Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Book Review

 

SomethingMustKristen Green’s Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County is compelling, timely, brave, and so deeply necessary that its presence next to me, its pages still warm from my hand and its messages stoking the fires of change in my belly, is palpable. This book is personal, in more ways than one. It is political, in more ways than one. I hope it tops the best-seller lists for months to come, for it is a book we desperately need to read as a nation.

Perhaps you have already read some reviews of this book, and seen that others find it compelling because it weaves together memoir and history so well, telling a story few outside the small community of Prince Edward County know by heart. These things are all true. The book is a well-told narrative, the author’s personal experience and family history—her grandfather helped to found an all-white private school during segregation, contributing to the closure of public schools in Prince Edward County and locking black children out of an education for five years—providing the backdrop for a history that needs to be shared before it can be transcended.

While the book is a quick and fascinating read that gives readers both personal and political perspective, it is more than that. It is a history told by a white person who is aware of her whiteness, and speaking the truth of white middle-class experience—the guilt, shame, and isolation that come with being born on the privileged side of an unjust system. White Americans have a tendency to think of discussions about race as centering only on people of color, as if whiteness is not a race. In these pages, we hear the truth of race and class, simply as story. We see white supremacists trying desperately to hang onto a fragile and false sense of superiority through any means necessary, and we see the quieter kind of racism, which tends to be unconscious, programmed into us as a series of assumptions. To awaken from the myths surrounding whiteness is to begin to question these assumptions, and to acknowledge our own isolation. In exposing this isolation and the heartbreak it can bring in both white and black people, Ms. Green’s book is doing some powerful work indeed.

This is a brave book, braver perhaps than evident at first glance. We all know that it takes bravery to speak the truth. We know that there is more bravery still in speaking truth to power. And we know, somewhere in a rarely explored part of ourselves, that the bravest thing a person could ever do is speak truth to power when those who hold power have built the very ground you stand on—cooked your meals, bought your books, played with you, taught you history and told you not to question it. This is the kind of bravery that Ms. Green demonstrates in her book—she is speaking truth to power in her hometown. In the final chapters of the book, Ms. Green connects the past and the present, exposing the racism, conscious and unconscious, that shapes our present even as we try to pretend it is in our long-distant past.  It is deeply evident that Ms. Green speaks this truth out of love. The love lifts from these pages—love of her family, love of her community, love of black people, love of white people. Love of justice.

To read this book as a resident of Farmville, with children in Prince Edward County schools, is a unique experience. Not only because I recognize place descriptions (all of them spot-on) and names of friends and acquaintances, but because the heartache Ms. Green describes—the sense that the town is keeping a secret, and that there is pain here yet to be released, apologies waiting to be spoken and forgiveness holding its breath—so perfectly encapsulates the experience of living here. Some healing has begun, but there is much more to do—and for those of us who live in Prince Edward County, raising children in a school system that still struggles with issues connected to poverty and racism, it is obvious that something must be done, indeed.

I am grateful to Ms. Green for her eloquence, her bravery, and her insight—and I am sure you will be too, after spending a few hours with the history of her hometown. For her history is our collective history—and acknowledging that at this historical moment, as black churches burn throughout the South and we continue to speak about racism as if it is both debatable and long gone, is a vital step in our journey toward a future that doesn’t repeat our past.

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