Oct 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: Tumult and Silence at Second Creek

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, executive editor Rand Dotson writes about Tumult and Silence at Second Creek.

Tumult and Silence at Second Creek

In the early 1970s, an archivist at LSU’s Hill Memorial Library suggested to historian Winthrop Jordon that he examine what appeared to be a partial handwritten transcript of slave testimony from a failed 1861 slave revolt. At the time, the uprising was unheard of. Indeed, no record of the events alluded to in the transcript existed in the historical literature. The slave testimony, however, offered a tantalizing starting point, and it led Jordon on a twenty-year odyssey to understand what had occurred in Adams County, Mississippi, in 1861. His historical detective work uncovered one of the most important planned slave insurrections in American history, a conspiracy that led planters just outside Natchez to hang or whip to death nearly 30 of their slaves and afterwards do all in their power to erase the events from the historical record.

Published in 1993, Tumult and Silence at Second Creek, is not only the story of the failed insurrection and its bloody aftermath, but also of how Jordon came to understand the details of what happened and the life stories of the individuals involved. In essence, he takes readers along as he gathers evidence and interprets it, offering an informal guidebook on how the best professional historians work their craft. The result is a history book like no other: one that places readers over a historian’s shoulder as he solves a perplexing historical mystery using scattered and incomplete sources, eventually turning a fragment of slave testimony into the richest possible rendering of a vanished slave conspiracy and the extralegal trials and executions of those accused that followed. Upon publication, Tumult and Silence won the Bancroft Prize – one of the most prestigious awards in the history profession – and was widely praised by fellow historians as the most remarkable feat of detective work by a modern historian.

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Oct 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: Glass House

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, financial operations manager Becky Brown writes about Glass House.

Glass House

In the fall of 1993, I had been working at LSU Press for about four and a half years and was still awed and captivated by the look, feel, and smell of all the new books we published. Back then we had a huge warehouse on River Road and our warehouse staff would bring boxes full to the brim with our new books so the staff could see the end result of their work. I also spent many an hour in that warehouse taking inventory, and some books called to me just because I found them aesthetically appealing.

Glass House: A Novel by Christine Wiltz was one of those books. I loved the artwork on the cover depicting a New Orleans Garden District mansion with the big white columns and stained glass doors. It was, in my opinion, a beautiful book. Then I read the blurbs from great writers James Lee Burke, Valerie Martin, and Vance Bourjaily. Kirkus Reviews gave it high marks, so I was all in. It remains one of my favorite LSU Press novels to date. In 2001 we published it in a paperback edition as part of our “Voices of the South” series, and it remains in print and pertinent. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I believe that, for me at least, the beauty of this book’s cover led me to experience and enjoy the beauty of the story within.

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Oct 15

Around the Blog in 80 Books: We Were Merchants

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, senior designer Michelle Neustrom writes about We Were Merchants.

We Were MerchantsWhat is Goudchaux’s?

A reasonable question to ask if you did not grow up in the Baton Rouge area, but it instantly causes shock and horror to appear on the faces of loyal Goudchaux’s customers. How did I not know about the most amazing, magical department store of all time? About the famous 5-cent Coke machine and how children would receive a nickle for every A on their report card? About the laughing mechanical Santa that appeared every Christmas? And the salespeople who knew customers by name and the piles and piles of fur coats and the interest-free charge accounts! Oh, and that is NOT how you say it. It’s pronounced “Gaw-chaw’s.”

I did not know about this family-owned department store because it closed about 5 years before I moved to Baton Rouge. Even 25 years after its closing, people still remember shopping at Goudchaux’s like it was yesterday, and everyone has a fond memory of the place. This is largely due to the family that owned Goudchaux’s for over 55 years, the Sternbergs. They made customers feel special and would do anything for them, like secretly order a jacket when a size wasn’t available in-store or send a gift when a baby was born. They treated their customers and workers like friends and family.

When it came time to design We Were Merchants, I had a much better understanding of the store. I could see why people loved the Sternbergs and Goudchaux’s, and I wished I could have had the pleasure of shopping there too. After expressing this desire, one of my coworkers brought in a very old Goudchaux’s box and said I could have it. I was so excited! I know, it’s just a box, but it was an artifact of something I had only read and heard about. I scanned it and used the striped Goudchaux’s/Maison Blanche pattern on the end sheets of the book. That box now sits on top of my bookcase in my office and I feel like I have a little piece of Baton Rouge history. I morn the loss of a great Baton Rouge establishment along with everyone else and, yes, I too get that horrified look on my face when someone asks, What’s Goudchaux’s?

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Sep 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: Poverty Point

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, designer Barbara Neely Bourgoyne writes about Poverty Point.

Poverty Point

Maybe I’d heard of Poverty Point before. Maybe when I was younger and still in school. I can’t seem to recall. But wow, what an amazing place! Occupied from about 1700 to 1100 BC and once the largest city in North America, it stretches across 345 acres in northeastern Louisiana. The complex array of earthen mounds and ridges overlooking the Mississippi River flood plain are not only impressive for a pre-agricultural society; they are also a great communal engineering feat due to the massive amounts of soil they had to move to create the earthworks.

There is also no rock at Poverty Point. None. The objects found at the location were created from stone and ore that was imported from the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains, the Ohio and Tennessee River valleys, the Appalachian foothills of northern Alabama and Georgia, and other distant places in the eastern United States. Which indicates that this complex society also had a sophisticated trade network.

Recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2014, Poverty Point’s historical significance resonates not only on a regional level, but nationally and internationally as well.

Now the truly interesting thing to me is how this book is a conversation between artist and archaeologist. Jenny Ellerbe was drawn to the beauty of the place and her black-and-white photographs can attest to that. Diana M. Greenlee discusses the most recent archaeological findings and their significance. The way the two work together creates such a unique vision for the reader. Below are a few images from the book so you can see for yourself. But I strongly suggest picking up a copy of your own and then visiting the site. You won’t be disappointed.

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Sep 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: Louisiana Saturday Night

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Copy and Publicity Coordinator Jenny Keegan writes about Louisiana Saturday Night.

Louisiana Saturday Night

If you’re like me, your Saturday nights are spoken for from now until the end of football season (with the exception of our bye week before we crush Alabama at the start of November). But for the non-football fans out there — or those of you who have already started wondering how you’re going to fill the long empty Saturdays of the 2016 offseason — Alex Cook’s wonderful Louisiana Saturday Night is here to help you out.

An exuberant and experienced writer and traveler, Alex Cook is the perfect tour guide for the backwoods bars and dance halls of the state of Louisiana. He captures the atmosphere of each venue with enthusiasm and affection, from the decorations (Christmas lights strung across ceilings, concert posters from the 1970s) to the food (it’s enough to make your mouth water, especially if you’re reading it near lunchtime) to the type of crowd you’re likely to find (Cajun French speakers celebrating their shared heritage, uptight city folks who won’t even dance if there’s an accordion playing).

Louisiana is justly famous for its enthusiastic culture of music and booze, and Louisiana Saturday Night offers a guide to visitors and Louisianians alike who want to party like the locals.

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Sep 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: Trail of Bones

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Assistant Marketing Manager Kate Barton writes about Trail of Bones.

