by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 20, 2020
Most of our fiction when it’s not about romance or comedy is about heroes. Whether in books, television shows, movies, or video games we usually identify with a hero. Quite often the hero must confront conflict with violence, but generally the violence is over-the-top and the heroes’ abilities are unbelievable. Far too often fiction promotes the cult of the gun. But what about real heroes? Heroes are individuals who will sacrifice themselves for others. Why don’t we see more real life heroes in our fiction?
I just finished reading chapter 17 of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson about Allison and Elizabeth Stubbs Davis, two black anthropologists who were training in Germany when the Nazis came into power. This was 1933, and they decided to flee the fascists and go to Natchez, Mississippi to study class, caste, and race. Talk about jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. This was the heart of the Jim Crow south well become the civil rights era and Freedom Riders. According to Wilkerson a black person was being lynched every four days. She also reported that Nazis had studied Jim Crow laws for inspiration on how to fashion their laws to oppress the Jews, and in some instances the Nazis thought the Americans went too far. By the way, I highly recommend Caste.
Allison and Elizabeth were part of a team, with white anthropologists Burleigh and Mary Gardner, but interestingly for the time, Allison was the team leader. Wilkerson’s book up till chapter 17 showed her readers just how dangerous it was for the two couples, especially for Allison and Elizabeth to work in the 1930s deep south. Their scientific undercover work meant taking potentially lethal risks day after day for years.
These scientists were real life heroes putting their lives on the line to make a better world for us. We need to see more movies about this kind of heroism. Are you brave enough to attempt anything like their quest? I certainly am not. In modern fiction the hero usually get to load up on weapons before confronting the enemy. Would you volunteer to spy on a hostile society with only Gandhi’s armament?
Their story would make a great movie. After reading this chapter I really wanted to know more about these four scientists, especially Allison and Elizabeth. However, I can’t find out much about them and their time in Mississippi. Allison went on to become the first black professor to get tenured at a predominantly white university (The University of Chicago, 1947). but with complications. David A. Varel wrote a whole book devoted to Allison Davis, The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought (2018).
According to Wilkerson the Davis and Gardner couples started their research earlier and stayed longer, but other anthropologists came after them, spent less time embedded in the culture, and published sooner. Davis and the Gardners published Deep South: A Study of Social Class and Color Caste in a Southern City (1941), but it was upstaged by Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937) by John Dollard and After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South (1939) by Hortense Powdermaker. Dollard and Powdermaker gained the academic fame, and it’s why Wilkerson said in a New York Times interview that Deep South was the book she admired most that no one reads.
I’d love to read Deep South but finding a copy is turning out to be hard. It’s not in print at Amazon, and used copies run hundreds of dollars. I hope Wilkerson’s book inspires a reprinting, at least a Kindle edition. According to WorldCat it is available in some of my local university libraries, so I will try them. Still, I’d like to see their story on the big screen.
I know Hollywood distorts history badly, but while reading Wilkerson I could vaguely imagine the intense drama of their story, I’d like it visualized for me with all the vivid details movie makers can muster. I’m burned out on modern movies. I’m no longer hooked on their fantasy violence. I crave quiet realism. I understand our world and its history is full of violence, but surely it can’t be as much as our fiction implies. I’m tired of heroes with big guns. I’m tired of cartoon combat. I read the other day that the Wild West was never as violent as westerns, not even close. We need more movies about people who save the world without shooting it up because obviously too many people are thinking that’s what the world needs now the most.