Nell Irvin Painter


"BLACK AND BLUE," Review by Nell Irvin Painter, in The Nation, 266:17, 11 May 1998, pp. 36-38.
Reproduced with permission of The Nation.

TROUBLE IN MIND: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow.
By Leon F. Litwack.
Knopf. 599 pp. $35.

In these shortsighted, meanspirited, anti-affirmative action times, Leon Litwack proffers a salutary historical perspective on U.S. race relations. As some voters insist that Congressional districts, college admissions and employment must be decided without taking race into account, Litwack publishes a book packed with all-pervasive racial oppression ("Jim Crow") whose consequences endure. Would that everyone in California and Texas, at the very least, would read his introduction:

This is no easy history to assimilate. It is the story of a people denied the basic rights of citizenship in the land of their birth, yet fully expected to display as much patriotism as their white brethren, who enjoyed the full exercise of such rights. It is the story of a people stamped as inferior, based on the idea of race, yet fully expected to provide the basic labor of the South even as they complied with the perverse etiquette of Jim Crow.

Segregation in the South--actually, segregation in the North, too--bears directly on our own times. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Southern apartheid was inflicted on four generations, 90 percent of African Americans lived in the South. Millions of them are still alive, the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents of today's black youth. Trouble in Mind explores the depths of unrelenting white supremacy-between the end of Reconstruction and the Great Migration to the North during the First World War--whose devastation affected all black American lives.

The soul-killing persecution of this time destroyed black bodies, minds and fortunes. It's well worth remembering that Jim Crow flourished during the very time that millions of Europeans entered the United States. A deeply racialized U.S. society transformed ignorant and impoverished immigrants from southern and eastern Europe into white people. And as whites, European newcomers enjoyed access to the American transition belt of upward economic mobility. As Litwack explains:

To suggest that [black Southemers'] story is simply another version of the classic straggle of all immigrant groups--Irish, Italians, Germans, Slavs, and Jews, for example--ignores the distinctiveness of the black experience, the unique and overwhelming obstacles blacks faced, and the indignities they were forced to endure.

Education and hard work could make a Jewish immigrant middle class; education and hard work could get a black man lynched, like prosperous Anthony Crawford of Abbeville, South Carolina-framed, jailed, beaten, mutilated, dragged through the streets and shot to pieces in 1916.

Litwack organizes Trouble in Mind according to a subtle chronology whose only great event is the Spanish-American War of 1898, during which black Southerners served in a Jim Crow Army in the Philippines while at home white mobs slaughtered their neighbors. Otherwise, dates play a minor role in eight chapters with evangelical and bluesy titles ("Baptisms," "Lessons," "Working," "White Folks: Scriptures," "White Folks: Acts," "Hellhounds," "Enduring," "Crossroads"), as Litwack traces the depredations of hardening racial oppression---crops expropriated, labor shortchanged, women assaulted, debt tramped up, convicts leased and worked to death, schooling curtailed, justice denied.

Concentrating on ordinary rural people without access to formal education or political power, Litwack recounts the afflictions of four overlapping post-Civil War generations. The first were former slaves, impoverished men and women who had endured the trauma of bondage through servile stratagems. To their descendants they could pass on canny techniques for survival, but a lifetime of unpaid labor and no education blighted their own fortunes.

An enterprising second generation, freeborn children of former slaves, marked their distance from their parents' deference to whites. These young people aimed to succeed, as in the case of ambitious Charlie Holcombe of Johnston County, North Carolina. But like many of his peers, Holcombe was defeated by the degradation and demands of white supremacy. For attacking a cheating landlord, he labored for a year on a chain gang. His punishment for striking a white man could have been far more severe, but even so, it mined his tobacco crop and landed him deeply in debt. Holcombe never recovered from the setback, for, as Litwack quotes him, "Dey was always sumpthin' come along and knocked de props from under my plans."

Despite their own defeats, parents in Holcombe's generation envisioned fuller lives for their children, who might acquire skills beyond anything in the experience of their parents and grandparents. The family scrimped to educate son Willie through high school and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. Although (or perhaps because) college educated, Willie Holcombe encountered nothing but obstacles back home in Johnston County. Depressed and alcoholic, he met his death in a tobacco warehouse at the hands of several white men. Litwack quotes the father in his grief: "For a long time atter dat I couldn't seem to git goin', and dey was a big chunk in de bottom o' my stummick dat jist wouldn't go away."

