Remembering Jim Loewen
Sociologist, Author, Advocate, Mentor, Friend, and so much more
Jim Loewen passed away on August 19. He is best known for writing Lies My Teacher Told Me and other books, but thinking of him as just an author or a sociologist or any one thing understates what an influential and fascinating person he was.
He took his work seriously. Himself? You decide…
Earlier this summer, the city of Charlottesville removed the statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson - the very statues that became the focal point of an infamous march of white supremacists. Jim lived to see the statues come down. If not for his work, they would still be there, and who knows for how much longer they might have remained.
It has been my honor to maintain his website for several years. That website, not long before his passing, finally got its long awaited overhaul. If you haven’t seen it, please see it now:
This Saturday, October 9, a celebration of his life will be held at All Souls in Washington, DC. The service will be streamed starting at 10:15am Eastern. Visit https://all-souls.org/events/james-loewen/ to stream the service.
I have struggled for weeks with trying to figure out what I might write about this inspiring man. What I finally came around to is this: What would I say if I could make it to his service and speak for just a few minutes? It would be something like this:
One night about 20 years ago, I drove to Urbana, to see Jim Loewen speak at Allen Hall. Like so many other people I’d read Lies My Teacher Told Me. And I wanted to go hear from the man who wrote that book… the man who chased me away from graduate school.
I was a TA at Ohio State when I read Lies My Teacher Told Me, and it gave me all the context I’d been lacking for understanding what was going on with my students. They’d received such a terrible history education in high school - and before - that we’d already lost most of them. It left me seriously questioning the entire education process, and what my place in it could or should be.
He was there as a scholar-in-residence for a week, working on what would become Sundown Towns. Much of his talk focused on the prevalence of sundown towns in Illinois. We were in Urbana, I lived in Normal, I’d grown up in Rockford, I’d done my master’s thesis on Centralia, he’d grown up in Decatur… I mean, we had the state covered! And so many of his observations provided context for how I understood so much of Illinois to be. This was one of his special gifts, as a writer and as a lecturer: He could fill in gaps you didn’t know were gaps. Whatever else he might ostensibly be writing or talking about, it always felt relevant, visceral, to me, to my immediate surroundings.
Of all the things he talked about that night, though, the thing I remember best is a story about an experiment he conducted with jis sociology students at the University of Vermont. They would load into one of two cars - a luxury car, maybe a BMW, and an old clunker. And they would drive around Burlington. And they’d stop at red lights. And then when they lights turned green, they wouldn’t go. They’d start a stopwatch instead, and time how long it would take to get honked. On average, other cars honked the beater much faster than they honked the beamer.
There were three takeaways of his story. One, which you might spin a little bit differently, is that people have far more patience for the wealthy than they have for the poor. Another, which was less a takeaway than a directive, was him telling us that if we see a luxury car not moving at a green light, honk ‘em!
The third takeaway, of course, is that here was this famous professor and author, inexplicably using the word honk as a transitive verb!
And while a celebration of life may be an odd place to bring up the use of transitive verbs… I think for him it makes perfect sense. He was a transitive man! Insatiably curious, constantly buzzing, fiercely devoted to social justice. And yet also, critically, a man who understood how to laugh, including at himself. Curiosity, action, justice, laughter, these things all fit together. What, after all, is “Honk ‘em!”, but another way of imploring people to speak truth to power? And as for laughing at himself, I mean, here was a guy whose website featured a database of sundown towns… and at the very top of the front page, the first words you read are:
Something Has Gone Very Wrong… The Homepage of James W. Loewen
Many years went by after I met him that night in Urbana. And at some point, I reached out. For lack of a better way to put it, I was at a point where I wanted to participate in something bigger than me, and I felt he was whom I needed to connect with. It was from that reaching out that I got involved in the website. It was truly an honor to have done what work I could for him: which was, of course, work for everyone.
From that point forward I had the opportunity to visit with him and Susan numerous times. He was always so gracious, as interested in what you were doing as in what he was doing, even when he was doing things like convincing America to take down those monuments and you were doing… not quite that!
For me, he will always remain an inspiration. Certainly his work is and has been inspiring for decades, and, I believe, will continue to resonate for many decades to come. But I think what will stay with me most is his mien, his constant positive demeanor, his contagious optimistic attitude. Recent years in America might not be considered a new era of good feelings. But when so many other people I know have felt doom and despair, Jim saw real progress and felt real hope. More than once, at times when he was sick, he uplifted me, just by focusing on how much is going right. I hope I can take that example and do the same for others.
Yes, as with literally millions of people, I learned a lot from his books. But I was also exceedingly fortunate to learn even more from the man himself, not just about history and justice, but also about how to carry myself day to day. A lot of these are lessons I’ll impart to my son, not the least of which will be:
Thank you for this, Phil.