For many years Mary Manhein’s official title was director of the Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services (FACES) Laboratory at LSU, but most people know her as “The Bone Lady.” The name originated from the many phone calls received over the years at the geography and anthropology department at LSU from various law enforcement officials who hadn’t yet learned her name. It is such a simple name for someone who has done so much in her career to help solve cold cases and establish the database for unidentified and missing persons in Louisiana.

Like many others, I enjoy watching crime shows on television, so the behind-the-scenes stories told in Trail of Bones captivated me. Many of Manhein’s stories stem from those phone calls from law enforcement where remains are found and they need help identifying the victims so they can piece together what happened. Through forensic science, she is able to give a voice to the victims. I find the facial reconstruction cases, like the identification of Precious Doe, fascinating. It is remarkable how they are able to use a skull and other basic information about age and race to piece together an accurate facial reconstruction. Although there are many aspects of her work that involve measurable data from science, scans, and DNA, it is the human aspect of each story that makes this book so interesting. Every set of bones of them has a story and loved ones who care. Manhein makes you feel as if you are with her for each case, going through all of the trial and error to figure out the identity of each person. This book offers a revealing look at an intriguing profession.

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Sep 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: The Louisiana Field Guide

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Marketing Manager Erin Rolfs writes about The Louisiana Field Guide.

The Louisiana Field Guide

I think it is still common in elementary schools nationwide to assign U.S. State project reports to students. In my day the task usually required a pristine plastic report cover containing hand-drawn versions of the state flower, the state motto, the state flag, and, if you were lucky enough to get assigned Louisiana, a rendition of the state song, “You Are My Sunshine.” You might also get a chance to mention the state dog, the Catahoula Cur; the seemingly innumerable nicknames (Gumbo State, Bayou State, Pelican State, Sportsman’s Paradise); and take a swing at explaining why Louisiana’s laws are still subject to the Napoleonic Code.

Even this novice effort, when taken on by some ambitious fifth grader with a penchant for spicy food and jazz music, is an arduous task. So when LSU Press agreed to publish The Louisiana Field Guide, hoping to offer a travel book that went beyond the surface level characteristics of the state and smartly delved into Louisiana’s culture and landscape, I was ready to be impressed by the outcome. With Wayne Parent and Ryan Orgera at the helm, the contributors proved up to the challenge. Covering nearly every recognizable facet of Louisiana – food, music, language, arts, film, sports, politics and the stunning but often stressed natural assets—this book accomplished what so many others about the state fail to do: offer an engaging and entertaining read without reducing Louisiana down to a caricature of itself.

In a world guided by analytically driven Google searches and anonymous Wikipedia entries, the chapters in The Louisiana Field Guide include personal and informed perspectives written by people who have experienced the subject matter firsthand or spent a lifetime studying it. In a place where back roads, pirogues, and basic French are required to reach many of the most rewarding experiences Louisiana has to offer, it is invaluable (or at least worth the retail price of $35.00 before tax) to have real experts at your fingertips.

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Sep 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: I Am One of You Forever

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Financial Operations Manager Becky Brown writes about I Am One of You Forever.

I Am One of You Forever

As long as I’ve worked at LSU Press—and that’s over two and a half decades now—one of our most popular books has always been I Am One of You Forever: A Novel by Fred Chappell. After several years of taking orders for it, reprinting it, and seeing it often adopted for university courses, I decided to read it and see what it was all about. I was not disappointed!

The story takes place in the hills of North Carolina in the 1940s and is basically the story of a young boy’s coming of age. I loved Chappell’s lyrical description of the mountain countryside, and I would have expected nothing less since I knew he was a gifted and much lauded poet. He was Poet Laureate of North Carolina for five years, so I knew he had a gift for beautiful language. But it was the characters of the story—the young boy’s family members—that led me to realize that Fred Chappell is also a master storyteller.

It was a great honor to meet Fred Chappell at a book industry trade show in 1999 upon publication of LSU Press’s poetry anthology, The Yellow Shoe Poets, for which Chappell wrote the foreword. It was easy to see why he was a popular professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. One of the greatest perks of working at LSU Press has been the opportunity to meet amazingly talented writers such as Fred Chappell, and to see the widespread effect their works have had over the years.

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Sep 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: The Flying Change

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Digital Initiatives and Database Manager Bobby Keane writes about The Flying Change.

flying change (noun) – a movement in horse riding in which the leading leg at the canter is changed without breaking gait while the horse is in the air

I am 38 years old. Teetering on the edge of middle age. At a point in my life where I have lived long enough to know some things about life but not long enough to know how little knowledge that actually is. Long enough to know that change is life’s only constant but not long enough to completely abandon the possibility of permanence.

Henry Taylor was approaching his middle age when he wrote the poems that are collected in The Flying Change. These poems show that the poet understands that he is soon to have more years behind him than are left in front of him. He acknowledges the inevitability of old age while still clinging tightly to the present.

Sometimes when I cup water in my hands
and watch it slip away and disappear,
I see that age will make my hands a sieve;
but for a moment the shifting world suspends
its flight and leans to the sun once more,
as if to interrupt its mindless plunge
through works and days that will not come again.
I hold myself immobile in bright air,
sustained in time astride the flying change.

I have lived long enough to have made thousands of memories and long enough to have forgotten thousands more. Long enough to have met hundreds of people and long enough to have forgotten their names and faces. I can see the face of my high school Latin teacher but I can’t recall her name, even though I spent three years sitting in her class. I remember the name of my girlfriend in fifth grade and the fact that she had blonde hair, but I wouldn’t recognize her now if we were in the same room. Taylor captures the jarring experiences of being faced with the limitation of memory that comes with getting older and the frustration of almost remembering something or someone.

At times it is like watching a face you have just met,
trying to decide who it reminds you of —
no one, surely, whom you have ever hated or loved,
but yes, somebody, somebody. You watch the face
as it turns and nods, showing you, at certain angles,
a curve of the lips or a lift of the eyebrow
that is exactly right, and still the lost face eludes you.

While I have lived long enough to have experienced many things I can’t fully remember, there are some things I will never forget, no matter how much I wish I could. Taylor’s most powerful poems focus on these types of memories. In “Landscape with Tractor,” the speaker describes coming across a dead body while mowing a large field. He recalls the shock of the finding and then laments the fact that from now on, every time he mows that particular patch of grass he will always see her there. In “One Morning, Shoeing Horses”, the speaker says that he is always nervous while shoeing horses because he remembers a day, 10 years before, working alongside a blacksmith who accidentally got his wedding band caught in a driven nail. His yelp of pain spooked the horse and the blacksmith’s finger was torn off of his hand. In another poem about a catastrophe brought about by spooked horse, “Barbed Wire,” Taylor describes the horrifying scene of a horse flinching while it was trying to eat some grass on the other side of a barbed wire fence.

Not all of the poems in The Flying Change are dark, however. Some are funny and introduce us to colorful characters, such as the man in “Varieties of Religious Experience”:

This old day-worker, cleaning up
the grounds of an abandoned church,
getting ready to paint & put in glass,
said somebody from away from here
had bought it & was going to start
using it again. Well, it had been
a Methodist church, were these Methodists?
He believed it wasn’t anybody like that,
no sir, he said; it is some of these
holy-sanctified God damn people.

