Friday, April 24, 2015

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2015, April 24: the neuroses of segregation

Dennis Mitchell in his A New History of Mississippi (2014) writes about the post-Reconstruction segregation system and its often weird complexities.

He describes this version of what Chauncey DeVega calls the White Gaze, "Whites treated blacks as unclean in the same way a Brahmin understood an untouchable." (p. 282)

Segregation involved customs and rituals that included what certainly qualify in some way as collective neurotic symptoms. In the following passage, he uses the term "colored people" as it was employed by segregationists, a polite term for African-Americans:

According to racial customs, a white Mississippian refused to call a colored person by his or her last name, addressing them by their first name or as "boy" - never "man." A black person, on the other hand, had to use a title of respect when speaking to any white. Boss, Captain, Mam, or Miss and the child's first name for a white child were acceptable. A white man never removed his hat or touched it on the street for a black woman, but he always made those signs of deference to a white woman. Blacks did not sit in the presence of whites and always removed any headgear when a white man entered their vicinity. If whites approached blacks on a sidewalk, blacks had to step into the street for the whites to pass. A black driver dared not pass a white driver on any road. In some towns, blacks could not drive on certain streets- Capitol Street in Jackson, for example. Blacks never approached the front door of a white residence because they could only use the back door. Some whites adopted the habit of locking the back door when they were out, but not the front so strong was their confidence that even a black thief would not enter by the front door. (p. 281) [my emphasis]
Black citizens voting in New Orleans, 1867

But the neurotic symptoms, ugly and harmful as they were in themselves, shouldn't be confused with political disease itself. The disease was the success of the anti-Reconstruction "Redeemer" project to deprive African-Americans of their rights as citizens. In the 1977 of the famous history textbook by Samuel Eliot Morrison, Henry Steele Commager and William Leuchtenburg, A Concise History of the American Republic, the authors write:

The end of Reconstruction and the nullification of the Enforcement Acts exiled the Southern Negro to a kind of no-man's land halfway between slavery and freedom. No longer a slave, he was not yet free. He was tied to the soil by the sharecrop and crop-lien systems, excluded from most with 'separate' accommodations that were rarely 'equal.' He was expected not only to accept a position of social inferiority without protest, but to rejoice in it by playing the role of 'Uncle Tom.' At first gradually, then with dramatic speed, he was rendered politically impotent: 'grandfather' clauses, literacy tests , poll taxes, and - where these failed - naked intimidation, deprived him of the vote. (pp. 358-9) [my emphasis]
This is why the current Republican Party's nationwide push for voter suppression laws and dirty tricks to the same end are such a nightmare for anyone who believes in democracy.

No comments: