When Tom became sick in the winter of 2003, we revisited the subject of quantum entanglement. It was early winter, and we sat in his small, comically messy apartment in Toronto, surrounded by jagged lightning-bolt towers of piled books. Dead insects and tendrils of cobweb and cat dander were heaped up in giant fuzzy swaths along the baseboards; the carpet erupted with geysers of dust at the slightest touch. The windows admitted only a diffused glow even at midday.
He wanted me to understand the concept of entanglement — how, once two subatomic particles have been part of the same nucleus, even if they’re subsequently separated by an enormous distance, they remain in a kind of sympathy with each another. A change in one produces an instantaneous change in the other. The notion captures the attention of quantum-physics enthusiasts because it suggests a kind of indivisibility of matter. It also seems to contradict Einstein’s insistence that nothing, not even information, can travel faster than the speed of light.
Sabine Heinlein | Longreads | November 2016 | 18 minutes (4,602 words)
She named her avatar DancingDark after a Lars von Trier movie and Björk, a beloved singer. DancingDark isn’t much of a showoff. “Super skinny. Nice, straight teeth,” she tells me. “My mom’s called me a radical, my dad’s called me a conspiracy theorist, none of my friends even know what I’m talking about.” DancingDark and I talk via Skype, but I can’t see her because she has taped-off the camera on her computer. She is pretty damn certain that the American government is spying on her. Whenever she mentions a certain country (which, for obvious reasons, she asked me not to name) her computer crashes. DancingDark is proud of her intellect. “I’m an intelligent being and I want to learn and be intellectual. That’s more of my foreplay than just being dirty online.”
Witty and personable, DancingDark’s frequent giggles easily turn into tears. As a Truther, the 37-year-old is committed to doubting “mainstream narratives.” When 9/11 happened, things just didn’t add up. There were suspicious delays in the media coverage and some dude down at the World Trade Center mumbled, “Bin Laden, Bin Laden…” Is it possible that the American government had staged the attack to legitimize its invasion of Iraq and take all their oil?
DancingDark is wise to other cons, too. When she thinks climate change, she thinks chemtrails. While the “mainstream media” claims that the crisscrossing lines left behind by planes in the sky are nothing more than contrails—streaks of frozen vapor produced during flight—DancingDark knows better. Global warming is fabricated by the government—“geoengineering above our heads.” Why? “Possibly to push carbon taxes.”
The only attractions in the village where DancingDark runs a one-woman aromatherapy cleaning business are the weekend rodeo and the local Tim Hortons. The small Canadian farming town also houses a mental institution. “Half of the people here can’t even read,” DancingDark says. The Fentanyl problem in town has recently been replaced by a meth problem, and when she passes someone in her village she says she can never be sure whether the person is a drug addict, a religious nut, a mental patient or a combination.
DancingDark has been lonely for what seems like an eternity. In pharmacology school, they were trying to teach her how cancer is cured with medication and surgery. “You just spend money on patients and you make them worse, which means more money,” she says. The system is set up for big corporations. “I couldn’t stomach it and just walked out.” It was the year 2000, and she was 20 then. One year later 9/11 happened, and DancingDark knew right away that “something fishy” was going on.
Until last year, DancingDark had at least one person whom she could talk to. “My friend could tell Illuminati symbolism right away and we could joke about it,” she says, referring to the purported secret global elite believed to control the thoughts of the credulous masses. When her friend hanged herself, there was nobody left whom she could trust fully. “I lost a lot of friends,” she tells me amidst tears.
After a period of depression and grief, she put herself out there again. An acquaintance told her about Awake Dating, a new, free dating website for Truthers and other conspiracy theorists, and DancingDark didn’t waste any time joining.
In many ways Awake Dating, which launched last April, is similar to other dating sites. It allows DancingDark to put up her photo, chat with others, and list her interests: 9/11 Truth, Not watching TV, Ancient Alien Theory, Social Conditioning, Megaliths, the New World Order and False Flags; the latter describes covert operations by the government designed to mislead the masses and hide ulterior motives. (Truthers believe that 9/11, the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting and the terrorist attack at an airport in Brussels were staged—false flags.) In her personal statement DancingDark confesses that her “mainstream weakness” is Game of Thrones. “I’ve seen several UFOs I love to smoke weed but really don’t care for alcohol at all.” Her statement ends, “Oh and this is important!! I don’t want a golden shower!”
* * *
Finding trust, love and truth in today’s boundless universe of information isn’t easy for anyone. Even those of us not given to conspiracy theories are aware that we have been deceived by the government and by the media too many times. We were told there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the USA PATRIOT Act classified civil disobedience as a terrorist action and meant the loss of citizenship or seizure of assets, and whistleblowers are being sentenced to lengthy prison sentences.
Even if their final conclusions have long been debunked by science, conspiracy theorists often take fragments of reality as a springboard, making it hard to draw the line. The government does add fluoride to the water to protect us from tooth decay; it has sprayed us with mosquito pesticides from planes; and it has dumped chemicals into clouds to divert hailstorms and to cause rain, in a process called cloud seeding. The contrail-versus-chemtrail controversy should have been resolved by the consensus of 76 scientists. But the Truther is awake and, alas, caught in “the echo chamber of the internet.” Smarter than 76 scientists, he can’t be paired with the “Sheeple,” the drugged, sleeping masses.
Building relationships with likeminded people, of course, isn’t uncommon. There are niche dating sites for farmers, sea captains, vegans, tall people, short people, cat people, dog people, you name it. None of these groups, though, seems as anathema to the path of true love as Truthers. How do you trust if your premise is doubt? What do Truthers seek in a romantic relationship? What are their gender relations like, what are their struggles?
For Truthers the foremost problem that gets in the way of love is quantitative. For starters, “Truthers are mostly male,” says Jonathan Kay, author of Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground. The Truthers Kay met were more antisocial than the rest of society. “They were bookworms and late-night internet addicts who spent a lot of time on their own independent research. But some of them were quite socially engaged, and a few were in long-term relationships.”
But not all Truthers are lonely. Kay tells me that he has seen two types of relationships among Truthers: The first type, the conspiracy theorist—in the case of 9/11 Truthers, almost always the husband—and his partner have never talked about the subject of his obsession. “They lived a life of husband and wife, eating together and perhaps traveling together, but they separated their intimate domestic life from the world inside the conspiracist’s head.” In the second type of relationship, the conspiracist and his partner share in the conspiracy theory, agree on its general contours, and attend events together and contribute to the same web forums.
Luckily, Jarrod and Aine Fidden belong to the latter category. Though Jarrod is originally from Australia and Aine is American, the founders of Awake Dating share their beliefs. Today the couple lives with their two children in the Irish countryside, surrounded by fields, farms and mountains.
Fidden tells me about the day he walked into the office of “one of the more prestigious private language schools” in Beijing, where he had applied for a job as a teacher. He spotted Aine (whose name is pronounced Ahn-ya) through a glass wall. She greeted him with one of the biggest smiles he had ever seen. I think I’m going to like working here, he thought to himself. A few days later he asked Aine and another employee out for lunch, claiming that he didn’t like to eat alone. He dragged the women from one restaurant to the next in search for vegetarian food: “Paying the same to feed us all as it does for a hamburger and chips in the West, made it a most sound investment.”
Fidden and Aine “woke up” together, gradually, during the “thousands of hours” they spent researching chemtrails and “the illusion of money” online. But they still felt isolated because there were few people the two could talk to about their extraordinary findings. The couple never forgot how lucky they were, or as Fidden put it, “how difficult it must be for someone who is single and who also has this understanding and awareness and these truths.” Where would such a person find love, especially given that they are even more ostracized from society than Aine and him? Then it hit him: “Wow, what a fantastic business idea! Let’s go and do it! So that’s what we did.”
