“Gee our old LaSalle ran great…”*
Every time I hear someone raving about the good ol’ days, I always counter with that lyric. Many of you know it from the intro to the classic TV sitcom "All In The Family". The song is meant to evoke a time that many believed was somehow perfect, a true rose-colored glasses track that is filled with both irony and a touch of sadness, yearning for a time and place that really never existed.
John Safran, a Jewish man from Melbourne, Australia, recently published his first book, a true crime tale entitled God’ll Cut You Down (2014, Riverhead/Penguin, 354 pages, hardcover) that comes with the almost unbelievable subtitle “The tangled tale of a white supremacist, a black hustler, a murder, and how I lost a year in Mississippi”.
Safran is somewhat of a “gotcha” journalist, a self-described “race-trekkie” who is looking to expose those who espouse hate and xenophobia by exposing the smoking guns, double-standards and outright lies of others. But, even he admits, and often through the book, he doesn’t know what he is doing here.
And that is what makes this tale so fascinating, and at many times the most honest and funniest thing I have read in ages: He comes to a realization, through a lot of late night phone calls, endless interviews that go nowhere, chicken gizzards and people literally giving him the runaround that Mississippi is an insular world. Nothing in the hospitality state makes any sense to someone in second decade of the 21st century from a large metro area, because for many in this part of the South, it is still the mid-1860’s.
Safran enters a world steeped in history but literally physically falling apart around him. Mississippi is his “Twilight Zone”: a place where the truth is never the whole truth, built upon decades of denial and acquiescence. One of the more telling passages in the book comes early on from one of the locals:
1. White Southerners still trying to win the Civil War.
2. Black people thinking of themselves as helpless figurines in someone’s (or God’s) bigger plan.
As Safran lives with the secrets and half-truth of others while trying to make sense of the murder of a white supremacist by a black youth in a rural Southern state, he starts to draw comparisons to his modern, metro life and the lives of those here in this supposed back-water part of the world. People, and the lives they lead, aren’t really that different here than back home. Most telling: he includes himself in this equation as well.
This book is non-fiction, but I hesitate to classify it as true crime. This is a book about modern sociology. It should read as a warning letter to everyone. Because Mississippi, it turns out, has not evolved much at all. You don’t hear about things like the past being the past, moving forward and forgiveness. It is as if you could apply the Kübler-Ross model, or the five stages of grief, to the people of this state. Every time they make it to stage 3, bargaining, instead of moving into depression and acceptance (stages 4 & 5), they regress to stages 1 & 2, anger and denial.
Anyone looking for the smoking gun in this rural Mississippi tale doesn’t need to go any farther than those around them and in the mirror, because everyone’s finger is on the trigger. It isn't as if I am trying to say society made one person kill someone else; that's ridiculous. What I am saying here, and what Safran has uncovered, is that the things that went on in this book are surely about to be on auto-loop for many years to come.
Love to you all.
*”Those Were The Days" by Lee Adams and Charles Strouse
Image courtesy of Riverhead/Penguin
originally published on 07 January 2015