Black Boomers Wax Nostalgic for the Days of Jim Crow

“My point is to highlight why current nostalgia for the organic community black Americans supposedly lost with the success of the civil rights movement is so frighteningly shortsighted and dangerous”


Dangerous Dreams

Of course the Nazis’ genocidal regime was terrible, and it’s really good that it was defeated. Bad as it was, though, it certainly brought the Jews together. They were a united, mutually supportive community in the camps in a way that they haven’t been since; they experienced a commonality that transcended class, gender, and other differences. It’s ironic and a bit sad that Hitler’s defeat came at the price of sacrificing the basis for that sense of community. So we should pause to celebrate and perhaps mourn the passage of that world of Jewish to­getherness, lost with the liberation of the death camps.

Sounds outrageous, doesn’t it? Of course, no one in their right mind would propose such a view seriously. Yet it isn’t so different from what has lately become a conventional narrative about black Americans and the regime of racial segregation that prevailed in much of this country for most of this century. The Third Reich was a sui generis horror: a state resting on systematic mass murder as a central goal and organizational principle is a nightmare of almost unimaginable proportion. But as Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wipperman detail in The Racial State 1933-1945, the conceptual foundation of that all-too-real nightmare is a commitment to racial ideology as the lens through which to make sense of and to order social life.

From that perspective the difference between Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South is one of degree rather than kind, a matter of having the impetus and capacity to follow the ideology to its logical conclusion. Noting that the Holocaust is a species within a larger genus in no way diminishes it as an un­paralleled event. My point, rather, is to highlight why current nostalgia for the organic community black Americans supposedly lost with the success of the civil rights movement is so frighteningly shortsighted and dangerous.

That nostalgia is everywhere — in every major newspaper and excuse for a news magazine at the supermarket checkout line, in the classroom, in the bar, across the dinner table, in cultural criticism, in foundation boardrooms and policy papers, on the talk show circuit. Political left, right, and center embrace it equally, and it’s the staple hope of a burgeoning black memoir industry. Henry Louis Gates’s Colored People is a reflection on the idyllic world of his Jim Crow youth in West Virginia, a yearning for a prelapsarian black communal order. Harold Cruse’s Plural but Equal, dresses this nostalgia up as social theory; arguing that it was mistaken for blacks to have fought to overturn the Jim Crow system precisely because its defeat unraveled community life. William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged also trades on the Decline From Segregation narrative, though he ducks its implications by discussing only northern cities. Wilson conjures up images of a 1940s Harlem where people could pass hot summer nights sleeping safely on fire escapes, in contrast to the chaotic heart of darkness created when desegregation allowed the black middl class to escape inner-city ghettos, leaving the poor without stable institutions and  role models for upward mobility.

This sort of nostalgic theory is dangerous on two counts: it falsifies the black past, and it serves reactionary and frankly racist interests in the present. Clifton Taulbert’s Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored (originally published by a small press but reissued by Penguin), and television actor-director Tim Reid’s current feature-film adaptation of it, provide a good template tor examining both problems. The inspirational memoir is this Once Upon a Time When We Were Segregated and Happy tale’s natural home, where the cheery tone of personal triumph wash brightly over the backdrop of codified racial subordination. Once Upon a Time recalls Taulbert’s first 17 years, spent in the Mississippi Delta town of Glen Allan.

Taulbert’s story is particularly resonant for me. He and I are about the same age, we graduated from high school
the same month. I don’t know his hometown, and I doubt that I know the Delta region as intimately as he. I do know it, though, and my experiences of it roughly coincide in time with his. My father’s family comes partly from that area, but on the other side of the river and therefore across the state line. Not that state lines mean much down there, in that zone of transhumance that laps across the northeast corner of Louisiana, southeast corner of Arkansas, and northwest Mississippi. Eudora, Arkansas, the town from which that branch of our family emanatcs, is eight miles from the Louisiana line and 30 miles from Greenville, Mississippi. As it was for Taulbert’s Glen Allan, Greenville is Eudora’s re­gional city where air travelers and mall shoppers go, and it seems to be about equidistant from the two towns.

