How are you all feeling? Have you looked after yourselves? Are you starting to feel like you’re coming out of the fog? Ready to do the work?
Some of that work is reading. Educating ourselves. Looking for books that tell stories that don’t necessarily bear any resemblance to our own.
Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South is one of those stories.
Beth Macy’s book looks at what really happened to George and Willie Muse, Albino brothers born to a black family, who were taken from their family and made to perform in a sideshow. For years, their story was a kind of local myth, used to scare children into behaving lest they be taken like the Muse brothers. Macy spent twenty-five years building a relationship with the Muse brothers’ niece, Nancy, their caretaker and protector. Nancy, understandably, didn’t want her uncles to be a kind of modern day sideshow.
I’m going to tell you right now that Macy doesn’t really uncover exactly what happened. There is never any kind of conclusion to this book that provides all the answers.
But what this book does do is paint a picture of what it was like to be black and live under Jim Crow laws. No one needs to be told that it’s not a pretty picture. But it’s maybe a good opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the nitty-gritty. I cried for the first time on page 25, when Macy recounts stories she’s been told by the community’s black residents about dropping out of school at tender ages to work, being made to eat outside because white people didn’t want them in their homes, about how 1976 was still too soon for many black people to talk about slavery and what it meant for their families.
George and Willie Muse were either kidnapped by the sideshow or they were sent to work there by their mother, who was probably told that they would be back after a season. Whatever happened, the Muse brothers spent their lives performing in sideshows all over America, Canada and even further. The photos that Macy has managed to find of the brothers show handsome young men who look incredibly sad. Those who were tasked with their wellbeing failed them, parading them around the world and making money off their difference.
Their mother, Harriet, did everything in her power to bring them home. She stood up to the police when it could have cost her her life.
In the end, Willie Muse lived to be 108. His niece always reminded Macy that whatever she found out about what happened, the brothers won in the end.
Truevine is not an easy book to get to at times. Beth Macy describes incredible brutality perpetrated against black bodies, and later against those “freaks” who made money off their oddities. Macy describes trying to watch AHS: Freak Show with her son and feeling like it too was trying to profit from the rubbernecking. I suspect if she had continued to watch the show, she would have found that the those with “ugly” outsides were the good guys, that the “beautiful” people were rotten all the way through.
This is one of those books that works to keep those stories we’d rather forget, alive. It’s important to remember them.