essay canon dispatch no. 3 — “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” by Richard Wright (30’s)

portrait of the author
Richard Wright with cig

[CN: Anti-black violence, abuse, misogynoir,  harrassment, white supremacy, n-word mention]

Part of the CNF essay canon reading mission

Can’t recommend this essay enough, but HUGE TRIGGER WARNING. It is powerful and relevant, all the way to the final line, which is like a detonation in its blunt truth. The essay selection for the 1930s by Richard Wright gives us 9 vignettes of experiencing the terrors and tortures of the Jim Crow south in tight, clear language. Its an “autobiographical sketch” as the subtitle has it, and it’s also an “education.” For Wright, who as a black kid growing up in Arkansas and then Mississippi, the education of how to survive as a black man in the 20th century comes through constant physical assault, humiliations, and threats to his life dealt freely and with impunity.

He is beaten up by workers in a lens factory for trying to learn about its production, allegedly failing to address a man with “Mr.” He watches helplessly as two white men, father and son, assault a black woman. A police man watches, does nothing, until he arrests the woman for public drunkenness. As a paper boy he is harassed by cops while in a white neighborhood.

“Get down and put up your hands!” the policemen ordered. I did. They climbed out of the car, guns drawn, faces set, and: advanced slowly.

The fear of these white men at the sight of an unarmed black male youth. Their action after the semi-colon, approaching with guns already drawn, as if this boy with his hands up is a feral animal. Working in a hotel, he must avoid being caught looking at white sex workers who were constantly nude. You can’t even look at a white person the wrong way while black. If a white author just made this senario more abstract it’d be a horror novel: get through the room while averting your eyes, or else the demon will kill you.

and what else are you supposed to call the psychology of whiteness other than diabolic? The calculated way that they deny empathy for anyone, always comforting first the white person accused of microagressing. There is sadism in the descriptions of white behavior in this piece. Look at the videos of Walter Scott, or Eric Garner, or Antonio Martin, in the hands of corporate white media, looping again and again, saturating white eyes with black death. Poring over every detail and unresolved question — did Zimmerman call Trayvon a “fucking c–n?.” Again and again. Normalizing it.

The Jim Crow reality, the police and white citizens who terrorize black neighborhoods and the prison system that has reconfigured slave labor (processes which were at work then and now with American labor gulags of the early 20th C.), is that black lives in the US are foregrounded with torture and death. and not just any death, but the death of children bleeding out into the streets for the pleasure of the white gaze. Meanwhile white mass shooters are brought in alive, whites who resist arrest are brought in alive, and whites can fire at cops and the pigs wont even fire back.

an outrageous racist stereotype whites use is that black parenting is what leads to black youths “disobeying the law” when they are lynched by the state. when in fact the “Ethics,” a sardonic way to denote survival, of Jim Crow must be learned quickly. The author picks up lessons, but not fast enough. Whites like to act that black people and PoC dont know anything, bc white people, being the progenitors of secular rationality and individual rights, must know more. Except it’s the exact opposite: black people, and especially black women, know everything about everybody, bc survival depends on it.

Why didn’t I read this essay in high school? Now would be a good time. White kids can see the language white society uses to hide its sins a century ago, and compare it to everything they hear today: “Self defense” “lazy” “thug” “follow the law,” “violent savages.” The NRA just referred to Obama as “demographically symbolic.” When the n-word disappeared from acceptable speech, a million words and phrases took its place.

“But this was a long time ago.” “But these were uneducated townies in the South.” white people use classism to pretend they aren’t racist. Pet theory: white people get really mad when being accused to racism not because they want to avoid being seen as racist, but because they dont want to be likened to a redneck. But read this paragraph and then reflect on the images from the Ferguson riots:

Negroes who have lived South know the dread of being caught alone upon the streets in white neighborhoods after the sun has set. In such a simple situation as this the plight of the Negro in America is graphically symbolized. While white strangers may be in these neighborhoods trying to get home, they can pass unmolested. But the color of a Negro’s skin makes him easily recognizable, makes him suspect, converts him into a defenseless target.

