Thriving on the Margins: a historiographical Study of African American Working-Class Life and Culture



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Thriving on the Margins: A Historiographical Study of African American Working-Class Life and Culture

by Savannah Grandey

HIST 6104 – Topics in American History:

Gender, Race, and Politics in the American South, 1877-1917

Dr. James M. Beeby

December 5, 2013

To comprehend the complex and tumultuous social, economic, and political environment in the South after Reconstruction is a monumental intellectual exercise. To convey the same environment by written word is even more demanding. The scholars who study and write about this era attempt to delineate cause and effect, support or undermine the tenets of continuity/change, and produce interpretations that can withstand the very complexity of their southern subject(s); they are supplied much with which to work. Incomplete Reconstruction, a stunted economy, and methodically fraudulent Democratic machine rule plagued the South. Within these conditions existed excitable racial animosity and intraracial class conflict. Class division within the African American community consisted of an elite few, a growing middle-class, and a working-class, to which the majority of African Americans belonged. This historiographical study will focus on the dynamism of the largest class. Relegated to the bottom rungs of society, these working-class African Americans developed their own culture in opposition not only to white violence and oppression, but also to elite and middle-class African Americans, who simultaneously chided, separated themselves from, and attempted to uplift their socioeconomic inferiors. Working-class African American life on the margins produced nontraditional expressions of resistance and unconventional methods of individual self-preservation.

This study begins with authors whose nuanced interpretations of the New South necessitate attention to class division within the African American community and the attempts of the middle class to uplift and simultaneously separate themselves from the working-class, the members of which were seen as a liability and impediment to racial improvement. The study then shifts to interpretations of African American working-class culture that developed in response to intraracial class division and white exclusion, oppression, and violence. Within this culture, scholars identify the bodies of working-class African Americans as instruments of both resistance and self-preservation that “enabled African Americans to take back their bodies for their own pleasure rather than another’s profit.”1 This historiographical review will end with scholars’ treatment of the blues music tradition, depicted as intraracially divisive, expressive of the dynamism of working-class life, self-preservative, and as one author argues, a tradition that sometimes created atmospheres for “intimate violence,” intraracial conflict that enabled African Americans to articulate and assert their “somebodiness” denied them by the white dominated world.2

In Parlor Ladies and Ebony Drudges: African American Women, Class, and Work in a South Carolina Community, Kibibi Voloria C. Mack argues against the notion that all black women “toiled and toiled hard” and disproves the “image of a sine qua non African American sisterhood or solidarity resulting from a common racial and gender discrimination.”3 Although her study focuses solely on women, it demonstrates the pervasiveness and intricacies of class division within the African American community by comparing the working lives of the upper class elite, upper and lower middle class, and working class in Orangeburg, South Carolina from 1880 to 1940. Relying heavily on oral histories, Mack provides a bottom-up study and draws her arguments from the women’s perspectives of their places in society. According to Mack, work was the main factor that relegated African American women in Orangeburg to their respective classes, preventing racial solidarity. For example, she depicts the employment of African American domestic workers in the homes of the African American elite as the epitome of intraracial class division and adherence of the black elite to “white ideals of the cult of true womanhood.”4 She also demonstrates how class divisions were manifested and maintained beyond the realm of work in religion, women’s clubs, and education. For example, Mack depicts Orangeburg’s institutions of higher education, such as Claflin University, as “beacons promoting the material and cultural values of upper- and middle-class whites” among upper- to middle-class African American students, instrumental in “promoting class and color-caste divisions.”5 She juxtaposes these educational experiences with the predicament facing working-class women, noting that sending children to school took away labor often needed for a lower-class family to survive. In another instance she notes the “cliquishness” of the elite and their tendency and preference to uplift the “downtrodden” from a safe distance and the exclusion of lower-class women from elite clubs.6 Although this work is a community study, Mack emphasizes throughout that Orangeburg was hardly unique in the scheme of intraracial class divisions. By studying women’s work and how it shaped class and experiences beyond the workplace, Mack sheds light on the factors that created and sustained intraracial class division, creating space for a distinctive working-class culture to thrive in relative isolation.

