by Elliot Jaspin; New York, Basic Books, 2007, 352 pages, $26.95
Dr. Hall is associate clinical professor ofpsychiatry and unit chief of San Francisco General Hospital's Black Focus Program, University of California, San Francisco.
Elliot Jaspin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has turned his considerable talents to a lost but important aspect of American history. Buried in the Bitter Waters is an exhaustively researched and compellingly written book. Jaspin begins by examining the term racial cleansing, noting that the victims of Yugoslavian genocide initially coined a similar term to describe the atrocities to which they had been subjected. "Words are born out of a need to describe the world," Jaspin writes. "In a press conference the beleaguered Croatian government accused the Serbians of "ethnic cleansing the critical areas that are to be annexed to Serbia. Within a year, the term, 'ethnic cleansing' was in almost daily use … Ethnic cleansing, the UN decided, was the elimination by the ethnic group exerting control over a given territory of members of other ethnic groups."
Ethnic cleansing is not a term often associated with the Jim Crow South, but Jaspin's research clearly delineates that this is just what happened. The book depicts 11 different cases of racial cleansing that occurred between 1864 and 1918 in towns from Indiana to Tennessee. Often the cleansing began with an offense—perceived or real—committed by a local black person. This became an excuse for white people to drive all blacks from the area. Many times the expulsions were accompanied by brutal, torturous lynchings, many of which are documented in the text. After the Civil War, the South was in economic hard times, jobs were scarce, and the whites were not willing to compete with blacks who had recently been property. There was an urgent need to maintain the strict domination of blacks by whites in order to preserve the social order. Laws were passed to ensure that blacks had no chance to climb out of the subservient role and to make imprisonment of individual blacks or expulsion of entire communities easy.
This book shines a spotlight on the fact that seemingly regular communities can and do sanction unspeakable atrocities committed by ordinary citizens. These citizens do not need an evil Nazi dictator to create the impetus for genocide or racial cleansing.