Black Resistance in the Age of Jim Crow

Barry Goldberg

[from New Politics, vol. 7, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 27, Summer 1999]

BARRY GOLDBERG teaches American history at Fordham University at Lincoln Center. His article "Let Them Eat Multiculturalism" appeared in NEW POLITICS Volume VI, No.3, Summer 1997.


ON APRIL 23, 1899 A SPECIAL EXCURSION TRAIN LEFT ATLANTA to bring some eager citizens to the small Georgia town of Newman. There, joining about 2,000 other excited white men and women, they watched as Sam Hose, a black man, was stripped naked, chained to a tree, and surrounded with kerosene-soaked wood. They had been informed that Hose had brained the planter Alfred Cranford with an ax and then raped Mrs. Cranford. Given the alleged crime, his executioners were not content to merely set the torch to the pyre and watch his oil covered body burn. They first cut off his ears, fingers and genitals, and skinned his face. Some of the spectators joined the action, plunging knives into his body. Then, after the torch had been set, the searing heat of the flames forced his eyes to bulge out of their sockets and his veins to burst. When Hose's agonized contortions loosened his bonds, the flames were doused so he could be rebound. With the blaze raging once more, Hose's cry, "Oh, my God! Oh, Jesus," mingled with the sound of his sizzling blood. Once dead and lying on the ground,eager souvenir hunters dissected his still warm body, taking slices of his heart and liver. Not all of the vultures were greedy. One of the butchers reportedly left to deliver a slice of Hose's heart to the governor, as if this act of generosity would confirm the state's approval of lynch law as a bulwark of white "civilization."

Governor Allen D. Candler never acknowledged the gift and there is no record that he even received it. But he did provide public sanction for Hose's torture and execution. Calling the alleged murder and rape "the most diabolical in the annals of crime," he denounced the black community for failing to assist in the capture of what one newspaper called "a monster in a human form." According to Candler, black critics were "blinded by race prejudice, and can see but one side of the question." Candler, on the other hand, spoke for his apparently colorblind and, therefore, clear-sighted white constituents. The leading Atlanta newspaper described the state's white citizens as pillars of the republic. "The people of Georgia," it declared, "are orderly and conservative, the descendants of ancestors who have been trained in America for 150 years. They are a people intensely religious, homeloving and just. There is among them no foreign or lawless element." Fusing state pride and American nationalism, the paper saw its citizens as quintessential Americans. Once proud secessionists and then defeated rebels, Georgians reclaimed their commitment to home grown Americanism. After all, what else should civilized white folk do to a fiend who sneaked up and buried an ax in his employer's skull and then proceeded to repeatedly rape the widow "[w]ithin arms reach of where the brains were oozing out of her husband's head[?]" An editorial defending the sadistic lynchers advised their squeamish readers, "Keep the facts in mind."

But there was one crucial fact that they would choose to ignore. After southern justice had taken its course, Mrs. Cranford told a white detective that the circumstances surrounding her husband's death were quite different than the version spread by word of mouth and reported in the press. She described how when Hose and her husband quarreled over wages, Mr. Cranford went for his pistol. Only then did Hose grab the ax that he hurled with such deadly effect. Far from sexually emboldened, he did not touch Mrs. Cranford or even enter the house. He fled. His feelings - and those of other black southerners who knew of similar events - still resonate in the lyrics of the legendary blues singer Robert Johnson:

I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving . . .
there's a hellhound on my trail,
hellhound on my trail,
hellhound on my trail.

By the time a reader of Leon Litwack's Trouble in Mind* is forced to bear witness to Sam Hose's horrifying last moments, he or she will have already read through 280 pages chronicling the black experience of white "civilization." Then, after regaining her/his composure, the reader will ave to digest over 200 additional pages describing other horrific spectacles, summary executions, pervasive intimidation, daily insults, and thwarted possibilities black southerners endured -- and resisted -- during "the Age of Jim Crow." And then, just before the Epilogue, the final chapter ends with Johnson's haunting lyrics. The song (more in the listening than in the reading) conveys, says Litwack, "a lonely and terrifying sense of personal betrayal and anguish that transcended both time and location." It is then that you realize that Litwack had already linked the experience of these two southern blacks (and countless others) when he entitled his chapter on lynching "Hellhounds." Litwack is convinced that the music critic and historian Robert Palmer got it right when he wrote, "How much history can be transmitted by the pressure on a guitar string? The thought of generations, the history of every human being who's ever felt the blues come down like showers of rain." It is a testament to Litwack's expansive humanism that he appreciates the timeless and universal resonance of Johnson's lament. But equally important, he understands the historically specific lives and deaths of the men and women who created the form, wrote the lyrics, and heard the pain and dignity and anger of their lives transformed into art. We all might have the blues, but we are not all "blues people."