The Flying Change is a strong, strong collection of poems and well-deserving of the Pulitzer Prize Henry Taylor won for it in 1985. The praise of another Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Maxine Kumin, sums it up perfectly:

Like the well-schooled horse changing leads in mid-air, Henry Taylor makes us perceive the grace of that moment of suspension. For him it is a moment of acute recognition of our mortality, our connection to the past, our need to love.

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Sep 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: Loathing Lincoln

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Copy and Publicity Coordinator Jenny Keegan writes about Loathing Lincoln.

Loathing Lincoln

At first blush, you might consider Abraham Lincoln to be among the least controversial of our nation’s presidents, following on George Washington with his wooden teeth and his (mythical) cherry-tree honesty. Abraham Lincoln: He kept the States united! He’s on the penny! He’s on the five! Some Chicago criminals tried to rob his tomb and hold his remains for ransom! (Insane but true. They had to move his remains regularly for the next ten years to stop anyone from trying it again.)

John McKee Barr’s Loathing Lincoln shows us the other side of that shiny copper coin, delving into the centuries of people who have, well, loathed Lincoln. In the early days after the Civil War, the reasons were clear: many Southerners blamed Lincoln for the deprivations they had suffered during the war, and they continued to deeply resent the North’s interference in the affairs of the South, while conveniently eliding their own culpability in the systematic, centuries-long oppression of black Americans.

Criticisms of Lincoln in the following decades came from both the right and the left. Thinkers like Hubert Harrison and W. E. B. Du Bois took Lincoln to task for his half-hearted support of abolition (though both still acknowledged Lincoln as “the greatest President the United States has had up to his time”). As Lincoln’s reputation reached its acme in the interwar period, more and more conservatives (mainly, but not exclusively, from the South) lined up to explain why Lincoln was overrated: “It is the manufactured Lincoln that it
is proposed to palm off on our people as ‘Second only to Jesus Christ,'” wrote an indignant Richmond attorney in 1930.

Loathing Lincoln is a fascinating, panoramic (wait, did I say that on the jacket? Oh well! Still true!) view of who has hated Lincoln in the last two hundred years and why. It’s a terrific read.

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Sep 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: Game Warden

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Associate Financial Operations Manager Leslie Green writes about Game Warden.

Game WardenWhen you grow up in a state whose tourism tagline is “Sportsman’s Paradise” it is not unusual to have a few hunters and fishers in the family. In fact, both of my parents grew up in North Louisiana and Arkansas hunting and fishing and they raised my brothers and me to enjoy those activities. I never really took to the hunting but I love to fish, both in the coastal marshes and in the inland waterways, wading, from a motorboat, or in a canoe or pirogue.

My parents have given LSU Press books as gifts ever since I started working here. Some years it is a little more challenging to find a book for my uncle who lives in his retirement on a ranch in rural Northern Arkansas. But the year this book came out, my father knew he had a winner.

My father’s college roommate, Aubrey Shepherd, is also an avid sportsman and he eventually became an outdoor newspaper man, like Jerald Horst. My dad often made the outdoors column in the Arkansas Gazette when he and Aubrey met up to go fishing or hunting. Guess who also got a copy of this book that year.

Buy your copy of Game Warden this year. Makes a great gift!

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Sep 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: Katrinaville Chronicles

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Acquisitions Editor Margaret Lovecraft writes about Katrinaville Chronicles.

Katrinaville Chronicles

A street in the Lower Ninth Ward is unrecognizable from its preflood appearance. © David G. Spielman

In early 2006, I moved from the position of marketing manager to acquisitions editor here at LSU Press. David Spielman’s book Katrinaville Chronicles was one of the first manuscripts I had the honor of sponsoring. There were lots of books quickly released in the twelve months following the destructive, massive August 29, 2005, hurricane and its tragic aftermath, but LSU Press characteristically took the long view in publishing on this subject, which literally hit home.

The immediacy of David’s photographs and e-mails, sent from day 3 to day 120 poststorm, has not lessened with time. They were striking when I first read his manuscript in 2006, when the book was published in 2007, and today, ten years after Katrina.

The book’s jacket copy, still, best conveys this indelible pictorial and verbal narrative:

When Hurricane Katrina approached New Orleans, photographer David G. Spielman decided to stay and weather the storm, assisting his Uptown neighbors, a community of Poor Clare nuns. Katrina passed, and as the flood waters filled the city, the scope of the devastation only gradually dawned on Spielman, who was cut off from outside communication. Faced with the greatest personal and professional challenge of his life, he determined to document the scene unfolding around him. He managed to secure a generator to power his laptop computer, and in the days, weeks, and months after August 29, 2005, he transmitted e-mails to hundreds of friends and clients and cautiously traversed the city taking photographs. “Katrinaville Chronicles” gathers Spielman’s images and observations, relating his unique perspective on and experience of a historic catastrophe.

Spielman never expected his e-mails to survive beyond the day he sent them. But his descriptions of what he was seeing, hearing, smelling, thinking, feeling, and fearing in post-Katrina New Orleans were forwarded again and again, even around the globe. He rants about political leaders and voices a deep concern for his city’s future, encouraging fellow citizens to see Katrina as an opportunity to improve upon the past. He tells of feeling overwhelmed, at a loss for words, unable to capture on film the individual tragedies manifested in home after destroyed home, many marked by death. His arresting black-and-white photographs record the details of the disaster on both a grand and an intimate scale. “Katrinaville Chronicles” is Spielman’s in-the-moment, very human response to and stunning visual record of—as he puts it—“a thing so huge I still can’t get my mind around it.”

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Aug 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: Painting a Hidden Life

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Editor Neal Novak writes about Painting a Hidden Life.

Painting a Hidden Life

When I first started to paint several years ago, I sought out the advice of my uncle, a wonderfully talented artist who has been paying the bills for years through gallery sales. “Don’t find your voice too soon,” he cautioned as he handed me a ragged book full of Richard Diebenkorn’s abstract landscapes. After a year of struggles, false starts, and gentle admonishments from my supportive my wife—“I love your work, but do you have to drip dioxazine purple on the dog?”—I finally began to understand just what he meant: be patient and enjoy becoming an artist.

Reading any and every art book I could get my hands on, I was thrilled when I learned the Press planned to publish Mechal Sobel’s Painting a Hidden Life: The Art of Bill Traylor. A sharecropper in rural Alabama for the better part of his life, Traylor moved to Montgomery in 1928, where for ten years he often sat on a street corner and created spare but powerful paintings that offered narratives of black life in the time of Jim Crow. Traylor’s work can be downright grim: rabid dogs, gun-toting hicks, and violent lynchings all figure prominently. At the same time, I can’t help but see a playful side in Traylor that evokes Matisse’s dancers and Miró’s surrealist figuration. It’s doubtful Traylor ever saw the work of these masters—Montgomery does bus boycotts better than modern art—but like all great artists, Traylor created a unique visual language that tells a complex story of a particular time and place.

I’m finally finding my voice as a painter. And though I might skew more Diebenkorn than Traylor, any progress I’ve made has come from a fuller appreciation of folk art and its ability to express ideas that are rarely found inside the walls of any gallery.

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Aug 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: The Earl of Louisiana

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Executive Editor Rand Dotson writes about The Earl of Louisiana.

