The Broken Heart of America

St. Louis has this strange identity, “a northern city with southern exposure” as it’s sometimes described. Yet most of its past is shrouded in mystery. Walter Johnson, The Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, seeks to rip the veil off the city in his latest book, “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States.”

Due to the pandemic, most new authors are experiencing difficulties in promoting their books. Johnson is no exception and so Zoom it was on Thursday, May 28, 6 p.m. The program was part of STL History Live at the Missouri History Museum. Gwen Moore, curator of Urban Landscape and Community Identity, served as the moderator. She noted that his “exhaustively researched book is groundbreaking” considered by author Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz as perhaps “the most important book on United States history you will read in your lifetime.”

Moore described it as sweeping in scope covering some 200 years of St. Louis History from Lewis and Clark (1804) to the tragic killing of Michael Brown and the Ferguson uprising of 2014.   

“It has some hard truths; the operative word is truths,” Moore said. “Truths that must be confronted and addressed before we can begin to move forward for a more just and equitable society.”

A recurring theme in Johnson’s book is racial capitalism, which a member of the Zoom audience later asked him to define during the Q and A session, since it didn’t come up in his 20- minute introduction. 

He wrote about this intriguing term in his book connoting “… Capitalism and Negrofication were mutually—dialectically—constitutive of the modern world.”  Or as he so poignantly noted at the virtual live presentation, “political economy and racial control” go hand-in-hand. Many of these issues remain unresolved, he said.  

Johnson asserted that the uprising in Minneapolis in reaction to the police murder of George Floyd to the “curbside justice” (police excessive force) of so many people of color such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, is a powerful reminder that while St. Louis is not alone in its anti-Black violence.

Yet why is it extreme? According to the prodigious researcher and deep and powerful thinker, history tells the tale. It was an imperial city that set the tone for the rest of the nation. “The morning star of U.S. imperialism” from stolen Indian land, genocidal wars and tragic Indian removal. Jefferson Barracks was the epicenter of the nation’s military westward expansion. Side-by-side was slavery and its commercial dominance as has been the modern expropriation of Black neighborhoods (oft-times termed Negro removal). He spends a whole chapter on Mill Creek Valley (think Harris-Stowe State University as a reference point). At one time a bustling community of 20,000 African Americans, it fell victim to the wrecking ball, scattering residents to mostly the city’s Westend. All to feather the nests of the capitalist overlords and appease the white working class through labor contracts.  

The ideology that emerged from this imperialist U.S. history sought to justify slavery, property rights and greed with the claim that “This is a White Man’s Country.” Therefore, he said “racism is enduring and repetitious with wanton experimentation and strategies of control and exploitation.”

“It’s a hard story,” he admitted, but what he also found was the history of St. Louis radicalism and interracial alliances that are “often forgotten and too scarcely memorialized.” This real thread of radicalism and the push back from conservatives has a long tradition here. From the German immigrant communist who were fiercely anti-slavery to activist Percy Green who was part of the Jefferson Bank demonstration and head of ACTION. Yet alongside him at the bank demonstration was Herschel Walker, chair of the Communist Party.

In sum, what is racial capitalism? He reiterated, “White supremacy and empire.”

Professor Johnson will be in person at Left Bank Books in the Central West End August 13 for a presentation and book-signing. For more information, visit www.left-bank.com. 

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