In this article, you will be familiarized with some important historical and cultural terms and events as useful markers to understand the context and legacies of slavery and racism in America. Knowing more about the historical context in which the story is located- postbellum American South- will help appreciate the text better. These multi-layered contexts form a definitive backdrop to the larger story of African Americans, and the white’s treatment of them in America and in “Dry September” in particular.
Civil War (1861-1865)
Fought over the terrain of slavery, the Civil War ranged from 1861 to 1865. In this anti- slavery war, the Union that comprised of the Northern states of America was pitted against the eleven slave states of Southern America known as Confederates. While the Union, led by the President Abraham Lincoln, argued for the abolition of slavery the Confederates were opposed to it. The reason for latter’s resistance to the abolitionists was mainly because the South’s agrarian economy and the plantation moguls were heavily reliant on the free labour provided by the slaves and their huge investment in the slave trade. The Union’s call for re- structuring of social, political and economic relations by way of ending slavery concluded on contradictory emotional notes. On the one hand it resulted in the much awaited Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863; but on the other hand, it witnessed the tragic assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth, a Northern Confederate sympathizer. Walt Whitman, America’s national poet, was profoundly affected by the Civil War, and mourns the monumental loss of Abraham Lincoln in his elegy “O Captain! My captain!”.
Abraham Lincoln introduced the Emancipation Proclamation, initially, as an inevitable war time measure on September 22, 1862. Seeking to abolish slavery, it was effected even while the Civil War was still on. It pronounced ‘(t)hat on the first day of January in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.’
Lincoln’s humane understanding of the plight of slaves, and his belief in the equality of all informed his vision of the Emancipation Proclamation that proved to be historic. Such a view is further underscored in his now iconic speech known as ‘The Gettysburg Address’ wherein he mourned the loss of the dead soldiers. In it also, he affirmed his ‘resolve that these dead (Union soldiers) shall not have died in vain- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth’.
Reconstruction Era (1863-1877)
Following the end of the Civil War that had cost lives and property on both sides, the champions of Reconstruction aimed at building anew the lives of African Americans and the erstwhile slaves. Aiming to integrate them in a holistic manner and to provide protective safeguards, the Reconstruction policies intended to extend the civil rights including the citizenship and voting rights to them as well. Consequently, the three major amendments to the United States Constitution that sought to alter the future race relations and the conditions of the disenfranchised black community were as follows:
- The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude ‘except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted’.
- The Fourteenth Amendment effected citizenship rights and equal protection under the laws ‘to all citizens born or naturalized in the United States’ including the erstwhile slaves.
- The Fifteenth Amendment prohibited the government from denying or infringing upon a citizen’s right to vote on ‘account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude’.
While the success of the Reconstructions efforts have been contested, they cannot be dismissed altogether.
Jim Crow Laws
In order to contain the racial threat and fear of interracial social intercourse and miscegenation, official laws were enacted and executed to enforce a racialized code of behaviour. With its ‘separate but equal’ principle, the Jim Crow laws granted legitimacy to racial segregation in public places in the South. Apart from a disgruntled sense at the abolition of slavery, the Southerners’ were also highly resentful of the African Americans whose winning the Civil War reminded them of their own defeat therein. As a result, the Jim Crow laws were enacted which basically tended towards showing the African Americans their place by restricting their mobility. Effectively, it was an underhand way of undoing the achievements of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the efforts of Reconstruction era.
Closely tied to these historical developments were certain black stereotypes and white myths that were part of the racist fabric of the nation that helped perpetuate violence and racism in America, more so in the Deep South.
The Old South Myth
Built on the back of black labour and slave trade the agrarian economy in the American South flourished which provided for the luxurious and laid back lives of its plantation owners and slave masters. The idealized South also sustained certain cultural myths that were projected as its core values. Adding to the idealized notions of white supremacy were some key gendered conceptions namely the white goddess concept and the Southern gentleman. However, with the abolition of slavery which demanded a realignment of the traditional order the Southerners, caught in the historical flux, found it difficult to reconcile to the new emergent order. Consequently, they ended up reviving and reinforcing some of the cultural and gendered myths, popularly known as the Southern myths or the Old South myths, only to consolidate their own fractured selves, and re-establish themselves as superior to the African Americans.
The White Goddess concept
One such white mythology deeply embedded in the Deep South was the “white goddess concept”; an idea whereby the white people claimed that a Southern white woman could not lie, and therefore would not engage in deceit. That this alibi becomes a touchstone of virtue for the white females in the American South, however, comes with a price that is paid by the black lives. That white Southern women, who by such logic become paragons of virtue and up-righteousness, would often use this to implicate black people was no secret as the infamous Scottsboro Trials of 1930s proved. In this classic case of white privilege and racist antagonism toward the African American people in the Jim Crow South, the case has two white girls who implicate nine young African American teenage boys on false charge of raping them while on a train journey, and a lynch mob demanding justice on their own terms. It resulted in protracted court cases, biased judgments and unfair trials for the accused Africans Americans. It can safely be argued that it was the white man’s revulsion at the prospect of miscegenation between white women and black men that helped sustain the myth of the white goddess.
The Southern Gentleman
Like the white Southern women wrapped in the Southern belle mythology, the Southern gentlemen too had a distinct white masculinity to uphold. The Southern gentleman embodied a cultural ideal. Emmeline Gross defines him thus; ‘(a) ristocratic at heart, Victorian in his manners, the Southern man was characterized by autonomy, self-discipline, and integrity, combining all the elements of older chivalric codes with an acute sense of private and caste power’. This they sought to fiercely maintain even in the Post-Reconstruction era which tested the chivalric code of conduct which governed the white Southern men. Faced with the challenges of the post-Civil War, they suffered from a crisis of white masculinity.