image for Becoming Queen Victoria by Kate Williams by Kate Williams

ISBN 978-0-345-47239-7

“The newspapers fizzed with gossip about the wayward brothers who succeeded only at plunging the monarchy into disgrace. Through it all, Charlotte was their one hope: the blue-eyed, golden-haired girl who seemed so spirited and innocent. The public took to idealizing her as the perfect princess: sweet, reserved, possessed of a kind heart, and entirely unlike her self-centered father.”

Royal historian Kate Williams’ portrait of two British princesses has been published under the title Becoming Queen, as well as the somewhat less accurate Becoming Queen Victoria. While it certainly is an account of how Victoria gained the throne, it dedicates a nearly equal measure of attention to Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV, the woman who would have been queen but for her untimely death in childbirth. The book is divided into two parts, first chronicling the life and death of Princess Charlotte, before moving on to the second part dealing with the childhood and early reign of Queen Victoria. The short interlude between the two sections follows the scramble to secure the succession that took place in the wake of Charlotte’s unexpected death at the age of twenty-one.

Williams begins her account with the marriage of the Prince of Wales—the future George IV—to his cousin Princess Caroline of Brunswick in 1796. Though Prince George had more than a dozen siblings, he was one of the few to make a legitimate marriage, and he was not pleased with his German princess from the outset. George III preferred to keep his daughters at home, refusing them permission to marry, and most of his sons chose mistresses over marriage, earning them a debauched reputation as they drained the royal treasury with their antics. George and Caroline managed to get along long enough to produce Princess Charlotte, securing the succession, but their animosity only grew, and Charlotte became the frequent subject of an ongoing tug-of-war between her estranged parents throughout her childhood.

The drama surrounding Charlotte’s childhood paints an effective picture of the unpopularity of the Hanoverian monarchs, and Williams spins out a dramatic vision of what the young princess endured. In addition to being a pawn in the cold war between her parents, Charlotte was also much more popular with the public than her father, who served as Prince Regent during his father’s periods of madness. The more the public idealized her, the more her father mistrusted her, having spent his own youth consolidating power and building a rival circle of support around himself. For this reason, her father hoped to marry her off to a foreign prince, and send her abroad so that she could not set up a rival court in London. Grasping after independence from her relatives, Charlotte married Prince Leopold, who hailed from the Saxe-Coburg family, rulers of a small German duchy. However, she was successful in making living in England one of the conditions of the marriage.

As one of Britain’s longest ruling monarchs, as well as the sovereign who presided over the British Empire, and the Industrial Revolution, Queen Victoria has received her fair share of attention. She is currently the subject of ITV’s television series Victoria, and features in many biopics and historical fiction novels. But her cousin Charlotte is a less well-known figure, the queen who never was. For this reason, I found myself more riveted by the first half of the book. Depictions of the turmoil of the Regency period usually focus on the mad king and the Napoleonic wars, but through Charlotte, Williams highlights another aspect of the tumultuous Hanoverian dynasty, a corrupt and licentious monarchy riven by a rotten family dynamic. And of course, all of this provides context to the famous Kensington System, under which the Duchess of Kent would eventually raise her daughter.

What Williams also makes clear by beginning the story of Victoria’s ascension more than twenty years before her birth is that Victoria did not become heir to the throne simply because Charlotte died; she literally existed because of her cousin’s death. The sons and daughters of George III had more than fifty children between them, and all but Charlotte were illegitimate. With George IV still married to Charlotte’s estranged mother despite repeated efforts to divorce her, Charlotte’s death set off a scramble amongst George’s younger brothers to procure suitable wives, and secure the succession. Edward, Duke of Kent, the fourth son of George III, jettisoned his mistress of nearly thirty years in order to marry Leopold’s widowed sister, Victoire. Alexandrina Victoria was born to the couple within eighteen months of her cousin’s death. And while the possibility remained that one of her father’s older brother’s might yet produce an heir that would displace her, Victoria was heir presumptive for much of her young life.

Like Charlotte, Victoria’s position meant an unhappy childhood. Whereas Charlotte was neglected and haphazardly educated, Victoria was highly controlled and abused in an effort to shape her into a popular heir, as well as one who would be obedient to her mother, and her advisor Sir John Conroy, after her father died in her infancy. Given the ages of her uncles, the Duchess and Sir John long operated on the assumption that Victoria would require a regency, and worked to ensure that they would have that power. They also worked hard to keep Victoria separate from her uncles in the public mind, so that she would not be tainted by their shenanigans. But the Kensington System destroyed Victoria’s relationship with her mother, and led her to oust both the duchess and Sir John from her circle immediately upon her ascension to the throne. The only advisor she retained was her governess, Baroness Lehzen.

For fans of ITV’s Victoria, Williams touches on the major events depicted in the series.  Notably, however, she agrees with most other historians that the relationship between Queen Victoria and her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, was more paternal than romantic, a point of departure that series creator Daisy Goodwin leans heavily on. By profiling Charlotte and Victoria together, Williams succeeds in highlighting the perils facing a female monarch, particularly in the realms of marriage and family, creating a rather personal history. An alternative history can also easily be imagined, in which Charlotte and Leopold ruled over England together. Instead, Leopold was instrumental in facilitating the marriage of his nephew to the young queen, and the Victorian age was born.

