W.W. Norton ($26.95)
by Spencer Dew
In 1912, the white residents of Forsyth County, Georgia, forced that county’s African American residents into exile. A lynching—three men killed—turned into the threat of pogrom. What Patrick Phillips calls “a racial cleansing” was a simple enough threat: if you stay, you will be killed. This threat was on a massive scale. The black population had been 1,098; in their wake, houses and stores, schools and churches were all abandoned, to be quickly looted and claimed by whites. And the threat lingered, with a legacy continuing into the present. Oprah Winfrey visited the town for an episode of her show in 1987, at which point no black person had dared move back.
Phillips grew up in Forsyth County, and, as he explains his initial familiarity with the local history, he thought the forced exodus was “a kind of tall tale” and “questioned whether African Americans ever really lived in Forsyth.” This book is as much memoir—the naïve, white writer discovering America’s racist past through the lens of one particularly horrific and neglected case study—as it is history of that case study and of various related horrors, such as the phenomenon of lynching photographs generally and the 1943 racial violence in Detroit. I write this review in the immediate wake of two more videotaped killings, by police, of unarmed black men, and I am tragically assured that by the time this review is read, another cycle of such horror will be being replayed in the media.
The story of Forsyth County needs to be studied; this manifestation of racist terror is relevant for the contemporary American moment, a moment in which the same Confederate flags and racist insults deployed by crowds of counter-“Brotherhood” protestors in 1987 are still very much in use, as is the more subtle and pervasive racism of confusing the social status quo with a state of nature. But the events of the 1912 terror campaign have been examined elsewhere. Marco Williams, for instance, directed a film that deals comparatively with the Forsyth County case, Banished: American Ethnic Cleansings, which aired on PBS’s Independent Lens in 2015. The question is whether we need this book, this particular engagement with Forsyth County’s history.
Blood at the Root is misconceived as a project, giving too much attention to the author’s growing awareness of racism while neglecting to pursue too many questions raised by his investigation. Crucial aspects of both historical context and contemporary detail are simply not here, which, along with a clunky prose style, makes the book a frustrating read. Phillips ignores the sexual paranoia and fantasy at the heart of lynching; he ignores, likewise, the broader obsession with virtue as part of Lost Cause ideology’s construction, via nostalgic counter-history, of a new South constantly pining for a utopic Dixie. The choice to include multiple lynching photographs, some of tangential relation to the case at hand, could be justified if Phillips had engaged in any analysis of these images; we hear only of their importance as souvenirs with none of the due reverence or force of James Allen’s Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. What led to men posing with their hunting dogs in front of a corpse? And what to make of the gallows humor, the signs attached to corpses, the proximity to and participation in but also dehumanization and denial of death at play in this communal ritual? Phillips’s use of these images feels like padding for a term paper.
While the book is structured around the autobiographical, there are moments where even those aspects seem unexamined. Phillips says “it was surreal to watch” a VHS tape of a Klan rally from 1987, but other than a kind of struthian insistence that we were, by the age of The Cosby Show, moving collectively as a country into a state of postracial harmony, it’s unclear what would make watching such a tape surreal. I write this as a former Imperial Wizard of the KKK spent the weekend campaigning for a US Senate seat in Louisiana, speaking explicitly of a future for white America and a need to revere the values of the old South; I wish I had the luxury to consider such a scene surreal, but I fear, by Phillips’s standard, we live in entirely surreal times. And Phillips, furthermore, is blunt about the fact that seeing the Klan march alongside his Little League in the Fourth of July parade, while he was growing up, seemed “normal to me as a kid.”
Which leads to the question of the present. Forsyth County is now integrated; what led to the change? Phillips suggests it was capitalism, business interests (that a “delegation of business leaders” invited by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce “had been stoned and cursed by furious white men who’d tried to lynch their black chauffeurs” wasn’t good for the local or state economy). A major, nationally-supported civil rights march plays a role, too—though Phillips, to his credit, expresses doubt that seventy-five years of insistent “racial purity” could be changed by “one afternoon of imported racial harmony.” In the end, however, the best answer he has for the question of Forsyth’s supposed transformation is this:
In the twenty years after the Brotherhood Marches, time, money, and economic growth slowly but steadily changed Forsyth—into a place that tolerates a small minority of black residents and no longer violently enforces its century-old racial ban. As tens of thousands of Atlanta commuters and new corporate employees moved into the county—increasing its population from 38,000 in 1987 to more than 200,000 in 201—the old guard of Forsyth and the traditional defenders of ‘racial purity’ were simply outnumbered by newcomers with no history in the county and only the faintest inkling of its racist past.
As a conclusion, this is unsatisfying for two reasons. First, the tidiness of presuming this story can be closed, which plays too much to the white guilt underlying the memoir aspect of this book—Phillips seems too invested in finding resolution to his hometown’s racism. Second, there are so many practical questions about life in an integrated Forsyth County that demand attention. Is the police force integrated? What are community/police relations like? What happened to all those shuttered black churches? Have such institutions been replaced? Is there any legal hope for reparations, for the families of the displaced? By the end of this book, I couldn’t help but think that a book addressing Forsyth County now would be a much more interesting text, and one more useful for the urgent demands of the moment.