MAKING WHITENESS by Grace Elizabeth Hale

MAKING WHITENESS

The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940
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KIRKUS REVIEW

First-timer Hale’s impressive examination of the Jim Crow South—an erudite intellectual survey of the sweeping social, historical, and economic trends that shaped white racial identity in opposition to blackness—is obscured by deadly academic jargon. The central myth Hale debunks is that whiteness is an organic, rather than manufactured, racial identity—that it is, somehow, the American norm. She identifies several large cultural forces that influenced white racial identity. The replacement of local merchandise with a national mass market, for example, gave rise to advertising (much of it created in the North) that manipulated southerners’ nostalgic remembrance of loyal, subservient slaves by using African-American icons like Aunt Jemima to sell goods to a nationwide audience—presumed to be entirely white. Advances in printing technology made it easier to distribute demeaning images of African-Americans, reinforcing negative stereotypes. Just as black racial identity was largely defined in relation to whiteness after Reconstruction, Hale asserts, whiteness was defined by blackness. Analyzing how whites of different economic and educational backgrounds shared a unified sense of supremacy, she fleshes out Ralph Ellison’s famous declaration: “Southern whites cannot walk, talk, sing, conceive of laws or justice, think of sex, love, the family or freedom without responding to the presence of Negroes.” But in place of Ellison’s simple eloquence, Hale raises an impenetrable thicket of theoretical jargon (terms like —transhistorical,— —isomorphic,— and —dialectics— rain like candy from a Mardi Gras float). She glosses the Civil War’s outcome thus: “Union victory delegitimated that nascent nationalist collectivity, the Confederacy.” Furthermore, her contention that “this corresponding depth of racial obsession occurred only with passing” for African-Americans spectacularly understates the totality with which whites controlled black life during Jim Crow’s dark reign. One senses in Hale’s (American History/Univ. Of Virginia) cogent, encyclopedic scholarship the debut of an important new intellectual voice—all the more reason to regret the cloaking of provocative thinking in the fusty duds of academic prose. (8 pages b&w photos)

Pub Date: May 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-44263-4
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1998




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