Monday, October 18, 2010

Nonfiction Monday Review: They Called Themselves the K.K.K. by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

I knew I had to read this book as soon as I saw the cover. It's striking and even a little bit scary with the hood in stark contrast to the black background and the empty eye holes. It's definitely reminiscent of a ghost, which is of course exactly what the Klan was going for when they created these costumes.

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist GroupThey Called Themselves the K.K.K. takes a hard look at Reconstruction-era America, examining the social and political unrest that gave birth to, as the subtitle says, an American terrorist group. Bartoletti traces the KKK's origins to a group of former Confederate soldiers who suggested "Boys, let us get up a club" in Tennessee. From humble beginnings rose a movement that spread like wildfire across the South, resulting in the murders of countless men, women and children in the years after the end of the Civil War.

Bartoletti covers the decade or so of Reconstruction in detail, then skips ahead to the early 20th century when the Klan rose to prominence again with the publication of the book The Clansmen and Griffith's epic silent film The Birth of a Nation - it's these fictional narratives that gave us the symbol of the burning cross, as the original Klan never used that particular threat. This is also when the Klan modified its objectives and became a hate group targeting far more than just Black Americans. I believe this is also when the iconic white robe was introduced, as illustrations show that the original Klansmen wore a variety of elaborate costumes. From there Bartoletti briefly covers other important 20th century Civil Rights events, and includes a Civil Rights timeline, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the election of Barack Obama.

Hidden at the very end, in the bibliography and source notes section, are some of Bartoletti's most interesting modern observations, from her visit to the birthplace of the Klan to attending a modern day "Klan congress." I really wish this section were highlighted, rather than hidden between the quote attributions and the index. It's almost like when a movie has an extra scene at the end of the credits; this book rewards those who read literally from cover to cover.

The excellent design work exhibited on the cover continues onto the pages. Roughly every other page includes some sort of illustration, mostly woodcuts and Reconstruction political cartoons, but the occasional photograph as well, mostly included with excerpts from the Slave Narratives collected in the early 20th century. A different font is also used to contemporary block quotes, so the words of the Klansmen and their victims stand out in start relief to the narrative. It makes for a beautiful and compelling text.

One other note about the text: Bartoletti uses lots of primary sources from 19th century Americans, and includes the language of the time in the book. That means crude and vulgar words show up often, as well as passages written phonetically as they were taken down by interviewers for the Slave Narratives. I think the inclusion of such language was absolutely necessary to illustrate just how publicly acceptable racist language was at one point in our history. It makes this book even more difficult to read in some ways, but also highlights its importance.

Nonfiction Monday

This week's Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Mother Reader. Be sure to stop by and check out all the other great nonfiction this week!
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