A broader view is provided by The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction, where Edward Ayers seeks to “convey some of the complexity” of the New South by utilizing quantitative data, diaries, literature, personal accounts, newspapers, and correspondence.7 Ayers attempts to ascertain what the New South meant to southerners, how they navigated change, and “experienced conflict within their own hearts and minds,” noting that “classes, races, and partisans” clashed to create numerable experiences within the region.8 He considers the different dispositions and experiences within the African American community to extract the variety of experience he hopes to convey, noting that, “Black Southerners increasingly differed among themselves in quite self-conscious ways.”9 He cites W.E.B. DuBois who commented on the conspicuousness of great “internal differentiation of social conditions” among African Americans, and asserted that “the failure to realize this is the cause of much confusion.”10 Ayers taps intraracial class division to convey the complexity he argues existed in the New South, and builds upon the concept by noting the effects it had on African Americans.

Ayers asserts that to African Americans, socioeconomic differentiation resulted in attempts to “bridge the growing class barriers among urban blacks, out of benevolence and self-protection.”11 Black women’s clubs formed to uplift the lower classes, and Ayers quotes National Association of Colored Women president Mary Church Terrell to capture the tension between the classes and the perceived necessity of their cooperation: “…even though we wish to shun them, and hold ourselves entirely aloof from them, we cannot escape the consequences of their acts.”12 Ayers further probes this intraracial class tension by considering the use of working-class African Americans’ money and leisure time. He claims that music “offered some people in the New South their best opportunity to be heard” and that young African Americans “seized on music as their chance for freedom and respect.”13 Citing musical instruments as one of the “first mass-produced commodities Southerners bought,” Ayers notes that upper-class African Americans such as Booker T. Washington “fumed over such priorities” of the working class who would buy an instrument “while going without necessities.”14 By doing this Ayers interprets consumption among poor African Americans as a way for them to exercise a kind of economic freedom while simultaneously showing a disregard for middle-class insistence on thrift. For Ayers, the New South created room for working-class African Americans to circumvent and challenge the social order by using seemingly mundane ways to exert freedom and control over their own lives.

Similarly to Ayers, Leon Litwack sets out to recreate lives and experiences in the South. Litwack’s Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow is a bottom-up study that delves into the lives of the “vast majority of black southerners,” the working class.15 The significance of this work lies in Litwack’s chronicle of the rise of a new generation of African Americans that did not experience slavery situated alongside a new generation of whites who were more violent and bitter than their parents. His is a story of two races trying to coexist. Most significant to this historiographical study is his attention to African Americans’ experiences during this endeavor. Riddling chapters with blues lyrics, Litwack highlights the “rich oral expressive tradition” that sustained the race through slavery and continued to “temper their accommodation to the new racial order.”16 Considering the obstacle class division posed to racial progress strategies, Litwack cites adherence to the rhetoric of virtue by black women reformers as impractical to working-class life. He suggests that many domestic, factory, and field workers found the “virtues of thrift, cleanliness, and education” irrelevant to the realities of their lives and instead pursued fulfillment in other ways within alternative worlds.17

Placing the lyrics, “Niggers getting’ mo’ like white fo’ks/Mo’ like white fo’ks eve’y day/Niggers learning Greek an’ Latin/Niggers wearin’ silk an’ satin/Niggers gettin’ mo’ like white fo’ks eve’y day,” in the midst of his discussion of the coexistence of a “colored society” and “black working class,” Litwack reveals the two groups’ perceptions of one another.18 Some of the working class found middle- to upper-class African Americans “too bent on aping white society to the exclusion of their own people,” while middle- to upper- class African Americans thought the working class a group that needed to apply Victorian virtues to escape their economic predicaments.19 Litwack also analyzes tension between the classes seen in sports and celebrity. When heavyweight champion Jack Johnson beat a white man in the ring and socialized with white women, “he refused to acknowledge racial barriers” and “flaunted his lifestyle, his fashionable clothes, his expensive jewelry” and “entered fully into black folklore.”20 Booker T. Washington and many middle-class African Americans perceived Johnson as an embarrassment who “poisoned race relations,” while the working class championed the image Johnson projected and looked upon him with “enormous admiration.”21 Litwack suggests that the working class found in Johnson a sort of vicarious outlet. They grappled with the pressure from above to work hard and progress, but when “hard labor” was futile and ambition was punished by violence, “they created and sustained a culture of their own” as a way to “heighten their own lives.”22 Litwack argues that the working class turned “white rejection and stereotypes” to their advantage by creating a realm that allowed them to “savor every kind of personal experience” and simultaneously resist and thrive within a larger world that seemed to abhor their existence.23 By doing this, Litwack not only shows the ways in which African Americans differed in their responses to the hardening of white supremacy, but also reveals the ways in which working-class African Americans contributed to the contingency of white supremacy.

