Friday, August 18, 2017

Books: US Gun Culture, Outlaws and False Heroes

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Here are the first few pages of a chapter from Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz' forthcoming book, Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment.  The chapter is on Missouri Confederate guerrillas. In this short excerpt Ms Ortiz destroys a few favorite myths propagated by popular culture and the mass media about guns and the aftermath of the Civil War. It looks like a must read for those of us intent on unlearning official history. RM

 Here is one critic's review:

"Gun violence, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz compellingly shows, is as U.S. American as apple pie. This important book peels back the painful and bloody layers of gun culture in the United States, and exposes their deep roots in the killing and dispossession of Native peoples, slavery and its aftermath, and U.S. empire-making. They are roots with which all who are concerned with matters of justice, basic decency, and the enduring tragedy of the U.S. love affair with guns must grapple."—Joseph Nevins, author of Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment. San Francisco: City Light Publishers, January 2018. *


I grew up in rural Oklahoma. Both my parents were born in western Missouri. My father, besides being a tenant farmer and rodeo man, was an actual proletarian cowboy who worked on a large cattle ranch in Oklahoma mending fences and herding cattle long distances before he married my mother.
In this world, stories of “Robin Hood” outlaw heroes were pervasive. These included the James Gang, Jesse and Frank; and the Younger Brothers, Cole, Jim, John and Bob, Belle Starr—dubbed the “Bandit Queen”—my female role model. I was, thanks to my mother, a devout Southern Baptist; yet it didn’t seem contradictory that these bandits broke nearly all the Ten Commandments, because they stole from the rich and gave to the poor, or so it was said. Not until I moved to San Francisco when I was twenty-one and took a college course in U.S. West History did I learn that all my heroes had been Confederate Guerrillas, associated with William Quantrill’s Rangers. They all came from middle-class families who bought, sold, and worked enslaved Africans, and who were devoted to the Confederacy, that is, the preservation of chattel slavery. This came as a shock, because by that time, I had for the previous four years taken sides in favor of the Civil Rights movement and despised racism, the main reason I left Oklahoma as soon as I could. I’ve been trying to figure out this disconnect ever since. But I do know that border-outlaw narratives have played a role in gun fetishism and a culture of violence and racism in the United States.

I was not alone in buying into the myths about these outlaws. Even in San Francisco, New York City, and beyond, during the folk music revival of the late 1950s, Woody Guthrie’s 1939 recording of the 1882 traditional song extolling Jesse James was revived and made the pop charts:

Oh, they laid poor Jesse in his grave, yes, Lord They laid Jesse James in his grave
Oh, he took from the rich and he gave to the poor But, they laid Jesse James in his grave
Pete Seeger recorded the song in 1957, followed by Eddy Arnold in 1959, the Kingston Trio in 1961, and in the 1970s, it made the charts again recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band as well as by Bob Seger; even The Pogues as well as Bruce Springsteen got in the act in the mid-1980s. It was recorded by dozens of other lesser known folk, pop, and country musicians.

And, there was a larger theme of sympathy for the slave South’s “Lost Cause” in the 1960s counter-culture. The Band first recorded “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” with lyrics by Robbie Robertson,77 in 1969, when they were closely associated with Bob Dylan, topping the charts in several categories; Joan Baez recorded it in 1971, with the same result, as did Johnny Cash in 1975. Liberal San Francisco music critic Ralph J. Gleason waxed eloquently on The Band’s recording: “Nothing I have read ... has brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does...It’s a remarkable song, the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon [Helms] and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Richard and Rick in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn’t some traditional material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today. It has that ring of truth and the whole aura of authenticity.”

Virgil Kane is the name...
Back with my wife in Tennessee
When one day she called to me “Virgil, quick, come see,
There goes Robert E. Lee!”
Now, I don’t mind chopping wood And I don’t care if the money’s no good You take what you need
And you leave the rest
But they should never have taken the very best
The night they drove old Dixie down And the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down And all the people were singing

This was a post-World War II composition mourning the Confederate defeat in the Civil War, written by Robbie Robertson, also a member of The Band and one of the most celebrated of the many musicians, writers, and producers coming out of the 1960s. He is also Mohawk, his mother from the Six Nations Reserve outside Toronto, Canada, his father Jewish. Not having grown up in the United States, Robertson likely had very little knowledge of the Civil War, but Joan Baez did and was a pacifist and an icon of the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the time. It seems that the sanitized lore that views bloody, murdering, Confederate guerrillas as righteous outlaws continues to be deeply ingrained in United States culture.

