Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America by Elliot Jaspin

I came to this book from the podcast series “Seeing White,” where Elliot Jaspin spoke briefly about one of the cases handled in his book. I made a note of the title and got it through the college where I teach, via interlibrary loan. I love interlibrary loan. The subject of Buried in the Bitter Water is the instances in American history where a community has run its Black residents out of town. This is a very specific kind of occurrence, as Jaspin lays out in his fascinating introduction. I think it’s worth telling that story, of how this project began.

In the late 1990s, Jaspin visits a small town in northwest Arkansas. He observes that, despite a history of Black residents, he doesn’t see any in the present time. He asks and is told that “the Klan keeps them out.” Using census data over the last century, he goes looking for counties where the Black population shows a sudden drop – the standard he uses is a drop of fifty percent in a decade. He begins with Southern states but expands his search to include “thirty-one states in the South, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic where I thought I would be most likely to find racial cleansings.” (I wonder what he missed in the remaining nineteen states!) Census data, at least at the time of his research, was only available by county, so that’s the unit of measurement he uses, while speculating that he’s probably missing instances involving smaller communities – towns, villages. Having identified counties with suspicious numbers, he cross-checks contemporary newspaper records, and indeed he finds stories like those in Berryville, Arkansas (where he’s visiting at the start of this story) and Corbin, Kentucky (which was the story featured on “Seeing White”).

A word on language: Jaspin writes that the term ‘ethnic cleansings’ was coined in the early 1990s by Croatians fleeing Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. He acknowledges that it is problematic in its assumption that a place is ‘cleaner’ without an out-of-favor ethnic group, but concludes that it’s okay because it was coined by its victims. I’m not terribly comfortable with that, myself, but I appreciate that he at least considers the question. I feel like it at least needs “scare quotes” (if not a better term, please?), and I’ll use them in this review, as in: Elliot Jaspin has done some important original research on “racial cleansings” in American history.

And he has. For the book, he identifies a dozen of the “very worst” cases, and tells those stories in twelve chapters. In many cases he’s interviewed local residents, descendants of those residents who were run out of town, or even survivors. It’s part of the book’s thesis that these histories have never before been told, and based on Jaspin’s research I believe that to be true. So his work is important – this is primary research beginning to tell a story of American history that we absolutely need to get on the record. The case studies are predictably horrifying.

But they’re hard to read for another reason, too. Back to those problems of language. Buried in the Bitter Waters was published in 2007, but it feels older than that because Jaspin frequently makes errors in sensitivity. This is important research, but it’s important how we write it up, too. For one thing, he uses ‘black’ as a noun throughout, for people: the blacks lived here, the blacks did this and that. I’m pretty sure it’s been a part of social justice training since before 2007 that we should refer to people as people: Black employees of the mine, Black students in the school, Black people, as opposed to simply ‘blacks,’ which reduces them to perceived race and nothing else. This usage is all over every page of the book, and it grated at me, and affected my ability to concentrate on the stories Jaspin was telling. Now, 2007 was a long time ago in wokeness terms, and I’m trying to be patient with Jaspin, but I found this hard to take. He also makes a common error in naming the race of Black people, while other characters in the history might just be men, women, people. (We are left to assume that they’re white. It’s not always clear.)

It gets worse: a county is noted to have “lynched their own black seven years earlier,” a line which makes me shudder. And “if young Charles Stinnett had not decided to rob the spinster Emma Lovett, there might still be a black community in Boone County, Arkansas.” I am positive we knew what victim blaming looked like in 2007, and this is an excellent example of it. What made the white residents of Boone County run their Black neighbors out of town was not the alleged crime of an individual Black man. It was the white residents’ racism. Later, the six-day trial, conviction, and sentencing to death of Charles Stinnett is referred to (by Jaspin) as “speedy justice.” In reference to events in the early 2000s he writes that “a century earlier, segregation, disenfranchisement, and racial cleansings had established a white man’s country.” I would like to point out that this country was established as a white man’s country well before the early 1900s – in fact, before it was a country, the earliest white settlers were working to establish it as such, more than four centuries ago.