As important, not all "blues people" sang the blues. Others sang the spiritual "sorrow songs" from which Litwack drew his book's title. Hose and Johnson, as representative and subtly linked as they are, are only two of the black southerners who provide the blood, sweat, tears, humor, anger, and social commentary about those who populate this book. Indeed, Trouble in Mind is an ambitious work that seeks to do no less than convey "the experience of being black in the late-19th -- and early-20th-centuries." It takes scholarly erudition and purpose -- should I also say chutzpah -- to attempt such a book. And you have to be a mensch to pull it off. In retrospect, Litwack spent his entire life preparing for this task.

HIS PARENTS WERE RUSSIAN IMMIGRANTS who lived in New York's Jewish and Italian working class neighborhoods before hitchhiking to Santa Barbara, California. In autobiographical reflections he first shared with undergraduates and faculty at Fordham University as he was completing Trouble in Mind, Litwack recalled growing up in a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood. His father was a gardener; his mother a seamstress. Like his historical subjects, "they left no diaries, journals, or letters." They did introduce him to a "cultural world" that included the life and ideas of Eugene Debs, William D. Haywood, and Emma Goldman. Even before he entered Berkeley as an undergraduate in 1948, his precocious left intellect and life experience led him to question the official story of American liberty taught in public schools. After reading his textbook's account of docile slaves and duped freedmen, he asked his teacher for the opportunity to respond to what he perceived to be its distortions. Permission granted, he visited the Public Library and became the rare (scholarly discretion keeps me from saying, "only") Santa Barbara high school student who read W.E.B. DuBois' Black Reconstruction in America in order to challenge his teacher's -- and the nation's -- thralldom to Southern white mythology. The budding young historian had his moment in class, but when he finished addressing his fellow eleventh graders, he recalled how "the teacher looked at the class and said, 'Now students, you must remember that Leon is bitterly pro-labor.'" By his junior year, when he was introduced to a curious DuBois as a specimen of a history major, things were not quite as bleak. His college textbook was as bad as the one in high school, but his teacher, the young Kenneth Stampp, presented a non-racist revisionist account of slavery and Reconstruction in the classroom. His life as social activist and membership in the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (so he could earn money during school breaks)complemented his hours in the library studying the historical record. He had become acutely aware of the "uses and abuses of the past." In particular, he become convinced that black Americans bore the brunt of the nation's glaring "contradictions." Not surprisingly, like some of the best and brightest historians of his generation, this transplanted child of the immigrant left, began to rewrite American history as part of the struggle to reshape its future. Much of his career as a scholar and teacher paralleled the dismantling of the Jim Crow regime he analyzes in Trouble in Mind. By exposing racism in the antebellum north in his first book, and then giving a magisterial overview of southern blacks in the aftermath of Emancipation, Litwack helped set racist historiography on the run. He helped to expose the "incredible atrocities and repression" endured by black Americans. But, as important, his research and writing supported Ralph Ellison's insight that the black experience in America "is obviously more than the sum of its brutalization . . . [T]heirs has been one of the great human experiences and one of the great triumphs of the human spirit in modern times."

These days, Litwack is not an academic outsider. He is a past President of the Organization of American Historians. Been in the Storm So Long, his study of black southern life in the immediate aftermath of slavery, won the Pulitzer Prize. But the triumph of the academic historiographical "left" has not stemmed the tide of racial reaction. By recovering the world of black southerners during what Rayford Logan once called the "nadir" of African-American life in the United States, Litwack has not only served his dead constituents, but provides a troubling service to the living.