The Earl of LouisianaA. J. Liebling, the celebrated New Yorker journalist, came to Louisiana in 1959 like dozens of other writers to cover the strange saga of the state’s governor, Earl K. Long, whose recent confinement to a state mental institution was making national news. Whether he had gone mad or not, Earl Long was sure to make a great story: like his brother Huey, he was a wildly entertaining populist and a master politician who rarely lost an election and was frequently at the center of one controversy or another. Elected three times to the governorship, Earl Long was already a Louisiana legend—“the last of the red hot papas” he dubbed himself—when his wife and political foes tried to curtail his reign by having him locked up in a Texas hospital for the mentally unstable. Their scheme ended in failure after Long arranged a transfer back to a Louisiana facility, fired the head of the state hospital system, and appointed an ally who immediately ordered his release.

At that point, most of the reporters covering this bizarre story departed. Liebling stayed, and over the following year, he wrote a series of dispatches about Long’s final days that chronicled an era of politics and political behavior so divorced from today’s political status quo that it is barely recognizable. Long was not just flamboyant, self-destructive, and outlandish; he was also someone that Liebling and his fans grew to admire as a serious advocate for array of progressive social issues, including black suffrage rights.

A year after Liebling’s stories about Long appeared in the New Yorker, he turned them into a book. Published initially in 1961, The Earl of Louisiana was nearly forgotten by 1970, when LSU Press republished it with a foreword by T. Harry Williams, an LSU historian and the author of the definitive biography of Huey Long. In print ever since, the book has gone on to garner national and international acclaim for both its subject matter and style, which is commonly cited as one of the first and finest examples of the sort of “new journalism” practiced later by writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson.

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Aug 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: Mosquito Soldiers

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Managing Editor Lee Sioles writes about Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the Civil War.

9780807135617One of the great things about working for a university press is that . . . you learn things. Our authors are experts: They know about hunting Nazis in Franco’s Spain or how animals were used by the military in World War II. They can tell you how to build a playground from scratch or what the word “gumbo” means (and several of them can tell you how to make one). They can explain why nudism had such a big vogue in France or why the secret southern society called the Knights of the Golden Circle failed in its attempt to annex Mexico. In fact, sometimes I find myself speaking with authority about something or other—and I almost can’t figure out where I got all this information on what seems a random topic.

Take mosquitos and the Civil War.

I think it’s fair to say I had never before thought much about this subject. If I had thought about it, I suppose I would have guessed that mosquitos might be an annoyance for troops sleeping in tents—or marching, on top of having to carry heavy rifles and wear wool uniforms.

But thanks to my work on Andrew McIlwaine Bell’s Mosquito Soldiers, I now know that, of the 620,000 soldiers who perished during the Civil War (still our most costly war ever), the overwhelming majority died—not from gunshot wounds or saber cuts—but from disease. And the most deadly of those diseases were two terrible mosquito-borne illnesses: malaria and yellow fever.

Bell’s slim, highly focused study contains a trove of amazing detail. The South’s huge mosquito population operated as a sort of mercenary third force that could work for or against either side, depending on the circumstances. The diseases could wipe out a whole army in a matter of weeks. Smart commanders took the threat into account in their planning, while others were taken completely by surprise by this menace. Bell reinterprets famous battles from this epidemiological perspective—and proves that the course of the Civil War would have run far differently without the massive presence of these tiny buzzing pests.

And now I know about this fascinating, frightening subject—and am ready to liven up any cocktail party by introducing the topic of mosquitos in combat, perhaps igniting a discussion of how environmental factors have acted, and will continue to act, as agents of change in history.

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Aug 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: The Herb Society of America’s Essential Guide to Growing and Cooking with Herbs

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Assistant Marketing Manager Kate Barton writes about The Herb Society of America’s Essential Guide to Growing and Cooking with Herbs.

9780807132555The Herb Society of America’s Essential Guide to Growing and Cooking with Herbs is a book that truly lives up to its name. Readers will find everything from growing tips to recipes, all in one handy resource. For the brave souls interested in starting their own herb garden, the gardening section offers information about where certain herbs thrive, when to pick them, and how they are best used. The sketches also help the inexperienced gardeners identify what the plant should look like.

I love browsing through the recipe section of the book and selecting recipes I would like to try. Herb Society members from all over the country contributed recipes, giving it the warmth and variety of a family cookbook where favorite recipes are shared. Readers can find all sorts of recipes for appetizers, salad dressings, soups, entrees, beverages, and desserts. The Pesto and Cream Cheese Round and the Rosemary Fizz punch are ones that I have earmarked for future parties. The Grilled Corn Dip would be great for those fall football tailgates. And Nannette’s Greek Orzo Salad sounds refreshing on these hot summer days. If you are thinking about starting an herb garden, or maybe just committing to using more fresh herbs in your cooking, this book is for you.

Buy this book now for 20% off and get free shipping on all orders over $50; use code 0480FAV at checkout. 

Jun 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: The Next Elvis

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Assistant Production Manager and Designer Amanda Scallan writes about The Next Elvis.


Yeah, I’m an Elvis fan and I have been one for as long as I can remember. I could blog on being an Elvis fan for hours, but I won’t do that now. I will mention that I have a lovely collection of Elvis memorabilia—my favorite is a velvet painting of the King himself. And I have taken my husband and son to Memphis to educate them on the history of Graceland and Sun Records.

So as a lifelong fan of the King and a professional book designer, I was beyond thrilled by the opportunity to design Barbara Barnes Sims’s The Next Elvis: Searching for Stardom at Sun Records. I was so impressed with the fact that Sims worked for Sam Phillips—the visionary who discovered and recorded Elvis Presley—at Sun. Her book relates not only what it was like to work as a woman in a male-dominated industry, it also tells the story of the musicians she met whose careers were then on the rise, including Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and Johnny Cash. Theirs was music I was familiar with, and I wanted to capture the feel of early 1960s Memphis—when rock and roll music reigned—as well as the iconic look of Sun Records. For the cover design I used background art that mimicked the Sun Records “sun rays.” The only image I felt appropriate was a lone microphone—a microphone similar to the one that many of the recording artists of the era used at Sun. It is placed in the center of a circle with a stark white background to convey the feel of a spotlight. The display fonts I chose for the title and subtitle are sans serifs to reflect the time period as well.

When I met Sims in person, I was speechless. She was a part of the legacy that was Sun Records. Though she was only employed there for three years, she was a participant in the creative force that helped establish the careers of so many famous and talented musicians. I really like the opening sentence in her preface: “Lighting doesn’t strike twice in the same place—everybody knows that. But they still came.”  There will never be another Elvis, but Barbara Barnes Sims tells of the many musicians who wanted to be. I am more than impressed. I am awestruck.

Buy this book now for 20% off and get free shipping on all orders over $50, use code 0480FAV at checkout. 

Jun 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: Gardening in the Humid South

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Assistant Director Laura Gleason writes about Gardening in the Humid South.

Gardening in the Humid SouthLeon Standifer and Ed O’Rourke made a great team. Leon once told me if you eat the plant, it’s his specialty but if it looks pretty, it’s Ed’s. So, these two self-proclaimed “crotchety old horticulture professors” embarked on a journey to co-write a book (at the pleadings of our former sales manager, Claudette) that utilizes both of their specialties. Gardening in the Humid South is the result, and it is packed with the wisdom they gained over many years teaching and practicing the art of horticulture.

