The Jim Crow Routine: Everyday Performances of Race, Civil Rights, and Segregation in Mississippi

The Jim Crow Routine: Everyday Performances of Race, Civil Rights, and Segregation in Mississippi

The Jim Crow Routine: Everyday Performances of Race, Civil Rights, and Segregation in Mississippi

The Jim Crow Routine: Everyday Performances of Race, Civil Rights, and Segregation in Mississippi

Synopsis

The South's system of Jim Crow racial oppression is usually understood in terms of legal segregation that mandated the separation of white and black Americans. Yet, as Stephen A. Berrey shows, it was also a high-stakes drama that played out in the routines of everyday life, where blacks and whites regularly interacted on sidewalks and buses and in businesses and homes. Every day, individuals made, unmade, and remade Jim Crow in how they played their racial roles--how they moved, talked, even gestured. The highly visible but often subtle nature of these interactions constituted the Jim Crow routine. In this study of Mississippi race relations in the final decades of the Jim Crow era, Berrey argues that daily interactions between blacks and whites are central to understanding segregation and the racial system that followed it. Berrey shows how civil rights activism, African Americans' refusal to follow the Jim Crow script, and national perceptions of southern race relations led Mississippi segregationists to change tactics. No longer able to rely on the earlier routines, whites turned instead to less visible but equally insidious practices of violence, surveillance, and policing, rooted in a racially coded language of law and order. Reflecting broader national transformations, these practices laid the groundwork for a new era marked by black criminalization, mass incarceration, and a growing police presence in everyday life.

Excerpt

The novelist Richard Wright, who was born on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi, and spent much of his childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee, recounted how he navigated a dangerous racial world in the 1937 essay, “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.” Two experiences in particular highlight the racialized nature of his daily existence. In the first, Wright described how he borrowed books from a whites-only public library. He approached the librarian with a note—ostensibly written by a white patron—that read, “Please let this nigger boy have the following books.” As the librarian retrieved the books, Wright explained, he stood “hat in hand, looking as unbookish as possible.” The second moment came on an elevator full of white people. Wright had an armful of packages, and as he boarded, a white man reached up and removed Wright’s hat. Wright then faced a dilemma. If he had thanked the man, it would have conveyed that they were social equals, a risky breach of racial etiquette that he believed could provoke a violent reaction. The appropriate Jim Crow response—the one that Wright assumed the white passengers expected—was for him to offer a side-glance and a grin, which he found distasteful and demeaning. Confronted with these two unappealing options, Wright struck upon a third one: “I immediately—no sooner than my hat was lifted— pretended that my packages were about to spill, and appeared deeply distressed with keeping them in my arms.” The distraction freed him from having to acknowledge the white man.

In each of these seemingly uneventful moments, Wright was performing race. In his words, he “pretended,” he “appeared,” and he tried “looking” a particular way. His two enactments, though, were quite different. In the library, he took on the expected role of blackness, portraying deference and meekness for entrance into a world of knowledge formally closed to black Southerners. The future novelist tried to look “unbookish” for an audience—the library clerk—and Wright believed he could gain access to the books only if the clerk accepted the authenticity . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.