The South's Plight: A Cry for Change
Literature in the 1940's, particularly in the South, was influenced by the insecurities and anxieties many held by many at the time. The issue of prejudice was one many people were aware of, but also one never directly dealt with. The economy also suffered during this time, leaving many poor whites blaming others for their misfortunse. The South in Black and White: Race, Sex, and Literature in the 1940s by McKay Jenkins shows how Southern writings of the time were affected by these issues. Jenkins analyzes the writings of four Southern writers: Wilbur J. Cash, William Alexander Percy, Lillian Smith, and Carson McCullers. It attempts to put together “cultural and literary history; biographical narrative and commentary; and contemporary racial and cultural theory- to create a picture of an era that remains underexplored...” 1 Examining their writings and lifestyles, Jenkins found a reocurring theme of alienation, dissatisfaction, and sexual incompetence that plagued the 1940s, and defined the attitudes towards blacks before the beginning of the civil rights movement.
Wilbur J. Cash explored Southern culture with his book, Mind of the South. Cash, having grown up under hard circumstances, had much repressed rage. He felt incompetent as a person from constantly feeling misunderstood. Sexual incompetence plagued him for most of his life, and was a common topic in his book. He interpreted the white man’s fury for blacks as a means to try and hide their sexual anxieties. Cash believed that, “… racial violence is connected directly to white male sexual release; white men become aroused particularly when contemplating the rape of black women or the slaughter of black men.” 2 His attitude towards segregation was one constructed from his personal insecurities. Cash believed that a repressed rage and sexual desire was the true cause of racial violence. It was a psychological outreach to anyone who threatened their security at the top of society. Lynching, Cash interpreted, was, “… an act that is at some level titillating, arousing, an act of fetishization. For Cash, the fetishization of violence against blacks stood in for the violence he felt directed against himself by the whites around him.” 3 To him, a repressed sexual fury was the cause of hatred towards blacks. His anxieties played a major part of this insight, and many other writers shared these thoughts as well.
In Lanterns of the Levee, William Alexander Percy suggests that white supremacy is a result of a dying culture, one that desperately sought to go back to an old society of stability and order. Blacks began to prosper and find opportunities in the world, but Southerners tried to keep them at their lowly position in the social hierarchy. However, Percy thought blacks represented something that no white man was capable of at this time: love. Jenkins notes, “… Percy often uses blackness to represent what he lacks in himself. Blacks, for Percy, are full of everything that he has been denied.” 4 Percy himself found warmth and compassion from his black nurse maid in the absence of his parents. Much insecurity grew during his youth, such as with race and sexuality, and these problems would be the focus of his writing. Blackness would be an escape to an innocence that whites had lost long ago. While whites were so concerned with reliving the past, blacks had found a way to live outside history. Percy sought this stability, as did any other whites, trying to find the, ”determination to remain outside history itself, to remain aloof from the historical pressures of his own time, and to ignore the discomfort of his own sexuality.” 5 Lynching and racial violence were only psychological means by which whites tried to prove their superiority over something they couldn’t understand. Percy's writings marveled at the black race, seeing only people with love and compassion, while scorning the southern whites for their loss of innocence.
Lillian Smith's writings displayed the hidden sexual insecurities that drove white supremacy. From her own feelings of alienation, Smith had no feelings of sympathy for the southern whites. Her works are influenced from these feelings as, “her own segregation as a lesbian nurtured a deep anger over another, far more visible brand of racial segregation, but the two worked hand in hand to form her imaginative powers. When she writes of the Southerners who taught her to ‘split my body from my mind,’ she is conflating racial and sexual repressions in a way that allowed her unique insight into the Southern mind.” 6 For example, in her novel Strange Fruit, Smith explored an interracial relationship, from its sensual experiences to its tragic aftermath. The major conflict of the novel comes from the disapproving eyes the couple fears if their relationship were to be revealed. The secrets, lies, and problems caused from this are all a result of segregation, hurting people of both colors in the end. She also believed that, “white women have become so “pure”, so desexed, that white men turn to black women for sexual release.” 7 With white women the symbol of purity and virginity, men found themselves tiring of them and turning to black women for sexual activities instead. “Ghosts” of black rape would haunt white society, as children, mothers, and families altogether were affected by the forgotten children of these occurrences. These feelings go back to Cash’s thoughts on sexual superiority, as she believed white men tried to prove themselves with these atrocious actions. Smith’s hatred for segregation fueled her novels, as she explored both the violent and sexual relationship between black and white.
Carson McCullers's books focused not only on race or gender issues, but on alienation itself. Her writings generally depicted, “... the grotesque, a category that included blacks and other nonwhites as often as it did the sexually or physically aberrant. Her novels are full of freak shows, carnivals, and prisons that the main characters find fascinating, familiar, and oddly comforting.” 8 McCullers, however, depicts these “freaks” in a sympathetic light, displaying their ability to empathize with others and the sadness they felt from their “differences” with the rest of the world. In fact, she was certain that all people felt a particular loneliness after the events of World War II and were desperate for a human connection, but segregation would get in the way of these hidden feelings. The characters depicted in McCullers’s novels all seek to find their place in the world, like many of the people struggling during her time. Her stories involve, “… the misshapen, the lonely, the excluded, and [finding] the means to tell their stories and navigate an inhospitable world,” 9 through different means. A sympathetic ear allows the misunderstood to vent their problems; problems created from the unaccepting standards of the time, but they ultimately have to face the consequences and terror from living in a harsh reality. McCullers felt this same sort of isolation from her androgynous sexuality and marital problems, but found a way to release her emotions through writing about the people she believed she could relate with. The grotesque, to her, held a world of emotions, but were kept silent by means of segregation.
By analyzing these authors, Jenkins tries to explain what truly fuels the attitudes of this time. Their similar insecurities, thoughts, and ideas all point to a hidden incompetence that drives Southern fury. Implanting racist practices, southern whites responded violently to anyone felt different and inferior. It is thought that, “the construction of Southern masculinity has never allowed for frank discussion of emotion and sexuality, and when that discussion involves sexual ambiguity or lifelong impotence, it can only be forced underground.” 10 Hidden and repressed emotions forced segregation, which would in turn, power racism and sexual segregation. Violence was only an outreach to prove their superiority over them, and sexual acts were only done to prove their competence. In this world of segregation, “there were white men who said Negroes had no souls, and who proved it by the Bible… Theirs was a world of contrasts in values: superior and inferior, profit and loss, cooperative and noncooperative, civilized and aboriginal, white and black. If you were inferior… then you were marked for excision, expulsion, or extinction.” 11 The literature in the 1940s was used to analyze this ostracizing society, seeing the cruelties, the ironies, and the incompetence of the time. Authors used literature to try to make sense of the harsh world they lived in.
Jenkins shows a passionate interest in history beyond the 1940s. Writing other books such as The Last Ridge, explaining the story of the U.S. army’s mountain division, or Bloody Falls of the Coppermine about the murder of French missionaries, he displays a range of interest in different time periods and locations throughout history. His degrees in journalism, experience as an editor, and teaching background at the University of Delaware all contribute to a love of literature and analysis. His skill set can be seen through his editing background as well, having edited the historical anthology The Peter Matthiessen Reader. The South in Black and White effectively shows these influences as Jenkins goes into a deep analysis of Southern culture to examine, “a cultural discourse that I believe had accrued over a period of decades for a precise purpose: to replace physical shackles with rhetorical ones.” 12 He also holds this philosophy in the classroom, teaching classes on writing and the journalism of genocide and terrorism. Lecturing about these topics allows him to show the horror of violence throughout history, as well as offer his students the chance to share their voice. His deep passion for history and literature influence his attitudes in his book by confronting the multiple mindsets in this time period and how it affected the literature of the era.
The South in Black and White was published on September 1, 1999. At the close of the 20th century, America was facing trouble concerning the Middle East. As relations with the Soviet Union settled, the United Nations now found their attentions focused on matters in Eastern Europe, with nations such as Kosovo and Pakistan in chaos. Warnings of a technological Armageddon also worried many, causing a widespread paranoia. With fears escalating, it was easy for people’s concerns in the Middle East to turn to suspicion. These series of events could be compared to the ones during the 1940s, if things were to grow even further. By writing The South in Black and White, Jenkins not only wanted to analyze a period in history, but show the mistakes from that time as well. He states that analyzing the attitudes from before can help make clear, “our own times of troubled race relations.” 13 Thus, Jenkins compared the mass hysteria and suspicion of blacks to the ones starting to grow in 1999.
