I’m almost embarrassed to keep posting these so-called “classic” reviews because it gives away the fact that I’m not getting too much reading done. Right now, I’m still reading Gordon S. Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution. It’s a really brilliant book, but also long and very dense. I like to read a few pages every day, especially when I’m on my lunch break, but also when I’m at home and want something to entertain my brain. I should be done with it in the next week or so, and until then my few loyal readers will have to be content with another old review. In the Fall of ’08, I took Dr. Alexander Macaulay’s gender history course at WCU and it turned out to be really difficult and really rewarding. Gender and Jim Crow is one of the best historical monographs I’ve ever read (and is almost always on comprehensive exam reading lists). After reading this book, I wanted to be just like Glenda Gilmore because her research is second to none, her analysis is simultaneously overwhelming but subtle, and she is one of the best writers in the American Academy. Her next book is on my reading list, but don’t expect the review for some time. This is one of the better papers I wrote as a graduate student and I hope you enjoy reading it.
Political history is generally written in a top-down fashion. When studying the public sphere, historians typically discuss elections, political parties, and the various orifices of the body politic. This attention singles out powerful politicians and influential constituents. Studying top-down Jim Crow politics presents a number of serious problems because it denies agency to the oppressed. When women and blacks have emerged in southern political history narratives, the story of their exclusion from the public sphere has garnered the most attention. From this perspective, the history of women and blacks in southern politics is a gut-wrenching story of oppression by the all-powerful and often intensely brutal southern white man, and the issue of subaltern agency seems blasé. How could anybody resist the sheer force of southern white men on their bigoted mission of exclusion? The advent of gender history in the 1990s, however, obliterated this paradigm forever. Glenda E. Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow demonstrated that the matrix of race, class, and gender defined the ways that one could shape or resist white supremacy in New South, and therefore the outcome of the fight over the institutionalization of Jim Crow was no forgone conclusion. As part of this thesis, Gilmore argues that middle-class black women entered the public sphere and very subtly defied and reshaped Jim Crow in their relentless search for racial equality. This inclusive narrative created an agenda for historians to reconsider the Jim Crow political arena through a bottom-up lens and therefore redefine what constituted movement within the public sphere. Gender and Jim Crow is a true tour de force and the New South never looked newer.
Gilmore noted that some of the worst practices by historians distorted the narrative of Jim Crow politics, including excessive labeling of subfields and reliance on one-sided documents that obscure reality. She asserted that “[t]he subfields of the discipline – African American history, women’s history, social history, southern history, political history – are drawn by and for historians. Analyses that separate these subfields misrepresent the way people actually lived their lives.” She goes on, “Basing southern political history on white archival sources has rendered African Americans as passive recipients of whites’ actions. Black middle-class men have appeared as exceptions in the narrative, while black women have disappeared altogether.” In other words, the use of too many labels and ‘white’ sources accomplishes what amounts an unintended brand of Jim Crow. By refusing to acknowledge the agency of African Americans in the political world of white supremacy, historians relegate them as powerless individuals destined to ride quietly on the back of the bus in southern historiography.
By reshaping the meaning of the public sphere using gender, Gilmore placed African American women at the front of the bus in southern political history. For example, black women working for social causes through their churches had major influence on politics. Around 1890, whites started to portray black men as savage rapists that no white woman would be safe around. When a black man raped a white woman, he violated her exalted virtue and asserted his manliness above that of white men. Black men in public therefore appeared as threats to both southern manhood and womanhood and those who entered the public sphere risked death. Middle class black women, however, posed no such threat to white gender identity and took up the cross of racial equality because their husbands, whom Gilmore dubbed ‘best men,’ could not. Through churches and clubs, African American women honed their organizational skills working for causes such as temperance, sanitation, education, and other Progressive Era reform initiatives. They then parlayed their expertise into interaction with white women after carefully gaining positive reputations as women who could get things done. When the issue of women’s suffrage arose in 1920, black women stood alongside whites and demanded the vote, hoping that white women would support them. Some did indeed champion their black associates, although white male voting registrars generally proved hostile.