Commentors at the time were quick to point out the connection between the governor’s curfew and the history of “sundown towns.” The past only goes away if you’re white and well-fed. The trauma of slavery lives on, through state violence, through prisons, through corporate work culture with its emails and white woman tears. Education wont solve this. Assimilation into white culture wont solve this. the white political discourse in the us has always framed this as a Black problem. W.E.B. DuBois put this out in the open. But the real problem has always been one thing: White people going berserk. If these political systems and discourses can’t alter themselves radically to actually make the voices of black neighborhoods heard, then they ought to be overthrown.

What to choose for an excerpt? Just the beginning.

“The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch” by Richard Wright

My first lesson in how to live as a Negro came when I was quite small. We were living in Arkansas. Our house stood behind the railroad tracks. Its skimpy yard was paved with black cinders. Nothing green ever grew in that yard. The only touch of green we could see was far away, beyond the tracks, over where the white folks lived. But cinders were good enough for me, and I never missed the green growing things. And anyhow, cinders were fine weapons. You could always have a nice hot war with huge black cinders. All you had to do was crouch behind the brick pillars of a house with your hands full of gritty ammunition. And the first woolly black head you saw pop out from behind another row of pillars was your target. You tried your very best to knock it off. It was great fun.

I never fully realized the appalling disadvantages of a cinder environment till one day the gang to which I belonged found itself engaged in a war with the white boys who lived beyond the tracks. As usual we laid down our cinder barrage, thinking that this would wipe the white boys out. But they replied with a steady bombardment of broken bottles. We doubled our cinder barrage, but they hid behind trees, hedges, and the sloping embankments of their lawns. Having no such fortifications, we retreated to the brick pillars of our homes. During the retreat a broken milk bottle caught me behind the ear, opening a deep gash which bled profusely. The sight of blood pouring over my face completely demoralized our ranks. My fellow-combatants left me standing paralyzed in the center of the yard, and scurried for their homes. A kind neighbor saw me and rushed me to a doctor, who took three stitches in my neck.

I sat brooding on my front steps, nursing my wound and waiting for my mother to come from work. I felt that a grave injustice had been done me. It was all right to throw cinders. The greatest harm a cinder could do was leave a bruise. But broken bottles were dangerous; they left you cut, bleeding, and helpless.

When night fell, my mother came from the white folks’ kitchen. I raced down the street to meet her. I could just feel in my bones that she would understand. I knew she would tell me exactly what to do next time. I grabbed her hand and babbled out the whole story. She examined my wound, then slapped me.

“How come yuh didn’t hide?” she asked me. “How come yuh awways fightin’?”

I was outraged, and bawled. Between sobs I told her that I didn’t have any trees or hedges to hide behind. There wasn’t a thing I could have used as a trench. And you couldn’t throw very far when you were hiding behind the brick pillars of a house. She grabbed a barrel stave, dragged me home, stripped me naked, and beat me till I had a fever of one hundred and two. She would smack my rump with the stave, and, while the skin was still smarting, impart to me gems of Jim Crow wisdom. I was never to throw cinders any more. I was never to fight any more wars. I was never, never, under any conditions, to fight white folks again. And they were absolutely right in clouting me with the broken milk bottle. Didn’t I know she was working hard every day in the hot kitchens of the white folks to make money to take care of me? When was I ever going to learn to be a good boy? She couldn’t be bothered with my fights. She finished by telling me that I ought to be thankful to God as long as I lived that they didn’t kill me.

All that night I was delirious and could not sleep. Each time I closed my eyes I saw monstrous white faces suspended from the ceiling, leering at me.

From that time on, the charm of my cinder yard was gone. The green trees, the trimmed hedges, the cropped lawns grew very meaningful, became a symbol. Even today when I think of white folks, the hard, sharp outlines of white houses surrounded by trees, lawns, and hedges are present somewhere in the background of my mind. Through the years they grew into an overreaching symbol of fear.


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