Jack E. Davis. Race Against Time: Culture and Separation in Natchez Since 1930. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. xiii + 351 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-2585-4.
Reviewed by Gavin J. Campbell (Graduate School of American Studies, Doshisha University)
Published on H-South (June, 2002)
The Long Shadow of Jim Crow
The Long Shadow of Jim Crow
Not far from my office in Kyoto, Japan sits a Shinto shrine that contains a monument honoring Japanese pilots from what they here call "the Pacific War." A bold airman gazes towards the sky as a multitude of Japanese bombers and escorts fly in bas relief across a bronze sky. Raised on John Wayne movies and Mount Suribachi photos, I confess that the whole thing startled me and even struck me as rather presumptuous. But then, I quickly reflected, Allied pilots had no monopoly on bravery, nor did the families of Allied aviators grieve more intently than did the Japanese. It's not a startling revelation, of course, but it is one that acquires a particular force when seen in a new context.
Jack E. Davis approaches white Natchez with a similarly unsettled balance of skepticism and understanding. On the one hand he fears and loathes much of what whites in the Magnolia State have stood for and much of what they have done, yet he confesses that his personal encounters with them "began to tear at the fabric of negative stereotypes I had woven" (p. 17). Race Against Time is Davis' attempt to understand this strange alchemy of suspicion and hospitality, hatred and kindness, and to expose how these obverse attitudes worked in tandem to maintain white supremacy. The many-headed hydra that is racism, Davis argues, has not yet been slain despite losing its legal and legislative heads, because these assaults only took on the more public aspects of the south's racial hierarchies. "White supremacy meant more than political and economic dominance," Davis writes. "Equally important, if not more so, was cultural supremacy, which imposed upon society so-called white values of honesty, intelligence, diligence, goodwill, morality, and citizenship" (pp. 169-70). Race Against Time, then, explores how racism's intractable power comes not from its enshrinement in monuments and laws, but from its tenacious hold on Southern culture.
Davis is certainly not the first to hit upon this insight. In addition to the slew of works on "whiteness" that have largely concentrated on the urban North, Joel Williamson's Crucible of Race and, more recently, Grace Hale's Making Whiteness study the souls of white folks within the overwhelmingly bi-racial Southern context. Like Davis, these authors attempt to fathom the myriad means whites have employed to sustain their power and privilege not only through legal manipulations, economic exploitation, and physical intimidation, but through advertising, popular literature, films, and music as well. What Davis adds to this existing literature is a close-textured examination of one city over time. And he could hardly find a more fitting stage for his tale than a city that made itself a theater: Natchez, Mississippi.
Natchez is a kind of historian's paradise for, as Davis cleverly remarks, it's a city that "fanaticizes history like other southern communities do high-school football" (p. 15). Hence, Davis pays particularly close attention to how whites have interpreted the past to establish racial hierarchies as normative and timeless. He makes clear throughout that white versions of southern history, whether promoted in school textbooks, or in the city's famous annual pageant and "Pilgrimage," were ultimately aimed at bolstering the contemporary racial status quo by giving it the sanction of time. The Old South, which became the object of virtually cultish fanaticism among well-heeled white Natchezians, made the point eloquently. It was in those days, whites said with a lazy touch of their hoop skirt and with the glint of their julep cups, that the races lived harmoniously because each remained within their own culture. War and Reconstruction, whites bitterly complained, had destroyed this balance by allowing the freed slaves to imagine assuming the trappings of white culture.
Yet the cultivated manners, polished educations, and elegant mansions the freed people accumulated during the post-war period did little to dislodge racial prejudice among white Natchezians, Davis writes. "No matter how hard they tried, blacks could never be fully white as long as the black culture existed" (p. 105). Even with the onset of manufacturing and the arrival of decidedly New South institutions amidst the Old South mansions, white racial attitudes remained virtually unchanged because the cultural framework that sustained them never came under attack. By basing their presumed superiority not merely on economic and political advantage, but on cultural hierarchies, whites built a fail-proof system that proved supple enough to absorb the transformations wrought by the city's industrialization and by the nation's changing racial climate.
