Expecting less from a Pulitzer-prize-winning author would be foolhardy, but even with the award before his name, John Archibald in recent memoir Shaking the Gates of Hell: A Search for Family and Truth in the Wake of the Civil Rights Revolution welds a magical, managerial command of tone. It’s an excellent text.
That tone — a mix of nostalgic, careful, demanding, yet always melancholy — proves difficult because of the subject matter: the world doesn’t need another white male perspective on the civil rights era. It doesn’t until Archibald frames it in an important, engaging way, which is through the lens of his father and the church that produced his father and grandfathers before him.
Shaking the Gates of Hell examines the act of silence, and how it is an act, through close study of a childhood, a father, a mother, and an entire family, all of whom lived in Alabama during one of the most tumultuous periods in recent history. A glance may leave readers misconstruing the memoir to be that of a a white man commenting on race; however, it is commentary on not speaking out. Under such a subject, Archibald knows when to print and when to write in cursive. He wrestles with the outstanding and altruistic accomplishments of a lovely man who just so happened to be his father during the 1960s and beyond; a man who just may have not spoken aloud enough about the problems facing the nation when it came to race relations.
Archibald fills each moment — all significant — with love; he handles each in delicate measure, which in less deft hands, would’ve come off as saccharine, or worse, apologetic. The work becomes even more emotionally resonant and moving in the second half where Archibald continues in years begin to face the consequences of living, consequences all will face.
Towards the end, Archibald writes that “no one will know we were there.” That’s true, and it’s not true. A lot of readers and non-readers alike will know he was here.
So many of us — this writer included — could use the sort of self-reflection the likes of which John Archibald employs significantly in Shaking the Gates of Hell.
Here is our starting point.