Sunday, August 28, 2011

civil rights movement - book - 2010 - At the Dark end of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance - A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power

At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance - A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power
Danielle L. McGuire
Alfred A. Knopf
2010
324 pages


The basic foundation for the Jim Crow laws that segregated the races in the American South, according to At the Dark End of the Street author Danielle L. McGuire (and a number of her sources), is a fear of sex.  In particular the driving fear was of the races mixing, of the pure white blood becoming polluted by impurities from inferiors.  This fear was the surging undercurrent to those laws that organized southern society into a racially tiered hierarchy.  Riding that current was the fear of the supersexualized black stereotype, the the black man of the white imagination who is driven by a violent lust for white women and the insatiable black woman with little concern for public morality - such representations of the other served as sufficient grounds for maintaining racial segregation and oppression in the American south.  

The History of Sexuality, a three volume text by French philosopher and cultural theorist Michel Foucault, describes how sexuality has been historically constituted as a domain and a director of social power.  Much of Foucault’s text is focused upon how thinkers of the Classical world discussed sex and its proper conduct with regards to a good life.  Foucault’s analysis described examples of how numerous writers of the past constituted the sexual life of the subject as productive of a good citizen and good societies.  In other words, sexuality and a socially imposed sexual conduct can be the means by which a population is organized, which is, in a sense, what was at play in the American south under Jim Crow.  Danielle L. McGuire’s book, At the Dark End of the Street, describes a weaponized sexuality, where the protection of the chastity of white women became the pretense by which black men were brutalized by whites and the rape of black women by white men was a means of repression against the black population.  I’m not sure if sexuality really was the basis for segregation but McGuire’s text has convinced me that it was a means for the establishment and maintenance of power in southern society.

McGuire’s text approaches the history of the Civil Rights Movement from an angle that was previously unexplored in the civil rights literature.  At the Dark End of the Street contains numerous accounts of black rape, murder and oppression and the hands of southern whites, and the frequent repetition of the crimes (in a sense) as law officials and the courts let white criminals walk free.  Furthermore, the book also contains numerous accounts of black men sentenced to death for crimes against white women when there was often minimal evidence that a crime even occurred.  Rosa Parks, frequently portrayed as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement, and is often remembered as a tired woman on a bus who just couldn’t bear to move all the way to the back, was actually an investigator sent to Abbeville, AL. by the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP to shed light on the matter of the rape of Recy Taylor.  Taylor was kidnapped and raped by four white men and while she could identify her assailants to police, they lived unpunished for their crime.  McGuire asserted the frequency of such occurrences in the south, with rapists often being released after insisting that their victim was a prostitute.  Agents of the freedom movement sought to oppose these crimes in court, but before they could proceed they needed an impeccable example of black womanhood, because black women were assumed to be guilty of immorality, of enticing white men in some way.

While rape was a weapon in the arsenal of white repression against black populations, so was the city transportation system.  Black bus riders in Montgomery and other southern cities were often forced to stand, even if seats were empty, according to the rules of conduct.  Bus drivers were often cruel and verbally abusive to the riders, many of whom were the black women who worked as domestic help in affluent white households, who were forced to pay at the front but board at the middle door.  Drivers would sometimes force black passengers to pay at the front, then quickly close the door and drive off before the patron could board.  Furthermore, passengers who did not comply were arrested, detained, and frequently subject to sexual abuse administered by the police.  The author thus describes a network of oppressive forces made up of the transportation system, white employers, law enforcement, and the courts, all of which are driven by sexual fears whites had of the racialized other.  

Rosa Parks became the mother of the freedom movement because she was already an experienced civil rights activist (she was involved in the movement since the 1940s) and her reputation was beyond reproach, not simply because she chose to resist unfair rules of bus ridership.  She was far from the first woman to disobey the orders of a bus driver, many others entered that realm ahead of her and it was their testimony of the cruel treatment they received by transportation officials and then police and the courts that prompted her to follow.  It was her activist-honed bravery and her impeccable character that made her an icon for a movement that was already gaining in strength.  With the momentum gained by Park’s action (supported by countless southern women who were vocal about their experiences) the Civil Rights Movement entered its best known phase, beginning at the end of 1955 with the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  

At the Dark End of the Street is not just about Rosa Parks path from the investigation of unpunished rapes of black women by white men to her arrest on a Montgomery bus, although one of the book’s strengths is that it returns the depth to a woman who has largely been reduced in the popular consciousness to an image and a short anecdote.  The book adds these dimensions to Parks by contextualizing her work as an investigator, and by contextualizing those cases in a society that is steeped in the politics of sadistic and racialized sexuality.  McGuire’s text also recalls how other black activists formed organizations like the Sojourners for Truth and Justice to protect “black womanhood”, and it contains practical reversals of racial stereotypes, describing incident after incident where white men behaved as violent sexual predators of vulnerable black women.  

Ultimately, the text describes the movement as a site where individual women could find pride in their race and gender, and attain a sense of personhood in a society that was structured to deny such status.  Endesha Ida May Holland, for example, went from working as a prostitute to becoming an SNCC activist, stating that “the movement said I was somebody; I was somebody, they said.”  McGuire uses court decisions as markers of progress, as a chapter is devoted to the first trial where white men were given life sentences in the south for the rape of Betty Jean Owens, and the book’s final chapter is about the trial of Joan Little, a woman of poor repute who killed jailer Clarence Alligood in self defense after he threatened her with rape during her detainment.  Little was acquitted at trial and McGuire’s book includes a political cartoon at the end of the chapter that features and illustration of Joan Little standing over a knocked-out allegorical figure of ‘Dixie Racism’ in a boxing ring.

At the Dark end of the Street has received a number of accolades since its publication.  It has won the 2011 Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians and the 2011 Lillian Smith Book Award from the Southern Regional Council and the University of Georgia Libraries.  The book contains a detailed index, detailed endnotes, and a bibliography that is subdivided into publication types.  The book also contains many black and white images of the people whose stories populate the text (many of these images also appear on the book website.)



1 comment:

  1. Gwiz. Most fascinating article. Can we reference it

    ReplyDelete

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