Jarrod Fidden speaks to me via Skype from his small, wood-paneled home office decorated with a painting of Koi fish and a Japanese scroll. He wore an Orgonite necklace—thought to block the electromagnetic frequencies that emanate from our screens—as well as “a Catholic medal of some sort” that was given to him by a local nurse who, he says, is also awake and who was forced to retire when the hospital administration found out that she was treating her patients with herbs (as opposed to the “allopathic” pharmaceuticals the government wants us to swallow to make us more malleable). Fidden races through a seemingly endless web of theories he and Aine have amassed over the years. He talks fast, and his sentences are endless. He pauses only to light another cigarette.
Truthers always talk about being awake, which made me wonder how one can be certain that the other person, the potential partner, is awake. What if they tricked us and just said they were awake, when really they were sleeping? Or, what if they assumed they were awake but were too dumb to notice that they were really asleep? Fidden says he isn’t the one to judge. His threshold doesn’t seem to lie particularly high. “If they identify as awake, as far as I’m concerned they are, at least they are on the right track.”
To be sure, there is nothing mediocre in Fidden’s life. His father was the director of Kellogg’s Australia, his grandfather was the manager of RCA (later Sony) Australia, as well as a thirty-third-degree Freemason. About his time studying Communication and Media Studies, Fidden says, “I was one of those annoying buggers that didn’t have to study particularly hard.” He makes sure to let me know that he could have done a far better job writing an article about Awake Dating than the “atrocious piece” that person wrote for Vice. (The pressure is on.) After dropping out of college, Fidden taught English in five-star hotels and at the Microsoft headquarters in Beijing. A martial arts enthusiast, he then worked his way up from security guard to managing events attended by thousands of people. In 2016, he funded Awake Dating with a “personal loan from myself to the company.” He adds that the company will soon release equity for investors.
“There are tens of millions of us now, tens of millions of Truthers who are awake!” Fidden boasts, “The facts speak for themselves, you just have to be ballsy enough to accept them.”
* * *
Rob Brotherton, a “conspiracy theory theorist” and the author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe in Conspiracy Theories, is quick to tell me not to pathologize Truthers. “They are just like us,” he says. A young, pale intellectual with dry British wit, Brotherton wants to dispel the idea that conspiracy theorists are this weird group of people with unstable minds. “The research shows that that’s not the case. They might end up with different conclusions but that’s not because their minds are fundamentally different.”
All humans benefit—and suffer—from what cognitive psychologists call confirmation bias. “Truthers are using exactly the same cognitive strategies to reinforce what they already believe,” Brotherton says. Once we get a hunch, we start looking for evidence that fits with it and we are more likely to ignore it or dismiss it if it doesn’t fit our established patterns. In evolutionary terms, following and confirming bias patterns has helped us survive.
But it is not only confirmation bias that unites Truthers with non-Truthers. There is also the proportionality bias, which makes it hard to grasp that a large, traumatizing event, such as the mass shooting at Sandy Hook, could have been executed by just one human being (i.e. “There must have been a large, obscure organized system behind it…”). The same holds true the other way around: Many of us assume that small coincidences must have a more meaningful cause.
To make his point, Brotherton recalls a funny event. When printing his Ph.D. thesis about conspiracy theorists, a weird emblem appeared on the title page. “It looked almost like a spooky symbol of a secret society. I thought it would be brilliant if I were inclined to believe any of this, this would be proof that my computer has been bugged and that they are sending a message to me. Obviously, it was just some glitch in the word processor, but I can understand why some people go a little bit farther in searching for patterns.”
While Brotherton claims that our biases make us all alike, some visitors to his blog, conspiracypsychology.com, distance themselves. What if Brotherton and his co-bloggers were hired by the government as counterintelligence? What if they are part of an academic conspiracy to defame conspiracy theorists? “Are you part of the cover up team. Sure sounds like it,” a user commented on one of Brotherton’s blog posts from 2012.
“There is an element of isolationism which is inherent in the belief system because they are this small group of people who has discovered the amazing truth and the majority of people are being deceived,” Brotherton says. This alludes to another, universally appealing human desire: to have privileged knowledge, to know a secret and to have an enemy you are fighting against. But if that enemy is your partner, the relationship goes awry.
* * *
DancingDark can tell you a thing or two about tense relations between Truthers and Sheeple. Until five years ago she was living with her boyfriend of seven years. In 2007, the two opened a head shop in downtown Calgary selling bongs, pipes, rolling paper and hemp clothing. By that time DancingDark had long known that “9/11 was a farce,” but she had a hard time convincing her boyfriend. She remembers how she jumped up on the couch screaming, “He can’t do that!” when George W. Bush announced that every American should own a home. Her protest of American totalitarianism earned her a weird sideway look from her boyfriend, she says. “He’s thinking I’m crazy. I can’t teach him. He still hasn’t woken up.” She adds, “I don’t think he ever will.”
Then, in 2008, the market crashed. To pay her rent and loan, DancingDark was working three jobs. On top of running the head shop, she was the manager of a large residential building and of two gelato stops. “It turns out they were giving away money like candy at that time,” says DancingDark, who had found herself tricked into a subprime second mortgage, with her mother’s house as the collateral. Her perceived identity as a “good business girl” crumbled. As the couple struggled to keep their heads above water, their relationship was finally falling apart. DancingDark says she began to experience stress seizures, which repeatedly made her fall down and hit her head.
While this was an extraordinarily traumatic phase in her life, money and trust have always been an issue for DancingDark. Her family was “not horribly poor,” but she knew, “You didn’t have to ask for something because the answer was always no.” Her dad was “a bum” and her mother divorced him when she was six. She and her brother grew up with her mom. She says her mother was essentially a functioning alcoholic, holding a job but never receiving any treatment for her addiction, a fact DancingDark despises her doctors for. Later, her brother became addicted to cocaine. DancingDark sums up her feelings toward intimate relationships as follows: “I never want to get married because I don’t want to get divorced.”
* * *
The thing that causes the most conflicts in Brotherton’s marriage is Kanye West. “I’m a huge fan and my wife dislikes Kanye West very strongly,” he says with a smirk. “We argue about that more than anything else—which is a good sign for our marriage because we can overcome our differences on a small scale.” Of course, Brotherton’s example alludes to the fact that it is difficult in relationships to disagree on things that are very important. It just doesn’t feel good.
Brotherton tells me about receiving an email from a woman who thanked him for taking the issue of conspiracy theorists seriously. The woman’s marriage to a Truther had ended, and reading his blog had made her feel less alone.
I was curious. Doesn’t that challenge Brotherton’s assumption that Truthers and Sheeples are really alike? Or are there some Truthers who overstep the line? The woman who contacted Brotherton agreed to answer my questions, provided I didn’t use her real name. “Nika” remembers how her husband talked about 9/11 being an inside job from early on in their relationship. At first, she brushed it off thinking that if she loved him enough and was able to distract him “by making a happy family,” he would change.
Soon Nika’s husband began to spend an excessive amount of time on Infowars.com, the website of Alex Jones, an infamous right-wing radio host from Texas who calls global warming “the religion of global governance.” Jones also wonders whether Prince was killed by “the chemtrail flu” and if Michelle Obama is transgender.
“Any ‘alternate’ view of a situation was what he would believe,” Nika tells me about her husband. “Vaccines were a way to sterilize the population and cause autism, and Sandy Hook was a ruse by the gun control lobby or by Satanists.”
Nika’s husband would amass food and guns because he was afraid the government would come after his family. “Our whole upstairs storage was full of years worth of supplies,” Nika says. “I felt like I was living in a cult and I became more and more isolated from my work, my friends and my family. I felt like I would never escape him.”
