Sunday, March 5, 2017

Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I don’t usually link to places to purchase books. I have not monetized my blog in any way, and will not make a dime if you purchase from a link on my site, so it never made sense to link things. However, I decided to link this book, because it lacks an “author” as such, and might not be intuitive to find. Anyway, here it is: Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Live in the Segregated South

When I selected a book to read for my annual Black History Month reading, I had intended that I just read Black Boy (American Hunger) by Richard Wright. However, I made the “mistake” of going to the library during February and, naturally, checking out the Black History Month display. As a result, I guess I actually have three books for this month, one of which is this one. Don’t worry, I will have reviews of the others as well.

I am starting with this one, however, because I think if you are going to pick just one, this is the one to read.

If you haven’t checked out my other Black History Month selections, here they are, along with other notable books by other authors of African heritage:

2016:   Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin

Other notable books by African American or African authors:

Poems by Phillis Wheatley
Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Books on Black History by other authors:


This book is part of the Behind the Veil Project at Duke University. During the late 1990s, hundreds of interviews were done of men and women who had lived during Jim Crow. These stories were told by the participants themselves, and are filled with humor, pathos, and gritty humanity. As a result, they are extraordinarily powerful, the way all good true stories are.

This book is also an example of why Black History Month is necessary in the first place.

I’ve probably mentioned it before, but I was homeschooled from second grade on. Before that, I (more or less) attended a church-affiliated private school. (More or less, because I was out sick so often that I was doing as much work at home as at school anyway.) At that time, there wasn’t a whole lot of variety in the available curriculum. I say this because the curriculum itself pretty much ignored the 20th Century except the world wars and the cold war. (Communism was BAD, yo!) Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement were pretty much glossed over. For a pretty good example of this glaring gap, another homeschool alumnus wrote this post.  

Fortunately, my parents helped fill in many of the gaps, although I think their own knowledge was a bit gappy because they both grew up overseas, and thus didn’t really live through the Civil Rights Movement. I don’t want to create the impression that this is just a homeschool issue, though. I have been astounded at the level of ignorance of Black History among people I know - particularly the Baby Boomer generation. I guess the public schools back in the day were pretty white supremacist. I have to remind myself that they grew up during segregation. Even now, though, states like Texas and Virginia have had their curricula examined and it appears that the Lost Cause Myth is still taught many places in this country.

For homeschoolers, it really depends, I think. I probably got a slightly better education than many of my peers on racial issues. But it could and should have been a lot better. I have had to make up a tremendous amount of ground. (It doesn’t help that I skipped my undergrad work and went straight to law school. That is one regret that I have about how I did things.) My kids, on the other hand, are getting a much more balanced history education.

Others, though, definitely did not get it. I have mentioned in other posts my wife’s experience in a cultic group - which contained a number of full blown white supremacists. Even in the last few weeks, I have seen some comments from kids who grew up in an affiliated group that were viciously racist. (“There is nothing wrong with stereotypes. They are simply people observing and seeing characteristics in other groups.” Um, sure. Nothing to do with confirmation bias of prejudice…)

The overwhelming problem, though, is that Black History is indeed given short shrift. “History is written by the victors” is a bit of a truism - and not universally true, exactly - but it does contain some grain of truth, that the dominant class does use its power to suppress the stories of those it defeats and oppresses. And right now, it is very much in the interest of those who would have you believe that racism no longer exists to hide the rather recent history of white supremacy enforced by the power of law and sustained by culture and economic structures. The reason that white nationalism has been able to capture our government is that it is not recognized as such by enough people.

These stories are part of the antidote. Jim Crow wasn’t just about separation. It was about humiliation. It was about expressly directing the economic resources, both private and especially public, away from non-white communities and toward white communities. It was about a continual reminder of who occupied what place in society. It was about punishing those who dared to rise above their station, in some cases by murder of the successful. It was about systematic robbing of oppressed through the sharecropper system, through making the well-paying and less dangerous jobs “whites only,” and by looking at blacks as marks to be exploited, rather than neighbors to be loved and protected. It was about suppressing the voting rights of non-whites through a creative variety of obstacles designed to keep blacks from voting. (This idea is making a comeback in states like North Carolina where voting restrictions were expressly based on the negative effects they would have on black voters.)

In these stories, you see that the stereotypes of today were present back then - and that they existed to justify harming non-whites. Under Jim Crow, as under slavery, black women were considered available for white men to rape and assault. (Blacks have no sexual self control - she asked for it.) Under Jim Crow, as under slavery, black men would be killed if they looked at a white woman. (Blacks have no sexual self control - they all want to rape white women.) Under Jim Crow, whites would pressure blacks to work from dawn until dusk, and for the children to go work in the fields rather than stay in school. (Blacks are lazy.) Curfews are needed, so that blacks can’t go outside their homes after dark - and can’t hang around downtown. (Blacks are just more criminal than whites and must be controlled.) I have heard each of these stereotypes used by people I know in the last year.

Another reason these stories are necessary is that they give the lie to the idea (so prevalent in right wing circles) that poverty is caused by immorality. If anything, the stories from the Jim Crow era show a sense of community that I greatly envy. Separated from other sources of protection, African American communities came together to take care of themselves in ways that have been largely lost. (I will be reviewing The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Koontz next month - and she details the rise of the belief in individualism that denies responsibility to care for others in the community. It’s very interesting.) In this book, families that didn’t have much to share found ways, and even banded together against white violence on many occasions. In these communities, where women had to - and had always had to - work, extended family, neighbors, and even strangers helped watch and care for children. It’s quite inspiring. If our world needs anything right now, it isn’t lectures about how families “ain’t what they used to be” but a renewed sense that we are our brother’s keeper, and that we have responsibilities to care for those outside our nuclear family, our extended family, and our tribe.

But perhaps the most important reason we need to know these stories are that the suppression of the truth is the most necessary weapon in continuing oppression and injustice. In every act of hate, in every case of governmental violence against minority groups, in every instance of tribalism, there has been - and indeed had to be - lies about history and experience. You cannot justify violence without demonizing the “other,” and you cannot demonize the “other” without lying about them. And if the truth - the true history - is known, you cannot sustain the lie that justifies hate and oppression.

Near the beginning of this book, there is a quote from civil rights leader (and theologian) Howard Thurman, who mentored Martin Luther King Jr. and helped him embrace non-violence. It comes from Thurman’s book, The Luminous Darkness.

A white supremacist society must not only “array all the forces of legislation and law enforcement,” he wrote; “it must falsify the facts of history, tamper with the insights of religion and religious doctrine, editorialize and slant news and the printed word. On top of that it must keep separate schools, separate churches, separate graveyards, and separate public accommodations - all this in order to freeze the place of the Negro in society and guarantee his basic immobility.”

And also this amazing quote, about the level of fear necessary to justify this level of violence:

“Once again, to state it categorically, the measure of a man’s estimate of your strength is the kind of weapons he feels he must use in order to hold you fast in a prescribed place.”

Remember that when you hear talk of multi-billion dollar walls, and see military weapons directed against protesters.

And really, if you are looking for a theme in this book - and in our current day with a renewed degree of overt racial tension (very likely triggered by a black man in the white house), it is this: once upon a time, “they” knew their place.

In the epilogue to the book, a transcript of the NPR series on the interviews, the interviewer talks to a white man who is directly descended from plantation owners (and still has his inherited wealth from that era). He noted that everyone just assumed that Jim Crow was “the way things were.” Asked if African Americans in his experience ever raised the issue, he said no. “No. No, they knew their place.”

And think about it, every time an unarmed black man is gunned down by police, what do you hear? “He should have been more respectful/careful/non-threatening and so on. Or, more accurately, he should have known his place. It’s a burden that I will never have to bear.

If I were to single out the most infuriating and heartbreaking part of the book, it would be the fact that there was a need to not just oppress, but humiliate non-whites. Make them cross to the other side of the road, not look people in the eye, wait until all whites were served before getting service, make do with substandard schools, not insist on equal humanity.

Ultimately, this is at the heart of our current tensions. Will we or will we not grant equal humanity to those outside our tribe? Or will we continue to demonize them, fear them, and insist that our own prejudices are just based on reality?

I cannot recommend this book enough. It is simply fantastic, and should be read by everyone. I am strongly considering adding it to my own library. But whether you buy it or borrow it, please read this book.


I couldn’t figure out where to put it in the body of the review, so I am putting it here. Georgia Sutton, in her interview, talks a lot about what she learned from her mother. The best line was what her mother used to tell her:

“Use that head for something other than to hold a hat.”


