Review of The Vain Conversation by Anthony Grooms

This was a very intense read, and a thoughtful one.  Grooms takes us into the minds of three characters who are involved in a mass lynching in Georgia in 1946 (one based on actual events).  One character is Lonnie, a young white boy who sees the brutal murder of four people, one of them a close family friend.  Another character is Noland Jacks, a wealthy older white man.  And the third is Bertrand, one of the four African-Americans who are murdered.

The book begins with young Lonnie seeing the lynching of four black adults he knows in rural Talmaedge County, Georgia.  Then it goes back in time to Wayne (his father) coming home from World War II.  Wayne, a white man, strikes up a friendship with fellow veteran Bertrand.  Their perception of the world has the changed, from their travels, to the horrors they’ve seen, to the bonds they shared.  Wayne’s wife Aileen warns him that a black man and a white man can’t be friends in Talmaedge County.  Their son Lonnie tries to understand the conflicting views of his parents, while he comes to see Bernard as a role model and friend.

Lately I’ve been reading a number of challenging and thought-provoking books about race.  But this one was different, because it forces you to look head-on at something you really don’t want to know about.  Or, you think you know but you don’t, because you can’t.  What this book made me realize, that I didn’t quite understand before, is the terror that African-Americans lived with constantly.  The characters in this book live in constant fear of saying the wrong thing, or smiling at someone wrong, or using the wrong tone of voice.  Every interaction a black person has with a white person is scrutinized.  A black person who is confident, or educated, is deemed to be too “proud” –they’re seen as putting themselves above their station, and that can’t be tolerated.

Grooms writes, too, about the pressure that white people are under to play their “role” – if they act too soft towards a black person, they are seen as challenging the supremacy of all white people.  It seems nearly impossible that one person could make a difference against this tidal wave of hate. Tragically, it’s Wayne’s own friendship that puts Bertrand’s life in danger.

The book is brutal – it’s not nearly as violent as it could be, but Grooms conveys the psychological terror the black community faced in these small Southern towns.  Bertrand keeps thinking, how is it possible I fought for my country against the evil of the Nazis, and then came home to this?  An educated man, he wants to believe that things are getting better.  But as readers, we know from the very start of the book that he’s wrong.

What Grooms does is brilliant, because he puts us in the minds of these characters, and each perspective is horrifying in its own way.  Lonnie because we see a young boy being shaped by the racism and violence around him; Bertrand because we like him and respect him; and Jacks, because we see inside the mind of what most white men must have been like.  Grooms doesn’t try to give us the perspective of the most violent, bigoted man in town, but instead, a man with “moderate” views. And perhaps what I found most chilling is that this moderate, even sensitive man still doesn’t see African-Americans as human beings.  It’s a tough reality to think about, but one we should be forced to, if we’re to understand the effects today.

I found myself particularly troubled by the role of women in this story. We know that many lynchings were the result of a black man bumping into a white woman or even looking at her.  There’s a part of me that wants to think it was the men that were killing and torturing in the name of “protecting” their women. But several times in the book it’s the white women who are talking about black men as dirty, savage beasts, and maybe the role that women played is something I haven’t wanted to confront.  Grooms’ novel doesn’t shy away from the role that perceptions of sexuality played in the history of lynching.

My one criticism of the book is that the last chapter felt disconnected from the rest of the book, like perhaps Grooms was advised to give us a “what happened later” ending he didn’t really want.  As a reader I knew Lonnie would spend the rest of his life trying to overcome and make sense of what he experienced – but having it described for me wasn’t necessary.  This part of the story didn’t work for me, partly because it seemed to cover too much time and too many ideas.  I was sorry the book ended where it did, because the rest of it was so powerful.

This book couldn’t be more timely.  As I was thinking about my review, I saw an article in Smithsonian magazine about the opening of a memorial in Montgomery, Alabama on April 26, 2018 .  It’s called the Memorial for Peace and Justice, and it’s the country’s first national memorial to victims of lynching.  It came about through the work of the Equal Justice Initiative, which was founded by Bryan Stevenson, who wrote Just Mercy (a book I’ll be reading very soon).

Also interesting: the investigation into the actual murders described in this book was recently closed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.  Why?  Not only are all of the suspects dead by now, but closing the case allows the Bureau to make the case available for public research.  That way, maybe more can be learned about what happened near Moore’s Ford Bridge that day in 1946.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from publisher University of South Carolina Press.  The book was published on March 1, 2018.

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