Taulbert’s book and Reid’s film differ sig­nificantly and interestingly, but in ways that to­gether flesh out the components of a shared ide­ology. Reid mutes black Glen Allan’s status hierarchy, while Taulbert notes it matter-of-factly, exulting in his family’s elevated position. Reid’s vision so stresses fastidious morality that he goes our of his way to link the mildest devia­tion with mortification, even inventing a vignette in which the beloved great-aunt Ma Ponk makes a onetime visit to a hooch show only to pay by being absent from her mother’s deathbed. In Reid’s telling, elders counsel picnicking children not to drag an American flag on the ground because colored boys are dy­ing in Korea to defend that flag. Taulbert recalls a quite different admo­nition: “Boy, don’t you know if white folks see you messing with this here flag like this, they subject to kill you?” Poppa, the great-grandfather patriarch, is much more prominent in the movie than the book, as Reid responds to the yearning for patriarchal order that suffuses this new Up From Slavery narrative. Simi­larly, Reid reinvents Ma Ponk as a culinary won­der, while Taulbert says she was so little a cook that she relied on “plain store-bougbt
cake and chicken fried by my mother” for her contribution to the big church function. Here, also, art imposes ideological order on a messy world.

Both Reid and Taulbert mistake the apparent simplicity of childhood for the simplicity of a social order, an elision that feeds aging black boomers’ wistfulness about lost-youth and innocence. It’s propelled by a naive trope of modernization that presume our world to be constantly increasing in complexity and divisiveness, contrasting it to a comfortingly static past. This vision authenticates itself by dipping into a common reservoir of experience. The scene in which the neighborhood gathers to view the Joe Louis-Rocky Marciano fight stimulated a Pavlovian recollection of my own experience of the fight in a different part of the country. We were at my uncle’s house, my younger cousin and I were playing on the floor in front of the sofa, and I recall my father’s lament that this would be our only memory of seeing Joe fight.

Some stimuli are generic: the first day of school, the doting (female) relative who dresses you like a geek for your own good, the excite­ment of little outings with an adored grandpar­ent, the pleasures of running around with schoolyard pals. Some are more racially specific: first encounters with Jim Crow etiquette, truck-loads of black people headed to the cotton fields, witnessing adults assert their contingent dignity in small encounters with whites. Instructively, though, it is only Reid who suggests these as­sertions. Taulbert recounts no such incidents; it was the Mississippi Delta, after all, and his folks weren’t the sort to make waves.

Memory is a great liar. Sure, you’re con­vinced that the strawberry floats tasted better then, but remember how much smaller your old room seemed the first time you returned in adulthood? The house didn’t shrink, did it? Of course life was simpler then; we were kids, and its complexities were lost on us. Of course the world seems in retrospect to have been nurturing; as kids, being nurtured was our job de­scription. Or rather, it was for some of us.

Although it has attained a nearly universal status in black public discourse, this nostalgic narrative is in crucial ways a class vision. My father used to say that the story of the lion hunt would be a different tale if the lion had a typewriter. And that prompts an insight in­to the pervasive romanticism about segregated black schools: those who recall the Jim Crow schools so fondly are those who most likely were nurtured and catered to in them. Think about it. Who goes on to publish well-marketed memoirs or otherwise speak into the public microphone besides those marked early for success, those who have been encouraged and attended to? And who, by and large, are they but the children of community notable and elites? Are we certain that the recollections of universally nurturing black schools don’t generalize synecdochically from personal experience, which comes, after all, via the limited perspective of a child?

