Saturday, May 7, 2011


Reviewing James Lowen’s book, SUNDOWN TOWNS: A HIDDEN DIMENSION OF AMERICAN RACISM, The New Press, New York, 2005.

Sundown Towns is the descriptive name applied to many American towns that had posted signs at the city limits warning African/American people to be out of the town limits before dark. The inscription was generally some variation of a warning to “get your black ass out of town before dark”. How does this historical racist phenomenon possibly impinge upon the world of rock art? Well, if painted on rock the message qualifies as a shameful but historical inscription.

This writer can testify to the presence of a wooden sign on the outskirts of one small town in east Tennessee in the late-1960s that said “N - - - - -r, don’t let the sun set on you in this town”. As convenient shorthand for the “get your black ass out of town” version many locales reportedly simply sported a painting of a black donkey (ass) on a convenient cliff or rock near the town limits, with its head pointed away from town. Those for whom the message was intended understood the message all too well.

The slightly blurry version pictured was copied from James Loewen’s 2005 book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension Of American Racism, published by The New Press, in New York. Loewen credits this picture to one Margaret Alam who snapped the slightly blurred image outside of a Liberty, Tennessee, in 2003. Loewen gave no indication of when the image might have originally been painted, hopefully it is a holdover from an earlier time of more overt racism, although it seems significant that no one had removed it by 2003.
Why bring such an unpleasant thing up at all, wouldn’t it be better to just ignore this? I believe that if we are serious about trying to understand rock art we have to take the bad with the good. This most certainly qualifies as a historic inscription casting light upon a part of American history that still has not been completely resolved, and as such it has as much or more relevance to our field of study than does William Clark’s signature on Pompey’s Pillar outside of Billings, Montana, although it is much less pleasant to contemplate. Indeed this particular historic inscription implies events and ideas that still resonate in our society and our daily lives.

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