Black confederates, black travel, black helicopters and Shakespeare: books read

SEARCHING FOR BLACK CONFEDERATES: The Civil War’s Most Consistent Myth by Kevin M. Leman looks at claims by Confederate nostalgists and others that the Confederate Army ranks included hundreds, perhaps thousands of slaves and free blacks who fought against the Yankee invaders — doesn’t that prove the war was about states’ rights, not slavery? As Leman details, the Black Confederate has no basis in reality (when the CSA considered arming slaves at the end of the war, it was clear this was an unprecedented step). It springs partly from confusion about slaves who served as cooks or valets when their masters enlisted, partly from people refusing to believe the CSA’s prime directive was preserving slavery, partly from the occasional outright fraud (passing off photos of black Union soldiers as Confederates). A good book.

When I wrote Southern Discomfort, my friend Michele Berger suggested that a town that allowed black travelers to visit and stay without being lynched would have been mentioned in the legendary Green Book, a travel guide for black motorists (she was right, and I worked that into the backstory). While I knew a little about the Green Books, I learned more from  OVERGROUND RAILROAD: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy Taylor.

When the guide started in the 1930s, segregation on buses and trains was often humiliating; driving avoided that, but there was the risk of violence if they drove through or stopped in the wrong place. Victor Green’s travel guide identified businesses  that welcomed black customers, from hotels to restaurants; thanks to the relatively progressive Esso gas company selling it through their stations it reached many more black drivers than it would have otherwise.

Taylor looks at the Green Book through the years, using it to chronicle changes in society and in travel and the problems in the book itself such as colorism in the illustrations. She also covers some of the businesses once listed in the book, most of them now gone (as are many of the buildings). The book includes a lot of Taylor’s ruminations on race in America which make it as much a political essay as a history book, but it’s still a good history book (and I can’t say her points about racism are anything I’d disagree with) .

BLACK HELICOPTERS by Blythe Woolston is an odd story but well-executed story in which the teenage daughter of an off-the-grid radical slides into terrorist bombing, joining a cult and finally becoming a suicide bomber herself. Interesting more than engaging.

BURNING SHAKESPEARE by Shakespeare professor AJ Hartley has a college president strike a deal with the devil (literally) to go back in time and destroy all of Shakespeare’s works. College, in his view, exists to train people for real-world jobs, not sappy major like English and theater; if there’s no Shakespeare, perhaps there’s not enough English literature for anyone to study, problem solved! This leads an angel to recruit a teamo f the newly dead to save the plays, but the black guy on the team isn’t so sure Othello needs saving — and on top of that, there’s an even worse threat lurking alongside the machinations of heaven and hell. The humor is very much in the Good Omens vein but it works (I have a couple of quibbles about the ending but it sticks the landing) and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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