At any age, privilege tends to be recollected in the tranquil­ity of oblivion, with no recogni­tion that others weren’t comparably entitled. Think of the class reunion in which former in-group members are genuinely shocked to learn what a radically different place the school had been for the outsiders. An exam­ple from a context not too unlike Taulbert’s is suggestive. My mother taught for a time at a small Baton Rouge school run by an order of black nuns who came from the same social network and many of the same families as the students. As an outsider, she saw clearly how family standing influenced judgments about students. Expressions of good will and encouragement, assessment of talents, and allocation of awards and special opportunities — the concrete stuff of nurturance — were as likely as not shaped by personal attachments or vendettas and per­ceptions of family status. This pattern of invidi­ous treatment was part of normal life,  requiring neither justification nor explanation even when it extended to extraordinary interventions: “Let’s just change a couple of these numbers so that the Patin girl can be valedictorian. She’s such a love­ly girl and comes from such a nice family.”

Of course, this kind of behavior is hardly re­stricted to the world of Jim Crow. It’s really an intraracial manifestation of the sort of class-based quotidian injustice that assumes racialized forms in integrated environments. Black people are neither more nor less capable of pettiness and class prejudice than anyone else. Race is just not an active category in the calculus of judgment in an all-black context, and black students, therefore, don’t get the short end of the stick simply be­cause they’re black. However, the harsh facts of segregation mitigate that benefit. Skin tone, family connections, and even more arbitrary considerations all created fissures in the phan­tom unity of the pre-civil rights black commu­nity, just as they do today. And a situation de­fined by woefully inadequate resources breeds unfairness; there’s not enough of anything to go around, so arbitrary criteria become necessary.

The white supremacist system made teach­ing one of the few avenues available tor middle-­class employment, increasing the likelihood that individual teachers were there by default and suffering with frustrated ambitions. The demoral­izing effect of those limitations combined with the reality of “second-class citizenship” to sup­port a communitarian excuse for an internal pecking order: we can wink at abstract principles of fairness in the community because it’s just us, and those elevated notions don’t really apply to dealings among the folk; we all know how it is. In these circumstances what can we expect to be the lot of the unattractive, timid, slightly slow, or sullen child of poody regarded sharecroppers? What would her memories be of the Golden Age of segregation? We can find dues by sitting in classrooms or listening to teachers in today’s underfunded inner-city schools.

Class ideology, in fact, permeates and drives the current nostalgia. While it reflects a generic sentimentality about lost innocence, it is also black boomers’ racially distinctive variant of a historically specific class yearning, one that ap­pears among their white counterparts as wistful attachment to a mythical Victorian or Edwar­dian era, the collective dream on which PBS and the specialized home-improvement industry thrive. In both cases, it’s about the wish for a world that is simpler and more settled to be sure, but simpler and settled in ways that clarify and consolidate the status of the upper middle class as the social orders presumptive center. The vision — equally false as history in both col­or codings — is of an organic, face-to-face community in which everyone has a role, status markers arc clear, and convivial, automatic deference and noblesse oblige are the social or­ganism’s lifeblood, the substance of its mutual regard.

Among whites this typically trans­lates into images of a close-knit world of little shops where one is known and served cheer­fully by contented proprietors and their energetic employees, where one is recognized naturally as the center of the community, the embodiment of its best values and aspirations, its pivotal consumer. The black vision is more folkish in its mythology, but no less aestheticized. Where white Fairfield County yuppies imagine themselves in a sleek Merchant-Ivory fantasy of a fin de siecle drawing room, their black neighbors shoehorn themselves into a colorful down-home juke joint sprung to life from the canvases of Varnette Honeywood or Ernie Barnes. The black vision includes as well being respected as a role model and natural leader of the race. Nostalgia for the Jim Crow black world, particularly when it masquerades as social science, keys its imagery of the Fall to the putative loss of petite bourgeois authority in the bantustan — for instance, in William Julius Wilson’s prat­tle about the middle class as a force for moral or­der and propriety among the poor. In a concocted scene in Reid’s film, Poppa confronts the impov­erished tenant farmer whose son has sired a child out of wedlock. When the father refuses any obligation to the young mother and baby, citing his inability to add two hungry mouths to his household, Poppa tells him sternly, “Having nothing don’t mean you don’t know what’s right.”

