Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow

by Leon F. Litwack
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Last Updated on July 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1015

Leon F. Litwack's book Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (1998) focuses on the lives of African Americans in the South from the end of Reconstruction to the Great Migration (beginning roughly in 1916). It deals with many of the issues that African Americans faced...

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Leon F. Litwack's book Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (1998) focuses on the lives of African Americans in the South from the end of Reconstruction to the Great Migration (beginning roughly in 1916). It deals with many of the issues that African Americans faced in their daily interactions with the racial hierarchy created by white Southerners. It also focused on the violence African Americans faced if they failed to comply with the hierarchy.

We are not the Negro from whom the chains of slavery fell a quarter of a century ago, most assuredly not. (422)

This 1889 quote comes from a student newspaper from Fisk University, an African American college in Nashville, Tennessee. The quote focuses on the difference in generations between the African Americans who lived through slavery and their children who were born free. African Americans who experienced slavery often fell victim to paternalism. Paternalism, as applied to slavery, was an idea that slaves should show respect to their masters and give them the proper amount of authority, much like they would give their own father. In exchange, masters would treat their slaves like their children as part of their pursuit of Southern honor. But much of these interactions only existed in theory. Slaveowners were often unspeakably cruel towards their slaves. Paternalism focused on creating amenable conditions for both slaves and masters, and oftentimes, masters believed that they felt affection from those they enslaved. They came to expect complete subservience from all African Americans.

African Americans who were born following the abolition of slavery were not completely indoctrinated into the idea of paternalism, so they were more willing to show resistance to white Southerners. While paternalism continued to develop through laws and social interactions (such as the racial hierarchy), newer generations of African Americans did not feel quite the same obligation to respect white Southerners. This quote highlights the generational gap between African Americans who were born into slavery and those who were born after its abolition, who no longer felt completely obligated to show deference to whites.

Excluded from the white world, black Southerners drew inward and constructed their own society, with its own institutions and separate social and cultural life. (374)

This quote comes from Litwack himself and focuses on the development of an African American community. One of the most infamous aspects of Jim Crow was segregation. African Americans were unable to have the freedom they had earned with the culmination of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. They were required to sit on segregated buses and trains and had to have separate churches as well. Eventually, many African Americans began to come together and create their own communities. They were not allowed to enjoy the features of society that white Southerners had, so they created their own versions to suit their communities.

African Americans developed their own banking systems and real estate companies, which allowed them to enjoy some of the associated freedoms. These industries also gave African Americans the chance to rise above labor-based jobs. By creating these companies within African American society, some African Americans achieved enough wealth to be middle class. This, however, deeply disturbed the white South: they feared that, if African Americans became middle class, they would be even less likely to continue to support the racial hierarchy rooted in white supremacy. In some ways, becoming middle class was a form of resistance to the extremities of Jim Crow. But African Americans still had to deal with constant racial tension and violence and the possibility of lynchings.

The most important institution in African American communities was often the church. The church served multiple roles in African American society. It dealt with a spiritual need of its congregants, but it was also a meeting place for the community. African American ministers often assumed a position of authority in the community and served as spiritual guides as well as community leaders.

The quote highlights how, instead of being dejected by not being allowed into the white community, African Americans created their own. They did this both out of necessity and as a form of resistance. It allowed them to have a personal life and community connections away from the highly structured reach of Jim Crow.

Thirty years ago, the prejudice was against the ignorant, shiftless, and thriftless black; now it is against the thrifty and industrious, the refined and the cultured—against those who, in a word, come into competition with the middle-class white. (160)

This quote comes from an African American attorney and continues Litwack's exploration of the African American community. As mentioned previously, African Americans developed their own communities, which allowed many to become business owners. By owning their own businesses and meeting the needs of the large African American community, some of these business owners became middle class. Being middle class may have solved some of their financial issues, but it made the white South uncomfortable that some African Americans were becoming their financial equals, or even their financial betters.

The first part of the quote focuses on the experience of African Americans under slavery. White slaveowners created numerous stereotypes of the "lazy" slave who refused to work or was too incompetent to understand their position. These ideas were deeply influenced by racism.

The attorney also continues the theme of the generation gap. Under slavery, the stereotype of African Americans focused on being lazy, but with the growth of an African American middle class, the new fear among the white South was that African Americans were becoming too wealthy and refined. For the white South, having African Americans be a financial equal was a disturbing prospect because it undermined the racial hierarchy. The racial hierarchy was still predicated upon African American inferiority, so middle class African Americans weakened this structure.

Exploring these three quotes highlights the crux of Litwack's text: that is, the many ways African Americans suffered under Jim Crow, despite developing their own communities and increasingly entering the middle class. This ultimately made many African Americans move North during the Great Migration in an attempt to find better lives.

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