Jim Crow, Antebellum Propoganda, Civil Rights & the Color Line

Sibylle asked:

Perhaps I’m reading too much into it but is this question [have you heard of Joel Chandler Harris] somehow connected to your reading of Slavery by Another Name by Blackmon?

You are not reading too much into my question. It is indeed related to my reading of Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name or, rather it’s related to the research I’ve been doing for my book set in the early years of the 1930s in New York City. I asked about Harris because I’d never heard of him and only vaguely knew what the Uncle Remus stories were. Yet his name kept coming up in a lot of reading I’ve been doing. I was curious to know whether he was still being read and how he fits into modern USians reading histories.1

How did I get there?

I began my research reading everything I could set in, or about, the early 1930s in NYC. I expanded backwards to read about the Crash, the beginning of Prohibition, the Harlem Renaissance.

But it soon became apparent that there was loads I wasn’t understanding because I didn’t know enough even earlier US history. For example, while reading Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South edited by William Henry Chafe, Raymond Gavins & Robert Korstad (which I highly recommend) I realised that I didn’t know when or how the Jim Crow laws originated. I didn’t know if they were federal, or state, or local, or all three. I didn’t know if they were restricted to the South. They weren’t and New York was, in fact, the worst of the Northern states. Though there were restrictions on where African-Americans live throughout the entire country. The color line was more of a wall. (Don’t believe me? Read this excellent account, Jim Crow in New York by Erika Wood and Liz Budnitz with Garima Malhotra from the Brennan Centre for Justice. You can download it for free.)

Before I started my research for this book I didn’t know very much about the Civil Rights struggle in the North. For those of you who are interested I highly recommend Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North by Thomas J. Sugrue. Reading that book side by side with Or Does it Explode: Black Harlem in the Great Depression by Cheryl Lynn Greenburg (yet another wonderful book) has done an enormous amount to widen my understanding and (I hope) improve the book I’m writing.

Finding out the answers to my many questions meant reading further back in time and realising that I didn’t really know a lot about Reconstruction or how Reconstruction ended and the North ceded control of the South. It also meant learning about how the myth of the Antebellum South emerged—you know that magical place of happy black slaves and beautiful white women worshipped by gallant white men, where the only poor whites were mean and trashy and deserved to be poor?—which was so pivotal to cultural understandings of race in the USA after the Civil War and Reconstruction. A myth that was as much constructed in the North as the South. A myth that overrode facts, such as that the crime wave in the wake of the Civil War was almost entirely the doing of renegade whites, not of black slaves gone mad with freedom. A myth that will not go away.

I realised pretty quickly that I needed to know a lot more about how 19th (and then early 20th century) USians thought about race, which led to learning about “scientific” explanations of race and the so-called science of raciology. It meant learning more about Physical Anthropology as well as 19th century theories of Biology. And the way in which Darwin’s theories of Evolution were co-opted by white supremacists.

It also meant learning about the different political and philosphical positions of Booker T. Washington and W. E. Du Bois and many other black thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries such as Marcus Garvey. If you haven’t read Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk I highly recommend it.2 You can download it from Project Gutenberg.

That’s what happens with research. It grows and blossoms and one path leads to another, which leads to another and so on and so on.

That is how I wound up reading Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name. That is why I am currently reading The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States between the World Wars by Elazar Barkan.

And that is why I may never finish this book. But, hey, I’m learning a lot writing it . . .

  1. I am aware that my methods of finding out are not exactly scientific. []
  2. Yeah, I know I’m doing that a lot. []

10 comments

  1. Ted Lemon on #

    This is why I enjoy reading fiction. You’ll have already done all the work for me. :’)

  2. Jennifer Woodfin on #

    Thomas Sugrue is a Big Blue Marble customer! One day I’ll have to take a look through his book.

  3. Mac on #

    A myth that overrode facts, such as that the crime wave in the wake of the Civil War was almost entirely the doing of renegade whites, not of black slaves gone mad with freedom. A myth that will not go away.

    This reminds me of all the times I heard people say, to my face, that if Obama did not win this last election, all the African Americans would run riot. Bleah. (All the African Americans surrounding me, on the other hand, didn’t believe he would win in a thousand years and were just sort of watching and moving on with their lives.)

  4. Delux on #

    “if Obama did not win this last election, all the African Americans would run riot. ”

    Well to be truthful, that was the plan. In fact, I was taking orders for big screen tvs— I was planning on hitting the big home electronics store down the street, and I wanted to make the rioting and looting process as organized as possible.

  5. Electric Landlady on #

    This is only vaguely and tangentially related to this particular post, but I just finished “The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York,” which is excellent, and seems like it could be relevant to your current research interests.

  6. Justine on #

    Ted: Lazy bloody readers! :-)

    Jennifer: Tell him I think he’s awesome. Not that he’ll know who I am. Um. Never mind.

    Mac: Ugh.

    Delux: I hope you were planning to raid Alexander McQueen stores too. Think of the resale now!

    Electric Landlady: In fact, The Poisoner’s Handbook is sitting by the bed waiting to be read. (And not just because “bed” and “read” rhyme.)

  7. Alexa on #

    Can I tell you how amazingly happy I am that you’re doing all this research? So many non-US authors will just be lazy and go with stereotypes like “Every white person in the South was a Klansman, people were only mildly racist in the North, and black people were either sharecroppers or jazz musicians. I can’t be bothered to find out how and why this social structure was perpetuated because I like this smug feeling that MY country wasn’t this racist!” (when usually that’s patently false as well.)

    Race in America was and is a very complex subject that even the most uneducated American has a greater understanding of than most anyone who hasn’t grown up here. It’s not a characteristic we take any pride in, but it is an inherent part of our society, and it’s nice to see a non-American try to get it right for once.

  8. wandering-dreamer on #

    Whoaaa that is a ton of reading. Since the 2008 election (well, technically before it but anyway) I’ve really been seeing how much I don’t know about what really happened after the civil war and I will make sure to try and get through some of these lovely books you’ve posted. Thanks for sharing all of this!

  9. Delux on #

    Justine, I hadn’t thought of that, but i will keep it in mind for the next time there’s a nationwide plan.

  10. Nif on #

    As someone for whom the intricacies of American racial politics and identity intersect in uncommon and deeply personal ways, I too am happy you are doing this research.

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