It is hard to imagine any roughly 40-year period as static, particularly the decades between the Gilded Age and the Great Depression. And like any historian, Litwack is attentive to change over time. Such topics as the passage of the state statutes regulating segregation and the migration of black Southerners to the north during and after the First World War provide the text with traditional temporal benchmarks. But Litwack has deliberately chosen not to tell his story of black southerners through a traditional diachronic narrative that takes the reader from the 1880s through the 1920s. The result is one of the longer works of American history that does not derive its narrative drive through an account of individual or social change across time. Justifying this approach, he writes in the introduction, "Through the first four decades of the twentieth century the essential mechanisms, attitudes, and assumptions governing race relations and the subordination of black southerners remained largely intact." The book, therefore, does not try to document and explain the outcome of struggle, as much as analyze the perpetual struggle across and on either side of the color line. Thus, while Litwack's book is comprised of many stories detailing the humiliations, violence, and exploitation blacks faced in the Jim Crow South, he also documents how southern blacks managed to survive and resist "with extraordinary resourcefulness." How could generations live in a world in which their lives were held so cheaply? Litwack argues that an "interior life, largely unknown and incomprehensible to whites, permitted black southerners to survive and endure" a seemingly unendurable and interminable present. While at times visible in the words of institutional leaders, Litwack "draws mainly from the perspective and experience of people who spent their lives in relative obscurity, who never shared the fruits of affluence, who never enjoyed power." Fortunately they were not mute. And Litwack's uncontestable achievement is recovering and restoring human dignity to so many previously forgotten or despised or pitied voices from our past.

SOUTHERN BLACKS, TRAPPED BETWEEN SLAVERY AND FREEDOM, did not simply face the "human condition." And they also faced more than the insecurity and humiliation of overpowered dependent immigrant workers. They had to endure "gratuitous," to use James Baldwin's word, suffering from the outrages of white folks who denied their common humanity. Their killing was not an industrial "accident" for which employers denied responsibility, nor was it the result of the repression of organized challenges to capital, it was the consequence of any white man's assertion of racial privilege. White power was openly, regularly, and boastfully homicidal. According to Litwack, "Between 1890 and 1917, to enforce deference and submission to whites, some two to three black Southerners were hanged, burned at the stake, or quietly murdered every week." Lynching may not have been a daily occurrence and few were as widely publicized as that of Sam Hose, but, as Litwack explains, "Nothing so dramatically or forcefully underscored the cheapness of black life in the South." While lynching had long been a means of dishing out extralegal justice to whites as well as blacks, "in the 1890s, lynching and sadistic torture rapidly became exclusive public rituals of the South, with black men and women as their principle victims." Of course, white power had long been inscribed on black bodies and both during slavery and reconstruction resistance prompted deadly retribution. But in crucial ways, Litwack argues, the execution of Hose and others was strikingly new . . . To kill the victim was not enough; the execution needed to be turned into a public ritual, a collective experience, and the victim needed to be subjected to extraordinary torture and humiliation. What had been in the past a usually rapid dispatch of the victim, now became part of a voyeuristic spectacle."

Indeed, widely circulated written accounts and photographs - even early sound recordings -- broadened the size of the audience for this racist pornography of alleged crime and punishment. Although associated in the popular mind with the defense of white womanhood, not only were the charges often fabricated, but, in the overwhelming majority of cases the victim had not, in fact, been charged with a sexual assault. Whether it took the form of spectacle or smaller public executions, southern blacks endured a reign of white terror.

Their targets rarely became as well known as Hose, especially when they met a quick death for having the temerity to seek fair and honest treatment. One such victim was Willie Holcombe. His father Charlie's account of Willie's death, is nothing less than a cautionary multigenerational saga. It reveals not merely the relationship between racist violence and black subjugation, it shows how difficult it is to assess, label, and judge the choices black southerners faced during the Jim Crow era.

Charlie had struggled hard to escape the perennial indebtedness of black (and white) sharecroppers and tenant farmers. One year he sold his tobacco and settled with his landlord and actually came out ahead. When "the man" called him back and told him he had miscalculated, Charlie could not contain his anger. He hit him. Charlie was fortunate: he lived and served a year on a chain gang. He had learned a sobering lesson. As he recalled, " . . . I knowed it wasn't no use for me to try to ever make anything but jist a livin'." But while he had been kept in his "place," he thought his son might go farther. Willie not only graduated high school, he continued his education, eventually getting his degree from the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina in Greensboro. But following the advice of Booker T. Washington and success manuals for blacks did not help Willie improve his lot. In fact, Charlie later recalled, that "was when de trouble started." In spite of his education, Willie had no more opportunities than his father, and even less patience. Willie started "settin' around and drinkin' and gittin' mean." One year, already angry at the previous day's visit to the tobacco warehouse, he returned with another load. Told that his son had been in a fight at the warehouse, Charlie arrived in town to find his son lying on the ground, his bashed-in skull surrounded with blood. As Charlie remembered, "Dey was tears runnin' down my cheeks and droppin' on his face and I couldn't he'p it." Charlie had made a fatal mistake: he did not impart the lesson he had learned or the advice his slave-born grandfather had given him years earlier as they sat fishing one day. "Son, a catfish is a lot like a nigger" the older man told him when he was a child. "As long as he is in his mudhole he is all right, but when he gits out he is in for a passel of trouble. You 'member dat, and you won't have no trouble wid folks when you grows up." But for good and ill he hadn't. After his son's killing, he would never forget. His other children lived, but none went to college. "Dey don't hab much, but dey is happy," he said.