In this book they write about everything you need to know from starting a garden and the tools of the trade to rooting, fertilizer, lawn care, and even how to make potting mixes. It is the kind of book that you can read through or skip around in to read just what you need at the moment. (There is even a small section on coffee—one of their favorite subjects.)

I am fond of Ed and Leon’s direct, no-nonsense style of writing. I love that the chapter on potted plants called “Pots ’n’ Plants” begins with: “We want you to know that there is no such thing as a green thumb. Be patient, give your plants consistent care, and recognize that the environment of a potted plant is substantially different from what it would be out in the flower bed. This chapter will help you to understand the differences. Make yourself a fresh pot of coffee, take a few sips, and read for a while.” This folksy, conversational approach to the subject is a welcome change from other gardening books I have read. It makes you want to do just that: get a cup of coffee, get comfortable, and read that chapter. No such thing as a green thumb! Tell me more!

These authors simplify their subject matter, and their encouragement makes you feel that you can accomplish anything you set out to do and that, despite the hard work, gardening is fun. If you love gardening—or even if you just have a few plants living with you that you want to keep alive—and if you live in the humid south, this book is for you.

Buy this book now for 20% off and get free shipping on all orders over $50, use code 0480FAV at checkout. 

Jun 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: Along the River Road

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Director MaryKatherine Callaway writes about Along the River Road.

SternbergRIVERROAD_covfrontOne day in 2003, not long after I moved to Louisiana, I got turned around leaving the maze of campus streets and found myself on an odd, lightly-traveled road: a mix of farms, historic buildings (some in an advanced state of decrepitude), industries, half-overgrown fields, neatly plowed fields, wild meadows—always with the Mississippi River’s levee running along one side.

Intrigued to know more, I was delighted to find on the Press’s list a remarkable book devoted to this historic roadway. Along the River Road is a perfect companion for exploring this area either in person or vicariously. Offering historically precise details combined with keen observations on its current attractions, this lively and informative book entertains and informs.

First published in 1996 and now in its third edition, Along the River Road offers accurate and thoroughly-researched information and insights into a crucial route for trade and travel. The Mississippi River provided the vital link between Northern and Southern towns in what was at one time “the West,” and the river still plays a key role in transporting goods. The fascinating stories of the many families who lived along Louisiana’s river road, the commerce of the area, and the inevitable disasters associated with such a powerful body of water provide compelling reading and a wonderful guide to the area. Get a copy now because you never know when you might find yourself there.

Buy this book now for 20% off and get free shipping on all orders over $50, use code 0480FAV at checkout. 

Jun 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: The Opposite House

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Designer Barbara Bourgoyne writes about The Opposite House.

EmersonOPPOSITE_jktfront(HR)Part of our distinguished Southern Messenger Poets series, The Opposite House is Claudia Emerson’s sixth book of poems published by LSU Press. It is also the fifth book of Claudia’s that I had the privilege to design.

It’s difficult for me to write about Claudia’s work without writing about her. They are so intricately connected, one cannot exist without the other. Claudia was gracious and funny, and had such an exuberance for life that it was infectious. She brought out the best in everything that she touched, including the people around her. And during the time that she was working on this collection, when she was writing about the harsh realities of aging and the limitations of the human body, she was also experiencing them. She intensely felt the loneliness, fear, and anger that can accompany us as we live. She was dying, yet she wouldn’t give up writing—even when her own body betrayed her and she wasn’t able to hold a pen. She wrote.

I came across an interview she gave in the spring of 2013 with Susannah Mintz. In this interview (which can be found here in its entirety at http://poems.com/special_features/prose/essay_mintz_emerson.php), Claudia said a few things about her work that I feel resonate in The Opposite House, as well as in those collections before it.

“History is always a function of the present, whether a shared, cultural history or a personal one. Museums are filled with objects, artifacts that imply the narrative of a life, give evidence of the work or joy of a life—and most of us collect the stuff of our own museums, in attics and cellars, the objects that become catalysts for memory, for narrative.

“I am extremely aware of the passing of time, sometimes too aware! . . . My lens happens to be language, the highly ordered language of poetry. It’s a slow exposure, though, and a poem can take anywhere from days to years for me to bring it to its finest clarity. My forms have indeed been quite spare but can also become quite language-rich, with long dense lines. This could change, I know—but I sometimes find that the more personal and the more extreme the emotional subject or context, the more spare the form I choose, to distill the emotion, perhaps, and certainly to restrain what could so easily be overwritten.

“Yes! I am aware of the knife-edge we walk as artists when we realize that the compulsion to write the hard emotions refuses to be ignored. I am not alone in telling my students that when emotions are hard and overwhelming, the way to come at them is from the side, the “slant” that Emily Dickinson advocates, and to look “small”—to focus in on the object, the detail that might have just the metaphoric resonance you need. But I have also been accused of coldness for trying to exercise such restraint, and I suppose that will always be the risk, one I am obviously willing to take time and again.”

Buy this book now for 20% off and get free shipping on all orders over $50, use code 0480FAV at checkout. 

Jun 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: The New Orleans of Lafcadio Hearn

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Copy and Publicity Coordinator Jenny Keegan writes about The New Orleans of Lafcadio Hearn.

Known for his lively depictions of Gilded Age New Orleans and a vast array of writing about Japan, Lafcadio Hearn had a cartoonishly awful childhood. Ditched by both of his parents when they took off for (separate) warmer climes, then later sent off to America with good wishes by his aunt, whom he never heard from again, Hearn was ultimately plunked down in Cincinnati at the age of nineteen with $25 to his name.

Instead of giving up all hope and dying of hunger in a back alley as I would have done (I lack pioneer spirit), Hearn forged himself into a sensationalist journalist for the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer’s murder beat. In 1877 he upped sticks and moved to New Orleans, of which he said, “It is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes, than to own the whole State of Ohio.” Stop it, Lafcadio, you’re making everyone blush. (Except Ohio. Ohio’s over there sharpening pitchforks.)

But Hearn’s journalism about New Orleans was hardly panegyric. The New Orleans of Lafcadio Hearn, edited by Delia LaBarre, brings together a collection of Hearn’s 1880 satirical writing and cartoons for the Daily City Item. The collection gives us Lafcadio Hearn at his most curmudgeonly, as he waxes poetical about everything in New Orleans that draws his ire, from foot traffic—

And for the same reason that some folks walk four abreast with disgusting slowness so that busy and energetic people must go into the middle of the street to pass;—

So do wagon drives persist in slowly driving beside street cars on narrow streets instead of driving before or behind, and leaving the thoroughfares clear to others.

—to disrespectful house servants—

The naughty nurse maid hates quiet, respectable elderly looking people, and occasionally runs a perambulator over their toes just for the fun of “making them mad.”

—to the first electric lights in the city’s West End.

The insects hung about the lights like thin clouds about the face of the moon. . . . They entered Micholet’s restaurant uninvited, and pounced like Harpies upon the viands, spoiling what they could not carry away. . . . It seems not improbable that the electric lights exercise a certain fascination upon them, and perhaps also the sound of music; for mosquitoes have a fine ear for harmony.

Hearn brings the hazards and frustrations of the Gilded Age to vivid life in these vignettes, accentuated with meticulously carved woodcuts and endnotes by Labarre that clarify the political and social contexts for Hearn’s satire. A tribute to a long-lost—yet still familiar—iteration of the Crescent City, The New Orleans of Lafcadio Hearn offers a fascinating depiction of the frustrations and joys of life in New Orleans in the 1880s.