Mack, Ayers, and Litwack draw conclusions by considering African Americans’ experiences and produce a literal bottom up history articulated by the subjects themselves. By doing this, they prove the pervasiveness of intraracial class divisions, revealing diversity of experience and the resilience and resourcefulness of working-class African Americans that enabled them to express themselves and preserve their personhood in a hostile environment. These creative expressions of self and resentment for society are seen in Tera W. Hunter’s book To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War which studies “the black female majority in the South: women who worked for wages” in Atlanta.24 Hunter uses diaries, personal correspondence, oral interviews, pictures, newspapers, census records, political cartoons, and government records to focus on the workplace experiences of African American domestic workers and their struggle for better treatment and fair wages. However, pertinent to this historiographical study, she juxtaposes these women’s private lives with their work lives and asserts that they “found relief from their workaday lives” in controversial commercial amusements and social activities.25

Hunter describes Decatur Street as “the center of the urban leisure district” where the working-class utilized precious time that was not monopolized by their employers.26 On Decatur Street, the working-class blacks and whites could attend vaudeville shows, hear music, and patronize dance halls, or “jook joints.”27 Hunter argues that dancing in these establishments enabled working-class African Americans to assert “their own right to recuperate their bodies from exploitation.”28 Tracing the tradition back to slavery, Hunter asserts the longevity and the significance of dance in African American culture by citing enslaved people’s use of it to “diminish the harsh realities of forced labor.”29 She continues by noting that during slavery, dance “sometimes threatened the social order” when “slaves ridiculed masters through song lyrics and dance movement [and]…defied orders by organizing clandestine dances.”30 Hunter argues that bodies continued to be instruments of resistance in the dance halls on Decatur Street where they “refused to be subjected to any rules but their own.”31 Dancers and patrons defied both white control over their bodies during work and middle-class African Americans’ attempts to “mollify white animosity…by insisting that blacks conform to the standards of a chaste, disciplined, servile labor force—on and off the job.”32 Women who worked for whites during the day, but danced at night were able to relish in a “setting in which femininity was appreciated,” where they could dress in ways that reflected personal tastes, and where “black beauty could be highlighted and celebrated.”33 Hunter’s depiction of Decatur Street portrays it as a district of dissention that challenged social mores about interracial interaction, was an anathema to the ideology of middle-class African Americans, and provided the working class with outlets of expression and unconventional methods of resistance. The significance of Hunter’s work lies in her depiction of these environments that evolved and thrived with “a fierce sense of irreverence” to popular opinion and condemnation, as arenas that helped sustain the resilience and endurance needed to undermine and agitate white control and thrive under oppression.

In Jookin’: The Rise of Social Dance Formation in African American Culture, Katrina Hazzard-Gordon studies the role of dance in sustaining African Americans through centuries of oppression. In this work, she studies the significance of dance to working-class African Americans and argues that dances developed “in accordance…with the social needs of their constituencies.”34 Drawing from newspapers, popular literature, journals, interviews, and manuscripts, she claims the classic jook and its derivatives developed to provide working-class African Americans “entertainment and economic alternative[s]” to mainstream society.35