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The Wars of the Roses by Dan Jones

Imbeciles

Cover image for Imbeciles by Adam Cohenby Adam Cohen

ISBN 978-0-14-310999-0

“Whitehead’s representation of Carrie at the trial and on appeal was an extraordinary case of malfeasance. Not only did he violate well-established ethical rules about the duty of loyalty to a client…but his entire representation of Carrie, in a case of enormous importance to her, was a fraud.”

In 1907, Indiana passed the first law authorizing a state to engage in eugenic sterilization, which permitted medical operations that cut off the reproductive abilities of those who were deemed “unfit” to procreate for a variety of reasons. However, it would take twenty years for the constitutionality of such laws to be sanctioned by the Supreme Court, and that case would come from Virginia, a relatively late adopter of eugenic sterilization. At the centre of that case was Carrie Buck, a girl of nineteen who had already borne one illegitimate child, and who was the daughter of a woman who had also been deemed “feebleminded.” In a nearly unanimous decision that has never been overturned, the Supreme Court ruled on Buck v. Bell in 1927, upholding eugenics laws broadly, and Carrie’s sterilization specifically. In Imbeciles, Adam Cohen investigates this miscarriage of justice, chronicling the rise of the eugenics movement in America, and how Carrie Buck was actively misrepresented for the sake of this cause.

It is difficult to understate the tragedy of Carrie’s situation. The family that took her in when her mother was unable to care for her did not adopt her, so much as they used her for free labour. When their nephew raped her, they dealt with the situation by having Carrie committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded, where the main evidence of her supposed feeblemindedness was the promiscuity evidenced only by her pregnancy. Because her mother was already a resident of the colony, the doctors who were supposed to be caring for her singled Carrie out to be the guinea-pig of their schemes for improving the “American stock.” Every guardian, advocate, and caretaker who should have protected her not only failed in their duty, but actively colluded in her victimization. Two in particular stand out: Irving Whitehead, the lawyer who was supposed to be representing her, but who instead cooperated with the opposition, and Aubrey Strode, the lawyer for the colony, who the evidence suggests was not a believer in eugenics, and yet bent himself tirelessly to the task of seeing it upheld by the nation’s highest court.

As a history, Imbeciles deals primarily with the men who shaped Carrie’s fate, rather than with the woman herself. No doubt these prestigious and well-educated men left a larger record than a woman who had to leave school after the fifth grade, and who did not speak publicly about her situation until the 1980s. Cohen profiles the four men who played the largest roles in forming and deciding Carrie’s case: Dr. Albert Priddy, Harry Laughlin, Aubrey Strode, and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Priddy was the head of the Virginia colony where Carrie was committed, and he was avid advocate of eugenic sterilization, as well as the person who chose Carrie to be at the centre of a test case that would confirm the constitutionality of eugenic sterilization. Aubrey Strode, the colony’s lawyer, both drafted the Virginia eugenics law, and defended the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where the majority opinion in favour of Carrie’s sterilization was penned by Holmes. Though he never met Carrie, Harry Laughlin, head of the Eugenics Record Office, and a eugenics evangelist, was an expert witness in the case. Together, they sealed her fate. Each man merits two chapters, a structure that bogs down the narrative and creates repetition as Cohen retreads portions of the timeline with each new figure.

Cohen touches only a little on the decided misogyny that pervaded eugenics legislation. Women could be deemed feebleminded simply for being too sexual, as was a significant factor in Carrie’s case. In covering up the rape committed by their nephew, the Dobbs family cast Carrie as an immoral woman unable to control her own base urges. All evidence not created by those with a personal stake in the matter suggests that Carrie was of normal intelligence, if undereducated. She performed perfectly well in school, completing the fifth grade before the Dobbs family pulled her out so that she could do more work. She communicated with the colony via letter during her parole, and after her discharge. When she was placed in a home during her parole, the family assumed she must be an epileptic, because she seemed to be of perfectly normal intelligence. Although men were also sterilized, 67% of the operations performed in the wake of Buck v. Bell were conducted on women, who often did not understand the purpose of the procedure they were being subjected to. And since Carrie Buck was white, Cohen touches even less on the implications of such laws for African Americans and other non-white citizens.

Imbeciles in is a revealing history of American sterilization, with a somewhat repetitive focus on the legal process of the case, and its shortcomings. Cohen points out the continued relevance of this subject as genetic science continues to advance, and also highlights the ways in which such sentiments tend to get tied up in anti-immigration rhetoric. Words that we use lightly today—idiot, imbecile, moron—carry a weight of historical baggage that many people are unaware of, and Imbeciles shines a light on that history.

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Forgotten

Cover image for Forgotten by Linda Hervieuxby Linda Hervieux

ISBN 978-0-06-231379-9

“For many African Americans, their parting view of Lady Liberty was a bittersweet reminder that they were off to fight, and perhaps die, to protect freedoms afar that they had never known at home.”