Looking back, Nika can see where things went bad: her husband had smoked pot since he was a young teen, and continued to smoke regularly (scientists, doctors, medical journals, psychologists and institutions across the world have long said that marijuana can bring on feelings of paranoia and delusions—sometimes even make existing delusions worse). But Nika’s husband always had the desire to feel “more awake” than the average member of society. A mental health care professional, Nika thinks that to have special knowledge made him feel meaningful and powerful and allowed him to create a wedge between himself and his family. “He had longstanding conflicts with his parents and grandparents,” she says, “and I think having his beliefs helped him feel better than them.”
Then Nika got pregnant. She remembers one particularly poignant morning. She was getting ready to go to work when her husband asked her to watch YouTube videos with him. He wanted to prove to her that the Sandy Hook parents were crisis actors, or possibly Satanists who wanted their children to be killed. “I knew that there was no turning back for me at that point and that I had to get out,” says Nika, who has since remarried.
To try and convince Truthers that at least some of their theories are bogus could backfire, Brotherton says, explaining an effect that has been studied in the context of global warming and the Birther conspiracy theory. Built into their logic is the idea that if anybody tells you you are wrong, either they have been deceived or they know the truth and are trying to deceive you.
When President Obama released his birth certificate, for example, it should have been conclusive and ended the controversy. But even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Birthers fought to find their assumptions confirmed. “They magnified the birth certificate, looking for all these telltale signs, that it has been Photoshopped and that it wasn’t folded the right way,” Brotherton says. “Their brains did all these gymnastics to maintain their beliefs.”
* * *
Today more than 11,000 users across the world have signed up for Awake Dating, according to Fidden, who seeks to double the number with an “alternate media blitz” over the next six months. The site doesn’t have any “bots,” Fidden says, but many of the users lack photos and contain little to no information on their profile, which suggests that they aren’t actually using the site. There is “the odd scammer,” Fidden says, but they are quickly noticed and sent packing. In the U.S. his site is particularly popular among Texans and Floridians.
According to a study from the Pew Research Center in 2013, dating websites are generally frequented by slightly more men than women, but this imbalance usually falls within a few percentage points. While Fidden tells me that his site has a better gender ratio than the average dating site, quite the opposite seems to be true. A quick search for potential partners in a 300-mile radius from Houston, Texas revealed that of the 448 available Texans, 340 are men. Women make up only 14 percent of Awake Texans. There are 12 gay Texan Truthers, nine of whom are women. In Brooklyn, New York there are 36 Truthers, six of whom are women.
Women Truthers tend to focus their efforts on different types of theories. They are more interested in medical—or quasi-medical—stuff, particularly in the field of nutrition, autism, vaccines and water fluoridation. “Women also tend to get into things like amulets and other New Age spiritual gimmicks that offer reassurance about universal life forces,” author Jonathan Kay says. “The men are more interested in the science-fiction-type conspiracy theories, such as 9/11.”
I contacted a handful of dating experts hoping they could shed light on the gender relations and dating challenges among Truthers. DeAnna Lorraine was the only one willing to talk, and I soon find out why: She describes herself as a ‘soft Truther,’ someone who ‘understands what is going on with the government, but chooses not to make that a big focus in [her] life.”
Lorraine also has encountered more male than female Truthers. She says, “There are more males questioning things and challenging the status quo. Women may be more self-conscious and shy about vocalizing their beliefs.”
“Truthers really have a hard time right now,” Lorraine continues, “because they have to accomplish a few things: they feel like everything is coming to an end soon, and that the truth is going to be revealed soon. So they are feeling this urgency. And they really want to find a partner to not be alone in this. It would make the journey obviously more enjoyable for them.”
Later I would ask Awake Dating founder Jarrod Fidden whether Lorraine was right. Is envisioning the end of the world more enjoyable as a pair? Fidden doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the world’s looming end. Civilizations have always ended one way or another, he tells me, dispassionately listing a slew of examples. “I’m not going to go running around and go, ‘Geez, I got to start prepping!’”
So far Lorraine has advised her Truther clients to keep their beliefs private, at least on the first few dates. “Because a lot of Truthers might go into a first date and already be discussing these things and their beliefs, and that’s a little bit too much too soon. It can scare people off. I would tell them to talk about neutral topics for the first few dates, and then slowly reveal some of their beliefs and perspectives. Ask the other person some questions to see what their level of awakeness is! The other person may be able to jump on board with them, and they can grow together.”
* * *
DancingDark was quickly falling in love. Irishguy22, an unemployed 22-year-old from Dublin who lives with his mother, is a really good listener. He is all around sweet and remarkably awake. The two chat and talk via Skype for hours. “We’re so much alike, it’s so neat to me. It excites me,” DancingDark tells me. “Someone so young, so willing to learn and with such back knowledge! He’s really different than any guy I’ve ever met and his accent is really damn cute.”
Soon DancingDark is planning a meeting somewhere in Europe. When I ask her whether there will be sex, she giggles again. “Oh, I’m sure! We’re on all levels really clicking.”
Irishguy22 has about 50 photographs and memes on his Awake Dating profile. There is a photograph of chemtrails and a picture of a—quote unquote—Islamic terrorist. It reads “Oops,” with a red error pointing to a small Jewish Star on his uniform (implying Islamic terrorism is an Israel-sponsored false flag operation). Another meme says that The New World Order is the biggest terrorist organization in the world. Pictures of pot plants are preceded by a picture of Emily Parker, a 6-year-old Sandy Hook victim, alive, presumably days after the shooting took place.
For a while Irishguy22 and DancingDark chatted and Skyped almost daily, but things between them deteriorated rapidly when he mentioned, almost in passing, that he is on Cialis, a drug used to treat erectile dysfunction. DancingDark flipped out. She says Irishguy22 told her his doctor prescribed the drug for his recovery after working out, but she didn’t believe him. “I guess it’s not heroin,” she says in her email to me, but “he may injure his heart and possibly his future sex life! In the past I dated someone on antipsychotics and I wouldn’t do that again either.”
DancingDark broke off the relationship immediately. She believes that big pharma only make people’s illnesses worse. For years she has researched and studied Chinese medicine, aromatherapy, bodywork, chiropractic, animal assisted therapy, probiotics, alkaline diets, Reiki, music therapy, energy healing, frequency healing, you name it—“basically if it’s not western medicine I want to know all about it,” she says.
After she broke up with Irishguy22, DancingDark went on a couple of dates in Calgary, but she wasn’t physically attracted to any of them. Besides, she lamented, they weren’t fully awake. One, for example, didn’t know that this year’s Turkish coup attempt had been staged—which made her wonder whether she had come across a “random” who infiltrated Awake Dating just to confuse the awake. While she found it relatively easy to educate the guy, the chemistry just wasn’t there.
When Irishguy22’s birthday came around, which DancingDark knew was one day before hers (“so neat”), she sent him a message and the two started talking again. DancingDark just really likes Irishguy22. She plans to meet him in Amsterdam soon. While she isn’t certain whether she can fully trust him, she also knows that love, at least for now, requires you to take a big leap.
* * *
Sabine Heinlein is the author of the IPPY Gold Award-winning narrative nonfiction book Among Murderers: Life After Prison and the ebook The Orphan Zoo: Rise and Fall of the Farm at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. She is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize.
from Longreads https://blog.longreads.com/2016/11/29/truther-love/
We tend to think of our body as an integrated whole that belongs to one person: the “I” that speaks whenever we open our mouth. But throughout history, people have been losing pieces of themselves — to war, disease, or accidents — and the fate of those missing parts is often decided on without the input of the original owner. In Aeon, Alice Dreger explores the strange afterlife of bodily leftovers, and the tension between our emotional connection to our body and the demands of science, ethics, and religion:
Maybe it’s because I’m an atheist ex-Catholic that I find it difficult to relate to people who are highly ritualistic and dogmatic about how remains are treated. I find it baffling that humans will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to recover the remains of people we know are dead at the bottom of the sea. I find it maddening that Theresa Stack was for 15 years denied a Catholic funeral mass for her late husband because there were no known remains of him. Fire Battalion Chief Lawrence T Stack had died at Ground Zero on 11 September 2001. Only this year, when his family realised there was still a blood sample from him — taken back when he had offered himself to a stranger as a possible bone-marrow donor — was the family able to provide just enough of him to a priest to have their mass.
Yet when I think of the being that once lived inside me, and now lives outside — when I look in on him after school and find him in some small variation of his daily ritual, headphones on, eating chips, reading his favourite web comic, listening to Beethoven — it is suddenly impossible to imagine every cell of his body not mattering to me, even into death. When he is away at summer camp, I sometimes visit the curls of his blond baby hair, stored in a folded piece of paper in a small cabinet of my desk.
Thanksgiving feels especially fraught this year. The stakes of the perfect holiday are high; better to abandon them altogether. Why does the intimacy of family breed conflict? I wish I had suggestions for battling the anxiety many of us are feeling around the table this year. As for me, I will try my hardest to speak truth if ignorance comes to a head, even if I am afraid. I will stay safe—my support systems at the ready, my journal and Klonipin in my bag, and my phone fully charged.
None of the following stories were written in 2016, but the themes of our contemporary American Thanksgiving traditions—family, identity, history—remain relevant.
1. “Native Intelligence.” (Charles C. Mann, Smithsonian Magazine, December 2005)
I learned more about 17th-century-era encounters betwixt Native Americans and the English from this essay than from 13 years of public school and four years of liberal arts education.
2. “Making a Place at the Table for Grief on Thanksgiving.” (Saeed Jones, BuzzFeed LGBT, November 2013)
Beautiful recollections from writers on the varied ways they mourn and remember their loved ones during Thanksgiving. Here’s an excerpt from Bo McGuire’s entry, one of my favorites:
I don’t say, “This is a whole altar we’re setting up for saints that ain’t even here — saints that now live everywhere.” I don’t say, “These are gravel roads we drag out every year to run ourselves ragged on all the way from New York City to Alabama and back.” Mama responds with the agony of the oldest, “We can’t do that. What would my brothers and sisters do?”The agony of the only — I’m the only one who can make the biscuits that get crumbled into something close to nothing in order to make the thickness of the dressing. Nanny always said Mama played with her dough too much. When Nanny died, I was determined to learn biscuits without anyone to teach me. And I did. It was magic. It still is. I fold the dough. I break the bread. I cry the whole damn time.
3. “Sherman Alexie: Thanksgiving is a Story of Survival.” (Sarah Mirk, Bitch, November 2014)
Author Sherman Alexie on the power of chosen family, not going home again, and the American mythology of Turkey Day.
4. “Korean Thanksgiving.” (Mary H.K. Choi, Aeon, November 2015)
Picnic blankets on the cemetery ground, a family that drives you nuts, dates (the fruit, not the paramour), and a phone with a 6% charge—lucky for us, it’s Mary H.K. Choi in this scenario, and she delivers her observations with dry wit and dark honesty.
5. “The Interloper.” (Kashana Cauley, Catapult, November 2015)
The sociopolitical implications of that most delicious of desserts, the sweet potato pie:
Given the choice between bland pumpkin and sweet potato, which, when roasted for a long time at a low temperature, gives off butter and brown sugar notes, I’m not sure why anyone would choose the former. But, of course, food preferences aren’t always simply a matter of taste. Sweet potato pie has been thoroughly regionalized and racialized into a fringe food. The internet coughs up endless references to sweet potato pie as a southern dessert and plenty more as a slave dessert. Americans don’t typically like being reminded of slavery.
6. “The Problem with Being Palestinian on Thanksgiving.” (Zaina Arafat, BuzzFeed News, November 2013)
The author’s Pan-Arabic holiday tradition—Club Thanksgiving, where music blasts, friends catch up, and the food isn’t served until late,” a hybridized holiday, one that lasted the duration of an evening”—is wrenched apart as “the situation” in the Middle East (especially Syria) worsens. Zaina Arafat discusses how global politics—which, to her and her family and friends, are local politics—test and transform their relationships.
Ned Stuckey-French | Longreads | November 2016 | 9 minutes (2,204 words)
Growing up in the early 1960s I watched a Saturday morning television show called Learn to Draw hosted by a man named Jon Gnagy. He sported a neatly trimmed Van Dyke and exuded a comforting mix of calm and enthusiasm. The goatee was offset by a plaid flannel shirt. There was no beret or affected accent. He was artistic but not too artsy. Each show he taught us how to draw something new: a clown, a snow scene, or an ocean liner at dock. His hands flew as shapes and outlines turned magically into pictures. He lay the chalk on its side and shaded in order to achieve “effects” and talked continuously, identifying the light source and explaining the vanishing point.
I tried to keep up, but never could. At the end of each show, Gnagy would slap a frame on his drawing and declare it done, but I had to keep going, working on my version of “Mountain Lake” or “Boy Sledding” into the afternoon, sighing, starting over, and trying again and again to get it right. Hoping it would help, I convinced my mom to order me a Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw Art Kit that included a tablet, pencils, charcoal, kneaded eraser, and guidebook.
I never became an artist, but I like to draw and so does my ten-year old daughter Phoebe. Recently, when she and I were poking around on YouTube, I remembered Gnagy, searched his name, and, though he died in 1981, there he was once again. We clicked “play” and it all flooded back. Johann Strauss’s bouncy “Künstlerleben,” or “Artist’s Life,” is still the opening theme. Gnagy is wearing his plaid shirt, goatee and ready smile. Today’s scene of a boy sledding might look complicated, he says, but it isn’t. If you can draw four simple forms—the ball, cone, cube and cylinder—you can draw anything.
Phoebe loved it and I could see in her my old desire—to emulate Gnagy and learn to draw; to acquire his sharp eye and his quick, smooth lines.
I’ve also been writing a book about middlebrow culture – the culture of those who had recently arrived in, or were aspiring to, the new middle class. Anxious about their class position and unsure of what to say at dinner parties, these autodidacts turned to the Book-of-the-Month Club, radio book-talk and quiz shows, reprints of classics, popular anthologies, and magazines ranging from Reader’s Digest to The New Yorker for answers and assurance. Middlebrow is usually associated with the middle decades of the twentieth century. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the first appearance of the word in the December 23, 1925, issue of Punch, where it was used to describe “people who are hoping that someday they will get used to the stuff they ought to like.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about middlebrow and just as when you learn a new word and suddenly see it three times in print over the next week, so have I been seeing middlebrow everywhere. Or at least I think I do. Nicola Humble, one of middlebrow’s historians, has said, “‘Middlebrow’ has always been a dirty word.”1 Because it’s so dishonored, middlebrow often feels obliged to gussy itself up to make the sale. Good books become “Great Books.” An adult education course becomes an “evening seminar.” Sometimes, when tentatively feeling out a new market in a new medium, it might even pass itself off as something else entirely – children’s television, for instance — and then it can be hard to spot. Yet here, in Jon Gnagy’s earnest efforts, middlebrow was undeniable. Self-improvement, democratic access to the humanizing possibilities of art, the promise of new and easily acquired skills, an original and effective marketing scheme that made use of the latest mass media, the invocation of past masters—it was all there.
And now, it’s gone. The Age of Middlebrow has passed and Jon Gnagy would be gone with it except his shows have been digitized and saved in the museum that is YouTube––a handful of artifacts, nine-and-a-half-minute clips from 1950s and 1960s America.
