... elements of a powerful film on the order of Yojimbo or The Good the Bad and the Ugly - films where a defenseless minority in a village somewhere is terrorized by the rowdiest elements of their majority neighbors, but this time no Toshiro Mifune or Clint Eastwood is on hand to set things right. By individual violence and/or mob intimidation, the minority is driven from its homes and property, often with the memory of the public slaughter of family members to carry with them into exile and to preclude their ever returning. And in every case there is indifference or collusion from the police and other authorities.
The heart of Buried in the Bitter Waters is narrative -- twelve tragic stories of violence in twelve far-flung communities, decades apart in time. In each story, ordinary people united by their history and ethnicity suddenly rise against their neighbors of a different history and ethnicity, attack them physically, intimidate them psychologically and economically, and force them to leave the community, never to return under threat of death. It's always majority against minority, of course, or it couldn't be done. And in these stories it's successful; in every case, the community remains "pure" even generations later, and feels darned proud of its purity. True, the level of violence is different from narrative to narrative, but violence is always the means. In one narrative, the mob - provoked by a crime committed by one young man of the minority group - rampages through the minority community. It grabs two young men at random and literally shoots them to pieces. Then it seizes a man considered one of the elders of the minority and lynches him, leaving his body hanging as "a grizly tourist attraction" for two days. When that man's pregnant wife seeks help from the authorities, the mob seizes her also, hangs her upside-down in a tree, douses her with gasoline and sets her on fire, then disembowels her and rips out her eight-month fetus. When the infant cries feebly, one of the mob throws it on the ground and stomps it to death.
This is not a scene from a Medieval pogrom, or for the Thirty Years War, or from Nazi Germany, or from sectarian strife in Iraq. The scene of the murdered mother occurred in Georgia in 1918, and all the others narrated in "Buried in Bitter Waters" took place in America - in Tennessee, Texas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Missouri, Arkansas. The victims in every case were African-Americans - descendants of slaves brought to the communities by the ancestors of the mob, long-time neighbors but never accepted as such - and the perpetrators of violence in every case were European-Americans, local people, not roving marauders.
Ethnic Cleansing is such a horrifying concept that Americans will bristle in anger at the mere suggestion that it has occurred in their country, perhaps in their own region. But it has, and not just once, or in one big outburst. Rather it has occurred spontaneously, at random, and often. By careful analysis of census data, old news reports, memoirs, and oral histories, author Elliot Jaspin has identified 260 counties - COUNTIES! not villages - in the states of the South and lower Midwest where 'successful' ethnic cleansings took place sometime between the Civil War and the present. Because of such actions, the demographic map of America even today looks like a checkerboard when the percentage of African-American families is depicted county by county. Jaspin has found that even in communities where the living European-American populace has no historical memory of an ethnic cleansing, such memories persist in the African-American population at large, in the form of vague dread and a sense of unwelcomeness in those communities. Jaspin also speculates that if data were available by towns or townships, the number of incidences of ethnic cleansing in America would be much higher.
Jaspin is a European-American himself, a career journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner working for the Cox Newspaper chain.
Truly, African-Americans and European-Americans have lived through two different histories in "the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave." But while the European-Americans know and want to know only their own version of American history, the African-Americans are by necessity aware of both versions. Theirs is the ugly one: slavery, dashed hopes after emancipation, Ku Klux Klan raids, lynchings, disenfranchisement, Black Codes of labor, share-cropping peonage, "Sundown Towns," apartheid, denial of opportunity, unequal application of the law, humiliation in popular culture, ghettoization by way of real estate red-lining and denial of credit for home-buying, laws against intermarriage, a perpetual 'inferiority' imposed economically and psychologically. Some things have gotten better since the 1960s, but NOT ENOUGH. Remember that, my fellow European-Americans, when next you feel offended by the anger, expressed by Rev. Jeremiah Wright but felt by many others whose ancestors may have been "cleansed" by yours.