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Book Review of "The Arc of Justice" by Kevin Boyle

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Is “The Arc of Justice” the best metaphor for pivotal Racial times of the 1920s?

This is a brilliantly conceived and executed book, that uses the plight of a black doctor who has just moved into an all white Detroit neighborhood, as the palette on which to paint a vivid picture of what justice was like in the North in 1925 America. The author’s tour de horizon of America’s haute culture of the times is almost poetic in its thoroughness, in peopling it with the most colorful characters of the Harlem renaissance, in covering for instance the feuds between Booker T and Du Bois, the establishment of the NAACP, the racially integrated Jazz culture, the Garvey movement and beyond; and in summarizing the blood sports of the day: white pogroms against blacks and the lynching of Negroes across the land -- from sea to shining sea.

It is the deftness with which the story between the lines is told as it leads up to the trial (the climax of the story) that gives the book its luster. For it is in the details of the analysis of the unfolding history that the author’s prodigious talents fully come to the fore: His meticulous research, his brilliant social and political analysis, and his heavily nuanced storytelling, all converge beautifully at the trial to provide an uncompromising piece of historical non-fiction. But that is not all that is great about this book. In an act that perhaps places him in a rarified uncommon class of only a handful of American historians, this author demonstrates the uncanny ability to shed his own “racial blinkers” entirely and to be able to look clearly and deeply with unfiltered eyes, into the heart of the disturbing American racial abyss. What he brings out and into this work; and what the reader comes away with, is a new higher level of savage honesty that is not just pristine in its objectivity, but one that literally renews ones faith in the spirit of the American dream and in the racially derailed American democracy, and the racially stained way of American life. For if historians of Professor Boyle’s ilk can learn to see and then tell the whole truth about our racial past, then everything seems possible again. There is hope even in 2009 that we can all finally break the Gordian knot of racial hatred and strife and move forward to honest cross-racial relationships in the U.S.

Dr. Ossian Sweet and a group of 10 of his closest friends and family, accidently shot and killed one of several hundred “foaming-at-the-mouth” white racists stalking his new home as he and his group were hunkered down defending it in the dark with an arsenal of guns.  Under the racial rules of engagement for 1925 America, what should have happened to the group of black defenders (and what the racist Detroit police greatly feared would indeed happen) is that they all would be dragged from the house into the streets and summarily lynched. And while it is true, that under a set of heroic circumstances (the NAACP enlisted the services of the iconic lawyer, Clarence Darrow, who succeeded in achieving an acquittal of the group), suggesting as it does that the 1925 Detroit trial represented in some sense a turning point in U.S. justice, the metaphor, “The Arc of Justice” hardly seems the appropriate one for this story. 

This reader believes the author’s metaphor was at least premature, and at worse missed the mark by a mile – especially given what has transpired in American racial justice since 1925. And here one can pick his own set of brutal facts to paint an equally ugly picture: race riots (which more appropriately should be called white pogroms against blacks) continued well into the 1950s, after which, in the 60s and 70s, they turned into riots of mostly pent up black hostility; then there was Cointelpro, the assassinations of, jailing of, or exile of, all of the most influential and effective black leaders, etc. But much more importantly is the fact that even today with a mulatto President, the U.S. has one-fourth of all the prisoners in the world and half of those are black men. There are more black men in U.S. prisons, than all of the prisoners in Communist China (one million versus about seven hundred thousand), which has a population four times that of the U.S.

This brilliant author demonstrates that the best and worst of times in the U.S. seem always to co-exit side by side. It is thus easy enough to get caught up in painting an overly rosy picture of what is actually taking place on the surface rather than of what is going on in the psychological undercurrents and in the subtext of the collective American mind. Professor Boyle’s book chronicles beautifully the good, the bad and the down right ugly of this pivotal period in American judicial history. And he does not pull any punches: On the one hand, and as noted above, he paints in vivid colors the highlights of America’s haute culture, the Harlem renaissance, the Jazz era, with its music, speakeasies, prohibition and bath tub gin; and on the other hand, we get to see the ugliness of America’s primal fears and underlying racial uneasiness associated with the migration to northern cities of nearly 2 million blacks. We see the associated random killings and lynching of blacks all across the land from New York to Florida, and more importantly, the rash of more than a dozen white pogroms against blacks all across the nation.

And while I disagree with the metaphor that frames the book, I love its content because the author captures with great skill and no small amount of finesse, all of the nuances that lie in the subtext. He sees more clearly than most authors that the “meta language” of the American social process is racial fear and hatred. And unlike most other authors, he is not afraid to describe what he sees: He does not pull back from this most self-evident and terrifying of facts. Instead, he does what any self-respecting author of high integrity would do: hunker down and reveal them with all the skill and nuance that he can muster. That said, and as much as I like this book, I still believe the author’s metaphor missed an important if not a glaring part of the subtext: Dr. Ossian Sweet’s plight of 1925 Detroit was a mere symbolic “stand-in” for the existential plight of the Black male in America, more generally. Because of the primal fears that lay buried in American’s psychological subtext, the ones the author so brilliantly revealed on page 65 as “fears of moral decay, economic impotence, and sexual inadequacy,” American society has tried to always “fence the black man in”, and as a result, has built an existential prison for him that is the exact psychological counterpart of the real brick and mortar ones that now house more than one million black men. This mental prison, just as the brick and mortar one, is still “the Negro place.” 

"The Negro's place" in 1925, as it is today, was a “land-mined societal obstacle course” designed ultimately to trip him up before reaching adulthood, and then thereafter to strip him of a humanity he was never fully granted in the first place. Thus, like Dr. Ossian Sweet, in order for any American black male to exist as a self-respecting man, as a full free human being, he is forced to run the gauntlet, to challenge this wall, and to try to tear it down. But doing so only serves to further identify him as an enemy of the “invisible state of unstated social rules and traditions,” the most important of which is for him to “leave white women alone.” Lynching was invariably about an “imagined rape” of some random white woman. It has been a familiar trope throughout American history, a kind of global landmine, the societal booby trap of last resort. It continues to exist in a much more sublimated form even today.

As Dr. Ossian Sweet was to so painfully discover, he could succeed in American society not through his achievements, which were considerable (he had studied with Madame Curie in Paris), or because of his high moral standards alone, but only to the extent he also yielded to the dictates of “Negro place.” His situation thus remains just a symbol of the global Faustian bargain presented to all American black males. It is literally a dead man’s choice, for to breach the wall of “Negro place,” to scale the walls of this uniquely American mental prison, Dr. Sweet had to do as all black men still must do, risk everything: his manhood, his right to provide for and defend his family, his career, his humanity, and ultimately his life. 

The suffocating rules of a profoundly racist society had “backed” Dr. Sweet into a corner in his own house, a metaphorical corner that one way or another, every black man in America eventually has to face. Where they like Dr. Sweet, has no choice but to try to shoot his way into respectability by defending his manhood his family, and ultimately his humanity. When a black man kills a white man doing this, as happened in this story, it is called “first degree murder.” When a white man does it, he can be proud that he has engaged in “justified homicide through self-defense,” that is by defending his home and his family.

In short, to no small extent, whether it be 1925 Detroit or 2009, racial justice in America still boils down to little more than how to respond to the primal forces that lie in the subtext of the collective American mind and in the still very much twisted racial American society, a society that is completely responsible for the “black man’s existential dilemma.”

Thus, rather than “The Arc of Justice,” the correct metaphor for this book is: “the existential dilemma for the Black man in American justice.”  The book is easily, five stars

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
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