* * *
Jon Gnagy was born in Pretty Prairie, Kansas in 1907, and displayed artistic skill early in childhood.2 His Mennonite family valued pacifism, simplicity and craftsmanship, but classified portraiture as forbidden idolatry, so his first drawings were landscapes. When he was thirteen, he won a ribbon for one of them at the Kansas State Fair. He kept winning and, while still a teenager, began to receive and accept job offers. The first took him to Tulsa to create posters for the International Petroleum Exposition; then, it was on to Wichita to do designs for aircraft companies; and finally, to Kansas City, where he worked for an ad agency and took courses at the Art Institute, where Walt Disney had studied a few years prior.
But then the Depression hit and in 1932, “armed,” as he put it, with “ignorant nerve plus enthusiasm,” Gnagy moved with his wife and young daughter to New York City. Things went well at first. He landed a job creating full-page ads for ALCOA in Fortune and The Saturday Evening Post—but soon the freelancing dried up, and he young family–which had grown to include a son–was forced into a cheap apartment over a steam laundry in Queens. Gnagy suffered a nervous breakdown.
A job offer in Philadelphia and a move to the perfectly named town of New Hope, Pennsylvania saved him. New Hope’s Mennonite community felt familiar, but Gnagy was most invigorated by the town’s growing group of artists. Lured by ads in the New York Times for cheap properties, Gnagy’s neighbors in the Bucks County “Genius Belt” included (middlebrow) artists, musicians and writers such as Dorothy Parker, S. J. Perelman, Oscar Hammerstein, James Michener, George Kaufman, Moss Hart, and Pearl Buck.
For a decade Gnagy commuted from New Hope to Philadelphia, reading and sketching three hours a day on the train. After Pearl Harbor he became the art director at Philadelphia’s War Service Committee, instructing soldiers in camouflage techniques, showing them how to disguise and conceal vehicles and buildings. He also created posters for war plants; then, as the war wound down, he led some workshops at local colleges, women’s clubs and art centers. He found that he loved teaching and decided it was what he wanted to do.
On May 14, 1946, sporting an artist’s smock and a beret, he was the opener for the first show broadcast by NBC from its new 61-foot tower atop the Empire State Building. It was called “Radio City Matinee” and also featured a comic, a cooking demonstration, and a woman who modeled hats. When Gnagy picked up his crayon to begin, he found the lights had melted it into a useless glob, so he switched to a piece of chalk. For seven minutes the chalk squeaked across the paper as he showed his viewers how to draw an old oak tree.
There were only about 300 television sets within the tower’s 80-mile range, most of them owned (as the first radios had been, and the first personal computers would be) by electronics enthusiasts who made them at home from kits. Maybe half of them were tuned to WNBT that day, but the creators of television knew Gnagy was onto something. Vladimir Zworykin, who had invented the cathode ray tubes that made television transmission and reception possible, rushed over to shake Gnagy’s hand. RCA and NBC President David Sarnoff called to congratulate him. The show’s producer exclaimed that his segment was “pure television.”
Pure television was going to save American culture. In 1941 Sarnoff predicted that television would introduce the country to opera, dance, literature, and art so that Americans might “attain the highest general cultural level of any people in the history of the world.”3 After the war, Sarnoff hired Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, a wealthy Phi Beta Kappa Dartmouth graduate, and the two of them launched “Operation Frontal Lobes” to produce the programs they thought America needed. “Television is a miracle,” said Weaver. “It is going to change social history” and “create an aristocracy of the people, the proletariat of privilege, the Athenian masses—to make the average man the uncommon man.”4
To the defenders of high art such grandiose claims were disturbing. Schooled by New York intellectuals such as Clement Greenberg, who had recently railed against the “insidiousness” of middlebrow culture and accused it of “devaluating the precious, infecting the healthy, corrupting the honest, and stultifying the wise,” the art establishment knew middlebrow when they saw it and moved quickly to censure Gnagy.5 Victor D’Amico, Education Director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, convened a special session of the Committee on Art Education, a national commission of art educators. The group drafted a resolution and sent it to WNBT:
Television programs of the Jon Gnagy type are destructive to the creative and mental growth of children and perpetuate outmoded and authoritarian concepts of education. Creative education is based on the development of each child’s individuality, the opportunity to use his own experience and to explore new media and techniques. The use of superficial tricks and formulas, found in the Jon Gnagy type of program, destroys this objective.6
The New York Times picked up the story and interviewed Gnagy, who displayed a winning self-deprecation even as he skewered the Committee with irony: “I dream of the day when I can feed the viewers more and more esthetics. …I’d like to sell the same thing the Museum of Modern Art is selling.” In the meantime, he allowed, the market wouldn’t bear it so he’d just keep trying “to get as many people as possible to sketch on their own and to be observant of the things around them.”7
Viewers agreed and Gnagy won the day. His show remained on network television until 1971 and in syndication on PBS beyond that. He received no royalties, but now had a platform from which to promote his lesson books and art kits. Doubleday sold a copy of his book to one out of every fourteen television set owners in the United States. His art supply company moved fifteen-million art kits.8 He even spawned some successful imitators, most notably Bob Ross, whose show “The Joy of Painting” ran on PBS from 1983 to 1994. Because it arrived during the age of black-and-white television, Gnagy’s show had focused on drawing. Ross, sporting his signature halo of permed hair, made full use of color television and emphasized oil painting, but he continued to use Gnagy’s quick-study teaching techniques.
But if Gnagy’s success and influence were undeniable, so also was the pained mix of anger and apology lurking in his witty response to the Committee. Clearly he wanted to be taken seriously by the tastemakers and it hurt him that he was not. Yes, he could sniff out pretension in others and in himself—he kept his goatee, for instance, but got rid of his beret and artist’s smock after the first show—and he would make a good living doing what he did, but he knew where he stood with the critics. “Let’s not call my program art,” he told the reporter from the Times. What he offered, he admitted later, was just a “fence-straddling combination of entertainment and education.”9
I was born in 1950 and I’m middle-classI am middle-class and middlebrow, a product of mid-twentieth-century American middlebrow culture. My family’s journey parallels that the country’s new middle class. It begins with my grandparents on both sides, who were Midwest farm couples, moves through my mother, who was a Book-of-the-Month Club member and over whose shoulder I read, and my father, a GI Bill intellectual and college professor, to my wife and our daughters with our ranch house, our Volvos and our Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw Art Kit that we ordered online.
* * *
Ned Stuckey-French teaches at Florida State University and is the author of The American Essay in the American Century. His essays have appeared in journals such as In These Times, The Missouri Review, The Normal School, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Tri-Quarterly, and Guernica.
Editor: Sari Botton
* * *
2 Gnagy’s daughter maintains an excellent web site about her father’s life and work with links to articles about him and videos of the original shows: Polly Gnagy Seymour, The World of Jon Gnagy, October 20, 2006 . The best print sources on his life are a brief biography from An Exhibition of Paintings and Litho-Drawings (Idyllwild, California, 1964); Susan Morgan, “Each and Everyone of You,” Real Life Magazine 18 (Summer 1985); and Bill Einhorn, “Did You ‘Learn to Draw’ From Jon Gnagy,” Reminisce Magazine (22 November 1997). [full citations from Michele H. Bogart, Artists, Advertising, and the Borders of Art (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995) 404. ↩
3 David Sarnoff, “Possible Social Effects of Television,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 213 (January 1941) 152, quoted in Pamela Wilson, “NBC Television’s ‘Operation Frontal Lobes’: Cultural Hegemony and Fifties’ Program Planning,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 15.1 (1995) 89. ↩
Patrick Phillips | Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America| W. W. Norton & Company | September 2016 | 17 minutes (4,588 words)
Below is an excerpt from Blood at the Root, by the poet Patrick Phillips. The story begins in September of 1912, in the days after two assaults on white women. Ellen Grice claimed she was attacked by two black men who left before she was hurt. The next day Mae Crow, a 19-year-old white woman, was discovered injured and unconscious in the woods. She allegedly regained consciousness for long enough to accuse a 16-year-old black youth, Ernest Knox. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
* * *
Journalists only started writing about the expulsions once the wagon trains of refugees grew too large and too numerous to ignore.
