Death of a Nation Review-A work of historical fiction

“Death of a Nation”, by Joseph Kyle, Xlibris, 2015 is at once a scholarly work of historical fact and an autobiographical novel about an African American child growing up in the racist South. It also represents a vast amount of research on the part of the author, a former professor of biology and chemistry, as well as an histologist, clinical chemist, and chemical and biochemical researcher. The first manuscript he turned out ran to almost 1000 pages, then languished for almost thirty years until Kyle retired and edited the work down to a tight volume half the size of the original. While the bibliography runs a spare 3 pages, it is very obvious that much more research was conducted over long periods of time. The book purports to be a chronicle of ten years in the authors life, from 1940 to 1950, essentially corresponding to his years of grammar school education in a segregated one- room schoolhouse in ultra- rural Mississippi, in a place he has called Gotham.

The very young Joseph Kyle

According to Kyle, the majority of  “facts” upon which the book is based come from “historical events as reported in the ex Black weekly newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier” but are recounted in the form of  fictionalized dialogue between the author and others. Actually, the events, which Kyle claims “have some bases in truth” and a deal of commentary on the purported facts, are presented as topics of discussion between Kyle and his friends  and relatives at a very young age. Indeed, it is represented that Kyle himself routinely got his own copy of this newspaper-in a brown envelope-at the age of eight-, and that he and his equally young friends discussed the events concerning the all-black readership regularly and in detail. It is not easy to believe that kids this young knew of the details of such events as their senator stating in a speech “We will tell our nigger-loving Yankee friends to go straight to hell”. It is even difficult to believe that the adults in young Kyle’s life would have discussed these issues with children, despite the dubious fact that these same children were apparently allowed to explore each other sexually at the same young age.

In High School

 

Another stylistic problem is that while many specific newsworthy events are purportedly directly from the newspaper, they are interspersed throughout with the characters own biased remarks—often reversely racist—and always spoken in a completely different voice and level of sophistication than the items from the newspapers. For example, we read that ten black soldiers were killed in a riot, and then are told, “The War Department clamped a blanket of censorship on the incident.” While the killings may be fact, the statement about the War Department can only be a conclusion. In a diatribe that appears a few pages later between an older authoritative man and the seven-year-old protagonist, the character Coot says “For years, the southern white mans been saying his laws are to protect white women from niggers. He claims that without these laws, Black men would be screwing white women all over the south. They have lynched over a thousand Blacks in the last fifty years, and it has not stopped white women from hooking up with Black men. You can bet five to ten times that many have screwed Black men. His laws restrict the white woman too. In many cases, he is so busy chasing after Black pussy that he does not have time for his own woman, and she sneaks around with Black men”. As one can see, there are layers of historical insight muffled by layers of personal interpretation, fictionalized and otherwise.

As a young man

There are other troubling points in a book dedicated, as Kyle claims it is, to presenting true facts about the history of the “disease” of race prejudice, such as Kyle’s protaganist-self exulting, in the midst of his laments about the prejudicial treatment of black enlisted men during World War 2 that in that conflict, “We kicked some serious Jap ass”, and that the attitude  he and his friends had toward the creation of a Jewish state was, “Israel Shmisrael”. While these comments may honestly reflect the feelings he had in his youth, the conclusion of this reader is that the young Kyle was a victim of prejudice of whites to blacks, of blacks to whites, of Americans to the Japanese, and of anti-Semitism.

Morehouse College

 

There is no question that Kyle and his work are worthy of admiration and praise on many bases. Without taking issue with the way the events- both in the outside world and in his own life- are reported, it is very clear that Kyle worked very hard to overcome poverty and prejudice. The 1940’s with their horrifying race riots and struggle for equality were a time of unparalleled class hatred and attempts to control and limit the lives and fate of black Americans. Yet, Kyle presents the dismal facts of de facto segregation, unfair laws, lynching and hatred with the voices of both a child and young man struggling for understanding as well as a man coming to terms with the same issues all humans face- making the most of what nature and the unique position of our own individual lives afford us. It appears that the author indeed was very fortunate and well equipped for success in this country, despite the disadvantages and tough political climate into which he was thrust, and over which he largely triumphed.

The author today

This reviewer wishes she could have read the redacted 500 pages to see how the remainder of Kyle’s educational journey, through high school in Chicago, to Morehouse College in Atlanta, and an ultimate masters degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology shaped his views and convictions. He was very fortunate in the loving and caring extended family he had, who supported his own obvious intelligence and enabled him to persevere and accomplish an illustrious career: eighteen years spent in pure and applied science  culminating in  40 years  with the City Colleges of Chicago. In the face of poverty and ignorance, his own diligence and early encouragement served to turn out a man capable of writing a valuable example of scholarship, which he hopes will be a lesson to all.

Photos: Courtesy of Joseph Kyle

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