Hazzard-Gordon portrays the jook as the “first secular institution” to develop after emancipation, and departing from Hunter, she differentiates between types of dance halls that developed that “reflected the changing meaning of work” for African Americans.36 Jooks were rural dance arenas that “imposed a character and psychology” derived from agricultural labor experiences.37 In addition, she claims that the rise of the jook joint was directly correlated with hardening white supremacy and African Americans being “terrorized, lynched, and excluded from public life” in the post-Reconstruction period before “mass migration” to the North.38 The honky-tonks and after-hours joints evolved as urban forms of rural jook joints and were frequented by industrial workers. Hazzard-Gordon also cites the economic alternatives these dance arenas provided the working-class. In jook joints, Hazzard-Gordon notes that gambling was done more out of necessity than sport, because sharecroppers’ incomes were never guaranteed or consistent. She also offers what made these mainstays of underground counterculture sustainable. While dancing was always free, cash flow from gambling and drink purchases afforded the working class opportunities for alternative income, such as Hunter’s domestic workers who worked in the dancehalls at night and the blues musicians who traveled circuits to escape unrewarding and backbreaking labor. The significance of this work lies in its attention to dance and dance arenas as cultural forms that underwent change to provide its constituencies covert outlets and alternatives in new and uncomfortable environments, while also facilitating the perpetuation of dance as a vital component of African American cultural heritage.

In Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, Robin G. Kelley discusses “black working-class opposition to racism and exploitation” in eight essays.39 However, while Hunter and Hazzard-Gordon recognize that various nocturnal amusements, such as dancing, were forms of resistance that agitated the social structure and white power, Kelley takes it a step further by explicitly depicting these and other everyday activities as political. He argues that resistance to extant power structures is not confined to organized agitation and insists the need to “break away from traditional notions of politics.”40 Kelley draws upon anthropologist James C. Scott’s “hidden transcript” concept that proposes “despite appearances of consent,” the oppressed deviate from and oppose mainstream political culture in “daily conversations, folklore, jokes, songs, and other cultural practices.”41 Scott terms this “infrapolitics,” invisible to observers whose perceptions are confined by the notion of traditional parameters of politics.42

Kelley uses these concepts to “connect everyday struggles to formal politics.”43 In a portion of the essay “We Are Not What We Seem,” Kelley, like Hunter, mines the significance of leisure time to the working class. Despite opposition from both whites and some African Americans, the working-class attended house parties, “jook joints,” dance halls, and blues enclaves, where they “twisted their overworked bodies,” drank, conversed, flirted, sometimes fought, and took “back their bodies for their own pleasure.”44 Kelley argues that these activities were “unmistakably collective.”45 He expands upon the argument that these activities were primarily outlets of pleasure and expressions of resistance by insisting they were instrumental in facilitating the solidarity of the working-class, a conclusion with undeniable political implications. For example, such solidarity surely buttressed the movement of Hunter’s domestic workers for workplace rights. Kelley argues that these “secular nights” are no less important or political than more traditional organizations of solidarity, resistance, and political activism such as churches and mutual benefit societies.46 He cites Amiri Baraka, Lawrence Levine, and Sterling Stuckey whose work proves the development of a distinctive working-class culture among African Americans that served as a “weapon of the weak” in response to “class and racial domination.”47 Revealing discontent, resistance, and collectivity in arenas traditionally perceived as apolitical, Kelley reinserts voteless working-class African Americans into the political discourse of the Jim Crow era.

Demonstrating Kelley’s argument that politics are evident in everyday life, is Robert Rea’s article “Blues Tradition and Culture in Ellen Douglas’s Can’t Quit You, Baby.” The book Rea dissects is about Cornelia, a middle-class white woman, Tweet, her African American domestic worker, and their relationship that was strengthened by shared experiences of gender oppression, but undermined by race and class. Rea draws upon Tweet’s use of blues lyrics to demonstrate the ways in which “quotidian” interactions create, maintain, and undermine “epic” events, a notion that suggests politics are evident in daily interactions. For example, Rea finds significance in Tweet’s “riffing” of the song “Spoonful.” Her work in Cornelia’s kitchen remind Tweet of the song. “But one little spoonful of your precious love is/Is good enough for me,” Tweet sings, modifying the lyrics to accommodate her situation. This lyric reflects their relationship. “A little spoonful” is all that Cornelia initially gave Tweet, turning her hearing aid down to tune out Tweet’s dialogue often filled with the unpleasant realities of the Jim Crow South. Rea asserts that Cornelia’s unwillingness to listen to Tweet’s suffering is symbolic of southern white women’s “idealized notions of family and gender” that prevented them from interrogating white supremacy and the severity of African American oppression. The song’s original lyrics, “Men lie about that spoonful/Some cry about that spoonful/Some die about that spoonful,” Rea suggests, challenge the powerful lie of white women’s purity. The “spoonful” is that lie. By considering Tweet’s modification of a blues’ song to fit her personal circumstances, Rea demonstrates the malleability of the blues and the ability of working-class African Americans to politicize daily interactions. And by looking at the context in which Tweet sang her lyrics, he conveys the dependent relationship of the epic on the quotidian, politicizing seemingly apolitical, personal interactions.

