Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow.
By any method of reckoning, Trouble in Mind by Leon F. Litwack, one of America's most talented historians, is a highly significant, indeed powerful, work about the plight of black people in the New South during the most repressive and violent era (1890-1915) in the nation's race relations. No other historian has presented such a comprehensive and compelling account of the relentless humiliation and degradation experienced by black Southerners in the age of Jim Crow or so graphically underscored the contradictions inherent in the thought and actions of white racists. Based upon research in an incredible variety of sources and written in an always engaging style, Trouble in Mind documents as no other work the extent to which the New South was indeed a perilous world for blacks, one in which any deviation from white expectations, whether intended or unintended, invited prompt and often violent reprisal, even death.
The focus of this volume is not on black leaders and their ideology, which Litwack characterizes as based largely on unrealistic or mistaken assumptions; rather it is on the experience of ordinary black people, especially the New Negro, blacks of the first generations born in freedom who, unaccustomed to the discipline of slavery, were less inclined to render the absolute deference demanded by whites. Through a skillful use of first-hand accounts, Litwack allows blacks themselves to describe how they were regularly reminded of their inferiority, their "place," and the gross inequality between the races. Such reminders were omnipresent in everything from personal contact with individual whites to the dual legal standards practiced by the criminal justice system. The imperative of every black family, therefore, was to educate children in strategies for survival--how to adapt to the racial code imposed by whites without abjectly submitting to it and how "to circumvent the system without seeming to do so."
As a closed society, the Jim Crow South systematically denied blacks the tools to succeed. While white Southerners were never of one mind about black education, they did agree that it should produce a compliant and efficient work force and never "over-educate." Such a view of black education was consistent with the guiding principle of Southern labor relations which, Litwack suggests, was for whites to make as much money out of blacks as possible at the least expense. Small wonder that many blacks became trapped in a new form of slavery-debt peonage. The coercive labor system mocked the work ethic, because a "lifetime of hard work, honesty, diligence, frugality, and punctuality" could well leave blacks "worse then when they began." Those blacks who managed somehow to prosper were often considered "uppity" and impudent by whites and made to suffer the consequences. If whites displayed little tolerance toward successful blacks, they tended to be more indulgent toward unambitious, poor African Americans who pos ed no threat to the social order and who reinforced white assumptions about the innate character of black people.
Whites saw as a serious menace the so-called New Negroes, who were more assertive and who stretched the limits of white tolerance. To keep the New
Negro in his place and force him to conform to the highly romanticized image of the Old Negro, Jim Crow "assumed more expanded and rigid form." Segregation and disfranchisement statutes proliferated, and the white South succumbed to an orgy of lynching and random acts of racial violence in order to serve notice on blacks that breaches in the racial code, however trivial, would not be tolerated. No black person of whatever sex, age, or class was immune to white violence. To lynch a black person was not enough; the execution needed to be turned into a public ritual and a voyeuristic spectacle of gruesome proportions that often involved torture and mutilation.
Litwack explains with great sensitivity and skill how blacks managed to survive in the face of mounting violence, coercion, fraud, and legal force. Excluded from the political process, access to affluence, and white society, they created their own society with its own institutions and separate social and cultural life. For enterprising blacks, the creation of these separate black communities opened new economic opportunities. Within this separate black society the church played a central role, especially in providing members with the spiritual resources that enabled them to endure. Most Southern blacks, Litwack contends, "needed the church not so much to politicize or mobilize them as to comfort them, to enable them to escape daily hardships and an inhospitable world."
Not all blacks were persuaded of the church's relevance. Younger blacks increasingly challenged the efficacy of prayer in particular and the conditions they had inherited in general. Some, like Robert Charles of New Orleans, lived by their wits on the fringes of society and went beyond "grinless compliance" to open defiance of white authority. Such individuals, who often appeared as heroes in the folklore and songs of blacks and who inspired outrage and fear among whites, not only suggested the degree to which New Negroes were casting off the vestiges and demeanor of enslavement, but also their inability to contain their pent-up anger, frustration, disillusionment, and restlessness. Small wonder that the opening of opportunities in the North with the outbreak of World War I signaled what Litwack terms "a radical shift in black thinking and acting." No longer able to tolerate an environment that penalized their ambition and success and that applied unremitting pressure to stay in their subordinate place, they launched the Great Migration northward--a move that "exceeded economics and politics" and served as a "kind of redemption." What blacks discovered in the urban North was, Litwack concludes, something both "very different [ldots] and very much the same."
The grim story related and interpreted so superbly in this book contains much that makes for unpleasant reading and often stretches one's credulity because it brings into such sharp focus the harsh and even brutal methods invoked by whites to maintain their control and dominance, which some justified and rationalized as in the "best interests" of black people. This book is essential reading for an understanding of black-white relations in the United States, both past and present.
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|Author:||Gatewood, Willard B.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2000|
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