Correcting the canon: “Blood at the Root” is committed to exposing the continuity of white supremacy and its racist history

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Patrick Phillips’ Blood at the Root is a historical account of the murders, violence, and intimidation that led to the purging of over a thousand Black citizens from Forsyth County, Georgia, in 1912. An 18-year-old white woman was raped and murdered. A group of Black men was accused. Two lynchings resulted — overseen by a local sheriff (and future Klansman). The fury snowballed, leading to a racial cleansing deeply reminiscent of the forced Cherokee removals of the 19th century. In less than a few months, Forsyth became Georgia’s only “all-white” county and would remain so well into the 1990s. Phillips’ book tracks this reign of white supremacist terror as its historical contours emerge out of the vague, mythic terms that support racist narratives — “that’s just the way things are here,” “let’s look forward instead of dredging up the past” — to reveal the unaccounted stories of the Black residents of Forsyth, their lives, deaths, and diaspora.

082816-bood-at-the-root_bloodattheroot-w-frame_978-0-393-29301-2With vivid detail and written in a thoughtful, critical narrative voice, this book is timely and necessary in its attention to the historical erasure of black and brown histories and to Phillips’ refusal to remain distant from or complicit with the forms of whiteness that made his community an epicenter for systematic racial violence. Along with so many other texts, whether about the history of Black artistic traditions, racial surveillance or ongoing conversations around the Black Lives Matter movement, this book is a necessary undoing of the violent myths that surround and determine our lives together.

Blood at the Root follows the violent, racist history of white supremacy in Forsyth back to the Cherokee removals of the 1830s, an event whose memory, as Phillips describes, would have still been palpable to the older generation of North Georgians chasing Black residents out of their homes 80 years later. Phillips also portrays his childhood in Forsyth in the 1980s, where he grew up among white families for whom the civil rights movement had effectively never taken place, weaving a vivid personal narrative into the book’s historical frames. What Blood at the Root makes strikingly clear again and again is that constructions of history that fail to regard the past and present as an intimately haunted continuum, that include only powerful homogenous figures, are incapable of accounting for justice. This becomes painfully clear when readers are taken by Phillips to present-day Cumming, the county seat, where a statue of outspoken white supremacist and Confederate Representative Hiram Parks Bell was recently placed in Cumming Square, the same commons where Rob Edwards was lynched on September 10, 1912.

The necessary work of Blood at the Root is its use of archives, lived narratives and overlooked or ignored records to show the continuity of white terrorism in Forsyth across its entire history, violence that was spurred on as much as by skin color as by economics. When local leaders and business owners stepped in to stop the violence or when the governor ordered militia to Cumming to prevent further lynchings, their single motivation was to protect an image of Forsyth as a safe, prosperous county to do business in. Black lives meant Black labor to Forsyth’s leaders, and little else. To poor whites, even within the systematic oppression of Jim Crow laws, cheap Black labor was a threat. The violent realization of Forsyth’s white communities’ racist fantasy arrived under the sign of capitalism.

Though the racial cleansing in Forsyth in 1912 is atypical, the violence, racist scapegoating and history of denial on the part of “normal” white Americans is not. As Phillips correctly portrays it throughout the book, racial violence is the underside of nearly any All-American event. Blood at the Root gives readers an opportunity, as Phillips says about his own intentions, “to begin reversing [our] communal acts of erasure.”

Phillips, who now lives in Brooklyn where he teaches at Drew University, recently returned to Atlanta to discuss Blood at the Root as part of the Aiken Lecture Series at the Atlanta History Center, home to one of the many archives that Phillips visited searching for the stories of Forsyth’s forgotten Black communities. The author’s recounting of his process and motivation to write the book, which began with a poignant conversation with his friend, the former Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, provided a glance into how our critical imaginations can adopt the work of undoing our complicity in regimes of violence, no matter how casual that violence might seem to have become. As Phillips describes it, this means becoming aware of the need “to delve into the difficult history of home.” Quoting Ta-Nehisi Coates, Phillips told the audience that we must not remain “woefully, dangerously incurious” about our histories and each other, a critical supplication that parallels Phillips’ reckoning with the need to write about whiteness. Using the material traces of the archive to deconstruct the legendary violent discourses of white supremacy in Forsyth, Phillips is successful in uncovering entire sections of Black communities that had been erased.

Author of "Blood at the Root" Patrick Phillips.
Patrick Phillips, author of Blood at the Root.

Perhaps the most poignantly absent material evidence of Forsyth’s Black citizens can be found in photographs. Blood at the Root contains the only known photograph of the Black children of Forsyth who were forced out of their homes by nightriders and lynchers. At the Atlanta History Center that evening, a woman who identified herself as the granddaughter of the youngest child in that photograph stood to ask the first question, which for me and many in the audience was the most poignant moment of the evening. Describing the need to tell her 13-year-old son, on his birthday, that he will be a target simply because he is a tall, muscular African-American male, that she feels alone in need to tell him this, that she cannot live without fearing for him, she asked Phillips, and all present, “How do we move forward?” Phillips was humble and vulnerable in his response, citing a need for “faith in the particular and the specific” when confronting racial violence and its attendant myths of white innocence, the need to bring to light the stories that act as “a rebuttal to people who want reconciliation [with the past] without the truth.”

While earlier in the evening I disagreed with Phillips’ characterization of some white leaders in Forsyth as “unlikely heroes” who attempted to curtail the violence in 1912 even while they continued to be complicit in the results it generated, the author is right that truth and reconciliation share reciprocal returns. He could have gone further in his answer, proposing that how we move forward depends on all of us, no matter who we are, being with and for that woman’s pain, not as white guilt or a lessening of feeling, but as a recognition of our shared crisis. As the poet Fred Moten describes, “The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize this shit is killing you, too.” Such a stance is an alternative commons to the landscaped public squares, in Cumming and all over this country, that refuse to acknowledge themselves as sites of violence.

Georgia’s history of racism and erasure is not uncommon in America, but popular conversations about racial violence rarely give us the terms to understand the ongoing and continuous nature of that violence.

Blood at the Root is committed to exposing the continuity of white supremacy, thereby denying apologists who might claim that, for example, the murder of another Black man is an extraordinary event for which we bear no tangible responsibility. If we commit to reading and understanding this continuity, then as terrifying as Forsyth’s history is, we cannot disentangle it from the racist attitudes and government planning policies that facilitated white flight in Atlanta in the 1960s-’80s, as described in White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism by Kevin M. Kruse, nor can we distance it from the deep weaving of race, poverty, and cultural symbols that has become a political and artistic battleground for contemporary Atlantans, as described in Dr. Maurice J. Hobson’s piece “Switching Dixies.”

Present-day Atlanta built itself on the prosperous myth of being “The City Too Busy To Hate,” and the racial cleansing in Forsyth, a county now thoroughly merged into the suburbs of northern Atlanta, is another story we must attend to together, to collectively know is real, so that we can begin to move forward, abandoning that myth.

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