Buy this book now for 20% off and get free shipping on all orders over $50, use code 0480FAV at checkout. 

Jun 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: Loyal Forces

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Acquisitions Editor Margaret Lovecraft writes about Loyal Forces.


With the recent observance of Memorial Day as well as V-E & D-Day anniversaries, our gratitude swells for those men and women who have served to keep our country safe and our freedom secure. Until working on the book Loyal Forces, though, I had no idea of the important role animals played in assisting American soldiers during the Second World War.

In 2010, the World War II Museum in New Orleans mounted an exhibit on this subject. When curators Toni Kiser and Lindsey Barnes gave me a tour, we saw the potential for a book that could reach people across the country and beyond. The World War II Museum and LSU Press partnered to bring Loyal Forces into being, with authors Toni and Lindsey expanding upon their existing research to offer even more information and images than were featured in the exhibit.

Dogs, mules, pigeons, horses, bats, and spiders aided the war effort in various capacities on battlefront and home front. Loyal Forces explores each species’s contributions in fascinating detail, including recruitment, training, deployment, care, achievements, and postwar life. Period images vividly capture these creatures and their activities, as do photos of their special equipment, certificates, medals, and other artifacts.

Take dogs: Over 10,000 were trained for duty, almost all of them volunteered by their civilian owners. Most served on the home front to patrol the borders, though some 3,000 were sent into combat as sled pullers, messengers, scouts, and mine detectors. Individual stories of bravery and heroism abound, including that of Smoky, a Yorkshire terrier who endured 150 air raids and a typhoon. Because of her small size, she was able to run a telegraph wire through a seventy-foot-long, eight-inch-diameter pipe within a few minutes—something that would have taken humans three days to accomplish. Another example is Caesar, a German shepherd who took a bullet close to his heart but survived and returned to duty three weeks later.

One of the running jokes at the Press is that given the popularity of cats and of the subject of the Civil War, if we could publish a book on “Cats of the Civil War,” we would have a guaranteed best seller. Well, there are cats in Loyal Forces! See them in the chapter on pets and mascots, those animals who provided companionship and moral support to the troops.

Words that come to mind regarding the American animal forces of World War II are respect and admiration: respect and admiration for their amazing and various abilities, for the human ingenuity to utilize those abilities in defense of liberty, for the trust between handler and animal, and for the dedication—sometimes unto death—in seeing a mission through to completion. Loyal Forces keeps alive the memory of these animals’ special service to our country.

Buy this book now for 20% off and get free shipping on all orders over $50, use code 0480FAV at checkout. 

Jun 15

Around the Press in 80 Books: My Bright Midnight

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Marketing Manager Erin Rolfs writes about My Bright Midnight.

RussellBRIGHT_covfrontHRTo be honest, I find debates about the merit of ebooks versus their wrinkly, smelly ol’ print counterparts tiresome, especially when the speculation revolves around qualitatively comparing the two in an effort to make one the victor. Save for the economic implications, once the “e” against “p” argument veers into claims of aesthetics, tactile experience, and portability, and starts to whiff of nostalgia or hyperneophilia I tend to tap out.

Yet despite my resistance to cheerlead for one format over the other, when I started writing this blog for my eightieth-anniversary pick I could not imagine selecting this title if I had read it digitally, and that made me question my neutrality a little bit.

Every time I glance at the cover of Josh Russell’s My Bright Midnight—which LSUP published as part of the Yellow Shoe Fiction series—and my eyes catch the cheery profile of a blonde in a turquoise bathing suit, flying over a checkerboard sea, I feel at once the panic, loneliness, excitement, and timidity of spending my twenty-eighth birthday alone on a six-hour train ride from Paris to Cannes.

In the summer of 2010, I was two weeks away from starting my job at the Press but had planned a vacation months prior, so I took a galley of Russell’s novel to read during my travels. I didn’t consider how the shadows of time and place would deposit themselves into this book, how I would look on Russell’s novel as a token that granted passage from one point in my life to another.

The main character in My Bright Midnight, Walter Schmidt, is a German immigrant living in New Orleans during World War II. Though he moved to the city over a decade before the war began and despite his efforts to acclimate, the memory of his father—who was presumably slain by U.S. troops in WWI—the bad blood with his cousin Andreas, and the growing American disdain for German heritage keep Walter suspended between two loyalties, between two visions of himself.

Many episodes where Walter is causally called a “kraut” at best or a “Nazi” at worst, are paired with moments in which he believes his American-ness is fully realized—a family trip to the beach, an Uptown home, and a demonstrated love of movies, baseball, and fried food. But you are never allowed to fully sympathize with Walter. He makes selfish, hurtful decisions perhaps out of jealousy for the man he isn’t and can’t ever become. So you’re stuck too, with Walter Schmidt, in a state of seemingly endless transition, much like being on a long train ride, in a foreign place, headed toward a destination you’ve never been to before, surrounded by strangers.

Walter’s life—composed of hardship, loss, confusion, and deceit—bears no resemblance to the privilege of traveling abroad or getting a new job. But that book, on a personal level, shook lose the fears of being unfit for your own ideal—whether in relationships or professionally—and on a bigger level, the consequences of humanity’s targeted prejudice. Now, every time I see this fair-haired variation of Ester Williams frozen in midair at the peak of excitement like Mardi Gras beads snagged on a tree limb, I’m reminded of the insidious nature of past, the volatility of the present, and the hopes we pin on the future. Those notions wouldn’t have had the opportunity to tap me on the shoulder if the book were buried inside my Kindle app. The omnipotent digital edition lacks the substance to carry such a weighty memory, and it could truly be never there, on that train with me, only on a server in Palo Alto or Seattle.

So I have to concede that physical books, for me, are mementos of the story therein as well as the time in which I read them. They represent the person who gave me the object or place I acquired it. They become diplomats returning from a particular episode in my life to negotiate what lies ahead. I know that Walter is still with me because I can still see him even when I’m not looking for him.

Buy this book now for 20% off and get free shipping on all orders over $50, use code 0480FAV at checkout. 

Jul 16

Race and Law Enforcement beyond Policing: The Criminal Jury System in Louisiana

Thomas Aiello is the author of Jim Crow’s Last Stand: Nonunanimous Criminal Jury Verdicts in Louisiana. He joins us on the blog today to talk about the history of racism in Louisiana’s criminal justice system.

The predominant black fear and resentment of law enforcement is justified by every historical measure. The structural bias in policing, for example, has extended back to the first American police force established in 1838 in Boston and has only continued, pushed today by training standards, private prisons, and overt militarization among departments across the country. Demonstrating the historical bigotry inherent in systems of policing, however, is different than criticizing individual police officers, many of whom do their job with fairness and diligence, and most of whom believe that they are public servants. There are, for example, demonstrable historical bigotries inherent in the professoriate—my particular profession—and yet the bulk of those whom I respect most are members of the academy. The confusion in conflating such criticisms, combined with the historical bigotry that was the subject of such analysis in the first place, has left Baton Rouge lesser for the endeavor, publicly strewn with the bodies of Alton Sterling and several police officers and sheriff’s deputies.

