First Draft of a Speech

So… apparently I have been awarded the Booker Worthen Literary Prize, one of Arkansas’s top such awards, which fact strikes me somewhat oddly, given that the book of mine being awarded is one of those obscenely priced scholarly monographs. Usually, the awards ceremony includes some reading or speech, and since it’s not exactly like much of my book can be excerpted for aesthetic appreciation, I’m planning on the former. This is my attempt:

———

Thank you, Bob, for the kind introduction, and thanks, too, to the Worthen family for funding this award. It means a lot to the state of Arkansas to be able to offer significant book awards like this, so thank you.

That said, it’s been an odd experience for me being named the recipient of a “literary” prize. You’ll notice at the book signing table that this is one of those obscenely priced scholarly monographs purchased primarily by libraries with nice budgets. I’ve regularly been telling people to check this book out of the library rather than buying it. And, according to my last royalty statement, plenty of people have been taking my advice.

Since Bob told me that I won this award, I’ve been trying to locate the literary merit of this particular book. Of course, the writing of history has long been recognized as a literary enterprise. As the science fiction author Bruce Sterling once put it: “History is not a science; history is an effort of the humanities.” That is to say that history is the effort at explaining us to ourselves, the creation of a coherent narrative about who we are and where we are going—which is exactly why debates about the content of our history books are so contentious, and not just in Texas. Political and cultural authorities, after all, would like us all to be on the same page, would like us to agree about the nature of the “us” they claim to represent. However, the “us” in question has typically been only a select few who have the privilege of being the actors in our historical narratives.

Now, I study racial violence. In particular, this literary award-winning book is on the subject of racial cleansing, or the expulsion of racial minorities, particular African Americans, by white majorities in communities all across the country. In many places, this practice created communities called “sundown towns” by the alleged existence of signs at towns’ edge warning black people not to let the sun set down on them there. I’m sure that you all can name one or two, even if it’s just the notorious city of Harrison, though I should let you know that Harrison takes up exactly two pages in my book, so its famed status is more a media creation than it is representative of uniqueness.

The trouble with researching and writing about atrocity is that it tends to create problems for those traditional historical narratives. The promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must be recognized as not so universal—for some, the promise was of death, slavery, and the use of violence. Keepers of the traditional narrative usually like to dismiss such events as ubiquitous racial cleansing as exceptions to the rule, but that pretense becomes harder to maintain as the evidence piles on. And here, contrary to Bruce Sterling, history can begin to mimic science by forcing a re-evaluation of our narrative at hand through the meticulous accumulation of evidence, to force us into the realm of the discomforting truth.

Of course, that is also a literary quest, as the best works of literature aim to upset our worldview just a bit. Salman Rushdie once said that the definition of a good book was one that changes not only what you think but also what you can think. If it forces even one person to evaluate our collective history and begin to carve out a place for racial violence beyond the dustbin of exceptions, then perhaps even a dry, academic volume can have some kind of literary merit.

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