Book Review

 

In Gender and Jim Crow (1996), Glenda Gilmore analyzes the many intersections between race, gender and segregation in North Carolina in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her focus is on black women and how they dealt with Jim Crow, but she also considers in detail the political behavior of black men, white men and white women -- how they negotiated and renegotiated the oppressive regime of Jim Crow in their politics, churches and civic organizations. In her account, after the effective disfranchisement of black men at the very end of the 19th century, it was their women who, in a “nonpolitical guise....became the black community’s diplomats to the white community” (Gilmore, 148). In the darkest years of segregation, black women tried to keep hope alive by participating in community activism with their white ‘sisters,’ who were racists and white supremacists but were willing, in many cases, to cooperate with blacks for the improvement of the community. Through telling such stories of ordinary people, Gilmore humanizes Jim Crow, illustrating its concrete meanings for real people. It is not a happy tale, but in some of its lessons it is uplifting.

           

The story, however, of how North Carolina Democrats stripped black men of their political rights is not uplifting at all. It was after the Populist revolt of the mid-1890s, when the Populists and Republicans had cooperated to put the white-supremacist Democratic party in the minority. To regain their majority in the legislative elections of 1898, Democrats tried to prevail on poor whites to put race loyalty above class loyalty. And they succeeded, in large part by exploiting latent fears of black men’s sexuality. These men were supposed to be sexual beasts, animals, rapists of white women -- hysterical stories of rape-outbreaks were manufactured and publicized around the state -- in short, such depraved creatures that white men had to protect their women in the streets and deprive blacks of political power. This theme of the black man as a sexual threat, an embodiment of raw animal sexuality, goes back centuries, although its origins are not entirely clear. Respectable society has never liked to dwell on it, since all things instinctual and insurgent are a threat to respectable power and must be repressed, but, for example, the sensation that Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro” caused in 1957 suggests that the association of blackness with sexuality is always under the surface of the mainstream mind. Southern white supremacists manipulated it skillfully in 1898, and with the Republican and Populist parties thus out of power, it was finally possible to disfranchise North Carolina’s black men and institutionalize Jim Crow.

           

One thing that Gilmore might have done more effectively is to draw general conclusions from her data about Jim Crow’s impacts on gender relations and vice versa. She does note, for instance, that the campaign to protect white women from black men’s sexuality served also to put women in their place, to enforce their dependency on men and thereby accentuate their femininity and supposed helplessness (Gilmore, 96). Conversely, depriving black men of political rights emasculated them, so resulting, paradoxically, in the relative equalization of power between black women and men vis-à-vis the white world. Thus, the Jim Crow regime reinforced ordinary gender roles in white society (powerful men, powerless women) and undermined such gender roles in black society (powerless men, relatively powerful women). Later on, in the early decades of the 20th century, the greater relative power of black women resulted in their being the ones who most challenged Jim Crow norms, through their work with white women in social welfare, public health campaigns, charity groups, and women’s suffrage groups. At the same time, all this was possible only due to their status as women, i.e., politically and sexually unthreatening people.

           

It is worth noting that the masculinity of poor white men was only partially served by Jim Crow. The contrast between their situation and that of black men affirmed their manhood and helped reconcile them to poverty, because at least they weren’t the lowest group in society; on the other hand, the contrast between them and rich white men must have been humiliating and emasculating. One can’t help thinking that an equally good strategy, or a better one, for affirming poor whites’ manliness would have been to unite with blacks and seek power at the expense of rich whites -- as had been the strategy, to an extent, of the Republican and Populist parties of the 1890s. Evidently, though, blackness was seen as so contrary to proper manliness that such a strategy could not possibly be carried out in full. In other words, poor whites saw their race as a more powerful testament to their manhood than economic well-being would have been, so they chose race loyalty over class loyalty.

           

It is intriguing that these equations seem to have been reversed in the last few decades, since the 1960s. American culture now tends to see black men as quintessential males, as embodying athleticism, sexual prowess, masculine beauty (as testified by the recent series of Old Spice commercials acted by a black male model), and gritty inner-city toughness -- manifested in the very ‘masculine’ culture of rap and hip-hop. Similarly, there is a sense in which poverty and an inner-city life are considered more manly, because more difficult and ‘real,’ than wealth and an easy suburban life. A revaluation of values has taken place since the social movements of the 1960s and ’70s.

           

In any case, from the foregoing it is clear that Gender and Jim Crow is a quite stimulating book. It would be interesting to study the evolution of gender roles and segregation up to the civil rights movement and beyond, to see exactly how the drastic changes of the last hundred years came about.

NOTES OF AN UNDERGROUND HUMANIST

© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright