Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow



Leon F. Litwack.  Trouble in Mind:  Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow.  New York:  Random House, 1998.  xxi + 599 pp.  Notes, bibliography, and index. $18.95 (paper).



Leon F. Litwack’s Trouble in Mind, details the complexities of black life in the segregated South from late 19th to the early 20th Century.  Unlike many previous studies, Litwack specific focus is on how the Jim Crow Era shaped the lives, minds, behaviors and existence of those African-Americans forced to suffer beneath it.  He begins with the story of Charlie Holcombe, a black tenant farmer in the early 1900s who as a boy had been reminded by his grandfather that blacks who dared to dream of a better life risked death.  This warning becomes tragic prophecy when Charlie’s son, a college graduate, gets into an altercation with whites, who are cheating the family on the price of their crops, and is killed. The death of his son causes Charlie to take his grandfather’s lesson to heart.  He would send no more of his children to college. Instead, as Litwack recounts, “They all settled down with their families and accommodated to the New South in the same way their father—and grandfather—had accommodated.”[1]  So begins Litwack’s examination of black life under Jim Crow, a system that not only affected the lives of individuals, but entire communities and generations, as even the fate of the dead taught valuable lessons and enforced codes of conduct for survival.


            The first chapter, aptly called “Baptisms,” details the first childhood encounters by many blacks with Jim Crow, from its humiliation to its ever-present violence.  Litwack uses the childhood recollections of unknown persons, but also the stories of famous figures like Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. What we get are reactions to Jim Crow that range from bewilderment to accommodation to thoughts of revenge, as black children learn harsh lessons about the life they have been born into. Most telling are the ways in which black parents sought to protect their children by instilling in them an understanding of the dangers they faced from the white world.


            Not surprising then, chapters like “Lessons” and “Enduring” detail how black life became organized around surviving the ever threatening white world about them, as stories, demeanors, decisions and behaviors were shaped to navigate Jim Crow when necessary, and perhaps circumvent or outmaneuver it where possible. For some blacks, acts of self-defense were even possible. This is probably what most sets Litwack’s work apart, as he seeks to illustrate how Jim Crow affected black lives on a psychological level. Readers do not just see victims, but people forced to react to systematic terror on a daily basis. Every humiliating and violent act became a lesson that influenced a variety of choices and elicited numerous responses. Throughout, Litwack is sure to remind us that the power of white Southerners was not abstract or ideological.  It was law, both codified and unwritten, and ready to be backed up with brutal force if need be. Beatings, whippings, maiming, rape, lynching and acts so horrific they seem akin to medieval torture, are meticulously retold through the words of blacks, white witnesses, newspapers and more.  


            In this recounting of white violence and black subjugation, Litwack is certain to provide reasons that ultimately in each case are based on struggles over control of the New South.  Contradicting claims of black sexual masculinity’s dangers to white women, Litwack instead provides incident after incident of brutal displays of power enacted against victims for the sole purpose of subjugation. A chapter titled “Working” illustrates not only the complexities that tied race to labor in the Jim Crow South, but the dangers that awaited any blacks who dared to dream of economic prosperity and thus challenged their ordained place in society. In one account, a black Tennessee farmer was shot to death while his two daughters were lynched, for the sole crime of having a successful cotton harvest. Litwack describes what proceeded, inviting readers to dwell on the psychological implications of these rituals of violence: “While their bodies dangled from a limb, the mob drove the wagon loaded with cotton under them and set fire to it.”[2] 


            Gender is also dispersed throughout the work, weaved into the main text rather than as a separate chapter. Yet special attention is paid to gender-specific threats faced by black women, namely sexual exploitation.  Litwack tells of black parents who take steps to protect their daughters from white men, forbidding them to do domestic service in white homes. Most memorable were the women who fought back, brandishing weapons when they went into public or shooting white men in the act of attempted rape.[3] What Litwack points out is that if the lives of black males were difficult under Jim Crow, black women endured nothing less trying and were forced to shape their lives, and have their lives shaped, around this reality.


            Despite his title, Litwack provides some focus on the other players in this drama, with chapters titled “White Folks: Scriptures” and “White Folks: Acts,” examining white racial ideology and the many deeds carried out to maintain their power and black subjugation. From Jim Crow statutes to the Supreme Court, Litwack illustrates how whites sought to block all avenues of power to blacks through symbolic and physical—often murderous—repression. The chapters “Hellhounds” and “Enduring” focus specifically on lynching and mass riots, in which white citizenry terrorized blacks with orgies of violence. The Atlanta riot of 1906 is especially examined, where white mobs that may have totaled at least ten thousand in all, attacked blacks for four days and nights. Litwack describes the Atlanta riot as creating disillusionment for some blacks who had thought that perhaps in that city, they could have found peace.  The last chapter, “Crossroads,” depicts a South with Jim Crow triumphant and spreading to other parts of America, creating a national consensus on whiteness, race and black subjugation. Only in the “Epilogue,” with the coming of the Great Migrations does Litwack offer any chance that a change might be on the horizon.


            Trouble in Mind seems an almost banal title given the dark picture painted between its pages.  Litwack’s primary focus does not begin with the hopes of Reconstruction or enter into the proto-elements of the black protest movements in the 1920s or 1930s. Nor does it venture much past the Mason-Dixie line, to show readers a nuanced version of black American life. Rather Litwack remains in the South, both rural and urban, during a time period that offers continuing scenes of oppression and violence.  His chapters never stray from this main theme, as he forces readers to look through windows into a troubling past told through numerous voices of the era—victims and perpetrators alike. Litwack manages to take Jim Crow out of the realm of “Colored Only Signs” or white drinking fountains, and exposes it as a monstrous system kept alive and nurtured by a society obsessed with racial dominance. The only glimmer of hope is found in the continued endurance of its victims.

[1] Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Random House, 1998), 3-7.

[2] Litwack, 157.

[3] Litwackm 37.

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