Walter Johnson’s new book reframes American history so that St. Louis sits at the center. No more looking at the nation as if it’s that New Yorker cartoon where everything important happened in New York City or Los Angeles, and the vast middle was mere flyover country. In Johnson’s telling, the St. Louis story is the American story — and it’s a messy, often ugly, one.
The book is titled “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States.” Discussing it on St. Louis on the Air, Johnson explained that he came to the topic almost by accident.
The Winthrop Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, Johnson had written two well-regarded books on slavery in 19th-century America. Then he found himself at Washington University giving a keynote address in October 2014, two months after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. His visit coincided with a “Weekend of Resistance” — and plunged the historian, and Missouri native, into a far more recent history.
“I really felt like, given the fact that I am a Missourian, and given the sorts of things I’m interested in, I really felt called to try to talk about some of what was going on, and some historical perspective,” he said. “It was a quick learning curve for me. I had to set aside things that I had some experience in studying and learn about a new set of things.”
The result is a book that closely examines current tax abatement policies in St. Louis but also the removal of Native Americans from the West, the “uniquely precarious” nature of slavery in Missouri, the pioneering civil rights movement in the city and land clearance in the name of urban renewal.
Johnson found himself intrigued by what he calls “structural” racism.
“A lot of people use the term ‘structural racism’ to mean really, really bad racism, or really recalcitrant racism,” he said. “I’m trying to use it somewhat differently. I’m trying to talk about forms of exploitation, domination and racial hierarchy that are actually built into the fabric of our lives — like the interstate highway system, or the divide between the city and the county or the multiplicity of the municipalities.
"The idea is to illuminate, historically, the way that these things came to be, and so to help us see, as I was trying to help myself see, that attitudinal racism — believing some groups of people are inferior to others — is structured into the landscape in a way that it produces a kind of an alibi. That it becomes possible for racial hierarchy to go forward, without anyone expressing any racist ideas, because it’s so structured into our daily lives.”
In the book, Johnson briefly referenced his own background as a white kid growing up in Columbia (his father was a professor at the University of Missouri). He expanded on that in the on-air conversation.
“In a way, that’s the moral center of the book,” he said. “It is, as much as I think people will read it and think I’m trying to roll in from Harvard and scold everybody like some kind of abolitionist avenging angel, really, the moral center of the book is my own perplexity in my childhood, at certain things I saw and did not understand,” he said. “I hold myself responsible for not having understood for much of my life what the parameters of my political and moral imagination were. So really, it’s an excavation of that.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
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