Six decades later, Adolph L. Reed Jr. explores and explains those “folkways” in “The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives,” a book based on his personal recollections. Reed is a political scientist known for his Marxist interpretations and combative polemics, but “The South” is a different kind of book.
Though he was born in New York City in 1947, Reed spent many of his formative years in New Orleans as well as Pine Bluff, Ark. He recounts stories of everyday life under the Jim Crow regime and illuminates the region’s “distinctive brew of continuity and change.” Reed comes down firmly on the side of change. He argues that the fall of Jim Crow transformed Southern life. If some observers today are tempted to look at the racial injustices that still abound — White violence, mass incarceration, segregated schools and neighborhoods, systemic poverty, the return of restrictive voting laws — and claim that little has changed since the days of Jim Crow, Reed shows the folly of such a conclusion.
He opens with penetrating insights into the nature of the Jim Crow order — how it operated, for whom and what anchored it all. Reed contends that to associate Jim Crow merely with bigoted sheriffs and “Colored Only” signs, as many Americans now do, is to misunderstand this part of our nation’s history. An emphasis on the familiar images reduces segregation “to its most superficial artifacts, like reducing the image of an iceberg to its visible tip.”
That metaphor challenges the reader to consider what lay underneath, namely the systems of economic exploitation and racial terrorism. Yet Reed also refuses to minimize the “relatively superficial mechanisms,” like “the petty apartheid of Jim Crow takeout windows.” Such mechanisms were “never less than massively inconvenient and humiliating.” And everyone understood that these “extrusions” were “inseparably linked — as the tip is to the submerged 90 percent of an iceberg — to that larger system.”
Reed and his family endured those humiliations. But in New Orleans, a city that was comparatively cosmopolitan, there were moments when racial barriers could seem more permeable or less suffocating. The McCrory’s Five and Dime store made an ice cream soda that was so good that the Jim Crow lunch counter “hardly registered” to the young Reed. He also tells the story of a beignet shop that served Whites only. When his family members developed a “collective hankering” for those fantastic beignets, they would convince his grandmother — the only one among them who could pass for White — to go and purchase a box. Despite her “kvetching,” she experienced no deep trauma from the fleeting act of passing.
The beignet story notwithstanding, Reed’s chapter on passing is one of his least effective. He wants to make the point that passing in the Jim Crow era was merely pragmatic and instrumental, yet he does not engage with any of the recent work on the subject — most notably Allyson Hobbs’s brilliant book, “A Chosen Exile.” Hobbs, in contrast to Reed, argues that passing was fundamentally about “losing what you pass away from.”
“The South” rises to its best in the final chapter, as Reed examines the changes wrought by the demise of Jim Crow. When Reed traveled through rural Louisiana in the summer of 1993, he noted that African Americans held many elected offices while “vestiges” of the Jim Crow world remained visible. Most important, large numbers of African Americans were still stuck in grinding poverty. Yet this was a much different social order than the one that reigned until the 1960s. The white-supremacist regime had been defeated. Because he lived the everyday outrages of Jim Crow, Reed is attuned to their absence. Still, “that victory left the undergirding class system untouched and in practical terms affirmed it.” While middle-class Blacks ascended in the post-Jim Crow years, impoverished African Americans continued to suffer.
Reed views Southern history, convincingly, as a series of ruptures — not as “an unbroken arc of racial subordination continuous from the segregation era, the Civil War, or slavery.” He has little patience for a “simple polarity of racism/anti-racism,” a not-so-subtle criticism of Ibram Kendi’s schema, which sorts most every idea, action and policy into one of two categories: racist or anti-racist. (To be fair, Kendi’s “Stamped From the Beginning” includes a third category: assimilationist.) Such a perspective, Reed writes, “flattens history and context” and “reduces politics to an unchanging contest of black and white.”
Another momentous change arrived when New Orleans’s Confederate monuments came down. The towering monument to Robert E. Lee had watched over the city for more than a century. Reed returned to New Orleans in the spring of 2017, to be at his mother’s side during her last days. Coincidentally, the Lee statue was to be removed just then. This is a poignant and affecting story, as Reed endures the death of his mother while watching the symbols of white supremacy tumble.
Reed writes curiously little about the desegregation of New Orleans’s public schools. In November 1960, federal marshals led 6-year-old Ruby Bridges into Frantz Elementary. All but a few White families pulled their children from the school. Mobs formed each morning to threaten those parents who dared abide integration. This was the most consequential event of the civil rights era in New Orleans. What did Reed, 13 years old at the time, think of it? His family might have been living in Pine Bluff at that moment, but they returned soon to New Orleans. Whites boycotted some of the public schools through the early 1960s, and that event shaped public education in the city for years to come.
Ruby Bridges walked bravely into the Frantz School just nine months after the student sit-ins began. That was the same year James Baldwin traveled to Tallahassee. All at once, young children like Ruby, together with college students like those Baldwin interviewed, enlisted in an epic struggle that would bring down the old racial order.
Jim Crow and Its Afterlives
By Adolph L. Reed Jr. Verso. 160 pp. $24.95