Trouble in Mind

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

A professor of American History at the University of California, Berkeley, Leon F. Litwack won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1979 for his book Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. Litwack is a distinguished scholar of African American history. His work is grounded in the primary sources of black life and infused with the rhythm of the blues that gives this excellent book its evocative title.

Trouble in Mind continues Litwack’s epic exploration of black life in the South that he began in Been in the Storm So Long. The book concentrates on the years between 1890, when segregation became entrenched in the South, and the era of World War I, when many Southern blacks began the Great Migration to Northern cities. It is a somber and painful narrative about what Litwack correctly terms “the most violent and repressive period in the history of race relations in the United States.”

Litwack does not tell a chronological story of how segregation shaped the lives of black Southerners. Instead, he takes his readers through the many subtle and shocking ways in which African Americans learned that they must submit to the power of Southern whites, examining “the extraordinary power white men and women wielded over black lives and prospects in virtually all phases of daily life.” One of the most harrowing chapters, “Baptisms,” recounts how black children learned what the word “nigger” meant and why gestures of defiance might lead to violence and death. To forget to say “sir” to a white man, to look in the wrong direction, to have an expression other than a submissive one, could and often did trigger a terrible vengeance. Incident after incident, quotation after quotation builds a graphic picture of a claustrophobic society for blacks who had the inclination to resist or assert their humanity. Subsequent chapters look at education, the workplace, what people said, and what they did when they interacted with black Southerners.

Another of Litwack’s continuing themes has to do with the dilemma that white Southerners imposed on blacks in the region. If African Americans conformed to the stereotype of ignorance, docility, and unreliability that whites demanded, then blacks were held up to scorn as proving their innate inferiority. On the other hand, if blacks adopted the virtues of white society and saved money, became educated, and followed middle-class morality, they were perceived as threats to the existing social order. “It is getting to be a dangerous thing to acquire property, to get an education, to own an automobile, to dress well, and to build a respectable home,” argued a black newspaper in Savannah, Georgia. Litwack believes that no matter what black Southerners did during these years, they were bound to disappoint and often anger whites to the point of rage and retaliation. “White people never like to see Negroes get a little success,” said the daughter of a Mississippi sharecropper whose mules were poisoned by jealous whites.

In describing the day-to-day workings of segregation, Litwack mentions episodes and encounters that other authors have also described. It is the accumulation of such moments that gives the book its power. Litwack is also able to think himself inside the situation of black Southerners and to show how their words illuminate the predicament in which they found themselves. The analysis of why disenfranchisement occurred in the South after Reconstruction, how the machinery of segregation was assembled, and the thought processes that drove bigotry has many elements that will be familiar to students of Southern history. Nevertheless, Litwack’s skill and artistry as an historian make these events seem fresh and compelling.

One recurrent theme is the presence of violence directed against Southern blacks. In many respects, they were a population in an occupied war zone, where the whim of a white might change their lives in an instant. When a young black man named Ulysses was asked his name by a white policeman, the office experienced some problems with spelling it. The youth offered to write it for the policeman. Thereupon the office knocked Ulysses down; he was fined twenty-five dollars for “using disrespectful and insulting remarks.” When his parents could not pay the fine, one of the boy’s friends said, “Ulysses went to the chain-gang, and I never saw him again.” That sense of menace pervades the book, as the reader soon recognizes that most of the black people depicted were in fear of their lives from day to day.

Another striking aspect of the story that Litwack recounts is the kind of...

(The entire section is 1902 words.)