Just as law enforcement officers have to continue to work in remarkably harsh and dangerous circumstances, and just as black citizens have to continue to explain to the privileged majority that black lives matter, historians, too, have to continue working to understand the context that creates such tragedies. One of the most racially problematic elements of Louisiana’s law enforcement, for example, is its criminal trial procedure that allows juries to decide criminal cases with nonunamious verdicts, another system that disproportionately affects minority defendants.

The principle of nonunanimous jury verdicts in non-capital criminal cases was not a unique Louisiana holdover from the Napoleonic Code. It was not a legacy handed down from France or Spain or the Holy See, as were so many of Louisiana’s other governmental idiosyncrasies. It was a conservative measure fired in the crucible of the Bourbon restoration following Reconstruction, when white Democrats sought to return their state to some sense of normalcy following federal occupation. The law validating nonunanimous jury verdicts first passed in 1880, and was codified in the Louisiana state constitution of 1898. It was the era of the Redeemers. It was the era of Jim Crow. And the same leaders re-imposing white southern rule and formulating the convict lease system fundamentally changed a code that had been in place since American transfer following the Louisiana Purchase and used it to create more convicts.

Following the end of Reconstruction, the state legislature ordered another in a long line of Louisiana constitutions. “In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy public trial by an impartial jury,” noted the constitution of 1879, and that jury had to be unanimous—as it always had. But the real force for change in the new constitution was the requirement that jury trial mandates be subject to the legislature’s discretion. There was no specific constitutional provision authorizing the state senate to extend the possibility of binding nonunanimous jury verdicts to criminal cases. But that is precisely what it would do.

On April 10, 1880, the Senate modified Article 527 of the 1870 Code of Practice. “If it appears that nine or more of the jurors have agreed to the verdict,” the new law stated, “the same shall be recorded.” And with that, the burden on criminal defendants was made inexorably harder. Criminal juries no longer needed unanimity to convict. The state would further formalize its new requirements in Article 116 of the constitution of 1898: “Cases in which the punishment is necessarily at hard labor [shall be tried] by a jury of twelve, nine of whom concurring may render a verdict; cases in which the punishment may be capital, by a jury of twelve, all of whom must concur to render a verdict.” The constitutional convention of 1898 was tinged with racial overtones. It was the session that codified Jim Crow and black voting restrictions. Convention president E.B. Kruttscchnitt opened the proceedings by reminding delegates that “this convention has been called together by the people of the State to eliminate from the electorate the mass of corrupt and illiterate voters who have during the last quarter of a century degraded a politics.” In closing the convention, he praised delegates for perpetuating “the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race in Louisiana.”

Jim Crow's Last Stand

To help perpetuate that supremacy, legislators needed to combine its attempts at segregation and disfranchisement with a systematic reinstitution of a version of slavery. Louisiana’s convict lease system actually began in the antebellum era, when the state first leased prisoner work to private companies in 1844. That work was originally done inside the prison, turning the penitentiary into a de facto factory, but during Reconstruction the state began shipping prisoners out to work on construction and repair projects. Most of them went to a contractor named S.L. James, who signed a twenty-one year contract with the state in 1870, and renewed it in 1890. The state made a profit, James got cheap labor that he could treat as brutally as he liked. In 1881, the year following the original nonunanimous jury law, fourteen percent of leased convicts died. The next year, more than twenty percent died. And more than three-fourths of Louisiana’s leased convicts after 1870 were black. In light of the racial motivation of such punishments and the overwhelming need of the state for more prisoners to lease to the growing political machine known as the “James Gang,” the state’s change to nonunanimous criminal jury verdicts became almost a fait accompli.

The Supreme Court would narrowly validate Louisiana’s law in Johnson v. Louisiana (1972), tried in conjunction with a similar Oregon appeal, and the outcome validated the legality of non-unanimous criminal verdicts. But it didn’t end the controversy about the approximate justice they provided for criminal defendants. In the century prior to Johnson, appellants had argued that 9-3 verdicts made it that much easier to convict. The state countered that they also made it that much easier to acquit. Appellants argued that 9-3 verdicts in non-capital criminal cases overly complicated a system that often tried defendants on multiple counts, including misdemeanors and capital offenses. The state countered that they reduced the number of hung juries, thereby streamlining the system and saving the state money. The Supreme Court was less concerned with such arguments, instead arguing that consistency provided fairness, and fairness was the fundamental bedrock of due process.

That fairness, however, has been questionable and continuously questioned. The original 9-3 verdicts were later modified to requirements for 10-2 decisions, but that did little to make the system more equitable. The Louisiana jury law, forged in post-Reconstruction politics, has remained one of the last holdovers from the early Jim Crow era in Louisiana. The original impetus of legislators to make convictions easier for a state hungry for more convicts withstood constant challenges throughout the following century. Its constitutionality was confirmed in Johnson not because a racist Court sought to reinstitute one of the final vestiges of Jim Crow, but because it ruled that equal protection could be granted by nine of twelve jurors. Still, as the twentieth century became the twenty-first, it was clear that race still played a role in the formula created by the nonunanimous jury standard. It didn’t have the racist odor of poll taxes or separate train cars, and so it remained, with effects that reached far beyond the bounds of race. It still remains. But the debate about the debits and credits of nonunanimous criminal jury verdicts and the assumption of their inherent place in the system by Louisiana legislators and prosecutors has fundamentally shaped the state’s criminal justice policy, for better and for worse. Mostly, however, for worse.

Like policing, the history of the criminal jury system in Louisiana is structurally biased and disproportionately hurts the poor and minority groups. Like police officers, many of the lawyers, judges, and court officials who are part of that system view their work as public service and devote their lives to selflessly participate in that effort. Most don’t know the role played by S.L. James or E.B. Kruttscchnitt in the creation of Louisiana’s modern legal system. But that doesn’t mean they don’t play a role in perpetuating that system. Law enforcement is more than just policing. While debates about the role of policing in black lives are, despite their difficulty, ultimately necessary and beneficial, eliminating racial disparities in the system will take more than just police reform. Law enforcement is a massive enterprise that exists well beyond the scope of policing, and history tells us that, particularly in Louisiana, historical disparities based on race exist in all of its many facets.

Jul 16

Black Lives and the Conundrum of Unimaginable Grace

The United States is suspended in an extended state of crisis. The very meaning of citizenship and the promises of protection from private intrusion in the Fourth Amendment and the promise of equal protection within the Fourteenth Amendment remain in jeopardy today just as was the case during Reconstruction and the subsequent era of de jure racism in the Jim Crow South and de facto racism throughout the rest of the nation. The twenty-first century is an era in which many—across lines of race and ethnicity—insist race no longer matters, that everyone has a fair chance if she or he just works hard and is a good person.

There are many examples of structural racism—historical practices that are actually embedded in the political, economic, and social systems of the nation—that refute the notion of a post-racial United States, just as there are countless legal claims and cases that prove the notion of a colorblind justice system a myth. Employment, education, healthcare, and housing are arenas in which African Americans have experienced unequal access since emancipation. This reality is inextricably linked to the growing national movement attuned to the problem of ordinary black lives holding no value to the nation once those lives were no longer enslaved and forced to labor without compensation.