I’m not trying to pick on Jaspin, who I think is well-meaning, and earnest in his search for truth and justice. But I think it’s an important feature of this book that he doesn’t address all the baggage he brings up, including his own. We’re all on our own paths of discovery, hopefully all moving toward ever better awareness of social justice, and that process is never finished. I don’t know it all or get it all right, certainly. We have to keep learning; thinking we’re done with it is the easiest way to stop learning. I’m not here to crucify Jaspin for what he got wrong in 2007, but it’s part of my review of this book that he got a lot wrong, in how he writes about Black people and how he assesses the results of his research. His work is a contribution to research in this field, and future historians will consult it and add to it – and I hope rewrite it in better and clearer terms, soon. It’s only been thirteen years, but it’s time.

Jaspin details his twelve chosen case studies of ‘racial cleansings’ in eight states. They are hard to read, both for the right reasons (because this history is shameful and disturbing) and because I often cringed at Jaspin’s terms. He makes some astute points about the factors at play here, obviously including racism but also including, for example, economic factors, and capitalism’s successful pitting of poor white workers against poor Black ones. He finishes with a lengthy conclusion that felt a bit out of place for me: he tells the story of how this material was intended for the newspaper chain he worked for, but it got edited to death and/or left unused, because the chain included the Atlanta paper that badly mishandled its coverage of Klan activity in north Georgia in the 1980s, which is part of the continuing story of the ‘racial cleansing’ that took place there. (Whew.) This detailed story of a failure of journalistic integrity struck me as a little off-topic, and a little personal for the author, in ways that didn’t necessarily serve the broader goals of the book. (The related point is that we’re still not doing the self-examination of history that we need to do, which is valid. But it gets a bit wide of the mark, in my reading.)

Final assessment? This was a complicated one for me. I appreciate Jaspin’s introduction, in which he details his discovery of this phenomenon, and his research methods. (Note the limited capabilities of internet research in the late 1990s and early 2000s.) I think his primary research into under- or unexamined ‘racial cleansings’ is deeply important to the field of American history. The scholarship in this book is significant, and will bear further study. I’m glad for Jaspin’s contributions. But I’m also bothered by the shortcomings in his language, and his occasional failure to question the given narrative. I think the next scholar to take up this work can and should do better.


Rating: 5 times words matter.

4 Responses

  1. Excellent critique; it’s important that you took the time to do that, in all respects.

  2. I would likely cringe at my own conversations about race and relationships if I saw them in writing. In the 70’s I took the bait about the “melting pot”: why some people do not “melt-in”. Now I am troubled by expectations that people must melt their own identity – we should celebrate our differences and new permutations. The red/blue states/ community maps drive me crazy. Communities are generally not red or blue, they are varying shades of purple… Thanks for the review. I will have to add the book to my list.

    • Thank you for these comments, Scott. I can cringe at things I thought much more recently than the 70s. It’s always a process, for all of us – I hope there’s no shame in confessing past wrongs, as long as we keep changing and growing. It’s refusing to change and grow that’s the greater crime.

      As for the melting, here’s a memory I have: I think it was fourth grade. I had just learned about some atrocity in history – the Holocaust? Jim Crow laws? – and I remember coming home and telling my parents that it would all be easier if everyone were purple (rather than white, Black, etc.). My dad corrected me. He said, if we were all the same that would be a loss. Diversity involves difference, in ways that are beautiful; we need lots of different people, perspectives and experiences. Everyone all the same is not a goal. I’m grateful that he gave me that lesson when I was in fourth grade, because I think it’s a true point, and one that some people learn much later in their lives.

      It’s funny that purple plays into the story you tell, too. I certainly didn’t conceive of purple (in fourth grade) as the blue/red blend you refer to here. As a native Texan, now in West Virginia, you surely don’t have to tell me about the disservice we’re done by the blue/red states lie… good points all! Thanks for stopping by.

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