Old Books and Racism
Old Books and Racism
The Decatur Book Festival is over for another year. I sold a few books and connected to bookseller friends and others who dropped into the booth. My partner Libby Ware is pleased with how well her business, Toadlily Books, did.
Yet I’m still puzzling my head over a book that stayed in my mind: Three Races Under God, published in 1956 by Grady Fowler, a Georgia minister, who lays out an amazingly convoluted defense of racial segregation based on the New Testament. I didn’t think the New Testament had much if anything to say about race, but this reverend managed to tease out statements that left me shaking my head. The book dealers who had the book for sale said they found it weird and incomprehensible. As a white Southern woman who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, I’m afraid I understand its twisted logic all too well. It sounded so much like what my own parents might have said.
Fowler, a friend of Marvin Griffin, the then-governor of Georgia, states that people will only achieve world peace if the three races—he calls them white, black-brown, and red—are completely separated. I’m staggered by the practical implications of his plan, let alone the ethical ones. It reminds me a little of a certain presidential candidate’s plan about a wall.
I found myself thinking about other books, such as the Southern Agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand (1930), by a group of Southern writers including Allen Tate, Andrew Nelson Lytle, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren. These poets and men of letters made an impassioned argument defending the Southern agrarian way of life against Northern industrialism, defending individualism against what they saw as creeping conformity
What they left out is the fact that the agrarian lifestyle in the antebellum South depended upon the unpaid labor of enslaved black people. That agrarian pastoral couldn’t have been sustained if agricultural workers were paid even a minimum wage. Also, after the Civil War, thousands of formerly enslaved people of color migrated north, eliminating that pool of cheap labor. What they also left out was the terrorism that hung over the black people who remained: how they were controlled by violence and the threat of violence. The Jim Crow South was not just segregation; it was a reign of state-supported terrorism.
How could such brilliant, thoughtful men as the Agrarians not be aware of these realities? How could they not be aware of the lives of people of color who lived all around them? A simplistic question: how do so many white people today still remain unaware?
I’m reminded of another book, actually a trilogy, two of which I own. They are The Leopard’s Spots (1902), The Clansman (1905), and The Traitor (1907) by Thomas Dixon. The second of these formed the basis of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation and helped to give new life to the Ku Klux Klan, spreading the message of white supremacy. (Not that the ideas were limited to the South; Griffith’s racist message found fertile ground all across the U.S.)
Knowing as I do the underlying assumptions—crazy and false as they are—makes me wonder why people were so shocked at the recently published Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee, reputed to be the first version of To Kill A Mockingbird, in particular the book’s portrayal of Atticus Finch. I found myself thinking, how could they not have known that these would be his attitudes and beliefs? Atticus was no anti-racist. He didn’t talk about his belief in segregation because it was the air he breathed, the backdrop of his entire life. Atticus defended Tom Robinson, not because Robinson was black, not because he believed him to be unjustly accused, but because he believed in the law. He believed that everyone deserves a fair trial. And so he took the case. The Atticus Finch in Watchman is in no way inconsistent with the Atticus Finch in Mockingbird. They are the same white Southern gentleman, with both his virtues—which are many—and his flaws. It’s just that the flaws are more visible now.
Atticus believes that people have fixed essences that cannot be much changed. That families, nations, races, genders have such essences. That these essences may be a little altered in some individuals by education and change of circumstances, but that the core, the essence of a person, a race, a nation, a gender remains the same. All beings are lined up in a natural hierarchy, like a ladder. And those on the higher rungs are superior to those on the lower ones.
It’s the kind of belief that rural, agrarian life tends to reinforce: cows are cows, mules are mules, shepherd dogs are shepherds and not spaniels. Humans are above animals, and males are above females. Girls are girls, and boys are boys. Men and women are both human, but different and unequal. Some held the belief that not all whites are equal. Poor and working-class whites are innately inferior—with some exceptions, there are always a few exceptions allowed—to middle-class and upper-class whites. Black men and women may be human, therefore, but they are on a lower rung of the ladder. As Atticus Finch says in Watchman, “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” And Scout agrees with him. Atticus does leave some wiggle room with the words “down here” (in the South), and he allows that black people have made “terrific progress,” but he goes on to say “white is white and black’s black. So far, I’ve not yet heard an argument that has convinced me otherwise.”
If you understand this belief, called essentialism, you can understand much of white Southern, white supremacist thought. It clarifies the romantic ramblings of Scout Finch’s Uncle Jack as he goes on about the “Anglo-Saxons” and how much they love liberty and individualism. Jack has accepted, hook, line, and sinker the fable that the Civil War was fought over States’ Rights, not slavery. He may have learned that Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, said that the main reason for the Confederate rebellion was to preserve slavery, that “peculiar institution,” and he may know that South Carolina justified secession on that basis. But he manages to gloss over that knowledge in his mind, holding fast to the notion of his brave, fighting Anglo-Saxon ancestors who would not accept outsider rule.
A rambling piece, this. Books lead your mind to ramble over long-ago arguments, snatches of overheard conversations, contradictions between what you were taught in church (“Jesus Loves the Little Children … red and yellow, black and white”) and what you heard everywhere else. Both rational arguments and hateful blasts of invective added up to the same conclusion: integration is wrong, it’s against the laws of God and nature, it will bring the end of civilization. Segregation is right, moral, and natural. We’ll kill anyone who tries to end it.
I could say these are just old, outdated words and books, deserving to be relegated to the garbage can of history. But they are not long ago at all. The other day, I read on Facebook when someone mentioned that most benefits of the New Deal did not help black people, and someone responded “this list is getting crazy.” For some people, even mentioning racism or white privilege is “crazy,” an attack on white people. Many white folks feel that saying black lives matter means white people’s lives don’t matter.
William Faulkner was right, and continues to be right, when he said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”