Friday, January 11, 2013

The Silence Of Our Friends Review

I made the mistake of reading The Silence of our Friends during dinner tonight. Don't get me wrong; it's an excellent book, but probably not one I should've read while trying to relax on a Friday evening. I'll get to that in a bit.

The book covers about a two week period in 1968. Jack Long is a reporter for a Houston television station, and covers the civil rights stories for them. In the process, he meets and befriends activist Larry Thomas as he's organizing some of the local non-violent protests. Their friendship is a tense one, more than anything because of external social pressures that are encroaching on both their and their families' lives. During one of the protests, the police take overly aggressive action and begin firing wildly on the unarmed crowd. One of the officers is killed and another wounded by friendly fire, but they still round up nearly 500 of the protesters and try to prosecute five of them with the officer's murder. Though Long was unable to bring himself to help Thomas during the actual firefight, putting further strain on their friendship, he absolves himself in court by going out of his way to correct the prosecutions accusations. Though the five students are acquitted, they learn of Martin Luther King's assassination soon after.

That summary, needless to say, leaves out quite a lot. There aren't a lot of sub-plots or extensively detailed versions of those scenes, however. Rather, there are a lot of superficially unrelated character moments. One of Long's daughters is blind and there are scenes of her trying to learn a braille typewriter. Thomas takes his son out fishing one afternoon. The Long children re-enact a wrestling match they saw on television. Lots of small beats like that.

But, interestingly, while those bits aren't germaine to the basic narrative, they provide a great deal of social and emotional context. They wind up helping to serve the broader thematic narrative, and I think they enhance the book a great deal. I'm pretty sure it wouldn't resonnate quite so much had those not been in place.

The story in Silence is actually true. One of the writers is Mark Long, son of the reporter. In the afterward, he notes that he changed a few names and small details, but the events chronicled here are largely accurate. That is noticeable in the story, in fact; it has a great deal of authenticity about it. Again, this is partly due to those small beats that are throughout the book.

I learned very little about the civil rights movement in school. It was still too new be considered history, and too old to be considered current events. Most everything from 1950-1980 fell into that black hole of social studies classes for me. But, in trying to fill in some of those gaps in hindsight, my "studies" tend to come in the form of mass marketed materials. And, in the case of the civil rights movement, that largely means national headline material -- Martin Luther King, naturally, but also Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, George Wallace, the Black Panthers, etc. So smaller, though nonetheless significant, moments like these often get passed by or overlooked.

What I really liked, and thought was expertly done here, was how there was a very real and visceral sense of the mood of the country in mid-1968. Again, you hear about the house bombings and the beatings and such, but you don't often -- or least get a good sense of -- the day-to-day moments. The sideways glances. The slurs yelled from a car window just after you convinced yourself that they were going to drive by without incident after all. The anger taken out on your own children transferred from that bigot clerk, shortly followed by the realization how and why you lashed out at the wrong person. The news on television that reported a decidedly slanted version of events because the editor is a "goddamn racist jarhead." All of that, day in and day out, wears on a person. Death by a thousand paper cuts.

And it's not just the black people who experienced that. No question they got the worst of it, by far, but anyone who supported them, even tacitly, had issues to deal with. More along the lines of social ostracization and career suicide instead of getting run over by a truck, but still just because you had lighter skin didn't give you free pass.

And that's all why I shouldn't have read The Silence of our Friends tonight. Because it showcases just how many people are complete assholes. Yes, the story is primarily about two men overcoming emotional/social racial barriers they both have and the book ends with blacks and whites literally marching in hand in hand. But there is so much hate and prejudice shown in this book, and I can't help but see it reflected in where I live now over four decades later. No, I can't say I've seen black folks getting spit on or beaten up, but my neighbors do complain about kids "nigger-knocking" and how I should make sure I don't sell my house to any "colored folks." Actual conversations I've had with neighbors. You know what, asshole? Fuck you! Learn some fucking respect for people before you ever talk to me again!

The Silence of our Friends is an excellent book, and highlights a sorely under-represented slice of civil rights history. I have to recommend this book. I just don't recommend reading it if you've had any experience with racial tensions and you're trying to wind down from a long week.

1 comment:

Matt K said...

Yeah, what you said.

Beyond that, though, I definitely know what you mean about that previous generation or so worth of history. Now and then I read something that really brings home the reality of "the era of Nixon" (i.e., "those strange years between the sixties and seventies") and think "man, as messed-up as things have been during my adulthood, I cede precedence to those days."