It has felt like there is so much to learn lately that I have been reading far more non-fiction than I usually do. There are several great new books challenging the stories we tell ourselves about our country and its past. I have been toggling between three excellent histories in the past weeks that I want to share with you.
Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties by Mike Davis and Jon Weiner is a massive volume detailing political and social movements in 1960s Los Angeles. There was much more to 1960s Los Angeles than Hollywood and surfing. As Rebecca Solnit writes, it "required a million people of African, Asian, and Mexican ancestry to be ‘edited out of utopia.'" What lies within Set the Night on Fire are the stories that describe the daily struggle for social justice of so many communities within LA. So many untold or under-reported stories live in the pages of this book, from the gay liberation movement that predated Stonewall to the constant African American freedom struggle, through the early 60s and its evolution into Black Power of the late 60s, to the development of Chicano and Asian American political identities. For those who love detailed accounts of local social movements, this book is a treasure trove and a must read.
In the midst of making my way through the 600+ pages of Set the Night on Fire, I also began reading an advanced copy of a book to be published this fall, American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World but Failed its People by Jared Yates Sexton. I am a big fan of Sexton's previous book, The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making, so I was interested to check out American Rule. Wow! This book is a complete dismantling of the stories we tell ourselves of American history. Many of the excuses we have made for so long for historical figures as living during "another time" are questioned with legitimate analysis. From the inception of this country, Sexton argues, we have created fictions and myths about freedom and democracy while simultaneously committing genocide against Native Americans, enslaving and brutalizing African Americans, and actively subjugating the vast majority of the public. Sexton moves chronologically through our country's history challenging the very notions of who we think we are as Americans. The book challenges its readers to sit with and understand their part of this story. Highly recommended reading.
While still pushing my way through the two books above, I began weaving another title into my current tapestry of history books: The Broken Heart of America by Walter Johnson. This book moves through a similar time period of American Rule, but with the history of St. Louis as its main focus. Perhaps not known by many, certainly not by me, St. Louis, the "Gateway to the West" stood for decades as the hub of many of our country's most violent acts. St. Louis was where Lewis and Clark began their journey up the Missouri River to chart the beginnings of American expansion into Native American land. It was headquarters of the Army of the West, the regiments involved in Indian removal west of the Mississippi River. Walter Johnson tells the history of St. Louis from its inception to current day. It is compelling and tragic history, and again an important historical accompaniment to any of the antiracist readings so many people are currently exploring in an effort to understand our history beyond what we learned in school.
There are so many great books out there right now we can all read to understand our world, our history, and our place within it. These are three that have been important to me. Our learning about our world never ends and you can always find these stories here at Lawrence Public Library.
-Brad Allen is the Director of Lawrence Public Library.