J. Chester Johnson's "Damaged Heritage"

Poet J. Chester Johnson rose to the awareness of many in Arkansas and across the nation during the commemoration of the centennial of the Elaine Massacre in 2019 because of his family’s connection to the atrocity of 1919 and the project of reconciliation which he made of that heritage. This story is the subject of Johnson’s new book, “Damaged Heritage: The Elaine Race Massacre and a Story of Reconciliation,” a meditation upon the legacy of violence that not only destroyed the lives of untold numbers in the past but also threatens to rend asunder the United States in this present moment.

Johnson recalls how, when he was 2 years old, he went to live in Little Rock with his maternal grandparents, Alonzo (Lonnie) and Hattie Birch, after the death of his father. He stayed with them for several years before his mother was able to gather the family together under a single roof in Monticello. Years later, he heard vague stories about how his grandfather took part in some “race riot” while he worked for the Missouri Pacific Railroad in McGehee, but Johnson had few clues as to the nature of this riot until, in 2008, living in New York City, he encountered Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s pamphlet “The Arkansas Race Riot.” In this work, he learned about the efforts of Black sharecroppers in Phillips County to form a farmers’ union, the violent opposition to this on the part of white plantation owners, the shootout between white law enforcement and Black union members at a church north of Elaine, and the violence that followed, which was perpetrated not just by mobs and posses but also federal soldiers shipped in from Camp Pike to keep the peace. After further researching the Elaine Massacre, Johnson reached out to Robert Whitaker, author of “On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation.” Whitaker, in turn, offered to connect Johnson with Sheila L. Walker, the descendant of victims of the Elaine Massacre (and author of the foreword to “Damaged Heritage”). Together, the two of them began to explore how they might reconcile their family histories with their present selves — and what such a reconciliation might imply for the nation as a whole.

Sheila Walker (center) with J. Chester Johnson (right) and David P. Solomon Jr.

Even before I had read the book myself, many people whose opinions I value were already recommending “Damaged Heritage” to me. And indeed, the book offers a heartfelt narrative, calling to mind other classic Southern memoirs — such as William Alexander Percy’s “Lanterns on the Levee,” with its rich style and its author’s complex relationship with the region. Unfortunately, it also shares with many such memoirs deficiencies both narrative and conceptual.

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For one, Johnson regularly becomes unstuck in time, venturing back and forth across his lifespan, so that it becomes difficult to put events of his childhood or career in proper order. At many points during the narrative, in fact, Johnson seems aloof from his own lived experiences, something perhaps best represented by his practice of refusing to identify people by name, even the local football hero who went on to play center in the NFL. This leaves his narrative imbued with the quality of a medieval morality play, in which characters who are little more than symbols shuffle about, their rise or downfall serving as the grist for contemplation.

This stylistic idiosyncrasy also makes it difficult to discern Johnson’s relative standing in the community — a detail that is not without consequence in a story with themes of power, property and privilege at its center. For example, he emphasizes that, upon his family’s move to Monticello, they lived “in a more undesirable part of town where houses were smaller or more dilapidated or too close to African-Americans.” However, he becomes, at the age of 14, a page for the U.S. House of Representatives, “having been appointed to the position by the local congressman” — unnamed here, but obviously William Frank Norrell — “whose house stood only a few blocks away from our own and who had been a family friend going back to my paternal grandfather.” Four pages later, Johnson is nonchalantly packing up to begin his freshman year at Harvard College, but after Freedom Summer, he feels called to return south. Back in Monticello, he occasionally spends time with a Black man named G.P., who “lived alone, just beyond and along the western boundary of our tree farm, south of Wilmar.” Johnson never previously mentioned a family tree farm, and he never does again. 

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Johnson can expound with great eloquence on his divided self, how his growing Christian consciousness in the light of the civil rights movement struggled against his Southern upbringing and his love of those back home. And his book is, after all, much more a meditation than a memoir. But his omission of details about his family’s class standing doesn’t just make the narrative patchy, it feels somehow conspicuous, as if he’s discarding any information that does not serve his central theme of race and reconciliation, even at the risk of raising a whole host of other questions. 

More serious, however, are the book’s conceptual shortcomings. For example, Johnson writes that “racism in America for every generation repeats itself in varying degrees for the simple reason too many white Americans have shown little desire to accept, continuously and committedly, the genuinely human in another.” However, this humanist fallacy misses the fact that, as Cornell University philosopher Kate Manne has written, “a fellow human being is not just an intelligible spouse, parent, child, sibling, friend, colleague, etc. in relation to you and yours. They are also an intelligible rival, enemy, usurper, insubordinate, betrayer, etc.” In other words, the problem is not that Johnson’s grandfather necessarily regarded the African Americans he assisted in murdering as less than human — the problem may have been that their humanity was a fundamental threat to him and so many others. For those in a dominant social position, the enemy or other can be perfectly human without being at all innocent.

This brings us to another point. After the realization of his grandfather’s participation in the Elaine Massacre, Johnson’s view of Lonnie becomes bifurcated: “My grandfather, my constant companion during the earliest years of my life, remained a singularly adoring and devoted figure. The image of a killer and the flood of emotions I felt for him could not coalesce; the two images were all askew and detached from one another.” Such sentiments are repeated throughout the text. However, this sense that there must be two separate Lonnies seems naive. Instead, we might well imagine this aged grandfather gazing adoringly upon his grandson and thinking back to that night in 1919 when he picked up arms to defend his community from a vicious “negro insurrection,” confident that he made the right decision, that he would never have been able to enjoy his dotage had he wiped the blood from his eyes and chosen the path of peace. Johnson prefers to fantasize about the source of his grandfather’s tenderness later in life, addressing him directly: “I have often speculated that your rescue and attentive treatment of me so long ago may have possibly somehow been part of a search by you toward atonement for your role in the Massacre.” But we need not entertain such fallacies. Lonnie’s evil deeds may well have been the perfect expression of what he experienced as love, through his desire to protect his family from people he saw as threatening. And likewise, his love could be regarded as the perfect consummation of his evil deeds.

Johnson regularly exhibits the kind of unflinching curiosity about the past that teachers and historians can only hope to nurture in their students, and never in the book does he try to minimize or make excuses for the actions of his grandfather. Right now, much of white America at least professes a desire to begin this journey away from the enduring injustices of our history. This book is for them. If we truly wish, though, to go beyond the project of personal reconciliation and create the structures we need for an equitable and just world, we are going to require a deeper understanding of the nature of evil than the one Johnson offers here. However, the first step will be not flinching from the truth or making excuses for our familial pasts and our inheritances of terror and privilege, and “Damaged Heritage” offers a model for exactly that. 

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