Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940

Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940

Grace Elizabeth Hale

Language: English

Pages: 448

ISBN: 0679776206

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


Making Whiteness is a profoundly important work that explains how and why whiteness came to be such a crucial, embattled--and distorting--component of twentieth-century American identity.  In intricately textured detail and with passionately mastered analysis, Grace Elizabeth Hale shows how, when faced with the active citizenship of their ex-slaves after the Civil War, white southerners re-established their dominance through a cultural system based on violence and physical separation.  And in a bold and transformative analysis of the meaning of segregation for the nation as a whole, she explains how white southerners' creation of modern "whiteness" was, beginning in the 1920s, taken up by the rest of the nation as a way of enforcing a new social hierarchy while at the same time creating the illusion of a national, egalitarian, consumerist democracy.

By showing the very recent historical "making" of contemporary American whiteness and by examining how the culture of segregation, in all its murderous contradictions, was lived, Hale makes it possible to imagine a future outside it. Her vision holds out the difficult promise of a truly democratic American identity whose possibilities are no longer limited and disfigured by race.

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vulnerable space from which to narrate these events. In March of 1892 Ida B. Wells lived through the lynchings of three of her closest friends—Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart, the African American owners of a new and successful enterprise where the streetcar turned on the outskirts of Memphis, the People’s Grocery Company of the colored suburb of the Curve. A quarrel between white and black boys over a game of marbles had escalated into a fight between white and black grocers. The

South, the terrifying and yet for whites also perversely titillating practice and increasingly mediated narrative that made the culture of segregation work and even seem sane. As participants, spectators, investigators, and present-day scholars have all to varying degrees argued, lynchings, particularly the blatantly public spectacles, worked by ritualistically uniting white southerners, by embodying the community in action. Thus the “whole populace,” the “whole male community as a unit,” “the

Mitchell did not fall prey to the dilemma that limited authors like Tate who often substituted a more modern nostalgia for a unified selfhood for the old Lost Cause. Her heroine Scarlett never lives “the homogeneous life” of Tate’s “traditional men,” never achieves the transparent unity of livelihood and morality he read back into slavery. Reconstruction does not become the fall for Mitchell’s heroine: Scarlett never had any unified sense of self to lose. And Mitchell, in keeping with her flapper

had become whiteness’s unifying song. As even so enlightened a white southerner as the temperance and suffrage activist Belle Kearney recalled in 1900, “Anarchy triumphed, grinning, red-handed.” U. B. Phillips simply named the era “the hell that is called Reconstruction.”60 Emancipation, the central event of the period, appeared in white southern stories as a great opportunity to take a timely accounting of the black race. As with the plantation romance, imagined past and present flowed

of local boundaries and accelerating the magical process by which on Saturdays the countryside seemed to empty out into the towns.111 The commercial geography of 1930s southern towns, the business districts that served many white and black southerners, closely matched in content if not exact layout the “Southerntown” Dollard had described: “A square block of buildings and the four streets around it make up the business district.” Businesses there included department stores and drugstores where

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