Though asked throughout the century to reprise their role as "faithful darkies," local African Americans in the civil rights period not surprisingly grew increasingly irate with the historical interpretation whites fashioned for tourists, and with the moderate black civic leaders of the 1930s whose style of race relations had responded to the dictates of a receding era. As the physical intimidation and frequent bombs made clear, the 1960s was no less dangerous than Jim Crow days, but by the 1960s blacks no longer lent their music or their bodies to the "Pilgrimage" and they measured their collective might with a series of economic boycotts that proved devastatingly effective.
These flashes of indignation became a full-scare conflagration by the end of the 1960s, and not surprisingly, scalded many in the white community. "We didn't know they were unhappy," one woman admitted to Davis (p. 195). Although civil rights leaders targeted their efforts at voter registration, desegregation, and political representation, Davis cautions readers against taking an entirely political view of Natchez's civil rights agitation. The movement was more "than the struggle for freedom," it was "about the social recognition of their culture" (p. 195). Whites understood this as well, and thus the stakes and the trials were tremendous and the rewards more highly contested.
As the statement about the "recognition of their culture" makes clear, the book's most troubling shortcoming is its uneven treatment of race as a cultural invention. The problem haunts Davis in a number of places. Though conceding that "race itself is a myth....[and] an invention" (p. 8), he nevertheless often relies on the very terms of that myth, asserting as fact precisely what he aims to countermand. Describing a dilemma the black nouveaux riche faced in the post-Reconstruction city, he argues that "the ascendant group of blacks preferred whiteness to blackness," but this statement presupposes that "whiteness" and "blackness" were immutable categories, when, as these very sorts of African Americans quickly learned, whites could and did change the markers of whiteness (p. 91).
He makes similar assertions throughout, writing, for example, that "Jews were physically white, of course," (p. 5) or that "most of the black upper class were probably brown in skin color, neither dark nor fair, with brown eyes and wavy or tight black hair--on a whole darker than the Reconstruction generation of the black elite" (p. 95). This fine attention to detail counteracts his main point that "race is a myth." Jews were assuredly not "white, of course." They were white by the consent of those who held the keys to that particular kingdom. At other times he writes as if culture and race are synonymous--declaring for instance, that Jews, "never fully turned away from their heritage" and that they embraced "their own culture" (p. 113). In so doing, he short-circuits his argument that culture is not racially fixed. In short, Davis tries to have it both ways. He claims both that culture is detached from race and that it is racially organic.
Moreover, because he largely accepts races as culturally and physically unified entities--there are whites, there are blacks, there are Jews--he tends to brush aside serious splits within these groups. At one point, for example, he concludes that "many whites striving for open-mindedness during the twilight decades of the twentieth century were beset by an inherent impulse to generalize about race and culture in the ways of their predecessors" (p. 273; emphasis added). Writing that white racial attitudes are "inherent" defeats the central premise of his argument and overlooks important disruptions within the white community about how best to preserve their privileges amidst the assault launched by civil rights activists.
Examples of intra-racial disputes among whites along class lines are, on the whole, not examined carefully enough (see, for example pp. 137, 182, 186, 254). For instance, Davis says nothing of the motives of one U.S. district court judge, a native Mississippian, who lifted an injunction against the Natchez NAACP, or what moved another Natchez local to deliver a sermon titled "One Can Not Be a Christian and a Segregationist, Too" (pp. 186, 254). One might claim that these men were anomalies, but that too easily dismisses what these two examples make clear and what needs more careful attention: there are different kinds of white supremacy. Lumping all whites together as ultimately bound together in their whiteness ignores the variety of means they used to justify and to establish the culture of segregation, and, equally important, the varieties of whiteness.
Throughout the book, Davis paints a sensitive portrait of white and black Natchez in the troublesome years since the Depression. His personal engagement with the city and its people make for compelling reading, particularly in those sections at the start of each chapter where he relates his encounters with local residents during the course of his work. Yet despite his earnest desire to represent white racial attitudes fairly, he does not allow white southerners the easy sentimentality and intellectual dishonesty that have comforted them through civil war and civil rights. Hence Davis writes with urgency, afraid lest the south as a whole is certain to lose the Race Against Time because whites still refuse to embrace the bi-racial nature of southern society and culture. Only by discarding cherished notions of cultural hierarchies, Davis insists, can white Natchezians call upon the better angels of their nature to create the harmonious society they have for so long celebrated and so effectively sold to tourists.
. Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984); Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998).
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Gavin J. Campbell. Review of Davis, Jack E., Race Against Time: Culture and Separation in Natchez Since 1930.
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