A broad synthesis of the blues music genre is provided in Giles Oakley’s The Devil’s Music where, similar to Hazard-Gordon’s assertions about dance, he finds that “as the role and status of black people has been modified,” so has been their music.48 Reminiscent of previously discussed authors, Kelley and Rea, he argues that the music is “deeply” political because of its “connections with the oppressed position of black people in American society.”49 While Oakley recognizes that the blues formed in the late 1890’s, he probes the “psychological impulses” afforded by centuries of African American enslavement to prove the longevity of the threads common in the blues music tradition.50 For example, he quotes a verse from “slavery time” that exhibit both accommodation and double consciousness, “Got one mind for the boss to see/Got another mind for what I know is me.”51 Oakley implies that such lyrics and the intellectual dualism they illustrate are indicative of the will to survive and cope while in bondage. Similarly, after describing a horrific lynching spectacle that occurred in Doddsville, Mississippi, he states that “within the confines of deprivation, they set about creating a way of life” that included the continuation and modification of a rich orally expressive tradition, undoubtedly enabling them to survive in such hellish environments.52 By doing this, Oakley proves the malleability of oral tradition to meet the evolving needs of working-class African Americans. He also briefly examines the divisiveness of blues music, citing the church as an enclave of criticism that perceived it as disruptive, irresponsible, and irreligious, all of which were considered impediments to racial progress.53

In Adam Gussow’s article “Ain’t No Burnin’ Hell: Southern Religion and the Devil’s Music,” he argues that this condemnation that the majority of Christian African Americans showered upon the blues resulted from the “multiply-sourced anxiety” felt by black ministers who came to perceive the blues and blues performers as “direct competitors for social status, money, audiences, and erotic attachments.”54 He includes reflections upon the blues by the performers, including Henry Townsend who saw the blues as quite the opposite of the “devil’s music.” Gussow interprets Townsend’s perception of gospel music as one that was outdated, “yesterday’s news” about biblical times.55 Townsend stated that the blues was similar to the gospel; they both spoke the truth, but the blues’ truths were about current predicaments. He also includes stories from several blues artists who were beaten and chastised by their families for dabbling into the emerging blues culture with its vulgar instruments and, to them, sacrilege observations. He considers the perspective of Mance Lipscomb, a “Texas bluesman,” who was kicked out of the church because of his musical inclinations and aptly stated: “I didn quit church: church quit me.”56 Gussow draws upon David Evan’s argument that the instruments that characterized the emerging blues culture, horns, guitars, and harmonicas, became popular because of their “connotations of modernity and social progress.”57 This assessment conveys that the blues and the blues audience was ready to move on to different ways of tempering and conveying their experiences, while the church sought to purge itself of this new type of expression and maintain its social status and relevance. Gussow suggests that the emergence of the blues culture reflected a shift in African American attitudes about the Jim Crow South and their place in it, threatened the power of the church among the African American working class, and created new avenues of resistance.

In “Looking Up at Down”: The Emergence of Blues Culture William Barlow compares and contrasts the development of the blues in southern subregions, but finds it a form of resistance to white supremacy everywhere. Barlow claims that the blues tradition was “developed by a new generation of black agricultural workers in the South,” the same generation that Leon Litwack writes grappled with appalling oppression and tried to coexist with a new generation of whites more venomous than the last.58 He emphasizes the blues’ ability to cultivate and maintain collectivity in the face of severe hostility and claims that the “first-generation blues musicians” have been underestimated as “cultural rebels” who “spread the rebellion” against “cultural domination.”59 To Barlow the rural blues was a “broadly based cultural movement” characterized by an “ethos of revolt” that “articulated the call for urban migration” out of the cotton belt.60 During and after migration, the blues was transformed by “the music industry and red-light districts.”61 Barlow argues that commercialization of the blues had negative effects. Authenticity was diluted and the “record industry milked a lot of money from the black population by selling them their own music.”62 Barlow insists that the different experiences in the urban ghettos also effected the music by bringing “unpleasantness and controversy” into the open, and infusing it with the “paradoxical quality present in all great art.”63 Looking Up at Down depicts the blues as a weapon of resistance that took on new forms in new environments, but retained the “composite view of American society from the bottom” whose nonlinear “narratives” allowed them to express discontent and simultaneously retain a vibrant component of their heritage. Barlow’s analysis of blues music lends much to African American agency and exhibits their ability to adapt, encode resistance, and build collectivism that buffered the atrocities of the Jim Crow South.

