THE KNOTS THAT HOLD
B. J. Hollars, Thirteen Loops, University of Alabama Press, 2011.
Reviewed by Lisa O'Neill
One early morning in June, auto plant worker James Craig Anderson, 49, was in a hotel parking lot in Jackson, Mississippi. There, he was accosted and then beaten by a group of teenagers. Then, one of the teenagers got into his truck and ran Anderson over. Allegedly, the teenagers screamed "White Power" over and over again as they pummeled African-American Anderson to the ground. Anderson died from his injuries. The year: 2011.
This most recent crime, all caught on video surveillance, is one that we Americans would like to believe doesn't happen anymore, not in our "free" and civilized country. We are very wrong. Maybe the weapon is no longer rope. Maybe we use the words "hate crime" instead, but clearly lynching is not over. In light of this murder in Mississippi, B. J. Hollar's book Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and The Last Lynching in America feels even more essential as an addition to our shared collection of research about race-related crime in the South. Hollars has carefully gathered and parsed out the history of three murders in Alabama, ranging from 1933 to 1981, and brought to light events, historical context, and personal histories in order to reveal the lasting impact of hatred, of division, of feeling threatened by someone else's mere existence.
Thirteen Loops is a book about tension and exactitude. It is about what it takes for a noose to be constructed and wrapped thirteen times around, what it means to hang a rope from a tree and all the many factors that involve it getting there. And ultimately, it is about what happens to the body of an individual, to the body of a community, when that noose is used to strangle, kill, and hang. It is about the things that tie us to one another and the things that tear our very beings apart.
I read Thirteen Loops during vacation this summer. I read the first half of the book on a plane ride from my home in Tucson to Las Vegas. And it was just before I touched down in the city of lights, of gambling, of fakeness and superficiality and reckless abandon that I saw the picture of Michael Donald's lynching. It's true, I knew there were photos in the book. I had even looked at a few of them. However, I did not know that this photograph of him hanging—not really suspended from a branch but directly in front of a camphor tree, covered in blood, his arm outstretched unnaturally, his body crumpled and seeming so small—would be there, and I was stunned by it. I looked and kept reading and then looked back at it again. And then, I was sick to my stomach. I began the walk to the passenger pickup area and on the way, everything was agitating me: the passenger behind rushing me off the airplane, the sounds of casino slot machines in the airport dispensing midi files and coins, the people walking at least what I perceived to be way too close to me, the guard outside whistling this high-pitch irregular whistle, the rush of cars, the honk of horns. All of this was intolerable, especially so against the silent backdrop of that photo.
So what is the one of the book's greatest weaknesses may also prove to be a strength. Thirteen Loops starts slowly. The first murders explored give interesting context for Alabama in the half century leading up to the final lynching, but this context, although thorough and detailed, is not as interestingly told or as compelling as Michael Donald's story, which Hollars admits in his introduction is the heart of the book. There is a stillness, evenness, a lack of agency and urgency about the beginning sections of the book that can feel a bit stilted but when you arrive at Donald's story, you arrive. Hollars takes you through seamlessly and quickly, unfolding the narrative in a careful, exacting way that doesn't read as careful and exacting. This story is necessary and urgent and needs to be told and needs to be read and the beating of this motion, the palpability of the story throbs in your hands as you turn the pages. Because here is the story of a man who was killed not a hundred years ago, but just three decades ago, just a few years after I was born. When my white university students read James Baldwin and say how glad they are racism is over, I ask them to look again. Look, Hollars is saying, look again.
The beginning of the book doesn't prepare you for what is to come. The point being that it can't, that nothing possibly could. Nothing could have prepared me for the moment I would see that photo and the way it is now emblazoned in my mind. And nothing could prepare you for the story you will hear about a man who was alive and then wasn't, for the brutal way he was killed and for the reasons, the non-reasons, why.
In some ways, the book is a memorial to Michael Donald, a tribute to the life he would have lived if he had the opportunity to live. It is also a reminder of what can happen, of what we human beings are capable of if we allow hate to permeate our communities, if we allow complacency to situate itself within us and within our institutions. And because Michael Donald's murder is the core of the book, I wonder why it is not solely his story that is told here. While the other two murders are useful to provide context, they seem to take an unnecessary portion of time in the book. The murder of a police sergeant that is more entwined with the death of Michael Donald feels relevant, but the other is more tenuously linked. The strongest sections of the book are those that deal with the time leading up to Michael Donald's killing, the lynching itself, and its aftermath. Clearly, this is where the author's interest and passion lies; here, the level of investment in the story, the research, and the devotion to the telling is clear.
The second day after beginning the book, I toured Zion National Park with my parents, who had flown in from their home in Louisiana, where I was raised, for a tour of the Southwest. We walked down paved walkways with red rocks on either side of us and I couldn't help thinking about the time it took for the river to carve its way through. The Virgin River, which flows through the park, has a downward trajectory. This means it is constantly eroding deeper into the earth instead of expanding in width. It is only the height of the canyon walls that reveal how much terrain the river has dug over the years.
In the evening, in my hotel room, I checked my Facebook page and saw a link from a friend regarding the murder of James Craig Anderson in Mississippi in June. The updated report from CNN was that the death penalty was now being considered as an option for the accused. The story also recapped the events of the crime and the people involved: "[According to law enforcement officials,] before the murder, the teens were partying and drinking miles away from Jackson that night, in largely white Rankin County, Dedmon told friends they should leave, saying ‘Let's go fuck with some niggers.'"
This language and the tone of the words felt all too familiar to those recounted by Hollars in reference to Michael Donald's case. According to Mississippi authorities, Deryl Dedmon, the 18-year-old accused of murder, had been robbed by an African-American man weeks before and went out that night in June in search of a black man, any black man, to harm in retribution. In 1983, a black man charged with killing a white cop did not get the conviction the Klan wanted and, according to Tiger Knowles, 17 at the time of the crime, he and Henry Hays got in a car that night and drove around looking "for a black person to kill."
Thirteen Loops explores this attitude of racism and retribution but also explores the culture and attitudes of those in positions of authority that allow it: "a cloud of evil and permissiveness has long been entwined with Southern history. After centuries of passing hatred from one generation to the next, regions of the South managed to create an environment forged in fear and unaccountability." If this is the reason for examining these individual stories, then I'm curious to know: Where do we go from here? How does the South correct or process this lineage of hatred? What is to be done next?
Thirteen Loops reads easily and fluidly in most places, with the exception of some parts where the mediating of voices and source material can be cumbersome. The research is meticulously done if more fluidly expressed in some places rather than others. At one point, Hollars refers to the song "Strange Fruit" and says, "while this metaphorical interpretation of the brutal crime became the anthem of the anti-lynching movement, his poetic rendering does little to help us better understand the definition of the term itself." Here lies the opposite: we have much information needed to understand racial dynamics in the South surrounding these deaths, but at some points, the books lacks in lyricism that would add to our experience of the story. But then, this is a work of "new journalism" and the author himself says his ambition is to present the story as directly as possible. Still, my sensibilities, as both a writer and as a Southerner who strives to understand the complexities of these issues, want more.
Some moments of the book, as in the introduction, plait like a lyric essay. And other moments slow down a moment of story to provide reflection through dynamic language. Here the prose shines. Hollars takes us through the autopsy notes for Michael Donald and with each injury, each puncture wound, moves through what the assailants were doing to cause that wound. This movement is emotional, intrusive, and powerful.
On the plane ride home, I finished the book, learning what happened to the men who killed Michael Donald. The recounting of the trial is vividly written, with details that firmly place the reader in the courtroom. Hollars does a beautiful job in this section of not only telling the story of the trial but also weaving in historical information that shows the trial's relevance—in relationship to the Klan, to the history of racism in Southern academic institutions, in its historical significance of having white men on trial for the murder of a black man.
Thirteen Loops is sometimes sentimental, like the cue of music in dramatic Spielberg moments asking us to contemplate the significance of what we're seeing. Furthermore, for a book that advises, nay, warns, against the oversimplification of complicated issues, declarations attempting to link Michael Donald to Civil Rights leaders who trained at the Highlander School and were actively engaged in the fight for civil rights do just that. Some connections like this feel contrived or misguided. At one moment, Hollars describes the assailant's heart as weighing ten grams more than his victim. What is the significance here? What are we meant to take from this? That he had a bigger heart? That it was heavier from the crime he committed?
Thirteen Loops is an ambitious book. It seeks not only to tell the story of one man unjustly killed for the color of his skin but it seeks to explore racial dynamics in the South resulting from slavery, the stew of hatred and resentment that makes people lash out in anger, the attitude of complacency and complicity from those in leadership positions that allowed such violence to continue. It also seeks to review, discuss and condemn the role of the KKK in perpetuating violence and needless deaths in the South. This is much to take on in one book, perhaps too much, but that does not mean the book does not have its triumphs. Overall, I am most grateful for being informed of this part of our, of my history.
The night I returned, I watched a DVD of the television drama Six Feet Under. In one episode, a main character picks up a hitchhiker and through the course of the episode, this character is mugged, tied up, held at gunpoint and forced to drive the hitchhiker around. He is beaten, doused with gasoline, and forced to bite the end of a gun, before he is left alone in the alley, alive. This episode, a work of fiction, caused many dedicated viewers to stop watching the program, so disturbed were they by the psychological and physical torture and near death of this character they had come to know and love. The writers had gone too far. After the episode ended, I thought of Michael Donald. I thought of how these "fictions" are sometimes real and happening all around us, and how it is we who have the responsibility to make sure they don't.If anything is clear from the recent murder of James Craig Anderson, it is that we have some work to do to understand our history and to change our future. We owe it to ourselves, to our communities, to our collective history, and especially to Michael Donald to know this story. And we owe a debt to B. J. Hollars for immersing himself in the pain, difficulty, emotionality of this gruesome story to be our navigator through it. It is only through reading stories like these that we can awaken our compassion and know there is no place for judgment without attempt at understanding, no place for separation where no real boundaries exist, no room for hatred where we might instead learn how to love, respect and care for one another instead. Because these knots continue to hold, because lives are on the line.