We, the nation, inherited the sins of our forefathers and instead of correcting those sins many decades ago, the nation allowed them to fester and rot. Thus, today, the ramifications of unequal access to those four arenas central to citizenship and full incorporation into the nation—employment, education, healthcare, and housing—is playing out, literally, on all of our various screens, as one unarmed black person after the next is subjected to police violence (or mass incarceration). These violent altercations are shaped by both the historical racial inequities and the racialization and stereotypes imposed upon black citizens from slavery to the present.

What strikes me as most unbelievable about this phenomenon is not that certain law enforcement officers (by no means all) are racist—this is not new news. I am instead struck by the utter lack of empathy expressed, verbally or through silence, for the victims. I witness this daily on Facebook when the only posts expressing empathy for black people who have lost their lives or experienced grave bodily and psychological harm at the hands of law enforcement come from academic friends across race and ethnicity, African American family members and friends, and a few white liberal high school friends. The lack of empathy for the victims is indicative of what it looks like to be born into a nation where the remnants of denied personhood continue to inform present day notions of humanness, of what it means to be fully human.

I enter this warped reality from a conflicted position: I am the black mother of three black sons and the wife of a black law enforcement officer. As a mother, I am both fearful and infuriated that I am supposed to do more than is required of white mothers as I raise my sons. That I am supposed to teach them principles for the best chance of survival (success is not guaranteed) in a nation that marked them as a “problem,” as a menace to society, at birth. And, no, my sons’ middle class status does not protect them. It does not protect them from stereotypes in school and it does not protect them from ignorant notions that black people are simply “more violent” and black boys and men are “intimidating.” Just ask Senator Tim Scott.

While I am concerned about my boys, I also cannot help but think about the Facebook post of one of the most recent fallen police officers, Montrell Jackson. In the aftermath of the July 5th shooting of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police officers, Officer Jackson posted on Facebook on July 8th: “I swear to God I love this city, but I wonder if this city loves me. In uniform I get nasty, hateful looks and out of uniform some consider me a threat. . . . These are trying times. Please don’t let hate infect your heart.” His statement and the recent targeting of law enforcement officers by African American men in Dallas and Baton Rouge made me feel nothing but dread when just a week later my husband volunteered to be one of the thousands of law enforcement officers working to ensure order and safety at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio.

My husband’s career choice has been a major point of contention in our household for the 10.5 years he has been in that profession. I have never personally had a negative experience with a police officer. In fact, the few experiences I have had have been professional and cordial on the part of the officer. But that fact does not stop me from being apprehensive about law enforcement (it also does not stop me and my children from hating the schedule and all that my husband misses in his absence). My apprehension is not about getting caught doing something wrong, but about how, by doing nothing wrong, I could still be accused of doing wrong, as I have witnessed in countless videos of police stops across this country.

This apprehension is not simply shaped by a troubled history of corruption and discrimination in many law enforcement units across the nation. It is also shaped by things I have observed as the wife of a police officer: wondering why so many officers policing urban cities live in rural communities; wondering why so many officers who never lived in urban cities want to police in those spaces; wondering what other words besides “Jew,” “gay,” and “fag” I would hear bantered back and forth at the holiday party if my husband and I were not there. I wonder why my husband and some of his white colleagues feel their diversity training is ineffective, not because the department does not care about the issue, but rather because it has fallen susceptible to the trend of believing that anyone who lays claim to doing diversity consulting is educated and competent on the subject.

Something else I recently had to wonder is how many times my husband could have “legally” shot a civilian. I knew and have written about one incident in which someone tried to unholster my husband’s partner’s firearm, and my initial shock when he explained that the only reason he did not shoot the perpetrator was due to having an unclear shot. I have since learned that he has nearly pulled the trigger countless times during traffic stops when people will not show their hands and are reaching around in their vehicles (usually trying to conceal drugs). These instances put me in a conflicted space: no one has the right to threaten the life of my husband for doing his job, yet equally no one, simply by virtue of having a badge and gun, has the right to determine that someone is a threat based on their skin tone.

There is an additional facet to my dread and apprehension. The two men who assassinated police officers were veterans. The mother of Gavin Long, the Baton Rouge shooter, has noted that her son suffered from PTSD and the military refused to treat him. There has been recent, but far from enough, media coverage of this pervasive problem. And the problem is not new. In my most recent book, When We Imagine Grace: Black Men and Subject Making, one chapter focuses on my grandfather, Major Gilbert Alexander Boothe, a retired officer of the US Army and a Buffalo Soldier. He was in the first unit of African American soldiers to fight in battle during WWII (as opposed to cleaning latrines and being sent to deliver supplies on battlefields with no firearms). What he accomplished as a black man in the military during that time, both through rank, medals and honors, and afterward by earning a master’s degree in psychology, is something few men of any race have done. But, as my father pointed out, the fact that my grandfather came back from Europe and Korea having seen what he saw, experienced vile discrimination, and managed to not only be functional but to achieve in spaces not previously open to black men, particularly sharecropping black men from rural Georgia, made my grandfather amazing.

But underneath my grandfather’s exceptionalism was rage. The rage was driven not just by the carnage of war he saw on the battlefields and the discrimination he experienced in the barracks, but also the reality of his blackmaleness in the nation he risked his life for and returned home to as a second-class citizen. His wife and children felt his rage in the private space of their home, while in public spaces he was given awards for community uplift. It is such a sad state of affairs that half a century after my grandfather returned home from offering his country the highest form of service, other black servicemen are returning feeling the same rage.

In her novel Beloved, which is a true national treasure, Toni Morrison writes about the trauma of slavery and the struggle for a community of free blacks in Cincinnati to not simply survive but to feel truly human when they were all once property. A matriarch of the community, Baby Suggs, implores these traumatized and disenfranchised human beings to “imagine grace.” She insists, “The only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.”  Perhaps this is what Kendrick Lamar hopes, too, can be understood in the lyrics to “We gon’ be alright” and Beyonce hopes might be accomplished by having Sister Sledge style “all her sisters with [her]” in “formation.”  But more than just imagining grace, Baby Suggs speaks to black people’s humanness in a manner eerily relevant today and worthy of an extensive quote, because it intersects directly with many of the encounters between law enforcement officers and black people that have ended badly:

“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise then up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on our face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your moth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver–love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”

The eloquent prose of our Nobel Laureate in fiction echoes real life. Ultimately, it boils down to black people being denied grace, or the Websterian granting of free and unmerited favor, because they still, today, are not seen as fully human. Whether it is fictive African American women imagining how ideologies borrowed from outside the US might offer them solace from raced and gendered experiences, which I study in Critical Appropriations: African American Women and the Construction of Transnational Identity; whether it is real and imagined African American men working to define themselves against narrow stereotypes and embrace their multidimensionality, as I examine in When We Imagine Grace; or whether it is black people and allies across race and ethnicity marching and demanding that black lives matter just as much as anyone else’s; what is indisputable is that we as a nation will never be free or be a true democracy until we can grant free and unmerited favor to every human being calling this nation home, simply because they are human.

Simone Drake is assistant professor of African American studies at Ohio State University and the author of Critical Appropriations: African American Women and the Construction of Transnational Identity.

Jun 16

Confederacy of Dunces included in LOC’s “America Reads”

A Confederacy of Dunces has been included in The Library of Congress’s “America Reads,” an exhibition showcasing 65 books—chosen by the public—that had a profound effect on American life.

“America Reads” Exhibition to Open June 16 (Library of Congress)