Charlie Holcombe's tragic tale spanning four generations of Holcombe males reveals how difficult it is to offer a typology of accommodation and resistance. Charlie was born into freedom and tested its limits. He could not temper his anger. He learned a hard, but fortunately non-fatal lesson. Still he encouraged his son to climb out of the "mudhole." But after he paid for his son's unacceptable aspirations he retreated and counseled caution. He had become an "old Negro," but instead of simply sharing folk metaphors, he took younger restless blacks to his son's grave.

PERSONAL STORIES LIKE THE ONE TOLD BY CHARLIE HOLCOLMBE ABOUND in Litwack's account. His was not the only response to violence. After the 1906 Atlanta Riot, an educated young black man wrote a friend,

How would you feel if . . . it were impossible for you to walk the street . . . with your sister without being in mortal fear of death if you resented any insult offered to her? How would you feel if you saw a governor, a mayor, a sheriff, whom you could not oppose at the polls, encourage by deed or word or both, a mob of "best" and worst citizens to slaughter your people in the streets and in their own homes and in their places of business? Do you think you could resist the same wrath that caused God to slay the Philistines and the Russians to throw bombs. I can resist it, but with each new outrage I am less able to resist it.

This aspiring member of the middle class was finding it harder and harder to resist violence. The "rage" of the black middle class is hardly new. They faced the taunts of any white who sought to cut him or her down to size. Black women were not "ladies," regardless of dress and demeanor.

Six years earlier, a very different black southerner did not control his rage. Robert Charles was boldly defiant in 1900. After learning of the Sam Hose lynching, Charles had become increasingly angry and channeled at least some of his energy into becoming a subscription agent for African Methodist Episcopalian Bishop Henry M. Turner's nationalist Voice of Missions. The paper supported black pride, and advocated a return to Africa. Then one day, while sitting with friends outside one of their homes, he was accosted by three New Orleans' policemen searching for some "suspicious-looking negroes" reported in the area. When Charles rose during an angry exchange of words, he was struck with a billy club, a scuffle ensued and both Charles and the officers grabbed their guns. Each fired and wounded the other. Charles eluded an intense manhunt, until when finally cornered, he killed seven and wounded twenty of his pursuers with his Winchester repeating rifle. Charles himself was shot when he fled his torched hideout. New Orleans white mobs killed a dozen blacks and destroyed a noted school during the next four days. Here was a terrifying symbol of blacks who had none of the alleged vestiges of slavish demeanor.

Others were more cautious, but hardly submissive. Looking back years later, Ned Cobb explained his credo:

In my years past, I 'd accommodate anybody, but I didn't believe in this way of bowin' to my knees an doin' what any white man said do. Still, I always knowed to give the white man his time of day or else he's ready to knock me in the head. I just ain't goin' to go nobody's way against my own self. First thing of all -- I care for myself and respect myself.

Cobb's rebelliousness became more overt and threatening when he and other black farmers organized in the 30s. That's when he wound up in prison.

THE GREATEST STRENGTH OF LITWACK'S ACCOUNT OF BLACK LIFE in the Jim Crow South is his evenhanded presentation of the voices of "anonymous" as well as noted black southerners. By describing the complementary and competing institutions -- churches, schools, fraternal societies, juke joints -- and conveying the alternative and competing views of both Afro-American leaders and plain folk, Litwack demonstrates an even-handed empathy for those whose struggle for bread and dignity required constant wariness. Even his portrait of middle class accommodationists avoids glib criticism. He is certainly critical of the Washingtonian program, making it clear that the white South would punish the upwardly mobile black. He points out the almost absurd advice in catechisms of worldly success directed toward black youngsters. But his criticism is most effectively voiced not by his prominent ideological opponents, like DuBois, but in the letters of those who tried to advocate the Washingtonian creed of self-improvement but who then faced indignity, assault, and even death. His accounts of educators, businessmen, and professionals notes their protective illusions and class pretensions, but the reader learns about the indignities they endured and the visibility that made them even more vulnerable to racial taunts -- and physical danger. If the poor farm laborer had to be wary asking for a just settlement, a black who could afford a car, new suit of clothes, or home could never appear to aspire to social equality. But at the same time, Litwack reminds us of the myriad forms of resistance. Black domestic workers set limits on obedience. An elderly maid muttered, "I ain't nobody's aunt." Another struck her white mistress. They too had a line they would not cross.

