Thursday, February 23, 2017

Black Bess

I find that I'm most likely to read history books of the debunking kind. The books that tell us "the real story," or the story behind the story. I like the tension between the official account and the allegedly true one, the debunked version, the one that digs deeper. So I couldn't resist a book called Lies Across America, by James W. Loewen. It's not the kind of book that benefits from a straight read-through. It's organized by region, and within each region by state. The book focuses on historic sites--landmarks and statues and whatnot--telling us what the sites themselves got wrong, often deliberately wrong. There's tragedy behind these stories, quite often, but there's also comedy. You can imagine how delighted I was to find, starting on page 150, this story about Lexington, Kentucky:

There's a statue in front of the courthouse of Confederate General John H. Morgan sitting atop a stallion. Morgan wasn't a terribly significant officer--Loewen reveals that Morgan succeeded in little more than getting his men captured before getting himself shot--but his monument is significant because the "stallion" is named Bess. Apparently it's fairly common for people making monuments to soldiers to turn their mares into stallions. University of Kentucky students seem to enjoy painting the mare's testicles blue and white.

It gets better: An anonymous bard has composed "The Ballad of Black Bess." Loewen gives us a few stanzas...
Proud the eye of good Black Bess
With shamelessness uncanny,
She just ignores the testicules
That hang beneath her fanny.
Interesting spelling. I've not been able to find a full version of this ballad online, though there may be a book that contains it. I'll keep digging.

Loewen wrote another book that gets to the truth obscured by official histories, Lies My Teacher Told Me. It's good stuff. Of course, there's also the work of Howard Zinn--notably, A People's History of the United States, but I think the more manageable Declarations of Independence is even better. There's Ray Raphael's Founding Myths, which specifically focuses on the American Revolution.

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