Writing About the Civil Rights Era

On the heels of one of yesterday’s posts, a quick plug for two great books here.

In writing my article on Civil Rights Era mystery novels, I relied heavily on Mark Harris’ recent book, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, to understand and to explain how In the Heat of the Night — both John Ball’s book and Norman Jewison’s film adaptation — struggled to keep up with the rapidly changing times. Harris’ extensive research, his personal interviews, and his ability to balance both an up-close examination of book and film and a panoramic survey of social and historical trends are not just educational but enthralling. While I’ve read the book only in select portions at this point, I look forward to exploring more his treatment not only of this film but of the four other movies contending with it for the Best Picture Academy Award — Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Doolittle, The Graduate and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Harris’ use of this Oscar race as a way of understanding the changing era really seems to offer a fine and fascinating model of how to combine historical scholarship and cultural criticism.

Another fine book — one that was published in 2006 but that I only discovered this year — is the anthology Short Stories of the Civil Rights Movement, edited by Margaret Earley Whitt and published by the University of Georgia Press. In her introduction, Whitt, a professor of English at the University of Denver, speaks about how “literature can help us ‘feel’ history” and explains how she tried to “find short stories with characters, perhaps the age of my students, who could bring the meaning of the civil rights movement alive.” The collection mixes contemporary stories (from the 1950s and ’60s) with works from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s — and even a story by ZZ Packer from 2003 — to create a well-rounded view of the era from both in the moment and in retrospect. The stories are gathered in sections which focus on several key headline-makers: “School Desegregation,” “Sit-ins,” “Marches and Demonstrations,” and “Acts of Violence,” with one section explicitly labeled “Retrospective.”

One book which examines how books and films can influence or be influenced by their times; another book which shows fiction at work doing that very thing. Both well worth the read.

— Art Taylor

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