Litwack's account of black behavior and consciousness will be familiar to anyone who has read the literature on the slave community written over the past few decades. While the interpretations vary, and there seems to be a trend to reconsider claims that the slaves could ward off all the inner damage of bondage, we will probably continue to read about the capacity for resistance and humanity in the midst of "social death." In particular, we will continue to read about those who put on the mask of contentment while harboring subversive thoughts and testing the limits of daily resistance. Indeed, one is hardly surprised that the first black voice we listen to in Trouble in Mind is that of the dying grandfather of Ralph Ellison's protagonist in Invisible Man. Born in slavery, he and his wife had raised their children to accommodate in order to survive. But his dying advice to his grandson contained a different message:

Son, after I'm gone In want you to keep up the good fight. In never told you, but our life is a war and In have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country ever since In give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion's mouth. In want you to overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.

Then, in an intense whisper, he added, "Learn it to the young uns." His children were shocked.

PRECISELY BECAUSE SOUTHERN BLACKS STILL FACED personal and institutionalized white power, especially the deadly violence of both the state and individuals who acted with impunity, it would be misleading to posit a simple divide between those blacks reared in slavery and those born in "freedom." They had participated in the "unfinished revolution" of Emancipation and Reconstruction. Even if some accommodated to the consolidating Jim Crow regime, memories of struggle did not fade. Nonetheless, Litwack provides a compelling argument that the post-Emancipation generation was increasingly unwilling -- perhaps unable -- to accommodate to the imposition of semi-slavery. Certainly Litwack does not argue that there was a radical generational rupture in the black community. He obviously distances himself from the psycho-sexual phantasms of white mythology, but he does give credence to contemporary reports of the emergence of a "New Negro." Richard Wright, for example, eventually realized that his grandfather, a Union veteran, believed that the Civil War would resume one day. But Wright could not bide his time. Like others, he proved less capable of "grinning," more willing to test the limits of white supremacy, and ready to leave its deadly grip before he would kill or be killed. But if the complex interplay between individual life histories and the racist regime was not new, both blacks and whites sensed increased tension. Although often associated with the Harlem Renaissance, the creative explosion of Afro-American literary expression in the urban north in the 20s, the idea had already emerged in the Jim Crow south. The "New Negro" was the entire generation of blacks born after slavery who chafed at the limits placed on their freedom. Even if they managed to hide their biggest dreams and anger "behind the veil," blacks expressed by word, deed, expression, or manner a rage that was increasingly apparent to whites. And whites responded to the Willie Holcombes and Robert Charles in their midst. The anti-lynching crusader, Ida Wells-Barnett channeled her anger into scathing journalism, and then fled Memphis for her life.

While grounded in a social reality that was palpable to blacks and whites, the "New Negro" was also an ideological weapon wielded in the battle for the hearts and minds of the nation. For blacks, the term articulated hope. In my reading, it was less a radical new personality than a new historical sensibility. Even as whites used statutes and bullets to reconstruct a racial dictatorship, former slaves and their descendants knew that they were a people with a history - and a future. Jack Johnson proved it. And that's precisely what whites feared. As they searched for a "Great White Hope" to reaffirm the superiority of white manliness and civilization, white supremacy had to be maintained law by law and bullet by bullet. In the struggle for racial order, the memory of Reconstruction had to be contested as forcefully as its policies. Whites, in the North as well as the South, had to be "reminded" that any breach of racial decorum, any hint of black "uppitiness" had to be immediately squelched. If not, white civilization would be threatened, white women ravished. As Litwack stresses, the image of the "New Negro" as "black beast" justified extremism in defense of white supremacy. But as a number of feminist scholars point out, it also served to reassert the dominance of southern manhood threatened by the memory of defeat and impoverishment, a new economic order, and the emergence of the "new woman," even in the South. Nostalgia for "loyal slaves" and nurturing "mammies" helped define the intimate connection between racial and domestic order. Everyone had a place.

