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Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (1998)

de Leon F. Litwack

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2024102,172 (4.04)20
Leon F. Litwack constructs an account of life in the Jim Crow South. Drawing on an array of contemporary documents and first-person narratives from both blacks and whites, he examines how black men and women learned to live with the severe restrictions imposed on their lives during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Litwack relates how black schools and colleges struggled to fulfill the expectations placed on them in a climate that was separate but hardly equal; how hardworking tenant farmers were cheated of their earnings, turned off their land, or refused acreage they could afford to purchase; how successful and ambitious blacks often became targets of white violence and harassment. Faced with evidence of black independence and assertiveness, the white South responded with a policy of oppression and subjugation that systematically "disrecognized" black people. Litwack shows how blacks not only coped with crushing poverty and misery, but also found refuge in their own institutions and managed to preserve their humanity and dignity through religion, work, music, and (frequently subversive) humor.… (mais)
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It took me more than two weeks to read this horrifying, depressing, infuriating and absolutely essential history. Trouble in Mind covers the period from the end of Reconstruction, when the brief period of black enfranchisement ended as southern states moved to brutally and emphatically reassert White Supremacy throughout the American south, through what is known as the Great Migration, when blacks in great numbers moved north to fill factory jobs that came available during and just after World War I.

I had thought I had an idea of what the term "Jim Crow" represented to the people who lived under the weight of that oppressive system, but it turns out I had only a relatively shallow understanding. It wasn't just a question of separate railroad cars and exclusion from restaurants and stores. It wasn't just being prevented from voting, although many of the problems stemmed from that. It was about vicious, all-pervasive, horrendous oppression. If you were black and you were perceived as getting "above your place," you could have your house burned down and your crops destroyed. You could be run off your land. Or you could be murdered. What did "above your place" mean? If you had raised enough cotton on your land so that you could pay your rent and your bills at the store and still have enough left over to sell a couple of bales at market and keep the money for yourself, that was an offense for which you and your entire family could be, and might well be, murdered. Or if you were able to fix your house up so that it was more presentable that a rundown shack. Or if it was learned you had money in the bank. Or if you questioned the white man who was cheating you out of wages or payment for crops. Or if you were a teacher in a black school. And so on. Black lives, in this time and place, were meant to be, and most often were, unending hours, days and years of drudgery with no chance to improve one's lot in life. There are a lot more details here about this era, the horrors of lynching (often preceded by long hours of torture and frequently accomplished via burning at the stake). These conditions, again, prevailed across the south through World War One, and, of course, beyond.

I am appalled that it took me until age 65 to understand these details. This book, or at least knowledge of this history, is essential, I think, to any attempt at a comprehension of racial issues in America today, including the Black Lives Matter movement as well as a myriad of deeply rooted economic and cultural problems. Of course I am talking to my fellow white people. I would assume that most black Americans are already well versed in this history. But the next time somebody says anything along the lines of "Slavery ended 150 years ago. Time to get over it," I'm going to want to shove this book, all 500 pages of it, down that person's throat.

I have only touched on some of the major subjects that Litwack addresses in Trouble in Mind. His writing is clear and as concise as it can be with such a sprawling topic. He lays on the examples. Sometimes I felt like I'd already gotten the point while he was still illustrating it over and over, but I never begrudged Litwack these details even then. I felt that they were necessary to impress upon the reader the degree to which the violence and suppression he was describing were all pervasive and relentless, and also to illustrate the horrible toll it all took on the daily lives of millions of Americans.

It's unclear to me whether I can possibly have encouraged anybody to read this book with this review, but, at any rate, I do urge people to read it. ( )
  rocketjk | Nov 9, 2020 |
The author of [b:Been in the Storm So Long|57432|Been in the Storm So Long The Aftermath of Slavery|Leon F. Litwack|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1170462650s/57432.jpg|55952] continues his study of Reconstruction and black/white relations in the South following the Civil War.

These two books, by Leon Litwack, professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, are important and should be read by everyone interested in the history of race relations in this country. The period following the Civil War represents the nadir of black American history; a time when the white power structure in the South took back what they had lost on the battlefields. During this period a group of people were denied the basic rights of citizenship in the land of their birth. They were stamped as inferior based on the artificial concept of race — it was not the Nazis who invented the one-drop rule. Litwack describes how the first blacks born free after Emancipation had to cope with a new racial order, a vicious form of apartheid, in which they were nominally free, but enslaved in a system of tenant labor that forced them to remain in misery and poverty. They became “invisible” even as great waves of immigrants quickly assimilated into their role of superiority to the “nigger.” The celebration of "hard work" and "pulling oneself up by the bootstraps" applied only to whites. Education coupled with hard work could create prosperity and middle class for the white immigrant; for the indigenous black it resulted in lynching.

The boundaries of the New World for blacks were enforced by incredible violence. White savagery beggars the imagination. Blacks were mutilated and tortured in front of huge crowds often for the mere "crime" of trying to be successful. Black children witnessed horrible acts of random violence against black males. These actions were clearly intended to send a message to the black community: “Stay in your place or reap the consequences.” White children were taught the policeman
was your friend; black youngsters soon learned he was the enemy.

Litwack follows four generations of black southerners following the Civil War. This is the story of extraordinary courage and resourcefulness; of how blacks often managed to create a world of their own. The book explains the gradual destruction of barriers leading eventually to the 1954 Brown decision and the Civil Rights Movement.

