“The Strange Career of Jim Crow” by C. V. Woodward
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Some critics say that C. V. Woodward’s novel “The Strange Career of Jim Crow” was simply a book about racism. Other critics also attack his style of writing in this very popular novel. However, I believe that Woodward’s novel is not just a book about racism. It is a book about history. I believe it is a book about race relations, not racism. Woodward shatters the stereotypical view of segregation through chronicling the history of America from reconstruction through the late 1960’s. The Strange Career of Jim Crow is not simply a book about racism. I believe it is a book about history and race relations. In spite of the way we would like to think of America, its history is one that is littered with various forms of racism. This cannot be overlooked. Woodward introduction centers on race relations. He begins by bringing the intimate interracial associations that occurred. He talks about the imbalances of sexes that existed among the races during this time period (16). Woodward’s novel does highlights a period of time that racism was prevalent, but that not all this novel does. I believe he highlights race relations. Throughout the novel, Woodward shatters what is typically thought of relationships between whites and blacks.
When thinking of the post civil war America, I generally thought that the North was friendlier to blacks than the south, and that blacks fled the south for a better life in the north. Woodward makes the argument that the opposite was true. Woodward says that the career of Jim Crow began in the north and moved south. The author recounts a trip that a northern black editor took to the south. During his trip, he was surprised when he was not forced to give up his seat to white men as the car filled to capacity. He was even more surprised with the ease in which whites entered in conversation with him (39). He found that he could enjoy the finer restaurants and saloons in the south easier than he could in New England. Through telling of this traveler journey, Woodward shows that segregation did not begin the way people generally think it did. Reading this part of the novel made me wonder why the south, which typically opposed the acceptance of blacks, were more hospitable to blacks than the north, whom I believed had advocated integration.
Woodward points out the fact that during the years following the Civil War, whites of the south seemed less afraid to have contact with colored people than the whites of the North (39). He believed that this resulted because blacks and whites in the south lived together intimately for a long time, and this relationship could not be reversed over night (43). I have been accustomed to learning about segregation and believe that it began immediately following the Civil War. Woodward makes the point that with the South being regulated by a government which had recently freed blacks from slavery, segregation would not have been allowed to occur immediately following the war. Before reading this novel, I learned about organization like Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) while learning about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his fight for racial equality and peaceful integration. This made me believe that they had the same goal. However, through reading this novel, I learned that CORE, along with other civil rights groups, became a group that that embrace black separatism (196).
After reading this novel, I began to question everything that I held as truth concerning race relations in this time period. Woodward also talks about the political parties that were present during this period of American history, and their relationships, goals, and tactic involving blacks after reconstruction. He demonstrates that Northern Republicans, Southern Conservatives and Southern Radicals all had reasons to court black citizens. With blacks being given the right to vote, the parties had to appeal to blacks also in order to win elections. The Southern Conservative view was one that I found particularly interesting and disturbing. Woodward says that Southern Conservatives believed that in every society existed a superior and inferior. Woodward quotes an 1885 Charleston paper saying that “It is a great deal pleasanter to travel with respectable and well-behaved colored people that than with unmannerly and ruffianly white men” (49). This mentality makes it an issue of class not race. If this were the case, then this is still in issue today for many reasons.
If believers of the conservative view do indeed still exist, the segregation that affected blacks during this time period could affect any other race that falls into a category of inferior in the eyes of the majority. C. Vann Woodward’s novel “The Strange Career of Jim Crow” was not simply a book about segregation and racism. After reading the book, I found that it was a book about race relations and history that challenges what is generally thought about the characteristics of this time period. Woodward was a very notable southern historian. What do historians write about if it is not history? Even though this novel does include a lot about racism and segregation, I do not think this is the only topic of the book. In being book about America’s history, it is also a book about America’s present and future. History has a way of repeating itself. We are what we come from. I found this novel to be relevant today just as other history books are relevant to today’s society.
Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974