In the end, these black women were deprived of suffrage just as their husbands had been twenty years before. One hundred years of hindsight and a historical perspective that tells modern observers that white men would stop at nothing to disenfranchise blacks might leave some readers cynical. They will argue that whites won because they dominated society from the top-down and kept blacks ignorant and therefore dependant. It is important, however, to remember the words of C. Vann Woodward who remarked in 1955 that most of his contemporary southerners were “[u]nable to remember a time when segregation was not the general rule and practice, [and] they have naturally assumed that things have ‘always been that way.’” For African American women in 1920, the historical perspective was quite different. Jim Crow was only two decades old and most could well remember a time when middle class black men occupied a prominent place in the public sphere. Some served as sheriffs or magistrates while others owned successful businesses that catered to white patrons. The fight to turn back the tide of white supremacy was incremental and safely cloaked in the gendered prerogatives of social reform. In the eyes of middle class black women, the triumph of white supremacy in 1920 seemed to be anything but a foregone conclusion. Furthermore, the very institutionalization of white supremacy is evidence that whites felt that blacks did constitute a major threat and that their own ultimate success was uncertain.
Ironically, Gilmore creates this inclusive narrative by only focusing on a few prominent middle class black women in North Carolina like Charlotte Hawkins Brown and Sarah Dudley Pettey. Critics will allege that these women are unrepresentative of black women across the South, but are especially anomalous compared to those in Deep South states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. Strict segregation was certainly ubiquitous in the Old North State, but the racial politics of the Deep South made North Carolina a relatively tolerable, but far from pleasant, place for African Americans to live during the Jim Crow years. Simply put, it was easier to defy Jim Crow in North Carolina than other southern states. However, Gilmore’s focus on a few women in North Carolina is pragmatic for three reasons. First of all, it allows the author to keep the book focused and the reader engaged. Second, it is likely that black women in North Carolina who defied Jim Crow were more likely to leave behind source material for historians; their sisters in the Deep South could not safely leave behind such traces. Thirdly, and most importantly, Gilmore’s approach gives the audience a perspective of the entire lives of these women. African American tactics shaped by the matrix of race, class, and gender changed throughout this very dynamic era in southern history. As Woodward demonstrated, the ‘White South’ was far from monolithic and it took decades to create enough solidarity to form the Solid South. Biographical sketches show the ways that these chaotic times shaped African American responses through a vortex of change when nothing could seem inevitable or out of reach to anybody. Simply put, these examples allow Gilmore to illustrate the various historical contingencies of the Jim Crow age.
What is so stunning about the book is that Gilmore used gender analysis in such an understated way that the reader does not always clearly recognize it. Scholars like Gail Bederman and Kristin L. Hoganson were so passionate in their desire to put gender analysis into the historiographic mainstream that their use strong use of gendered images made their arguments anything but subtle. Both historians used prominent examples of gender such as political cartoons, discussions of fears of emasculation, and even occasional phallic references. Although their use of gender proved enormously fruitful, Bederman and Hoganson’s vibrant arguments in favor of gender caused their work to be pigeonholed as ‘gender history.’ As Gilmore recognized, excessive categorization of history leads to narrow and sometimes misleading historiographic conclusions. With some exceptions, the use of gender is understated and Gender and Jim Crow, despite the title, does not lend itself to easy categorization because there are no loud gendered images from political cartoons, no crisis in masculinity, and no hegemonic discourse of civilization rooted in fears of societal decay. Gilmore simply presented real women defined by their race, class, and gender who worked tirelessly in the trenches everyday and dearly hoped for equality with whites. The book, while powerful in analysis, has a common touch which helps the reader understand real lives divorced from the sometimes arduous language of academic history.
Whether top-down or bottom-up, the history of Jim Crow will likely cause feelings of guilt and accountability among present-day white southerners. In the final analysis, these feelings are justified. For modern black southerners, however, top-down Jim Crow history is the story of defeat, oppression, fear, and hate. Although these emotions are also justified they tell an incomplete story. The bottom-up perspective however, allows black southerners to feel pride for the courage of their ancestors who not only simply lived in the Jim Crow South, but raged against the system as well. A narrative with black women alive and active in the public sphere is, as Gilmore said, “long overdue” and historians and laymen can now celebrate these women who defied convention for a goal within their grasp, but denied to them both by historical actors and historiography.