Litwack begins with the generation of former slaves. Next he examines the lives of freeborn children of former slaves who desperately wanted success. Then he discusses the generation that supplied men for the "Jim Crow" army in the Spanish-American war while their brothers were being killed at home. Finally, he focuses on the generation of the early twentieth century that rejected accommodation and moved north in vast numbers. Across these generations, blacks were frequently denied access to the political process and education but found ways to create a rich oral tradition and a new musical form, jazz, that was to conquer the white musical world. They remained ambiguous about how to define themselves, becoming Africans, Negroes, colored, Afro-Americans, etc. "Negro" was the term preferred by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B.
DuBois until it was discarded during the Civil Rights Movement as too representative of white paternalism and subjugation This book is a celebration of the spirit of a people who survived enormous difficulty and managed to preserve the genius of their human spirit. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
Litwack, Leon F. Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 1998

In Trouble in Mind, Leon Litwack rivets his readers with a thoroughly harrowing, but nonetheless engrossing, illumination of life in the Jim Crow era southern United States. Ostensibly, as the sub-title indicates, this monograph deals with Black Southerners existence within the white supremacist construct of Jim Crow. However, the main title leaves open the double entendre begging the question: trouble in whose mind? In a society where perception often outweighed reality, Litwack elucidates the nexus of Jim Crow: the supremacist construct most assuredly brought troubles to the minds of blacks but rather than eliminate white supremacist fears it instead brought continuing troubles to their minds as well. Litwack demonstrates that although black southerners were "slaves in the system," white supremacists (and white non-supremacists) were "slaves to the system (page 421)." Playing on the multiple meanings of “trouble,” Litwack also argues that this was a race war and that both whites and blacks were not only in states of distress but also agitated against or for the system.
Litwack pulls his readers into the Jim Crow era through the voices of the people who lived the reality. From famous figures of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, to political pundits of white supremacy Litwack uses these voices to weave a narrative full of details. His first three chapters focus on black experiences in Jim Crow from their initial exposure through the adaptations and compromises they made to survive within the system. The next two chapters bring in the white experience of manipulating and enforcing the system on the south. The final three chapters detail the explosive societal terms of lynching, black endurance and the choices made by blacks to either fight or leave the system.
Litwack takes the reader beyond the veil of the color line and forces the reader to confront the brutishness of Jim Crow. The familiar dialectic between the two polar positions of black reaction to Jim Crow is marked out. Black leaders could chose accommodation and industrial education, like Booker T. Washington, or entitlements to full citizenship, like W. E. B. Du Bois. Yet Litwack stunningly reveals how neither path satisfied white supremacists; who routinely interpreted any black advancement as a threat to themselves (page 51).
Litwack’s analysis of lynching, in his chapter Hellhounds, reveals just how deeply the trouble in white supremacist minds went. Litwack argues that lynching victim’s true offense was challenging Jim Crow white supremacy; either boldly or in the fickle perception of whites (page 307). Horror after horror was inflected upon black southerners by whites. Lynching may have served to underscore “black vulnerability” but it also exposed the “moral character of whites (page 312).” The construct that trapped blacks beneath the weight of white supremacy also trapped white supremacists to the violence necessary, in their view, to maintain the system. From living through lynching after lynching, blacks “placed their own interpretations” on the events and realized that “neither a deferential accommodation nor economic success guaranteed them civil or human rights (page 317).”
While most critics suggest Litwack is not breaking any new ground here but is simple telling the story again in a masterful way, Litwack does challenge at least one historical analysis. Although not overtly, Litwack challenges C. Vann Woodward’s tenet that Jim Crow segregation was not merely an extension of local custom but a built social construct. Litwack argues that the custom of segregation “was not” new to the South but its “legalization and intensity” of enforcement were new (page 238). ( )
  ncunionist | Apr 25, 2008 |
3212. Trouble in Mind / Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, by Leon F. Litwack (read July 2, 1999) This takes up where Been in the Storm So Long, which I finished on Sept 6, 1987, left off, and deals with black Southerners' lives from the 1870's till World War One. It is very devoted to episodes, and shys away from giving objective data. I suppose sociological data would have made the book dryer, but some such data would have been helpful, I thought. But much of the book is very powerful, especially the horrid accounts of lynchings, burnings, and the like--happening in this country in this century! I thought to myself: Where was the outrage? There apparently wasn't any! This overall was a worthwhile book to read. ( )
  Schmerguls | Dec 4, 2007 |
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Leon F. Litwack constructs an account of life in the Jim Crow South. Drawing on an array of contemporary documents and first-person narratives from both blacks and whites, he examines how black men and women learned to live with the severe restrictions imposed on their lives during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Litwack relates how black schools and colleges struggled to fulfill the expectations placed on them in a climate that was separate but hardly equal; how hardworking tenant farmers were cheated of their earnings, turned off their land, or refused acreage they could afford to purchase; how successful and ambitious blacks often became targets of white violence and harassment. Faced with evidence of black independence and assertiveness, the white South responded with a policy of oppression and subjugation that systematically "disrecognized" black people. Litwack shows how blacks not only coped with crushing poverty and misery, but also found refuge in their own institutions and managed to preserve their humanity and dignity through religion, work, music, and (frequently subversive) humor.

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