Though it would take weeks before reports reached Atlanta, in the days after the attack on Crow a nighttime ritual began to unfold, as each evening at dusk groups of white men gathered at the crossroads of the county. They came with satchels of brass bullets, shotgun shells, and stoppered glass bottles of kerosene, and sticks of “Red Cross” dynamite poked out through the tops of their saddlebags. When darkness fell, the night riders set out with one goal: to stoke the terror created by the lynching of Edwards and use it to drive black people out of Forsyth County for good.
In 1907, W. E. B. Du Bois had put into words what every “colored” person in Georgia knew from experience, which was that “the police system of the South was primarily designed to control slaves… . And tacitly assumed that every white man was ipso facto a member of that police.” In the first decade of the twentieth century, the days when all white men had been legally empowered to pursue and arrest fugitive slaves were only fifty years in the past, and the fathers and grandfathers of many locals would have been part of such posses in the days of slavery.
So it must have seemed natural to many whites when, each night around sundown, a knock came at the door and the adult men of the family were summoned to join a group heading out toward the clusters of black cabins scattered around Forsyth—along the Chattahoochee out in Oscarville, in the shadow of Sawnee Mountain north of Cumming, and south, toward Shakerag and Big Creek. It would take months—and, in a handful of cases, years—before the in-town blacks of Cumming were finally forced out, since many lived under the protection of rich white men, in whose kitchens and dining rooms they served. Instead, it was to the homes of cotton pickers, sharecroppers, and small landowners that the night riders went first, and it was these most vulnerable families who fled in the first waves of the exodus.
Written traces of the raids are few and far between and consist mostly of vague reports of “lawlessness” after dark. Since journalists only started writing about the expulsions once the wagon trains of refugees grew too large and too numerous to ignore, it is hard to say precisely what took place on those first nights of the terror. Some of the attacks later made headlines in Atlanta (“Negroes Flee from Forsyth,” “Enraged White People Are Driving Blacks from County”), and it’s likely that similar raids had been happening since the discovery of Mae Crow’s body in early September. The night riders fired shots into front doors, threw rocks through windows, and hollered warnings that it was time for black families to “get.” But of all their methods, torches and kerosene worked best, since a fire created a blazing sign for all to see and left the victims no place to ever come back to. In mid-October, the Augusta Chronicle reported that “a score or more of homes have been burned during the past few weeks … and five negro churches.”
The arsonists must have been terrifying wherever they struck, but for Forsyth’s poor black farmers, the burning of churches was a true catastrophe, striking not just at the community’s spiritual home but at what Du Bois called “the social centre of Negro life.” In 1903, sitting in his Atlanta University office, just forty miles south, he had described Georgia’s rural black congregations as “the most characteristic expression of African character” in the entire community. “Take a typical church,” Du Bois wrote.
[It is] finished in Georgia pine, with a carpet, a small organ, and benches. This building is the central club-house of a community of Negroes. Various organizations meet here—the church proper, the Sunday-school, two or three insurance societies, women’s societies, secret societies, and mass meetings of various kinds. Entertainments, suppers, and lectures are held… . Considerable sums of money are collected and expended here, employment is found for the idle, strangers are introduced, news is disseminated and charity distributed. At the same time this social, intellectual, and economic centre is a religious centre of great power. Depravity, Sin, Redemption, Heaven, Hell, and Damnation are preached twice a Sunday after the crops are laid by.
The erasure of such places from the map of Forsyth was complete. Today, all that’s left are a few scant details about the dates on which churches were founded, lot numbers for the land on which they stood, and the names of a handful of ministers and worshippers who once gathered there. Backband Church, out near Oscarville, was where Buck and Catie Daniel sat on Sunday mornings—surrounded by their sons Cicero and Harley, their daughter Jane, and their youngest boy, Oscar—listening to the sermons of a local farmer and preacher named Byrd Oliver. Stoney Point, down in Big Creek, was where on some Sunday in August of 1912 Harriet and Morgan Strickland took their visiting nephew, Toney Howell, to meet the congregation and be welcomed into his aunt and uncle’s church. Shiloh Baptist, founded by Reverend Levi Greenlee Sr., lay just outside of town on Kelly Mill Road and was home to many of Cumming’s maids, cooks, servants, and butlers.
Faint traces of other black churches are tucked away in handwritten ledgers at the state archives at Morrow; in the collections at the University of Georgia in Athens; even in the basement of the Forsyth courthouse, where a cardboard box atop a metal filing cabinet still holds deeds for the land on which black residents once founded Mt. Fair, Shakerag, and Stoney Point—about which nothing is known but names and approximate locations. All that can be said for certain is that, again and again in the fall of 1912, white men sloshed gasoline and kerosene onto the benches and wooden floors of such rooms, then backed out into the dark, tossing lit matches as they went. All over the county, beneath the ground on which black churches stood, the soil is rich with ashes.
* * *
Mae became an object of fascination during her sickness.
In their race to outdo one another, and to further sensationalize the story, journalists had been reporting Mae Crow’s death almost from the moment she was discovered in the woods. “GIRL MURDERED BY NEGRO AT CUMMING” the front page of the Augusta Chronicle had blared on September 9th, in an article that informed readers that “the negro’s victim died at her home near Cumming tonight.” The Macon Telegraph went further, claiming that when Ernest Knox attacked Crow, he “beat her into unconsciousness and then threw her over [a] cliff.” Once a single false report of Crow’s death appeared in print, other editors felt compelled to follow suit, and a typical article in the Constitution closed by informing readers of the sad fact that “although every effort was made to save her life, [Crow] died late Monday afternoon.” By the beginning of October, interest in the story had grown so intense that the Georgian upped the ante, writing that Cumming was in an uproar over “the death of two white women at the hands of negroes.”
Meanwhile, Ellen Grice was alive and well out in Big Creek, no doubt busy with the work of running a household and a small farm with her husband, John, and keeping a low profile after all the trouble her allegations had stirred up. Mae Crow lay in her bed in Oscarville, watched and prayed over by her parents, Bud and Azzie, but still very much alive. In the first few days after she was found, Dr. John Hockenhull even told reporters “she will likely recover.”
For many locals, Mae became an object of fascination during her sickness, and at least two men were so desperate to get a glimpse of the beautiful, bedridden girl that they made a drunken pilgrimage. According to Azzie Crow, “when our darling daughter was living here at the point of death … one Sunday Wheeler Hill and another man came up to our house intoxicated.” Hill and his friend, Crow said,
wanted to see what the negroes had done … They hung around awhile, and before we knew it, they had gone to the back of the house … then pushed open the door and climbed up and were in the room where our precious daughter lay.
As much as they were offended by Hill’s intrusion, Bud and Azzie made it clear in a letter to the North Georgian that they were not opposed to the raids being waged in their daughter’s name and were as anxious as everyone else to be rid of “those fiends of hell, negroes.”
As September waned and as the first cold breezes rippled across the Chattahoochee, Mae grew weaker from her injuries, despite everything the doctors of the county had tried, and despite her mother’s prayers. At some point during the second week of her coma, Dr. George Brice told Bud and Azzie that their daughter had contracted pneumonia. On September 23rd, 1912—two weeks to the day from when she was first found in the woods—Mae Crow died.
* * *
All the legs on the tables, chairs, and bed had been shot off.
Mae’s funeral was held at Pleasant Grove Church, a short walk from the house where she grew up, and in the center of a whole community of Crows. According to her schoolmate Ruth Jordan, the sight of Mae’s coffin being lowered into the ground was almost more than the white people of Oscarville could bear. “After she was buried it seemed like all hell broke loose,” Jordan recalled. Soon “the night was filled with gunfire [and] burning cabins and churches,” and the Jordans could hear whites “shooting at any black they could find.”
George Jordan and his wife, Mattie, were poor sharecroppers, like most other whites in Oscarville, but all her life Ruth had heard the story of how, when her mother’s mother died at a young age, “a black woman that lived nearby … became a mother-figure [to Mattie], teaching her to cook, keep house, and care for the younger children.” And so, as they listened to the crack of gunshots and smelled the smoke of distant fires, George and Mattie Jordan feared for their black neighbors.
At first light, George Jordan walked toward Garrett Cook’s place. “Pa went to check on them,” Ruth Jordan said, and he found that their house “had been shot so full of holes that all the legs on the tables, chairs, and bed had been shot off.” When George called out, Garrett and Josie Cook finally emerged, having spent the night hiding in the woods:At one point, Ruth’s father went out to check on an African American couple named Garrett and Josie Cook, who owned twenty-seven acres not far from the land George Jordan was working as a sharecropper. George told his wife that he was going out “to get news of the goings on,” but with gangs of night riders on the move, Forsyth had become dangerous even for a forty-four-year-old white farmer like Jordan. As he “walked down the road that night,” Ruth remembered, “he was drawn on by a group of armed white men [and] it scared him so bad he came home.”
Pa told this man to go back to his farm so the two of them could defend it against anyone that tried to take it from him… . The man replied, “George, that would just get us both killed,” and he left Forsyth County forever.
For days afterward, the Jordans could hear the sounds of the night riders each evening at dusk, and this went on “every night,” Ruth Jordan said, “until no colored was left.” Asked whether her father was ever challenged by locals for having tried to help his black neighbors, Jordan answered that to her knowledge “the subject was never again brought up by any of the whites involved.”
* * *
Certain men would go to a black person’s home with sticks tied up in a little bundle [and] leave ’em at the door.
Isabella Harris , the eight-year-old daughter of Cumming mayor Charlie Harris, also remembered that September as a terrifying time, particularly once she learned that the night riders were not “mountaineers” from outside the county but gangs of ordinary white men, well known to all.
Such mobs may have been on the other side of Du Bois’s “color line,” but they were far from strangers to the black people they terrorized in the weeks after Mae Crow’s death. When black residents like Garrett and Josie Cook woke to the sound of a rock smashing through a window or the jangle of bridles outside their door, the order to leave was usually delivered by men whose voices they had heard many times before: employers and landowners for whom they had plowed and picked cotton; merchants with whom they had traded; and white neighbors they had lived and worked with for years.
And whereas in early September, men from the church picnic had been bold enough to try to stand up to the white men pursuing Grant Smith, after the lynching, and in the wake of Mae Crow’s death, it didn’t take much to “run off” the few black residents still in the county. Joel Whitt, a local white man who was twenty-three in 1912, said that in the beginning, the night riders used gunfire and torches, just as Ruth Jordan remembered. But later, Whitt recalled, “Certain men would go to a black person’s home with sticks tied up in a little bundle [and] leave ’em at the door.” By late October, if you made such a thing and placed it outside the cabin of some last, proud black farmer, by sunup he and his whole family would be gone.
Even as refugees flooded into neighboring counties, many residents bristled at criticism of Forsyth and offered a simple explanation for the “lawlessness” that was making headlines all over the state. A “violent element” had come from outside, they told reporters, and “but very few residents … participate in the demonstrations.” Asked about the makeup of the lynch party that had dragged Rob Edwards out of the county jail, one Cumming man claimed that “the members of the mob live in the hill country” north of Forsyth and came “from adjoining counties and the mountains.”
During the century that followed, generations of whites have continued to blame Forsyth’s recurring episodes of racial violence on “outsiders,” like when, in 1987, County Commissioner David Gilbert claimed that the men who’d attacked African American peace marchers were all from outside the county—despite the fact that seven of the eight men arrested had Forsyth addresses. “The real thing that upsets me,” Gilbert told reporters, “is that this whole thing was sprung by outsiders. It’s just a bunch of outsiders trying to start trouble in Forsyth County.”
The further one gets from 1912, the more frequently whites have tried to deflect attention away from the county’s long history of bigotry by pointing to a specific group: the Ku Klux Klan. It’s easy to understand the appeal of such an argument, since it exonerates the ordinary “people of the county” from wrongdoing during the expulsions and implies that they themselves were the victims of an invasion by hooded, cross-burning white supremacists. The only trouble is that in the America of 1912, there was no such thing as the KKK.
* * *
The ‘modern’ version of the Klan came to life not in the woods and fields of the rural South but in Hollywood.
When people hear of that group today, the organization that comes to mind is actually the second incarnation of the Klan—the first having been stamped out in 1871 after the passage of the “Ku Klux Klan Act,” which enabled victims of racial violence to sue in federal court and gave President Ulysses S. Grant the right to suspend habeas corpus in pursuit of racial terrorists. Empowered by Congress to suppress Klan activity during Reconstruction, the U.S. Justice Department arrested and convicted many of the group’s earliest, most violent members. As a result, the Klan’s first grand wizard, former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, was already calling for the organization to disband in the early 1870s, and by 1872 federal prosecutions had rendered the original KKK all but defunct.
For more than forty years after those original prosecutions, there was no Ku Klux Klan as we now know it. And when it was reborn, the “modern” version of the Klan came to life not in the woods and fields of the rural South but in Hollywood, where in 1915 D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation portrayed costumed “white knights” as the defenders of white womanhood and the saviors of an idealized antebellum world. Griffith found inspiration for his night riders not only in the Reconstruction-era “Ku Kluxers,” but also in the romances of Sir Walter Scott, whose heroic highlanders burned crosses to summon their fellow clansmen to battle.
Griffith’s groundbreaking motion picture, based on Thomas Dixon Jr.’s play The Clansman, was pure fantasy, but millions of white moviegoers saw it as “history written with lighting,” as President Woodrow Wilson was famously—and apocryphally—said to have remarked when the film was screened at the White House. As Birth of a Nation took the country by storm, life began to imitate art, and when it opened at the Fox Theater in Atlanta in 1915, the streets around the movie house filled with men dressed up in sheets and pointy hoods, many riding horses draped in white cloth, like the heroes of the film. Once inside, moviegoers were mesmerized by a story of chaste white women being stalked by savage black rapists. The Birth of a Nation lit up movie houses with the most vivid fantasy of southern whites: a black rebellion, which in Griffith’s telling was both political and sexual. As the film’s mulatto villain Silas Lynch tells one of his white victims, gesturing out the window at rampaging black soldiers, “See! My people fill the streets. With them I will build a Black Empire and you as a Queen will sit by my side!”
But given that in 1912 Griffith’s film, and the birth of the second-wave Klan, still lay three years in the future, it is simply impossible that the black people of Forsyth were “run out” by gangs of white-sheeted Ku Kluxers. Groups of mounted men did appear out of the darkness and terrorize black families in 1912, but they were not robed “white knights,” and they did not wear pointy white hoods. Instead, Forsyth’s gangs of night riders were farmers and field hands, blacksmiths and store clerks, and, in all likelihood, even a few elected officials like Bill Reid. The whites of Forsyth didn’t need klaverns, kleagles, and fiery crosses to organize a lynching in the fall of 1912. All it took back then, as Ruth Jordan said, was “people of the county.”
If the mobs were not made up of masked Klansmen, just well-known local men “with their horrible faces,” it is natural to wonder how those ordinary people first coalesced into gangs of night riders. How, that is, did a bunch of farmers decide to set fire to churches led by respected men like Levi Greenlee Jr. and Byrd Oliver, and to train the beads of their shotguns on the houses of peaceful landowners like Joseph and Eliza Kellogg? How did they summon the nerve to threaten the cooks and maids of even the wealthiest, most powerful whites in Cumming? Given that it required an organized effort, kept up not just over months but years, and given just how much will it took to sustain the racial ban for generations—from what source did all that energy come, and in what epic drama did these people think they were at last taking part?
