Monday, March 18, 2019

Steve Luxenberg’s "Separate"

Steve Luxenberg is an associate editor at The Washington Post and an award-winning author. During his forty years as a newspaper editor and reporter, Luxenberg has overseen reporting that has earned many national honors, including two Pulitzer Prizes.

His first book was the critically-acclaimed Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret, honored as a Michigan Notable Book and selected as the 2013-2014 Great Michigan Read.

Luxenberg's new nonfiction book is Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation. As a work in progress, Separate won the 2016 J. Anthony Lukas Award for excellence in nonfiction writing.

Luxenberg applied the “Page 99 Test” to Separate and reported the following:
Anticipation and trepidation.

Like inseparable twins, those emotions accompanied me as my fingers scrabbled to page 99 of my new book, Separate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation.

A smile came swiftly as I scanned the paragraphs.

New Orleans. Discrimination. The city’s free people of color. Their continuing struggle for full political and civil rights, long sought and long denied.

Of course.

New Orleans and its French-speaking, mixed-race group known as les gens de couleur libres are central to this story of racial separation and its roots. Ford Madox Ford may have gone overboard in saying that turning to page 99 of any book will reveal “the quality of the whole.” In the case of Separate, fortunately, that page offers a strong sample of the book’s sweep and depth.

Separate begins in the North at the dawn of the railroad age in the late 1830s and ends with the infamous Supreme Court ruling in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson. Drawing on letters, diaries, and archival collections, the book depicts indelible figures such as the many resisters to separation during much of the 19th century, including a young Frederick Douglass on a Massachusetts railroad car in 1841; Louis Martinet, a lawyer and crusading newspaper editor who led the New Orleans committee that brought the Plessy case, Homer Plessy’s lawyer, Albion TourgĂ©e, the country’s most famous white advocate for civil rights; Justice Henry Billings Brown, from antislavery New England, whose majority ruling endorsed the idea of separate but equal; and Justice John Marshall Harlan, the Kentuckian from a slaveholding family whose singular dissent cemented his reputation as a steadfast voice for racial justice.

The New York Times, in a review by Rutgers professor James Goodman, describes the book this way: “Absorbing ... contains so many surprises, absurdities and ironies ... Segregation is not one story but many. Luxenberg has written his with energy, elegance and a heart aching for a world without it.”

A brief excerpt from page 99 hints at the New Orleans part of this stirring story. At a Louisiana constitutional convention in April 1845, a wealthy and flamboyant delegate named Bernard de Marigny had the floor. He was a slaveholder, and the developer of a neighborhood where many free people of color lived.

Here’s what happened:
He asked [the convention] to consider a clause allowing the legislature to “confer the rights and privileges of citizenship” on free people of color, if they were native born. It was a small step, only giving the legislature the option, without tying its hands. Take time to think about it, he urged....

The proposal died an undignified death a week later, never debated, a casualty of a hostile reception that Marigny could not overcome. “I believe it is my duty to withdraw it,” he wrote in a statement brimming with disappointment, but “I trust that the members of the Convention ... will do me the justice to believe my motives were pure.”
I did a test of my own after reading page 99. I went to pages 199, 299, 399 and 499. Readers might want to do the same. I’m pleased to report that each reveals “the quality of the whole.”
Visit Steve Luxenberg’s website.

The Page 99 Test: Annie's Ghosts.

--Marshal Zeringue