Monday, June 22, 2020
Q&A with J. Chester Johnson
J. Chester Johnson is the author of the new book Damaged Heritage: The Elaine Race Massacre and a Story of Reconciliation. A poet and essayist, his other books include Auden, the Psalms, and Me. He lives in New York City.
Q: You begin the book by asking, “Would I have written the book in the absence of the recent resurgence of white nationalism and unapologetic white racism that have now reached through every state to every hamlet and crevice in our nation?”
A: Like many Americans, after eight years with Barack Obama as president, I naively assumed the nation was passing, although haltingly, into a post-racial milieu. Then Trumpism happened – and not on a modest scale – with barely less than half of our citizens supportive of overtly racist policies and programs.
For a while, I felt I was continually facing a repetitive nightmare about my own country.
In turn and in reaction, I then settled on writing Damaged Heritage with the use of the previously invisible Elaine Race Massacre, arguably the most significant attack against African-Americans in our country’s history, as a backdrop to discuss elements of racism harkening back to an earlier time.
And yet, that is precisely where so many whites in this country have taken us at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century. Subtle and not-so-subtle public slogans and public pronouncements have recently encouraged whites to be pitted against persons of color.
I offer an alternative in the book through racial reconciliation by showing how damaged heritage, that legacy of American white racism perpetrated against African-Americans, and an excessive veneration of the past, both in the South and the North, have combined to repeat the cycle of black subjugation generation after generation.
I also offer ways in Damaged Heritage that this insidious combination can be defeated through an adherence to the genuinely human or human commonality that supersedes any marginal differences in custom, history, background, skin color, accent, and the like that certain among us would employ to separate, isolate, and segregate those of another race.
Q: How did you research the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919, and why do you think relatively little had been written about it?
A: In 2008, I was asked by the Episcopal Church to write the Litany of Offense and Apology for the National Day of Repentance when the Church formally apologized for its role in transatlantic slavery and related evils.
As I conducted my research, I came across a treatise, entitled The Arkansas Race Riot of 1919, written by the African American historian and anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells.
Since I had grown up only one county removed from the site of this massacre but knew absolutely nothing about it, I committed myself to learning as much as possible.
For the next five years, I read all I could on the event, resulting in a long article of 10,000 words, published in a literary journal in 2013; this article was expanded for Damaged Heritage.
There were three principal reasons relatively little had been written about the massacre until about the turn of the century.
First, the conflagration occurred in a remote area in southeast Arkansas along the Mississippi River Delta, a long way from any urban centers.
Second, neither whites nor blacks were particularly interested in talking about it; indeed, whites had sent out notices after the Massacre to African Americans in Phillips County, Arkansas, where the attacks occurred, telling blacks to stop talking about it.
In addition, blacks were worried that if much attention were to be paid to the Massacre, the likelihood of a reoccurrence increased.
Third, most of the African American deaths were caused by federal troops with machine guns deployed out of Fort Pike in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Soon after the end of the violence, the Woodrow Wilson administration, a notoriously racist presidency, had a study conducted on the event, but quietly filed away the results of the investigation without giving any attention to the very large number of deaths inflicted on African Americans by the federal troops.
Q: What was it like to write about your grandfather’s role in the events you describe, and how much did you know about his actions and beliefs as you grew up?
A: My father died when I was 1, and my mother didn’t do particularly well for several years following.
So I lived with my maternal grandparents, Lonnie and Hattie Birch, with Lonnie, who had retired from the Missouri Pacific Railroad, which was “up to its eyeballs” in the Massacre, being my 24-hour a day caretaker for several, early years of my life.
Growing up, I heard family rumors about Lonnie being a member of the Ku Klux Klan, leaving late at night with his sheet and hood and returning without any mention of what transpired.
Being reared in a racist family in a racist region of the country, I didn’t fully realize then the egregious and evil role that he would have played as a member of the KKK.
However, learning later about Lonnie’s participation in the Elaine Race Massacre was entirely different.
As I confirmed Lonnie’s role in the Massacre, his image thereafter has been bifurcated: a loving and caring grandfather, whom I adored, and an abhorrent gunman who participated in a 1919 mass murder of African Americans in Phillips County, Arkansas. I have not yet been able to reconcile the two personas over the subsequent years.
Q: A hundred years later, what do you see as the legacy of the massacre today?
A: At the time of the Elaine Race Massacre, African Americans were viewed by many white Americans mainly as commodities, particularly in places like Phillips County, Arkansas, with its rich agriculture, dependent on black labor. The value of African American lives was viewed as inferior to that of white Americans.
For example, not one white was investigated – neither civilian nor soldier – for any of the hundred plus black deaths or for any criminal offense committed during the conflagration, but 74 blacks were found guilty and sentenced shortly afterwards to prison for crimes, ranging from first-degree murder to “night-riding.”
This legacy of devalued lives for African Americans continues. The recent, highly publicized killings of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and George Floyd in Minnesota all occurred in circumstances illustrating that black lives matter less than white lives in the country’s traditional and current racial environment.
Moreover, the slow response by the judicial system to bring white perpetrators to timely accountability in these three cases and other such cases, in which African Americans have been killed by police, continues to bear the legacy of white privilege, as practiced and as prevalent in 1919.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Most of my time is now spent on efforts to gather attention for Damaged Heritage, which was published on May 5.
Since events that had previously been set for in-person appearances at The Carter Center, The National Cathedral, Trinity Wall Street, and many other venues were cancelled as a result of the pandemic, I then needed to focus on radio interviews, internet presentations via Zoom and similar means, and the writing of articles associated with the new book, all of which have required creative and energetic adjustments to the marketing of Damaged Heritage.
There has been little time remaining to write extensively on another book. However, my next book has practically been written.
Even though I’ve published two nonfiction books over the last three years, I’ve written mostly poetry during my writing career over many decades, and several years ago, I began to compose a cycle of poems that deal with various episodes drawn from the Elaine Race Massacre itself and its critically important aftermath.
A large number of the poems have already been published in literary journals, and I expect to proceed with publication of these cycle poems in the near future.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Americans struggle to attain racial healing, and we continue to fail miserably.
The book demonstrates that racial healing is available, but not necessarily in some great institutional way, but by two individuals committing themselves to racial reconciliation – a black woman, who incidentally writes the foreword to Damaged Heritage, and a white man, author of the book, with the two brought together as descendants of the Elaine Race Massacre.
Ultimately, the racial reconciliation became a deep, abiding friendship with each of the respective spouses and children becoming part of this personal, racial enlightenment.
Maybe, rather than assuming a grand solution, magically changing hearts and minds, we, as Americans, should all think more realistically with persons of good will, black and white, exercising love and the commonality of the genuinely human through mutual commitments, one to the other.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb