American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow

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9780312261221: American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow

For a hundred years after the end of the Civil War, a quarter of all Americans lived under a system of legalized segregation called Jim Crow. Together with its rigidly enforced canon of racial "etiquette," these rules governed nearly every aspect of life--and outlined draconian punishments for infractions.

The purpose of Jim Crow was to keep African Americans subjugated at a level as close as possible to their former slave status. Exceeding even South Africa's notorious apartheid in the humiliation, degradation, and suffering it brought, Jim Crow left scars on the American psyche that are still felt today. American Nightmare examines and explains Jim Crow from its beginnings to its end: how it came into being, how it was lived, how it was justified, and how, at long last, it was overcome only a few short decades ago. Most importantly, this book reveals how a nation founded on principles of equality and freedom came to enact as law a pervasive system of inequality and virtual slavery.

Although America has finally consigned Jim Crow to the historical graveyard, Jerrold Packard shows why it is important that this scourge--and an understanding of how it happened--remain alive in the nation's collective memory.

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About the Author:

Jerrold Packard has written serveral books on a variety of historical subjects. He lives in Burlington, Vermont.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

  1STARTING FROM THE VERY BEGINNINGWe can, of course, little more than hypothesize how our racial passions first began to overtake us, how humankind’s obsession to embrace the similar and despise the different got stuck in our communal psyche, and why, most pertinent to this book, white people have seemingly forever assumed an innate superiority over black people. As to the latter, right through at least the last couple of millennia white dominance has been ascribed by white-skinned societies to God as his—or nature’s—plan, and that has seemed to many such ascribers to make it a righteous thing. Some have held that the power of white over black is simply the natural order, a kind of instinctive reality of the way human beings should relate to one another. Many have been convinced that the low station of humans whose skin is other than white is a universal reality, a postulate sensible men and women shouldn’t challenge. The rationales have been legion, primordial, and heartfelt.But racial ordering of white over color is neither natural or providential—the will of “providence” or of “God”—nor outside the remedy of reason. The creation of color-based caste was accomplished in lucid steps by groups more powerful than their prey, for reasons both social and economic. Its survival has been nurtured over numberless generations by, among others, Christian and Muslim clerics and slavers, by historians and the learned of science, and by ordinary people whose purses have grown through its perpetuation.Complicating any account of racial prejudice is the hurdle we face in precisely defining the meaning of “race” itself. Assuming, as much of science does, that we all descended from the same progenitors, the same set of monkeys or of first parents of whatever genus or species, where did our differences in skin shade and eye shape and hair texture and lip size come from? What exactly constitute the degree marks on the scale of race? Why have human beings doggedly used the superficial construct of race as, second only to gender, the most important separator within our common humanity? Why in the United States did race become caste, as it had in many other cultures, and why has it consumed America’s national consciousness to an almost bottomless degree since Europeans’ earliest contacts with this land?It is useful, unsurprisingly, to look for answers at humankind’s beginnings. Or, at least, at one of the two concepts of what constitutes the beginnings, which is to say the biblical version. The Bible story varies in its details according to whose Bible you’re taking it from, or which theologians or politicians supervised or commanded a particular interpretation or translation of the original writings. But the following should serve as a reasonable condensation of early Judeo-Christian theological ideas on how racial division began. Central to all versions is a character named Noah, the tenth patriarch in direct descent from Adam, and of whom it is written that his family, and his family alone, survived the Great Deluge That Cleansed Man of His Sins.The biblical legend of Noah has it that he fathered three sons, whom he called Shem, Japheth, and Ham. Shem, the eldest and accorded a sort of tannish skin, became the ancestor of Abraham, from whom Shem is separated by eight generations. Abraham is regarded as the father of the Semitic world, from which sprang the historically consequential tribe called the Jews. Largely undisputed is what later happened to these Jews, which was to lose their ancestral lands and then suffer two millennia of Diaspora, or dispersement, a history culminating a mere half century ago in both the Jews’ greatest calamity and their greatest triumph, in that order.Japheth, the middle boy and lightest of skin shade, became father to the generations that eventually settled in the “Isles of the Gentiles”— interpreted by scholars of these matters as Europe—and which people became the prototypical Caucasians, or “whites.” Japheth’s and his progeny’s fates have excited relatively few theological emotions. But central to the story of Jim Crow is the legend of Ham, which has stirred a great many emotions.The darkest-skinned of the three brothers, Ham was his family’s habitual troublemaker. As accounted in Genesis, this youngest son badly irked his father when Ham expressed to his brothers contempt for Noah for having gotten drunk and fallen asleep, naked, on the ground, symbolic of moral lapse on Noah’s part. But as patriarch, Noah resented both his son’s impertinence and the inference of wrongdoing. During this episode Shem and Japheth threw a rug over their father and thereby preserved his dignity, and he thus gave them his blessing—and more important, he gave it to their descendants as well. But for Ham’s disrespect, Noah put on him and his descendants a curse, one unto perpetuity, and further declared that Ham’s descendants would forever be the servants of the descendants of Shem and Japheth.Though Genesis doesn’t specifically say it was Ham who ended up in Africa and thereby fathered that empty continent’s peoples, generations of Jews living in the early first millennium encouraged this scenario until it became an oral tradition, one that over generations hardened into literal “truth.” Thus the “accursed” Ham and the “accursed” generations that flowed from Ham’s seed became the blacks of Africa, “facts” taken up over the ensuing centuries as a biblical, and thus an unimpeachable, truth. In short, it morphed into a theological justification for European domination over black Africans.None of Noah’s story is based on empirical historical evidence, even though much or all of it was, at least until the twentieth century, still widely believed, particularly by conservatively observant Christians and Jews. But throughout modern Western societies whites have willingly, indeed eagerly, adopted religious mythology as the moral grounding for their beliefs in white superiority and its corresponding certainty of black inferiority, including the foundations for racism in America’s early political and social development. What lends substance in social terms to this phe nomenon is that such biblical inventions are intimately connected with notions of afterlife and salvation and thus for many outweighed a moral cosmology based more on reason and scientifically observable experience.Societies that developed apart from the West’s Jewish-Christian model created their own versions of where everything came from, many of which accounts are as fanciful as the stories found in the Bible. And pertinent to the point of this book, like their Western counterparts they have generally involved some kind of divine social ordering, separating the “good” insiders from the “bad” outsiders. The Han Chinese, for example, wrote of blond and green-eyed people-creatures who looked like the monkeys that had supposedly spawned them; included was an explanation for the lowness of non-Chinese borderlanders based on the notion that they were the progeny of interbreeding between dogs and men. The brown-skinned peoples of South Asia came up with Hinduism, whose practitioners came to espouse a sort of mega-Jim Crow caste component still practiced in Indian society today. In a more realistic approach, Islam distinguished between fellow monotheists—Jews and Christians, who generally look pretty much like Muslims and whom Muslims were directed by the Koran to respect—and the barbarian polytheists, who usually looked conspicuously different and whom True Believers in Allah were permitted to deal with as circumstances warranted.What in scientific terms actually accounts for the differences in mankind’s vari-hued and vari-sculpted physiognomies has long been pretty much understood, though the timing and many of the details of the deviations are either fuzzy or debatable, especially that which constitutes the point in time when prehumans morphed into modern humans—though the latter issue is as much philosophical as it is scientific. One body of thought has it that creatures definable as humankind kicked off at some point a couple of million years ago when what had hitherto unarguably been animals began to pick up bits of stone to serve as extensions of their paws and slowly found to their undoubted astonishment that those bits were unexpectedly useful as weapons and tools. Another school places the crossover point with the beginning of speech, taken to mean discrete wordlike utterances as opposed to simple grunts of alarm or murmurs of satisfaction. Still others set the beginning of true thinking humanship at the point where protohumanoids’ forefingers could be made to precisely oppose their thumbs, a milestone that marked a revolutionary change in dexterity by enabling the earliest humans to accomplish what animals couldn’t. One notion seems as valid as the other, and none seems nonsensical, and in any case, whichever or whatever happened, it most certainly didn’t happen overnight.But the issue of race, a matter of extraordinary weight to humankind throughout history and the issue upon which Jim Crow turns, is something that would seem to be entirely extraneous to our origins as sentient human beings. We—meaning we human beings—possess obvious differences in our individual physical appearances. But if race as we today use the term posits a large enough degree of substantive dissimilarity between humans to rightly justify all the grief it has caused over the centuries, then the notions of its importance simply don’t logically hang together.Though many religious conservatives continue in their opposition to the scientific theory of evolution, the combined consensus of scientists and academics is virtually unanimous in their stand that man—what we regard as a human being as opposed to merely an advanced ape—sprang from a single point of origination. No credible physical evidence points to a shift from primate to man as having happened at more than one point on the planet, which multiple originations would provide the only logical support for a theory that different groups of contemporary humans (which is to say, different races) descended from unrelated forebears. All but surely, one and only one species of creatures became the ancestors of every human being now living. If another humanlike species did emerge in a separate jump from mere animalship, that group did not, evidently, survive. What’s more, massive and mounting evidence verified by carbon dating of bones places the animal-to-people transformation in what is now Africa, specifically in the Great Rift Valley of the central eastern part of that continent. In the ultimate sense, one supposes that makes us all “African” in origin—African-American or African-Chechen or African-Japanese. Go back in your lineage far enough, and eventually you’re going to get to your African ancestors. Which is not, however, to say those ancestors are necessarily going to have looked like modern sub-Saharan Africans, today’s black Africans.So when and how did humankind become so varied in its physiognomy? One, perhaps obtuse, observation might be made at the outset. Actually, we’re not really quite so different as might be supposed. Of course, the bookends of human appearances are, on the face of it, pretty far apart. Look at the differences between a five-foot-two, blond, blueeyed contestant in the Miss Sweden contest and a four-hundred-pound African-Hawaiian-Japanese sumo champion. One’s short and petite, the other’s a high mountain; one is about as light-skinned as we get, and the other’s skin might be a kind of burnished mahogany. But just about all the other differences are environmental, internal and external sex and procreative organs the main exceptions. Miss Stockholm and the wrestler are perfectly capable of producing a healthy child, they stand a one-in-three chance of sharing the same blood type, and their organs line up identically with every other woman and man, respectively, in the world.It takes a very long time for differences that are environmental—things that happen to us because of where, or how, we live—to evolve into genetic differences, the kind we’re born with. We have family traits such as resemblances in behavior or appearance (the famous Hapsburg jaw, for example), but in generational terms these tend to fade in and out fairly soon. Yet slowly and for reasons that must have had to do, at least in part, with adapting to the climate or to different levels of physical exertions, early humans in their African home began to look increasingly like we do today. Although lots of other species died out for various reasons—think of the dinosaurs—these first humans instead multiplied and got stronger and increasingly able to master their environment. And after an aeon or two, some of them began to migrate, eventually going ever farther away from Africa. A million or so years ago, the first great human emigration began when these now fully upright beings moved northward, into the Eurasian landmass. By one or two hundred thousand years ago they had covered vast parts of the planet, many having done so by routes and land bridges that have since changed or disappeared in the earth’s continuous process of remaking itself via continental drift and altering sea levels.As groups of migrating humans settled into their various domiciles on the planet, they became subject to new or different natural forces. Those who remained in Africa’s equatorial regions experienced the greatest amount of direct sunlight, and over time their environmentally darkened skin became genetically darkened skin. Other groups, farther north or south from the most direct rays of sunlight, experienced the process in reverse, possibly to better produce vitamin D from less direct sunlight. Secondary racial characteristics also began to set in. Eastern Asians, for instance, developed—for reasons unknown to us—their own characteristic eyelid fold.But what no group anywhere developed was a body mechanism that would cause any of the migratory and physically changing populations to become creatures that were genetically unequal or noninterbreedable. Instead, humankind everywhere shared everyone else’s genetic composition. The vast majority of the bits and pieces making up a human being remained identical, including the brain and its potential abilities. Skin color, hair consistency, nose shape, lip size, height, weight—these variable characteristics are in the overall cosmos of the body the merest of incidentals. Yet what we today term “race” attaches to them a mountain of importance.For as long as we’ve recorded human actions, the signs have been unmistakable that individuals and societies have judged each other on how closely or how differently one resembled the other. And because members of a community have for all sorts of reasons required the trust of one another to function successfully, it’s difficult to see how things might have been otherwise. The opposite side of the same coin means that it’s natural to be wary of others who don’t speak, act, or believe like you—and, perhaps most of all, who don’t look like you.Only a few hundred years ago the most powerful white-skinned descendants of the Rift Valley prototypes, adventurous people from the Northern Hemisphere who called themselves by such terms as Frenchmen and Englishmen and Spaniards, happened to find what was for them a new hemisphere, one they called the Western Hemisphere because they sailed west to get to it. Unsurprisingly, these Europeans brought their peculiarly homegrown outlook with them, an outlook we could classify as subgroup Hispanic in the southern part of the “new” ...

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