The migration of blacks to the North that reached unprecedented heights beginning in World War In is the clearest indicator of black dissatisfaction with southern life. But as Litwack stresses, what disturbed many blacks the most was the growing nationalization of racist ideology. If racist practices and spectacles helped forge white identity in the South, national reunification came at the expense of African-American rights and lives. D.W. Griffiths' "The Birth of a Nation," did more than spread racism nationally. It argued not simply that sectional reconciliation required northern acceptance of white supremacy, but that a new modern nation was to be built on the graves of "New Negroes," rapists and politicians who lusted after white women. The modernizing 19th century capitalist state required a war against southern independence and slavery, but the subsequent consolidation of that state required accommodation of the southern elite and electorate. The 90s witnessed a profound legitimation crisis as farm protests and labor conflict threatened the "search for order." Did "the reconstruction of American capitalism," to use Martin Sklar's phrase, the combination of repression and reform characteristic of the progressive era, require the abandonment of the Negro? Woodrow Wilson's election confirms the move toward a somewhat "new freedom" for whites, and a new slavery for blacks. Sectional reconciliation tightened the "white noose," literally and figuratively, even as the North beckoned "New Negroes." Though a reasonable escape for hundreds of thousands of black Southerners, the "Up South" was part of the problem.

In sum, Leon Litwack has let the words and acts of black Southerners deflate the arrogant pretensions of white supremacy, but shows how they could not dismantle or seriously undermine the system of white supremacy. He recounts the social and cultural creativity of black southerners as well as their ingenuity wielding the "weapons of the weak." But he never lets us forget the human burden of living under a reign of white terror. The Mississippi Delta bluesmen that he appreciates so much understood that thin line between creativity and despair, rebellion and self-destruction. Compelling compatible and alternative analytical accounts will certainly challenge some of his judgments, but In doubt we will get a more stirring synthetic portrait of black Southerners during what John Cell once called "the highest stage of white supremacy."

But it is not clear how this and similar acts of remembrance will help us understand and challenge the current racial (dis)order. As he was completing this latest work, he told his Fordham audience,

The study of race relations, however, has not left me an optimist about the eradication of racism in American society. What the civil rights movement achieved was impressive, far-reaching in the ways it changed the face of the South -- if not the nation. But it was revealing, too, for the paradoxes and contradictions it exposed . . . Even as the civil rights movement struck down legal barriers, it failed to dismantle economic barriers . . . Even as it ended the violence of segregation by law, it failed to end the violence of poverty . . . Even as it increased the black middle class, it left behind a greater number of black Americans to endure lives of quiet despair and hopelessness.

. . . The brutalizing effects of more than two centuries of slavery and another century of enforced segregation and miseducation continue to shape race relations, continue to hold up a mirror to Americans, to test the democratic experiment, the principles and values Americans embrace . . . The victims threaten to become, if tens of thousands have not already become, a large shadow population of interior exiles, aliens in their own land, locked into a cycle of deprivation and despair, empty of belief or hope, and highly volatile.

LITWACK STILL BELIEVES IN THE HISTORIAN'S CRAFT. He still believes that the record of oppression and resistance can serve as a lever to lift the heavy weight of injustice. But under the circumstances, it is hard to have simple faith in the liberatory politics of history. Indeed, In could imagine smug celebrants of black "progress" embracing Litwack's narrative in order to bolster the new age of malign neglect. (Just as some southern reviewers found comfort in Litwack's exposure of antebellum Yankee racism three decades ago.) More to the point, In would argue, it is our burden to write the history that will illuminate the continuing allure of "whiteness." To some extent, this means writing critical histories of post-war America such as Thomas Sugrue's analysis of class and racial politics in postwar Detroit. In addition, America's impasse has impelled a new generation to develop theoretically informed but humane explorations of the interrelated meanings of race, class, gender, and nation. Nonetheless, in an era in which the nation teeters between justifying a "zero tolerance" war on young black youth and moral revulsion at racial profiling and "justifiable" police homicide, Litwack's "history from the bottom up" will move and hopefully transform readers. As John Womack once said,

History can show that everybody hurts . . . I think it takes instruction to persuade people in safety that people in danger and pain are really suffering. I think it takes instruction to instill sympathy, not to mention solidarity . . . History is deliberately about reality, what really happened. It's a way of instructing the reader that people who really lived went through a certain pain, which would have hurt the reader as badly as it hurt them. And this is a highly important lesson for the reader to understand and learn because it blocks the instinct to flee and leads to sympathy.

We must learn to sense the "hellhounds" on our trail. It will help us appreciate the "pastness of the past" and feel its still frightening "presence."


* Leon F. Litwack, Trouble In Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). return

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