Trouble in Mind culminates in the manly, unintimidated, fourth, "New Negro" generation of the early twentieth century, which rejects the accommodation of earlier generations epitomized by Booker T. Washington (who died in 1915). New Negroes stand tall, fight back and quit the bloody-minded South. By no means a promised land, the North at least offers escape from the blighting Jim Crow South. And by the First World War era, young black people are prepared to seize their new opportunities.

Finding truth in the details, Litwack deftly captures the tragedy of racial oppression during the age of segregation. Black Southerners of all socioeconomic strata speak through these pages, for Litwack generously quotes both the schooled (in standard English) and unschooled (in quaint Southern dialect) as they respond to complete disempowerment. Most affecting are the blues lyrics, folk ditties and especially the poignant, idiosyncratic and eloquent insights of ordinary people. The book's title comes, of course, from folk lyrics:

Trouble in mind, I'm blue,
But I won't be blue always,
For the sun goin' shine in my back door
Trouble in mind, that's true,
I have almost lost my mind;
Life ain't worth livin'--feel like I could
I'm gonn lay my head on some lonesome
     railroad line,
Let the two nineteen train ease my
     troubled mind.

A paean to the creativity of rural Southern blacks, Trouble in Mind celebrates the spirit of a people who, although pressed down by the myriad forces of white supremacy, not only survive but also preserve the genius of their human spirit.

Like other Americans, black Southerners strive for success, only to discover that wealth, education and abiding by the law serve for naught in a black skin--and might well prove hazardous. Rich black men learn through murderous violence that ragsto-riches is not meant for Negroes. For them, the South proposes only rags and more rags, or else wealth expropriated and prosperous men lynched. The discovery that black success rather than black failure--black industry rather than black improvidence--most enraged white Southerners in the age of segregation will doubtless surprise readers unfamiliar with recent Southern historiography. Unless they already know the work of Glenda Gilmore, Tera Hunter, Jane Dailey and Earl Lewis, readers will find this fury against success the most chilling aspect of Trouble in Mind.

But Litwack depicts white rage accurately, filling this book with blood. He describes the gory details of the lynching of Sam Hose in rural Georgia in 1899. Hose, accused of rape and murder of a white couple, is stripped, burned on a pyre and mutilated. Two thousand--how shall ! say-fans? watched as his fingers, ears and genitals were severed and the skin peeled off his face. W. E. B. Du Bols, T. Thomas Fortune, Addie and William Hunton and, most spectacularly, Robert Charles renounce their effort of surviving in the South. Three of the educated four migrate north (Fortune had already left Florida for New York City), but Charles, a New Orleans New Negro of the laboring class, broods over the Hose lynching, then defends himself against a white mob by shooting twenty-seven, killing seven, of whom four are police officers.

Litwack exaggerates nothing. Yet white supremacy's degree of savagery still seems unfathomable in a self-styled democracy. One comes away wondering how black victims survived their ordeal and preserved any measure of sanity. For that matter, one questions the mental health of their white tormentors. Litwack answers neither query, for his whites pay no price for their viciousness, and black people have virtually no life beyond the reach of white supremacy.

Ironically, perhaps, the political point of Trouble in Mind--the evils of more than a half-century of Jim Crow---weakens it as a work of history. Had this book appeared soon after Litwack's 1979 Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, it would have taught all but specialized readers valuable lessons in Southern history. But in the two decades since publication of that volume, historians have brought us to question the basic premises of this new publication, subtitled "Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow," which concentrates on what white people did to blacks. Litwack implies that African-American institutions function merely in response to white oppression, as though blacks had no existence beyond their connection with whites--black Southerners as victims rather than black Southerners as people. Today this kind of writing is known as race relations, not African-American history.

For all its picturesque appeal, Trouble in Mind is stale. Some nuanced language and a plethora of black and white witnesses cannot counteract the impression .of a white monolith, "the white South," beating up on a black monolith, "the Negro." Class and gender and shade of color figure only in a paragraph here and there.

In 1979 Litwack won a Pulitzer for Been in the Storm So Long, an intricate, vivid mosaic of Emancipation as experienced on both sides of the color line. Despite my reservations, I expect Trouble in Mind to be similarly rewarded. The white-over-black approach will probably strike prize committees as well balanced, because bad white Southerners, present on every page, are as much the subject as blacks. As a symbol, white Southerners are easy to hate, but for many readers, whites must play a central role for history to be recognizable as American.

Nell Irvin Painter, author of Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol (Norton), teaches at Princeton.

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