One more on the way that things were spun in certain “Christian” history curricula. (see the link above for more) You could count on two specific African Americans being part of the history course, and they were always Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. I didn’t really realize why until I read The Souls of Black Folk. Washington in particular fell on one side of an important argument (Du Bois was on the other) over educational philosophy. Should blacks be educated for industrial and agricultural skills? Or be trained to be leaders and white collar workers? Particularly at the time, this was a huge question. Was it more important (as Washington saw it) to obtain jobs and attempt to build economic assets first? Or was it more important to train leaders who could overcome Jim Crow through political means?

Or, to put it a different way, was it better to educate blacks to serve in menial professions and remain and underclass, or to train them to be upwardly mobile?

Obviously, the answer to the writers of certain curricula was to only teach about the one side of the debate. It was a bit of a revelation to read the other side.

To be clear, I have tremendous respect for Washington and Carver, who I believe did a lot of good in the world. (Also, you should definitely read Up From Slavery. It’s really good.) But I also respect Du Bois, who I think was perhaps more correct in the long run, that whites would never respect wealthy blacks - and that they would do everything in their power to keep blacks from rising above their station.


What the heck does “Jim Crow” even mean, and where did the term come from? It was used by both blacks and whites during the era to describe the system of segregation. But how did it originate?

It turns out it comes from a Blackface minstrel song, “Jump Jim Crow,” by Thomas “Daddy” Rice, who claimed to have based it on a song he heard a stablehand sing back in the 1820s. So it goes way back before the Civil War, and came to refer to a negative caricature of African Americans.


One more note on the way the facts of history are falsified to suit a white supremacist narrative. Phil Robertson (of Duck Dynasty) got in some controversy because of derogatory comments about LGBTQ people a couple of years back. What didn’t get as much publicity, however, what what he also said in the same interview.

He made the claim that blacks were actually happier during Jim Crow.

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field .... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word! ... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

Well, presumably, in an era where complaining could get you lynched, they weren’t about to complain to a redneck white.

This is exactly what I mean - and Howard Thurman meant - by the falsification of history. Robertson undoubtedly believes that his experience as a white during Jim Crow is the truth about the era.

This book gives the lie to that arrogant falsification of history.


  1. Thanks, Tim.
    Along these lines -- I am reading Writing America: literary landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee, by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Early in the book (p. 9), she points out that, until very recently, Mark Twain's radical social criticism -- of racism, imperialism, and capitalism -- was avoided and repressed, even by scholars, and Twain was presented primarily as a humorist. Even the witness of a powerful man was hidden when it was not convenient.

    In response to the Duck Dynasty man -- Fishkin reprints a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem:
    We wear the mask that grins and lies,
    It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, --
    This debt we pay to human guile;
    With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
    And mouth with myriad subtleties.
    Why should the world be over-wise,
    In counting all our tears and sighs?
    Nay, let them only see us, while
    We wear the mask.
    We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
    To thee from tortured souls arise ...

    1. We Wear The Mask has been one of my favorite poems since High School. It will indeed be part of my post on Paul Laurence Dunbar once I finish that book. :)

  2. If you like Stephanie Koontz, I recommend her book "Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage". It's a great overview of changes in how we as a society view marriage, with implications for the gay marriage debate today.

    1. That one may well end up on my list. One of the "aha!" moments in my evolution on the gay marriage issue was the realization that the core of the argument against was "it is shameful for a man to lower himself by acting like a woman."

    2. Marriage: A History is a really strong book for smacking down so many things people say to justify troubling actions or attitudes. I've heard MRAs justify grooming and sex with minor girls because "historically, older (like mid- late 30s) men took teen brides when they started their periods or just after." Nope, not in most places. "It wasn't until feminism that people had pre-marital sex and children outside of marriage." So why do we see so many Northern and Western European churches and communities that had ceremonies or rituals to incorporate and consecrate children born before a couple wed? Because such practices were common. One of the biggest messages of the book overall is that how humans have viewed marriage-- what it is, why we do it, what its purpose is, how to make, announce and sustain it-- has been highly fluid, shaped by time and space, and directed by the needs of both elites and the general populace, and related to issues of who had and who should have social control.

      Thanks for this review!