Hiram Nall’s interpretation of “spatial themes” in “From Down South to Up South: An Examination of Geography in the Blues” reveals collectivity and a more covert type of resistance in the blues music tradition.64 In his article, Nall examines themes such as “separation, isolation, wandering, and the importance of place,” in blues lyrics.65 The hardships of sharecropping required some type of salve, and blues music was a “tonic for, and commentary on the stark lives of African Americans.”66 Nall argues that during migration to urban centers and the North, blues musicians “played an important role in helping to spread the word” about migration and encouraged others to “follow their lead.”67 While the Jim Crow laws in the South seemed to make a parody of African American freedom, the freedom to move was capitalized upon and “physical mobility” became a “powerful symbol in the early blues.”68 While Nall does not explicitly connect this mobility to the contingency of white supremacy, his interpretation of blues lyrics’ treatment of moving, railroads, and highways, and his assertion that blues musicians encouraged migration depicts agitation to white supremacy. African American migration out of rural areas deprived white landowners of labor, and once in cities, African Americans, while still severely oppressed, experienced more personal freedom and acquaintances with larger groups of people like them.

Similar to Hazard-Gordon’s treatment of dance as a cultural art form whose evolution reflected and accommodated transitions in the lives of African Americans, is R.A. Lawson’s interpretation of the blues in Jim Crow’s Counterculture: The Blues and Black Southerners, 1890-1945. Here, Lawson departs from the separate camps of accommodation and resistance to reveal the paradoxical tendency of the blues to reflect both, as African Americans “navigated the myriad obstacles presented by segregation and disfranchisement.”69 Lawson asserts that the earliest blues musicians thrived on exclusion, arguing that their articulation of the “uncomfortable social position[s]” of the African American working class resulted in an art form that allowed them to transcend certain aspects of those social conditions, creating alternate economic opportunities for themselves and escapism for their audience.70 Lawson defies the claims of John Lomax and Newman White who found the blues to be a sort of submission expressive of “sorrow, hopelessness, and defeat,” and a “cultural repository” that softened the blow of “accepting whites’ social, political, and economic supremacy.”71 These notions of accommodation were later countered by assertions, such as Barlow’s, that the blues was “a culture of latent resistance and smoldering resentment,” suggestive of radicalism and protest.72

This work is significant because it complicates the compartmentalization of the blues into accommodation or radical protest camps. To Lawson, the blues was filled with “irony and hardship, satire and misery, humor and resentment, sex and solitude,” evidence that the African American working-class “maintained…dignity, independence, and…personhood” even though mainstream society was diligent in efforts to strip them of all three.73 Lawson argues that the tendency of the music to evolve in response to African American experience flies in the face of notions regarding the blues as static in its either conservative or radical nature and can be ascertained by studying blues lyrics. One way he demonstrates this is by tracing the blues’ early anti-work rhetoric of the late nineteenth century that played into white stereotypes of African Americans, to lyrics that praised hard work and patriotism during the world wars. In this work, Lawson demonstrates the ability of the blues to mark and be marked, an articulation used by August Wilson to convey the dualism of a tradition “at crucial odds with the larger world that contained it and preyed and pressed it from every angle.”74

The observations of John Lomax and Newman White are examples of the tendency to strip African Americans of their agency and perceive them as victimized historical subjects that were acted upon. However, scholars such as Lawson prove that African American lives were extremely complex and paradoxical by studying blues music. The pedagogical approach taken by Steven Garabedian in his article “Blues Testimony and Black Agency” provide a glimpse of the ways the African American experience can be misconstrued when superficially studied. Garabedian states that his undergraduate students at George Mason University tend to perceive African Americans solely as victims, and the blues as sad and depressing. He draws upon Lawrence Levine’s Black Culture and Black Consciousness to address and defy the notions of African American lives being monopolized by their oppressors, and asserts that they were able to “carve out spheres of agency and authority.”75 He argues that in order to properly educate students about the African American experience, supplementing traditional instruction by exposing students to blues songs is imperative. This argument demonstrates the value of the blues and its ability to nuance and complicate people and events from which students and the public perceive themselves far removed. Similarly to Lawson, Garabedian notes the “sorrow and joy, resistance and accommodation”76 that coexisted in the lives of African Americans, a reality best realized by studying blues music.

