For my nonfiction class, we were each randomly assigned a children’s nonfiction author and told to read two of their works and write a mini-biography.
I was assigned Susan Campbell Bartoletti, and I inwardly cheered when I drew her name! I don’t read tons of nonfiction, but Bartoletti is an author that I was both familiar with and admired greatly.
In terms of subject matter, Bartoletti is known for her interest in the tough stuff. The shady stuff that people don’t really like to talk about. In an interview with adlit.com she confesses, “I’m drawn to the dark side. I’m drawn to the dark stories. And I love looking for those dark stories because I just want to figure them out. I want to understand why. I want to make meaning out of them.” I think this is what draws readers to her work. Bartoletti’s work often shines a light on history’s darkest corners by exploring events from the perspectives of traditionally silenced subjects.
In college I read Bartoletti’s book Hitler Youth: Growing Up In Hitler’s Shadow and was blown away. It was utterly fascinating stuff. Bartoletti is known for her use of primary source material like interviews, diaries, letters, etc. and chilling images that lend depth and pathos to her work. In Hitler Youth these sources are used masterfully as Bartoletti traces the history of the Hitler Youth from 1933-1945 through the stories of twelve young people who experienced it. I read this book in one day. It was so interesting! Insightful, shocking, heartbreaking and inspiring all at the same time.
When I got this latest assignment, I knew that the other Bartoletti text I wanted to tackle was her latest book, They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group.
Just as she did in Hitler Youth, in They Called Themselves the KKK, Susan Campbell Bartoletti illustrates the ease with which an organization that preaches racial superiority can seduce a war-ravaged nation and manipulate its citizens into committing atrocious acts of violence. In this text, Bartoletti presents the political, economic and social chaos of America during the Reconstruction era, and utilizes first-person accounts from Klansmen, slaves, and others, to trace the history of the Ku Klux Klan from its humble roots as a six-man club in Pulaski, Tennessee to a hugely powerful terrorist group that practically ruled the post-Civil War South.
While this book didn’t quite grab me in quite the same way that Hitler Youth did, it was still fascinating, and was just as shocking, heartbreaking and inspiring. It’s amazing how this sort of hate can grow and escalate like wildfire in a fragile landscape.
While researching Bartoletti I stumbled across her blog and found a few entries where she talks about her experience attending a modern day KKK rally for research. That’s right, this lady is so hardcore that she had the cajones to attend a KKK conference all in the name of research! This is where the coloring book comes in–I know you’ve been patiently waiting to hear about it!
Though They Call Themselves the KKK focuses on the organization’s early history during the Reconstruction, Bartoletti briefly talks about its present day manifestation as a white supremacist group with a right-wing, Christian bent in the book’s epilogue. When talking about her motives for attending she explains that she “wanted to better understand how today’s group reads against the Reconstruction-era Klan….In what ways are the two groups alike? How do they differ? What sort of men and women join the KKK today? What are their goals? What compass guides their lives?”
What she found is quite simply….crazypants. While on the surface most of the attendees appeared normal or even wholesome, what they preach is just downright hateful. propaganda.
To me, the most interesting of Bartoletti’s observations occurred in the kid’s area of the conference. On her blog she describes a “White Heritage Coloring and Storybook” that was being sold to children. “On page 2,” Bartoletti explains, “there is a picture of Noah’s ark. Above the picture, it says, ‘God saved Noah and his family because they were not of mixed race.’Below the picture, the text reads: ‘God saved Noah and his wife, his three sons and their wives from the flood. In the land where Noah lived the people had mixed races and men had boyfriends and girls had girlfriends. Noah, [sic] was perfect in his generations (a pure white man) and so was his family. The family of Noah was saved from the anger of God.’” Not only were children being taught to believe in white supremacy, but they were also taught that homosexuality was wrong. It was difficult enough to read about the hate crimes and atrocities that occurred throughout the KKK’s history, but the fact that this sort of thing is happening today is just mind boggling. And can I just say, this has got to be the WORST COLORING BOOK EVER!
In any case, I highly recommend They Called Themselves the KKK. It’s a chilling but enlightening look into America’s sad, sad, history. For more information about Susan Campbell Bartoletti, check out her website.