The White Savage: Racial Fantasies in the Postbellum South

The White Savage: Racial Fantasies in the Postbellum South

The White Savage: Racial Fantasies in the Postbellum South

The White Savage: Racial Fantasies in the Postbellum South

Excerpt

A few years ago James Baldwin addressed a preponderantly white college audience. "I am not a nigger," he proclaimed. "I am a man. And the question is why do you need a nigger?" Why, Baldwin was asking, have white Americans spent so much time and energy searching for docile Negro behavior? Why have they been so fearful of bold, assertive blacks? Why has Nat Turner been the villain and Uncle Tom the hero in the white American melodrama? Why have whites reared their children on Stepin Fetchit and taught them to hate H. Rap Brown?

Baldwin's question was national in scope. The definitive studies of white racism in America -- Gunnar Myrdal An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944) and Winthrop D. Jordan White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812 (1968) -- make this evident. From the earliest settlements in British North America, whites everywhere craved servile Negro behavior. Nonetheless, the quest for docility has been particularly anxious and intense below the Mason-Dixon line. Sensitive analysts of the Southern scene from Frederick Douglass and Mark Twain to Robert Penn Warren and Lillian Smith have stressed how important servile Negro behavior has been to Southern whites. In 1928 historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips maintained that a compulsion to perpetuate white supremacy by controlling Negro behavior was "the cardinal test of a Southerner and the central theme of Southern history." The heavily paternalistic Southern pro- slavery argument, the Southerner's traditional account of Reconstruction as an "unnatural" period of "vicious Negro rule," and the long-standing Southern habit of assigning "uppity niggers" to the court of Judge Lynch all validate Phillips' "central theme."

Baldwin's question is therefore particularly applicable to life below the Mason-Dixon line. Yet most historians of the post-Civil War South have been so preoccupied with the issues of segregation and integration that they have slighted the Southern search for Negro servility. Professor C. Vann Woodward is a case in point. Early in the fall of 1954, soon after the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark school desegregation decision (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka), he delivered the James W. Richard Lectures at the University of Virginia. Published as The Strange Career of Jim Crow, these lectures reflected contemporary anxiety over the future of interracial . . .

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