Perhaps Garabedian’s students would benefit from studying the boll weevil as it functions in African American folklore and music, as Andrew Scheiber does in “From Cotton Boll to Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Brief Account of the Boll Weevil as Musical Migrant.” In this work, Scheiber notes the “pest,” which wrecked cotton crops and brought ruin to many white landowners, “took on some of the characteristics of the folk hero” to the lower classes of African Americans.77 He draws upon William Barlow and Paul Oliver’s analyses that African Americans identified with the boll weevil. Abhorred, the insect had to “make himself comfortable in extremes of heat and cold,” much like blacks had to carve out lives in politically, socially, and economically hostile environments.78 They were both resilient and persevered with “manly strength and stoicism” that Scheiber notes were characteristics of other black folk heroes such as John Henry.79 Scheiber uses the boll weevil to illustrate the “painful paradox” that was the African American working-class experience in the Jim Crow era. Cotton was simultaneously “a means of subsistence and a structure of oppression.”80 When the weevil ruined a cotton crop, it hurt the black sharecropper or tenant farmer, but it also ruined the white landowner who had much more to lose. This was seen as a kind of karma that punished whites for exploiting black labor.81 Scheiber proposes that this “mixture of dread and admiration,” places the boll weevil in the company of “bad-man’ folk figures like Stagger Lee and Railroad Bill who were indifferent and “destructive,” but were symbols of “strength and endurance.”82 The irony of an insect being compared to such masculine characters such as John Henry and Stagger Lee is to Schieber, reflective of the dualism of working-class African American life. Scheiber proves that, ironically, they thrived when they could barely survive, and most importantly, they did not define themselves solely or even primarily as victims. This in and of itself was a threat to white supremacy which relied on the victimization of African Americans.

The ability of the blues to provide scholars a window into the ways in which the African American working class retained their personhood in the face of violent oppression and debilitating exclusion is demonstrated by Adam Gussow’s Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition. Similar to Hazzard-Gordon’s argument about the development of the jook joint, Gussow proposes that the blues music tradition developed “as a social response” to the “sudden eruption of lynching as spectacle” and created a “blues subject” who responded to that threat through music.83 Akin to Schieber’s suggestion about working-class African Americans’ paradoxical identification with the boll weevil, Gussow’s analysis of blues lyrics, autobiographies, and literature prove that working-class African Americans circumvented the misnomer of “victim” and, ironically, used violence as a way to preserve personhood.

Gussow’s contribution to blues scholarship lies in his emphasis on violence, not only white on black violence that engendered the “blues subject,” but also the black on black violence, or “intimate violence,” that often occurred in blues venues.84 He notes that when Charlie Patton sang, “Everyday seem like murder here,” he was not only talking about the threat of white mob violence, but the dangers faced at blues gatherings.85 Blues culture “offered blues subjects a badly needed expressive outlet,” one in which violence was used to articulate “their somebodiness.”86 Gussow’s argument bestows a different kind of significance on black bodies. Before Emancipation the enslaved’s bodies were protected by their legal status as property, harm done was punishable on the principle of capital lost. After Emancipation, free bodies were not protected as capital investments and became targets of racial animosity, instruments of intimidation, and, African Americans physically harming one another found “in such violent acts a source of fierce expressive pleasure.”87 Despite differentiating between the different types of violence in the South and relating them to blues music, Gussow implies that both “intimate violence” and the “disciplinary violence of Jim Crow” grew from the “South’s enduring culture of honor and vengeance” which rejects victimhood and bestows upon the perpetrators a kind of perverse control.88

