Historical Context

Racism in the 1950s South
In the 1950s in the American South, discrimination against black people was commonplace. In Orpheus Descending, Carol mentions that she protested against the execution of a black man named Willie McGee. This was an actual case that occurred in 1951 in Mississippi. McGee was accused of raping a white woman, although in fact he and the woman had a long-standing sexual relationship. McGee's defense counsel challenged the fact that blacks had been excluded from the jury, and that the death penalty for rape was used only against blacks, never against whites. During the trial and appeal, white supremacist groups threatened violence, and although the Supreme Court twice ordered a stay of execution, McGee was eventually put to death.

At this time in the South, many white people were vehemently opposed to any sexual relationships between blacks and whites. The practice was referred to as miscegenation, and many states had laws that banned it. During the 1950s and 1960s, fourteen states repealed those laws, but sixteen others, including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas, kept their antimiscegenation laws on the books until the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in 1967.

The routine mistreatment of black people is obvious in the play, in which they are referred to by white authority figures such as Talbott and Jabe as "niggers." When Val is told to leave the county, Talbott mentions a county where a sign says,"Nigger, don't let the sun go down on you in this county." Carol and Val are the two characters who are keenly aware of these injustices. Val has the name Bessie Smith inscribed on his guitar,...

(The entire section is 693 words.)