* * *
The white people of Forsyth knew in their bones that such a thing was possible.
The land now known as Forsyth County, Georgia, was once home to Cherokee people, who had lived there for centuries when James Oglethorpe and the first Georgia colonists arrived from England in 1733. As whites settlers pushed farther and farther west during the late eighteenth century, the line separating native land from United States territory was redrawn again and again, as one treaty after another was broken. By the early nineteenth century, the native people of Georgia were confined to an area in the northwest corner of the state known as the Cherokee Territory, which included present-day Forsyth.
The federal government had long sought to “civilize” the Cherokee, and in the first decades of the 1800s the native people of north Georgia were still hoping to live in peace with their new white neighbors. Around 1809, a Cherokee man named Sequoyah began developing the first written alphabet for his people’s language, and by the 1820s the Cherokee settlements in northwestern Georgia included Cherokee-built schoolhouses, Cherokee-owned sawmills and blacksmith shops, and vibrant cultural institutions like a tribal newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. Hollywood may have filled white imaginations with visions of Indians living in tepees and hunting with bows and arrows, but by the late 1820s many Cherokee people in the Georgia foothills had lived alongside their white neighbors for years and were part of a racially diverse and increasingly integrated frontier community.
When gold was discovered at Dahlonega in 1828, however, it created a renewed push into the Cherokee Territory. Benjamin Parks, said to have found the very first gold nugget while out deer hunting, told the Atlanta Constitution that “once news got abroad” that there was gold in the Georgia hills,
there was such excitement as you never saw. It seemed within a few days as if the whole world must have heard of it, for men came from every state… . They came afoot, on horseback and in wagons, acting more like crazy men than anything else.
Even as they tried to tolerate all these encroachments into the Territory, the Cherokee were disenfranchised in the courts, and they had no legal recourse even when whites stole from them in broad daylight. As the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix put it in 1829,
Our [white] neighbors who regard no law, or pay no respect to the laws of humanity, are now reaping a plentiful harvest by the law of Georgia, which declares that no Indian shall be a party in any court created by the laws or constitution of that state. These neighbors come over the line [between Georgia and the Territory], and take the cattle belonging to the Cherokees. The Cherokees go in pursuit of their property, but all that they can effect is, to see their cattle snugly kept in the lots of these robbers. We are an abused people. [Even] if we can receive no redress, we can feel deeply the injustice done to our rights.
White prospectors soon moved from rustling cattle to stealing whole Cherokee farms—emboldened by the fact that bogus claims could receive an official stamp of approval from state land agents. After the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Georgia officials began planning for the future of the Cherokee Territory, anticipating a day when government troops would force all native people west of the Mississippi. In 1832, two land lotteries were held to redistribute former Cherokee lands to Georgia’s white settlers.
In theory, those who drew land lots were allowed to take possession only if the property was unoccupied, but in reality, countless whites interpreted their winning tickets as a license to drive off Cherokee residents, including many who owned prosperous farms. In May of 1833, the editors of the Phoenix told how
an industrious Indian had by his steady habits improved his premises to be of considerable value, when it was drawn by one of the lottery gamblers in Georgia. The fortunate holder of the ticket applied to the governor for a [land] grant, which was given him on his assurance that there was no Indian occupant on it. The fortunate drawer … loaded his pistols, entered the possession of Ootawlunsta, pointing one [pistol] at him, and drove the innocent Cherokee from his well-cultivated field… . The Cherokee are doomed to suffer.
With such white “pioneers” growing more and more bold, and with Georgia officials unwilling to comply with two separate Supreme Court decisions upholding the Cherokee people’s rights as a sovereign nation, the stage was set for the Treaty of New Echota. Signed in 1835 by a small faction of the Cherokee—and against the wishes of Chief John Ross—the treaty ceded the entire Cherokee Territory to the United States, in exchange for reservation land in Oklahoma. In the wake of New Echota, starting in the spring of 1838, the Cherokee people of north Georgia were rounded up by state militiamen and confined in makeshift pens, where they waited to start the forced march west. One of the largest Cherokee removal forts, Fort Campbell, was located in present-day Forsyth.
It was at Fort Campbell that Cumming mayor Charlie Harris’s grandfather Aaron Smith served under General Winfield Scott, commander of the Cherokee removals, in a unit known as the Georgia Guard. The guardsmen were notoriously cruel. Among them were many men who had come to north Georgia in search of gold and many who expected to personally profit from the removal of the Cherokee.
Charlie Harris grew up hearing tales of how his grandfather had once driven Cherokee families from their homes at gunpoint. According to Harris’s son David, Aaron Smith and other state militiamen spent the fall of 1838 deep in the pine forests of Forsyth, hunting down the last of the Cherokee holdouts. Smith was ordered to “search out … the pitiful and old Indians hiding and starving in the woods … who would not go willingly to the concentration camps for removal.” John G. Burnett, an army private who also served during the Cherokee removals, said that in 1838 he witnessed “the execution of the most brutal order in the History of American Warfare… . I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five wagons and started toward the West. The trail of the exiles was a trail of death.”
In 1839, when the last of north Georgia’s Cherokee people set out on the eight-hundred-mile march to Oklahoma, the newly depopulated area of the Cherokee Territory was overrun by white land speculators, gold prospectors, lawyers, and farmers, who had either won their forty-acre lots in the 1832 land lottery or bought winning tickets from others.
This is the real origin story of Forsyth. While descendants of the county’s oldest families have long celebrated their “pioneer” ancestors, the truth is that early white settlers pushed relentlessly into the Cherokee Territory over the objections of tribal leaders and the U.S. Supreme Court—and found the land “empty” only after military troops rounded up sixteen thousand native people, imprisoned them in removal forts, and then drove the Cherokee out of Georgia like a herd of livestock.
When a new kind of “race trouble” broke out in 1912, Forsyth was a place that had already witnessed the rapid expulsion of an entire people, and many residents, like Charlie Harris, had heard firsthand accounts from relatives who’d taken part in the Cherokee removals. So whenever someone first suggested that blacks in the county should not only be punished for the murder of Mae Crow but driven out of the county forever, the white people of Forsyth knew in their bones that such a thing was possible. After all, many families owed their land and their livelihoods to exactly such a racial cleansing in the 1830s.
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Reprinted from Blood at the Root by Patrick Phillips. Copyright © 2016 by Patrick Phillips. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Below, our favorite stories of the week.
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Kiera Feldman | Harper’s | Nov. 17, 2016 | 24 minutes (6,193 words)
Kiera Feldman reports from South Dakota, one of the most restrictive states in the country when it comes to ending a pregnancy.
David Remnick | The New Yorker | Nov. 18, 2016 | 43 minutes (10,924 words)
David Remnick follows President Obama in the days leading up to, and after, a shocking presidential election.
Ariel Ramchandani | The Atavist | Nov. 18, 2016 | 48 minutes (11,586 words)
An Italian town is plagued by mysterious fires for years, leading scientists, law enforcement, and the Catholic church to get involved.
Matt Goulding | Roads & Kingdoms | Nov. 11, 2016 | 25 minutes (6,300 words)
Matt Goulding profiles the González sisters of Galicia, four women thriving in the dangerous, male-dominated field of percebes, or gooseneck barnacles, a rare Spanish delicacy. Adapted from Grape, Olive, Pig: Deep Travels Through Spain’s Food Culture.
Mickey Rapkin | New York Magazine | Nov. 14, 2016 | 8 minutes (2,092 words)
A look at the Actors Gang Prison Project, an improv workshop actors Tim Robbins and Sabra Williams have been leading for inmates for ten years, which has been shown to reduce recidivism rates.