All Over but the Shoutin’

Posted March 18th, 2011 by

In Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York, Boss Tweed is quoted saying, “You never enjoyed the enlightenment of poverty, did you, Governor? If you had, you’d know you can always hire half the poor people to kill the other half.” Though I have no idea if this is an actual quote from the real William M. Tweed who ran Tammany Hall and the political machine that was so powerful in 19th century New York politics, the sentiment was true then and it is true today.

Rich, powerful people have successfully sowed seeds of distrust among groups of disaffected, downtrodden, and destitute people for centuries. Keeping disenfranchised people fighting among themselves over religious, political, racial, or other differences has effectively kept them from realizing all they have in common and who their common oppressor is.

Most of my writing and research over the past decade has focused on racism and the legacy of slavery. It is clear to me that all forms of oppression–including racism, sexism, classism, political and religious intolerance, etc.–are closely related and grow in the same fertile soil of fear.

It is with this in mind that I highly recommend Rick Bragg’s powerful and haunting memoir, All Over but the Shoutin’ (Random House, 1999). I borrowed this wonderful book from my writing partner Sharon Morgan when we were in Tobago in January after she finished it. We both found it engaging and inspiring for our own writing.

From the prologue:

This is not an important book. It is only the story of a strong woman, a tortured man and three sons who lived hemmed in by thin cotton and ragged history in northeastern Alabama, in a time when blacks and whites found reason to hate each other and a whole lot of people could not stand themselves.

Bragg grew up exceedingly poor and subjected to abuse and neglect (as were his brothers and mother) by his alcoholic, violent-tempered father. His loving, long-suffering mother’s commitment to her sons in the face of the obstacles she faced is incredible. Bragg could easily have ended up just as he began: poor, unknown and following in his father’s footsteps. Instead he became a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the New York Times. It’s a story filled with sadness, poverty, race, oppression, love, and hope. It’s a story of the South. It’s a story of people. And Bragg’s wonderful writing helps readers understand all these factors a little better.

No, this is not an important book. The people who know about books call it a memoir, but that is much too fancy a word for me, for her, for him. It is only a story of a handful of lives, in which one tall, blond woman, her back forever bent by the pull of that [cotton] sack, comes off looking good and noble, and a dead man gets to answer for himself from deep in the ground. In these pages I make the dead dance again with the living, not to get at any great truth, just a few little ones. It is still a damn hard thing to do, when you think about it.

I disagree with Bragg on his first point. This is an important book. And getting at a few little truths is the first step toward understanding the great ones.

One response to “All Over but the Shoutin’”

  1. shirley says:

    I too loved this book. Great writing. Vivid characters. A window into a world many never see.

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