And, it wasn’t just the music counterculture, but also mainstream pop culture. True Grit, a best-selling 1968 novel by Charles Portis, also serialized in the popular mass-distributed magazine The Saturday Evening Post, was made into a blockbuster movie in 1969, featuring John Wayne as the fictional Rooster Cogburn, former Confederate guerrilla with Quantrill. John Wayne won the Academy Award for best acting the role as the good-hearted drunken antihero who proves himself a true hero. Ethan and Joel Cohen did a 2010 duplicate remake of the film for the new generation starring Jeff Bridges in the John Wayne role, accompanied by a new edition of the novel with an afterword by bestselling author Donna Tartt, which reached number one on The New York Times bestseller list.

The 1976 film, Outlaw Josey Wales, directed by Clint Eastwood, the script by Forrest Carter adapted from his 1972 novel, The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, featured a Missouri Confederate guerrilla played by Clint Eastwood, based on the true story of Bill Wilson, a folk hero in the Ozarks. After Union troops murder his wife and child, Wales refuses to surrender at the end of the war, seeks revenge, and guns down the Union man that killed his family. He then flees to Texas with a bounty on his head. In the film, Josey Wales expresses his world view: “Now remember, things look bad and it looks like you’re not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. Cause if you lose your head and give up then you neither live nor win. That’s just the way it is.”

Forrest Carter, who wrote the script for Outlaw Josey Wales, is the pen name of Asa Earl Carter (1925-1975) who was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s and a speech writer for the segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace in the 1960s. He changed his name and successfully turned to writing, first the Josey Wales book, then in 1976 what claimed to be a memoir, The Education of Little Tree. The story is told by an orphaned boy of five years old, being raised by Cherokee grandparents who called him “Little Tree,” with stereotypical noble savage actions and settings, perfect for the growing “New Age” appropriation and distortion of Native ways. At the book’s release, The New York Times published an article outing Forrest Carter as Asa Carter, former Klansman. It was not a big secret, as Carter had run for governor of Alabama in 1970. The article reported, “Beyond denying that he is Asa Carter, the author has declined to be interviewed on the subject.”

Carter died at age 53 in 1979, beat to death in a fight with his son. His literary fame faded. There had been no questioning of Carter’s claim of Cherokee identity until the University of New Mexico Press bought the rights to The Education of Little Tree in 1985, and published it as non-fiction in 1991. The book took off and became the number one best seller on The New York Times best-seller list and won the American Booksellers Book of the Year award, and became a much loved book. The Cherokee Nation denied that Carter was Cherokee, and Carter’s Ku Klux Klan background was once again revealed, leading the Times to shift the book to its fiction list. Despite calls from the Native American academic community and the Cherokee Nation that the University of New Mexico Press withdraw the book from publication, instead they changed the cover, removing the “True Story” subtitle and reclassified it as fiction, but the biographical profile did not change to include Carter’s Klan activities and the lack of evidence of his being Cherokee; it remains one of their bestselling books. Oprah Winfrey had endorsed the book when it was published, but removed it from her recommendations in 1994.

Clint Eastwood, directing The Outlaw Josey Wales, featured several stereotypical Native American characters, written by Carter, and performed by excellent Native American actors, Geraldine Keams as a love interest, the elderly Chief Dan George as his spirit guide, and Will Sampson as a protector. In the script, there is no mention of slavery even though Wales was a Confederate guerrilla who rejected the Confederate defeat.

Two other widely viewed films—Bonnie and Clyde and Pat Garret and Billy the Kid—glorified gun violence of real-life outlaws who were not Confederate guerrillas, but have contributed to those narratives being folded into ones of the Wild West even though Bonnie and Clyde were bandits in the Great Depression era, and Billie the Kid’s short life ended in 1882. With Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn broke through to mainstream box office triumph and was embraced by the counterculture of 1967 at the same time. The film was noted for the bloodiest scenes in film history, and starred Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 film, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, featured the popular musician and songwriter, Kris Kristofferson as the Kid, and a memorable soundtrack by Bob Dylan, who also played a cameo role.

How did it happen that popular culture transformed Confederate guerrillas into celebrity Western gunfighters, merging them with actual Western gunfighters, and what has this phenomenon contributed to the culture of violence, racism, and gun love in the United States?

* Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a tenant farmer and part-Indian mother. She is the author of many books, including Outlaw Woman, a memoir of the 1960s and her time in an armed underground group, and the acclaimed An Indigenous Peoples' History ofthe United States. She lives in San Francisco.

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