Monday, September 28, 2020

Connor Towne O’Neill’s Down Along With That Devil’s Bones

Posted By on Mon, Sep 28, 2020 at 3:55 PM

America is having a moment of cultural reckoning — with a violent, racist past that still influences the current day. Often, the images look not unlike scenes from a Memphis park in December 2017, when, after protests and vigils, a statue of Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was removed. In some ways, Memphis led the nation that night, as similar scenes have played out in many cities in 2020. Connor Towne O’Neill’s Down Along With That Devil’s Bones: A Reckoning with Monuments, Memory, and the Legacy of White Supremacy (Algonquin Books) works to examine similar moments of social judgment. O’Neill will discuss his new book at a virtual Reader Meet Writer event hosted by Novel. bookstore Tuesday, September 29th, at 4 p.m. But first, the author spoke with me about truth-telling, the myth and reality of Nathan Bedford Forrest, and white supremacy.

Memphis Flyer: Did you have any idea the book would come out at a time when it would be so relevant?

click to enlarge Connor Towne O’Neill
  • Connor Towne O’Neill
Connor Towne O’Neill: No, I didn’t. Although, even though there have been a couple of these flash points throughout the course of reporting and writing this book — the Charleston nine murders that set off these protests, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, and now the summer of toppling monuments in 2020. There have been these flash points in which it feels like it’s a very timely or topical book. But one of the things I realized while working on it is this is perpetual. The underlying tensions, the unresolved central questions of this country make for the fact that we’ll always have flash points like this. So no, I didn’t plan on it, but I’m not shocked it’s in the news again.

In researching your book, did you find any helpful strategies to get reluctant people to address racism and white supremacy?

Yeah, that’s the question, right? My approach was to seek out characters and have it have real people and real stories at the heart of it. It also needs to be more than that. Addressing these questions is more than just looking into the hearts of people and trying to decide if they’re racist or not. If we’re really going to address these questions, then we need to address them through policy. We have a 10:1 racial wealth gap in this country. You address that through policy, and that necessitates more than just statues coming down. It’s a really good start, and the stories that come out of protesting those statues and trying to remove them are incredibly important because it does reveal this underlying history. But it’s just a start.

We had a Nathan Bedford Forrest statue come down in Memphis in 2017. It’s definitely not enough, but I also feel that it has to be a positive that people aren’t walking by it and thinking it’s normal.

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I might have come off too glib there. Because I do think it is important, and I agree with what you’re saying; we do need to find a way to get on the same page, to have a shared common history. I think what’s happening in Memphis are important steps in that process. You know, the Forrest statue coming down, and soon after Calvary Episcopal Church in Downtown Memphis putting up a marker that tells the truth about Forrest’s role in this city and Forrest’s role in the slave trade. So I think that project of truth-telling that’s happening with Forrest and is also happening in Memphis with the Lynching Sites Project, that project of truth-telling and squaring to the darkest elements of our history I think is really important because it gets us on that same page. Because those policy measures don’t happen until we can come to that common understanding of what our past is and its consequences on our present.

Since you brought up truth-telling, can you talk about the myth of Forrest?

The myth of Forrest is that he was this cunning, shrewd cavalry tactician who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He’s both like an everyman and a superhero of the South. And yet he’s also a slave trader, an accused war criminal, the first Grand Wizard of the Klan, ran a convict-leasing program on President’s Island. And the people who revere him don’t talk about that stuff because the myth requires us to look at his life and the history of our country at the time through rose-tinted glasses that’s unwilling to acknowledge the theft and violence that propelled it.

This isn’t a question, but I don’t see how anyone can look past the slave trading and convict leasing. Statues aren’t just historical. You choose who you honor.

It can feel perplexing, but it’s how we’re encouraged to think about American history so often, even outside of the context of someone as infamous as Forrest. We just think of it as “one of those things.” The stories we tell ourselves of American progress and exceptionalism teach us that we are a great country and our founding on freedom and liberty distinguishes us in the world. And yeah we might have made some mistakes along the way, but we’re constantly evolving and it was just one of those things. The “it” being slavery. It wasn’t great, but we’ve worked past it. I think that unquestioning belief in the unimpeachable goodness of this country is what allows some of us to try to overlook some of the horrific parts of our history that Forrest is a part of.

Was it difficult for you to confront myths of America you’ve internalized? Even with research and study, you’ve grown up with these narratives, too, haven’t you?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Especially given my family’s history with deep ties to New England, coming over on the Mayflower, and having this really gauzy vision of what the origins of this country were. And that’s something that gets reinforced everywhere, not just school curriculums, but in public commemorations, holidays, political rhetoric. We’re swimming in it. It was only through the process of writing this book — and being around the past couple years when there has been a referendum on our history and our sense of our history — it’s only through that that I’ve come to see that our undoing was built into the founding of this country. Starting a settler-slaver society and trying to found a democracy on it was always going to lead to inequity and violence. But of course, when you’re myth-making, when you’re trying to create a national identity, that kind of stuff is convenient to leave out.

Do you have anything else you want to add?

The process of writing this book has been a process of squaring up to the darker aspects of American history and then being forced to connect that history and see its bearing and its consequences on our present. And I think that’s a process that a lot of people are coming to right now, and I hope that that resonates with readers.

Connor Towne O’Neill will discuss Down Along With That Devil’s Bones in a virtual event hosted by Novel. bookstore, Tuesday, September 29th, at 4 p.m.

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