Neo-Segregation Narratives: Jim Crow in Post-Civil Rights American Literature

Neo-Segregation Narratives: Jim Crow in Post-Civil Rights American Literature

Neo-Segregation Narratives: Jim Crow in Post-Civil Rights American Literature

Neo-Segregation Narratives: Jim Crow in Post-Civil Rights American Literature

Synopsis

This study of what Brian Norman terms a neo-segregation narrative tradition examines literary depictions of life under Jim Crow that were written well after the civil rights movement. From Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, to bestselling black fiction of the 1980s to a string of recent work by black and nonblack authors and artists, Jim Crow haunts the post-civil rights imagination. Norman traces a neo-segregation narrative tradition--one that developed in tandem with neo-slave narratives--by which writers return to a moment of stark de jure segregation to address contemporary concerns about national identity and the persistence of racial divides. These writers upset dominant national narratives of achieved equality, portraying what are often more elusive racial divisions in what some would call a postracial present. Norman examines works by black writers such as Lorraine Hansberry, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, David Bradley, Wesley Brown, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Colson Whitehead, films by Spike Lee, and other cultural works that engage in debates about gender, Black Power, blackface minstrelsy, literary history, and whiteness and ethnicity. Norman also shows that multiethnic writers such as Sherman Alexie and Tom Spanbauer use Jim Crow as a reference point, extending the tradition of William Faulkner's representations of the segregated South and John Howard Griffin's notorious account of crossing the color line from white to black in his 1961 work Black Like Me.

Excerpt

Contemporary America is drawn to segregation’s artifacts: “Whites Only” signs, mammy cookie jars, blackface performances, lynching photographs, civil rights placards—that is, when they are encased in plexiglass, displayed as collectibles, or cropped neatly in glossy coffee-table books. We look on these images with dread, which is staved off only by faith in overarching narratives of racial progress. Thus these artifacts become what civil rights writer James Baldwin deemed “irrelevant monuments.” David Leeming reports, “In Atlanta [Baldwin] visited the monument to Martin Luther King—a monument ‘as absolutely irrelevant as the Lincoln Memorial.’ Making monuments was ‘one of the ways the Western world has learned… to outwit history [and] time—to make a life and a death irrelevant.… There’s nothing one can do with a monument.’” So today, when Whoopi Goldberg proudly displays her “Wall of Shame” of mammies, coons, and Jim Crow signs, post-civil rights American subjects can gaze with curiosity and contempt, accepting their admission ticket to a newer, more enlightened era. We deputize ourselves as watchful guardians of the backdoor lest Jim Crow Jr. and his goons come knocking. Then we put our children to bed with a picture book that recalls the journey to school integration in order to recite a national narrative of racial progress that need no longer end at the Oval Office in an avowedly postrace era.

Jim Crow nevertheless creeps in despite our vigilance. He makes anachronistic appearances, such as self-conscious showings in the guise of “entertainment”—the donning of blackface by actors Ted Danson or Sarah Silverman or by characters in Spike Lee’s satiric film Bamboozled (2000). Or he may appear in more insidious ways, as a threat—such as when nooses are tacked on doors at Ivy League institutions or hung from a tree (which occurred in Jena, Louisiana, in a notorious incident in fall 2007). That is why David Pilgrim, curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, resists “thick naivete about America’s past” by opting for a therapeutic “belief that . . .

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