My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Here’s the problem book reviewers face, particularly when they are writing about a topic to which they are close. There is a natural inclination to be “that guy,” offering up a defense to uncomfortable points presented by the author.
The problem: That does a disservice to the author. Instead, it’s up to the reviewer to consider and find those uncomfortable points, and allow the author to explore the topic.
As a child of Appalachia that was my challenge with Jack Glazier’s Been Coming Through Hard Times: Race, History, and Memory in Western Kentucky, which splashed the African-American experience in Hopkinsville, Kentucky across the white pages of history. An anthropologist, he embedded himself within both the historical and the living town in order to trace the evolution of Hopkinsville through the lens of its black residents.
Glazer pursued two themes throughout the book: The destruction of the historical memory of Appalachian African-Americans, which has untethered people from their own American history, and the longing for a place to call home, which gives people a sense of permanency. Interweaving the histories of black and white Hopkinsville through ethnographic research allowed those narratives to emerge in stark ways. The juxtaposition of “Otherness” between the increasingly economically depressed backdrop of white Appalachia with the harsh conditions imposed upon the free black population post-Civil War that makes such call-backs difficult to articulate in a meaningful way.
Glazer’s book isn’t an easy read on multiple levels. The chapters are long, the structure dense, and his scientific attention to every small detail slows the narrative. However, the end result is worth the struggle, particularly for those who are interested in the modern re-envisioning of the Appalachian experience through academic and popular writing. Coming Through Hard Times is an important reminder of the deeply rooted, and oft-times hidden, past that still drives so much of who we are today.