Watching movies about World War II, you might be forgiven for thinking that no African American soldiers served in that war. Yet more than two thousand African Americans were on Utah and Omaha beaches on D-Day, a mere fraction of the 130 000 sent to England over the preceding months in anticipation of the invasion of the continent. Most of the African Americans at D-Day were service troops, working as stevedores and truck drivers, but one black combat unit participated, the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion. Over six-hundred men strong, the battalion was spread out over more than 125 landing craft arriving on the beaches on June 6, and in the weeks that followed. Their job was to raise a defensive curtain into the skies, protecting the invading forces from low altitude bombing runs and strafing by the Luftwaffe. Yet there is nary a black face to be seen anywhere in the storming of Omaha Beach depicted in such films as Saving Private Ryan. But they were there, and Forgotten is Linda Hervieux’s effort to write those men back into their rightful place in history.

Hervieux became aware of the existence of the 320th after writing a story about veteran Bill Dabney, who was awarded the Legion of Honour by the French government on the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Organizers believed that Dabney was likely the last living member of the battalion, but when Hervieux dug into that claim, she discovered that it was unfounded. Moreover, time was running out to capture the stories of these men; most of the remaining veterans would be in their nineties. Military historians warned Hervieux, a journalist, that there were not enough records to support a book about the unit, but Hervieux persisted, unearthing at least twelve 320th veterans who were still alive and able to talk about their experiences. She also uncovered the only proof that a member of the 320th was recommended for the Medal of Honor, medic Waverly Woodson, who passed away in 2005.

Forgotten opens on Atlantic City in 1941, where Wilson Caldwell Monk—future member of the 320th—was waiting tables on the Boardwalk. Though New Jersey was a northern state, Atlantic City practiced a form of de facto segregation; the restaurants where Monk worked during the Season would never serve a black man. In addition to Dabney and Woodson, Monk is one of the main figures in the book, along with Henry Parham, who hailed from sharecropping country, and was working as a porter in Richmond, Virginia when he received his draft notice. Dabney, Monk, and Parham were all alive for Hervieux to interview, while the accounts of Woodson are based on newspaper articles from the period, and interviews he gave before his death, as well as the cooperation of his widow.

After the players are introduced, the first third of the book is largely contextual, including sections on Jim Crow laws, the Great Migration, the history of black military units, and the use of various types of balloons in the military, beginning with the Napoleonic wars. Although she talks about Jim Crow generally, Hervieux also examines its specific effect on the military experience. The army itself was segregated, and most of the training camps were located in the South. Far from being welcomed into the military, blacks were discouraged because they were believed to be less brave and less intelligent than white people. Black soldiers were regularly insulted and even assaulted, as white Southerners struggled with the cognitive dissonance of their respect for the military colliding with their dehumanization of African Americans. A black man in uniform was perceived as a provocation, a demand for respect, and the situation was so fraught that trains carrying black soldiers through the South traveled with curtains drawn, because white Southerners were known to shoot at trains carrying African American troops.

Perhaps the most revelatory section comes in the middle of the book, which covers the 320th deploying overseas, landing in Scotland, and proceeding south. They were encamped in Oxfordshire and Wales, where they were part of the growing mass of American forces being squirreled away in anticipation of Operation Overlord, as the invasion of France was known among the planners. Britons, by and large, did not discriminate against the black soldiers, and in some cases even preferred them, finding that they were usually more polite than their white counterparts, and better accustomed to the hard living conditions imposed by war-time rationing. In England, a black man could drink in any pub, go to any church, and dance with any girl, unencumbered by the colour of his skin. But this treatment caused tension with white American troops, who had somehow expected that Britons would participate in American-style segregation and subjugation. In fact, Britons roundly refused, and even raised public outcry against the harsher treatment they saw African American soldiers receiving from the American military command.

Only the last few chapters of Forgotten deal with the event itself, the crossing of the channel, the landing at D-Day, and the long fight to control the beaches. Nothing went as planned that day, and the first 320th men on the ground, including Waverly Woodson, were more infantry troops than balloon men, given the amount of artillery fire that was still underway. Fortunately most of the Luftwaffe was elsewhere, and later waves of 320th men were able to raise their balloons. Hervieux also briefly deals with the aftermath of the war, recounting the difficulties African American veterans faced in accessing the benefits of the GI Bill. Black veterans were still unable to obtain loans from most banks, and while educational benefits were available, African Americans were shunted into vocational training programs of dubious quality, and often emerged to find no jobs available to them.

Anyone who is very knowledgeable about either African American history or military history will probably find that this book retreads a lot of ground in an effort to contextualize the experiences of the men of the 320th. Perhaps due to the sparseness of the military records, Hervieux relies on this background material to flesh out the narrative, as a military history cannot rest on personal accounts alone. Yet if anything she is simultaneously a little too wary of personalizing the narrative, and letting the personalities of the men shine through. It is hard to get a good sense of them individually, and that is a bit of shame. Nevertheless, Hervieux successfully sheds light on the contributions of a group that has almost been erased from history.

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