THE CRUCIBLE OF RACE: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation by Joel Williamson

THE CRUCIBLE OF RACE: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation

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In 1954, following Brown, C. Vann Woodward delivered a landmark series of lectures, published the next year as The Strange Career of Jim Crow, in which he pointed out that segregation had not been consistent or unvarying in the South; further, radical, liberal, and conservative positions on race had existed (and interacted) before the triumph of extreme racism around 1900. In 500 pages of dense argumentation, presented as an alternative to the Woodward interpretation, U. of North Carolina historian Williamson (After Slavery. New People) seeks to explain Southern race relations, since even before Emancipation, in terms of a battle between three Southern white ""mentalities""--conceived and labeled anew, according to their relative optimism-to-pessimism regarding the future of American blacks. Thus, the Liberal mentality held that black potential to absorb white culture had not been fairly tested (so Liberals were willing to experiment); the Conservative mentality assumed black inferiority (so Conservatives wanted to keep blacks, as well as lesser whites, in their ""place""): the Radical mentality, which Williamson sees as emerging around 1899 (and gives the name commonly associated with its antithesis), saw the ""new,"" emancipated black ""retrogressing rapidly toward his natural stage of savagery and bestiality"" (so Radicals not only sought to isolate and control blacks, they anticipated black disappearance from American life), What Williamson wishes to establish by this argument, which is pursued primarily by singling out representative figures (and analyzing their written and spoken words), is three-fold. First, he wishes to discredit what he sees, exaggeratedly, as the single-mentality concept of Wilbur Cash's The Mind of the South;second, he wishes to identify Conservatism (and its offshoots, Liberal and Radicalism) with elitism--and to deny that the South was divided into aristocrats and poor whites, that ""aristocratic whites tried to stand for sanity against the great unwashed and failed""; third, he wishes to establish, contra Woodward (and others) ""that the all-white system still lives and grows."" Historically, the argument is vulnerable at various points--from the degree of black ""social denigration"" in the immediate post-Reconstruction period to the contours of white dominance today. As embodied in the book, it is non-sequential, repetitive, roundabout. (We hear about the turn-of-the-century ""feudalization of black life"" before the upsurge of Radicalism, which long precedes the central analysis of the triumph of Radicalism over Conservatism.) It also leans heavily on what Williamson characterizes as the ""psychological--even psychiatric"" nature of racism: eventually he likens his three ""mentalities"" to The Three Faces of Eve. Nonetheless, it has its strengths--most particularly in Williamson's contrasts between Conservative and ""Radical""/extremist outlook and style. Scholarly scrutiny and dispute can be expected--but a superior alternative to Woodward, for the strands and currents of Southern thinking, remains George Fredrickson's also-stringent, unsanguine The Black Image in the White Mind.

Pub Date: Sept. 6th, 1984
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press