Books can open our minds to the realities of our history [column]
Abraham Lincoln, a famously voracious reader, observed in a lecture a year before he was elected president that writing is “the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye is the great invention of the world … enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space.”
In books we record, preserve and share with all mankind for all time the sum of all accumulated human experience, knowledge and thought. Without books, we are left to think and act on our own, based only on our own limited experience, memory and oral traditions.
A society without books, or that does not read — or worse, bans or censors books — is doomed to fail. No society without books has ever survived long or thrived. Those who live only by their own anecdotal experience without the benefit of recorded human experience tend to act on fear, myth, emotion and conspiracy theory. This explains a lot about our politics today.
Whether you realize and/or admit it or not, the inconvenient truth is that racism is the heart and soul of the MAGA world. Despite the insidious efforts of the narrow-minded — a motley crew of censors and book burners — the sordid history of racism in this nation has not been erased. Yet since the publication of Edward A. Pollard’s book, “The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates,” a year after the Confederate Army surrendered in Appomattox, Virginia, powerful white apologists for racism, slavery, white supremacy and civil war have been lying about their reprehensible acts.
The central myths of “The Lost Cause” — that slavery wasn’t so bad and that it wasn’t the cause of the Civil War — spread like a plague, infecting the nation’s collective memory and worst of all, the education of its children for generations. These virulent myths continue to be perpetuated by some people today.
Many Americans do not know or fully appreciate that for the bulk of this nation’s history white people held political power at every level of government and that they used that power to enact laws that both specifically benefited only white people and specifically denied or restricted benefits to Black people. The law gave a boost up to whites and placed a boot on the neck of Blacks.
If you are skeptical of these fundamental truths, read the following books. You will never look at race relations the same way again.
1. “When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America,” by Ira Katznelson. This 2006 book was a groundbreaking expose of 20th-century laws favoring whites.
2. “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,” by Douglas A. Blackmon. This Pulitzer Prize-winning book, published in 2009, was a painstaking study of the post-slavery laws designed to maintain white supremacy.
3. “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander. First published in 2010, this is a searing account of how the criminal justice system was designed and implemented to ensure the second-class status of Black Americans.
4. “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” by C. Vann Woodward. First published in 1955, this is a true classic.
Reading and knowing the actual facts of our history of race and law will open your mind and heart and might help get us to the point where we all will be “judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character” and fulfill the promise of this great nation of “equality under law.”
Growing up white in the Jim Crow South, I daily saw the cruelty and stupidity of systematic social, economic, political and legal racism. Books and a bike were my keys to freedom of mind and soul. My bike allowed me to escape my “Leave It to Beaver” existence in a lily-white New Orleans suburb to explore the French Quarter, a human gumbo of every type of character imaginable, from hippie poets to Black Panthers, from Vietnam vets to police officers, from gay artists to transgender dancers. But books opened my eyes and psyche to even more, convincing me that the polyglot of humanity was only a drop in a vast ocean yet to be explored.
Books lead me on a path of learning, exploration, experience and inquiry that will end only when I draw my last breath, enriching my life in ways, ironically, I cannot adequately express in writing.
M. Kelly Tillery is an intellectual property litigator with more than 40 years of experience. A Lancaster County resident, he is the author of the books “Sidebar: Reflections of a Philadelphia Lawyer,” and “Sidebar, Too: More Reflections of a Philadelphia Lawyer.” He has written extensively on Abraham Lincoln.