Taulbert is serenely candid about the class stratification of his cherished “place where people nurtured and protected and enjoyed each other.” He establishes at the very beginning of his book that he is descended from black planters and recounts with loving pride how his elderly aunt showed him the records that verified their once-exalted status. His mother’s family lost the plantation but retained elevated status in black Glen Allan. Poppa was “a well-known and respected Baptist preacher who was looked to for his wisdom and in many instances served as a go-between for the coloreds when problems arose involving the whites,” and Taulbert points out that they owned “a large rambling house with separate bedrooms, a formal dining and living room with two screened-in sun rooms.” He notes that Ma Ponk “always made it a point to talk with Miss Lottie because she was among the upper-class coloreds” and insisted on riding the train because she felt that “only the poor coloreds rode the bus”

None of this is unusual. Memoirists who pine for the lost community of Jim Crow tend to have middle-class parents, who typically strove to insulate their offspring from the regime’s demeaning and dangerous realities, es­pecially from contact with whites. Except in New Orleans, I can’t recall having more than a couple of interactions with whites of any age in the South (not counting priests and nuns) until I was in high school. It is less commonly recalled that petite bourgeois  parents worked equally hard to shield their kids from black social inferi­ors. The leveling effects of discrimination made the latter more difficult, but this dedicated to class insularity found ways to adapt. The Jack and Jill clubs (from which, thankfully, my parents’ politics saved me) existed to provide an ­explicitly class-conscious local and national social network for the black bourgeoisie’s children in the same way that fraternities and sororities, the Links, the Girl Friends, the Boulé, and other such organizations did for adults. And only mid­dle-class children who were protected from its social and institutional realities — or those who didn’t live it at all — could remember the segre­gated world so fondly, as a naive, communitarian metaphor. When it came time for Taulbert to negotiate the regime as an adult, he left, telling us only that “Glen Allan could not make my dreams come true.” He never confronts the fact that what he knew and recalls as a warm, nurturing world was compensatory, an artifact of a hideously unjust social order that brutalized lives and crushed aspirations.

Although its wrongheadedness may seem merely misguided, this class-inflected nostalgia plays a decidedly sinister role in contemporary politics. Not only does it rest on sentimental notions of family that sanitize gender inequality, it naturalizes current class privilege by projecting it fantastically backward in time. PBS subscribers imagine their earlier lives in genteel domestic settings, not sweatshops or stockyards, and Afro-centrics don’t envision themselves as less than, say, the pharaoh’s majordomo or attaché. The black memoir strain goes one better: it draws the dots connecting present and past privilege and lauds the continuity as race pride. The ubiqui­tous grandmother in these narratives may have been a strong-proud-black-woman-race-leader-­and-closeted-lesbian, but she was first of all a member in good standing of the Talented Tenth. The message is clear: our very bloodline is elite. We’re just as authentically bourgeois — in our distinctively black way — as our white counter­parts, and we’re the race’s natural aristocracy. Gates tells us of his maternal family’s place in the local social order: “The Colemans were the first colored to own guns and hunt on white land, the first to become Eagle Scouts, the first to go to college, the first to own property.”

This bias comes through in another of Reid’s inventions. He has the good folk of Glen Allan decide to stand up to the white supremacist order, not for their citizenship rights or to chal­lenge discrimination, lynching, or their ex­ploitation in the cotton economy. In his vision, they assert themselves in defense of Taulbert’s Uncle Cleve, the ice man supposedly being dri­ven our of business unfairly by a big white firm from Greenville. Reid’s townsfolk refuse to work the cotton fields in protest, noting Cleve’s — and thus black entrepreneurialism’s — paramount symbolic importance to the entire black popula­tion; they cared more about his welfare than their own. (Taulbert says of his uncle, by the way, “Surely if my Uncle Cleve were alive today, he’d find a reason to be a black Republican.” And the author himself is no leftist; he chortles at enforcement of child labor laws and expresses re­lief that his parents, despite tough times, were able to avoid becoming part of the welfare “sys­tem.”) This is an absurdly self-serving image of petite bourgeois grandeur. I’ve filed it in my collection of Perverse Appropriations of Popular In­surgency, right next to that of a student who told me a few years ago that the ultimate goal of the civil rights movement was to make sure she could attend Yale and then go on to work at Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs. Sadly, this perversion capturcs the moment of bourgeois triumphalism in black political life.

