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by Peter Moskos

June 4, 2012

Summer Reading (1): My Father's Name

The end of the semester means I get caught up on some of my reading. I finished The Autobiography of Ben Frankin (good stuff) and David Foster Wallace's "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." (The footnote on the necessity of formal wear would have been very useful to read before we crossed the Atlantic on the QM2 last September).

But more relevant to this blog, I read Lawrence P. Jackson's excellent My Father's Name: A Black Virginia Family after the Civil War. This is a historical ethnography about a man who decides to trace his family's Virginia roots back to ante-bellum days. Jackson tells us that blacks in America generally only have have their accounts recorded for posterity if they were very good, very bad (criminal records), or sold in slavery (and not always then). Jackson's family seems just about average for the time and place, which makes his ability to delve into the past and bring it to life all the more impressive.

It doesn't help that Jackson is a common name. It also doesn't help that Lawrence Jackson, an introverted academic, doesn't actually seem to be very good at talking to people. But Jackson is great in the library and the county records office. And he can write. Before you know it, you're tasting the red dust of unpaved roads and hoping the good guys win the war. My Father's Name is a bit detective novel, a bit Roots, a bit Fox Butterfield's All God's Children (but without the homicides), a bit Ta-Nehisi Coates (they're both self-reflective and perceptive men from Baltimore), and all with a pleasant meandering pace of Twain's Life on the Mississippi.

Jackson also writes with what I can only describe of a pleasant undercurrent of anger. This is not unjustified blind rage but rather controlled anger which is the inevitable result of unearthing the horrors of chattel slavery not in some abstract historical sense, but in the very real way of how it defined your kin and our country and continues to do so in the present day.


David said...


Thank you for the recommendation, this looks interesting, will add it to the summer list. Currently on page 75 of Caro's Vol. 4 of the LBJ biography so it may be Fall before I get to it. That's a great read so far too.

Do you know Prof. Jackson? I saw somewhere he's from Baltimore but no details other than he now teaches at Emory.

Regards for a pleasant summer.

ecCoastie said...

Have you ever read “Cop Stories: The Few, the Proud, the Ugly-Twenty-five Years on the Baltimore Police Department” by Dick Ellwood? I saw it the other day while browsing amazon, now I;m thinking I might have to pick it up.
BTW when you worked for BPD did you ever encounter anyone from the Baltimore City sheriff’s dept? According to their website they have crime suppression units and to traffic enforcement; in addition to guarding the court buildings.

PCM said...

I'm not certain if I've read that book.

Nor am I certain about my dealings with the sheriff's department. I certainly ran into sheriff folks, but I don't remember them busting down doors.

PCM said...

I just bought a copy of Ellwood's book. Even if I have a copy somewhere, I figure buying another is supporting a good cause!

Alan said...

I just finished Franklin's autobiography on the train today. I read CITH just before and IDOF earlier this year. Really enjoyed them. While I wait for what you do next, what do you suggest I pick up to get more modern criminology and policing strategy information?