Reviews find The South in Black and White valid for showing Southerners’ portrayal of race in the 1940s. Daniel W. Ross of the Arkansas Review praises Jenkins for his ability to, “find ambivalence about sexuality that influenced [Southern writers’] view of race.” 14 Ross believed the authors analyzed by Jenkins all had their own way of dealing with segregation, and that their opinions were just as important as those of blacks at the time. By adding in the overlooked issue of sexual incompetence and its effect on the people of the 1940s, Jenkins provided a new theory on the cause of racism and what truly influenced cruel and violent actions. Barbara Eckstein from the University of Iowa concurred for the most part, but found a few parts of the book lacking. For example, the chapters on Cash and Percy make it hard to sympathize with them like Jenkins had intended. The focus on lynching and sexuality was weak, and made their fascination for it seem disturbing rather than pitiful. She stated, “this argument might have been more convincing if Jenkins had closely compared Cash's description of lynching as sadism to other texts on lynching.” 15 Even so, by taking complex whites into account, Eckstein believed Jenkins made a compelling argument with his work. Both reviews thought overall that The South in Black and White brought up important parts of the 1940s often forgotten.
The South in Black and White provided a new prospective in the literature of the 1940s. The authors analyzed provide new points of view to the race issue, and the response to many economic problems present. Jenkins provided a good point by saying, “if African American literary, historical, and legal studies have smashed the lens through which race has been viewed in this country, the study of white texts using these new reading techniques can help use take the next step. We are now aware that there are multiple voices in our communities...” 16 Analyzing both sides of the history allows more insight into the culture of the time, as well as thoughts, feelings, and philosophies held by both blacks and whites. We can begin to understand how and why the insecurities held in this time were formed, and how they affected both races in society. The sense of superiority, as Jenkins suggested, is only a construct of these anxieties, and created a feeling of alienation during this time. His argument is strong, created from a heavily detailed analysis of the time, and much validity can be found as he effectively uses the historical background of both the time period and the authors. Thus, The South in Black and White is a good source for information on the literature of the 1940s and its importance to understanding the culture and mindset of the people during this era.
In general, Jenkins suggested that the literature in the 1940s only opened up the insecurities people had felt for many years. He stated that, “eventually, of course, we will begin to understand that all these voices exist and always have existed together, as instruments in the same band.” 17 It is his belief, then, that the conflicts and concerns of both the black and white race have been there throughout history. The changing times and the decline of the “cotton kingdom” were the ultimate factors that finally allowed for people to express themselves. The alienated would finally try to find their voice against their oppression after wavering for so long. It is this change of mind, however, that makes the 1940s a “watershed” period in American history. As people began voicing their opinions, it would open up more thoughts for change in the future. These changes are still influencing us today, as, “the South is no closer to finishing its struggle with questions of race than is the rest of the country.” 18 The thoughts and opinions that began to spring up in the literature of this time would help usher a period of action for the later civil rights movement.
The literature of the 1940s shows the problems many people faced at the time, and the responses made by people to change their society. Jenkins put it best when saying, “the struggles of Southern writers in the 1940s, then, simply mirrored the struggle of the region around them to navigate a period deeply marked by turmoil and transition.” 19 It is these hardships that defined and formed Southern thought and writing in this decade.
1: Jenkins, McKay. The South in Black and White: Race, Sex, and Literature in the 1940s. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999. 2, 3.
2: Jenkins, McKay. 72.
3: Jenkins, McKay. 73.
4: Jenkins, McKay. 88.
5: Jenkins, McKay. 103.
6: Jenkins, McKay. 114.
7: Jenkins, McKay. 128.
8: Jenkins, McKay. 149.
9: Jenkins, McKay. 184.
10: Jenkins, McKay. 186, 187.
11: White, Walter. A Man Called White. New York: Viking Press, 1948. 11, 12.
12: Jenkins, McKay. 2.
13: Jenkins, McKay. 3.
14: Ross, Daniel. “The South in Black and White (Book Review),” 2000.
15: Eckstein, Barbara. “The South in Black and White (Book Review),” 2001.
16: Jenkins, McKay. 187.
17: Jenkins, McKay. 190.
18: Jenkins, McKay. 190.
19: Jenkins, McKay. 19.