An insidious slippage between I and We drives black communitarian rhetoric and makes possible the bizarre claim that intraracial stratifi­cation is benign because it’s organic. This view has no room for class tension or contradictions, because it disconnects class from position and role in the reproduction of the social system. Pop­pa “mediated” with the whites; he didn’t occupy a managerial niche in the Jim Crow order. A family friend was a labor contractor for the white planters and acquired rental property originally built to house interned Japanese Americans dur­ing World War II. Taulbert never imagines that these business endeavors might have put him at odds with some of Glen Allan’s black residents, or muses about the irony of a black man profit­ing from internment. Such ruminations aren’t consonant with this narrative’s objectives.

The point of the nostalgia narrative is that that are no internal tensions; there is no significant differentiation. Perhaps this yearning for a seamless black world partly reflects status anxiety within the current black middle class, an anxiety that can take several overlapping and even contradictory forms. It could express the famous guilt that middle-class blacks supposedly experience about the growing black poverty that con­trasts with their success — though I’ve never seen a case of it in anyone over undergraduate age that wasn’t a backhanded form of self-congratu­lation. It could also reflect just the opposite. Lev­eling the black experience also levels racial oppression and thereby equates the middle-class experience of racism (“I couldn’t get a cab,” “I got stopped by the cops on Metro-North,” “My col­leagues don’t respect me,” “I can’t get a promo­tion”) with me borderline genocidal regime tightening around the inner-city poor. One of­ten hears the lament: we suffer too. And the communitarian idyll can be emotional solace for those middle-class blacks who work and live in racially integrated environments, a dreamworld respite from racialized tension — the necessary, constant anticipation of affront that permeates their daily reality. An analogue is 1960s black cultural nationalism, which was largely the product of black students on white college campuses.

No matter what emotional needs it addresses, though, this communitarian nostalgia propounds a political message that what an in­creasingly fractured black “community” needs is to entrust itself to the loving care of its “natural” leadership. Some middle-class blacks opposed the Jim Crow order because it limited their op­tions, constrained their career and social opportunities, and didn’t make appropriate class dis­tinctions among blacks. This criticism isn’t necessarily hinged to a broader egalitarian social vision. Therefore as the rightward thrust of na­tional politics and the realities of the glass ceiling imperil possibilities for absorption — on black and proud terms to he sure — into the mainstream elite, a latter-day accommodationism can seem consistent and attractive. Like Milton’s Lucifer, many middle-class blacks are finding it more desirable to reign in the bantustan than to be dissed outside, especially now that the basic accomplishments of the 1964 and 1965 civil rights legislation — guaranteeing the rudiments of equal citizenship — seem solidly established. This impulse supports an accommodationism that trades on the rhetoric of racial difference to assign the petite bourgeoisie a tutorial, agenda-­setting position vis-a-vis the rest of the race. The Nurturing Black Community, therefore, re­hearses an elitist communitarianism of lengthy pedigree (shared, for example by Booker T. Washington and the young Du Bois), and it secures a functional role for a separate-but-equal black middle class: official management and administration of inequality. This includes, besides role modeling and running the institutions of public authority, directing public policy — in the form of “community revitalization” — to clear away suitable enclaves for the occupancy and consumption needs of the new uplifters.

A friend of mine remarked years ago, as we observed the rise of the first stratum of black public officials, that they generally presume that all that stuff about due process, participation, citizenship rights, equality, justice, and the rest stops at the entrance to the: bantustan. We didn’t realize at the time that formalist democracy goes against the grain of the communitarian ideology on which black leadership grounds itself. Nor did we recognize that this antidemocratic impulse rests on a solid pragmatic foundation. After all, you don’t want a lot of discussion among people if your job is to herd them into camps, do you? ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 23, 2020