Monday, August 10, 2009

Important Historical Research

Since running across the Existential Adventure interactive blog a few weeks ago, I've developed an interest in the history of the Choose Your Own Adventure genre. It turns out the form has a rich history that is interwoven with multiple aspects of American History. This week's find: two intersections between the Choose Your Own Adventure form and the Civil Rights Movement.

Tool of Oppression

You may know that in several southern states, prior to victories of the civil rights movement, new voters whose grandfathers had not been registered to vote (read: African-Americans) were required to pass "literacy tests" in order to qualify. These tests were notoriously difficult: an Alabama test included questions such as "At what time of day on January 20 each four years does the term of the president of the United States end?" and "In what year did the Congress gain the right to prohibit migrations of persons to the states?"

A 1964 Mississippi test went a step further, requiring potential black voters to successfully complete a civics-based "Choose Your Own Adventure" book as "proof" of their preparedness. (Excerpt: "If you are white, turn to page 5. If you are black, turn to the page where you have to run screaming from the Ku Klux Klan...")

Redeeming the Genre's Legacy

What you may not know is that in 1990, Anne Bailey successfully co-opted the art form of the oppressor to produce the first civil-rights-movement-inspired "Choose Your Own Adventure" title, You Can Make a Difference.

In the book, Martin Luther King's ghost comes to visit you and won't go away until you can accomplish his vision of creating a poor people's coalition and ending the war in Vietnam. This may seem easy, since the Vietnam War is already over--but beware! The ghost of J. Edgar Hoover will go to great lengths to stop you. (Hint: whenever he's closing in, always choose to turn left. The same applies, incidentally, when fleeing Derek Zoolander.)

Random Tangential Meditation

Further parallels between Hoover and Zoolander are worth pondering: what might these renowned Americans have in common?


  1. Your monthiversary survey asked how often we're disappointed by this blog, and today is the first day that I was. Generally I find both joke and meaning, both something to laugh at and something to think about, and today I didn't find either. Today the jokes brought me down instead of lifting me up.

  2. Sorry about that. :( My intent was to remind people about some historical realities in the mode of the less-than-reality-based blog: the Alabama test questions are real, and the Mississippi ones, though not technically real, are close to that state's approach. MLK did dream about a poor people's coalition, no one did fulfill that dream, and we remember MLK as a black leader more often than as a broader American visionary. Hoover was probably completely nuts and certainly ethically-challenged, and became one of the most entrenched top-level bureaucrats in American history.

    And while our institutions and traditions have developed significantly, I doubt that the uglier sides of human nature and interaction that gave rise to these things are entirely gone. The thing to think about today is our collective potential to institutionalize evil and how that undermines our optimistic belief in limitless individual potential.


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