In Jumpin’ Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights, Jane Dailey, Glenda Gilmore, and Bryant Simon highlight the contingency of white supremacy. “Black resistance…was continuous,” and it was “white supremacy [that] remolded itself” repeatedly in attempts to quell black progress and assertiveness.89 “The actions of black southerners…molded the articulation of white supremacy” by continuously finding ways to circumvent white oppression, assert their personhood, and retain the dignity of which Jim Crow relentlessly tried to strip them.90 The African American working class seemed to be at the forefront of this agitation, defying white-prescribed notions of respectability, disregarding social mores, and finding alternatives to cultural submission, unnerving white supremacists all the while. The above mentioned authors define the African American working class by studying its place on the margins of society, its tendency to attract condescension from members of its own race, and by probing the distinct culture it created. Scholars’ study of the culture largely relies on broadening the definition of resistance and recognizing the prevalence and potency of nontraditional self-preservation in an inhumane environment. Examining nontraditional sites of collectivity, resistance, and resilience reveal the dynamism of the African American working class. By doing so these authors provide a window into the ways in which working-class African Americans perceived themselves, replacing the misnomer “victim” with cultural combatant.




1 Robin G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 45.

2 Adam Gussow, Seems Like Trouble Here (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 5.

3 Kibibi Voloria C. Mack, Parlor Ladies and Ebony Drudges: African American Women, Class, and Work in a South Carolina Community (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999), xxii.

4 Ibid., 33.

5 Ibid., 9.

6 Ibid., 10.

7 Edward L. Ayers, Promise of the New South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), ix.

8 Ibid., viii.

9 Ibid., 16.

10 W.E.B. DuBois, ed. The Negro America Family (Atlanta: Atlanta University Press, 1908), 127 quoted in Ayers, The Promise of the New South, 16-7.

11 Ayers, The Promise of the New South, 70-1.

12 Beverly W. Jones, “Mary Church Terrell and the National Association of Colored Women, 1896-1901,” Journal of Negro History 67 (Spring 1982):20-23 quoted in Ayers, The Promise of the New South, 71.

13 Ayers, The Promise of the New South, 373.

14 Ibid., 374.

15 Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1998), xv.

16 Ibid., xv, xvii.

17 Ibid., 377.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid., 442.

21 Ibid., 443.

22 Ibid., 434.

23 Ibid.

24 Tera W. Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), viii.

25 Ibid., 145.

26 Ibid., 152.

27 Ibid., 168.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid., 169.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid., 171.

32 Ibid., 169.

33 Ibid., 183.

34 Katrina Hazzard-Gordon, Jookin’: The Rise of Social Dance Formation in African American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), ix.

35 Ibid., x.

36 Ibid., 91.

37 Ibid., 80.

38 Ibid., 81.

39 Robin G. Kelley, Race Rebels, xii.

40 Ibid., 4.

41 Ibid., 8.

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid., 13.

44 Ibid., 45.

45 Ibid., 46-7.

46 Ibid., 44.

47 Ibid.

48 Giles Oakley, The Devil’s Music (New York: Taplinger, 1977), 7.

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid., 11.

51 Ibid., 17.

52 Ibid., 45.

53 Ibid., 7-8.

54 Adam Gussow, “Ain’t No Burnin’ Hell: Southern Religion and the Devil’s Music,” Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies 41, no. 2 (August 2010): 86.

55 Ibid., 84.

56 Mance Lipscomb quoted in Alyn, Glen, ed. I Say Me For a Parable: The Oral Autobiography of Mance Lipscomb, Texas Bluesman (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993), 52 quoted in Gussow, “Ain’t No Burnin’ Hell,” 91.

57 Ibid., 88.

58 William Barlow, “Looking Up at Down”: The Emergence of Blues Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 3.

59 Ibid.

60 Ibid., 6.

61 Ibid., 113.

62 Ibid., 115.

There are no sources in the current document.

63 Ibid., 118.

64 Hiram Nall, “From Down South to Up South: An Examination of Geography in the Blues,” The Midwest Quarterly 42, no. 3 (Soring 2001):306.

65 Ibid.

66 Ibid., 311.

67 Ibid., 313.

68 Ibid., 314.

69 R.A. Lawson, Jim Crow’s Counterculture: The Blues and Black Southerners, 1890-1945 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010).

70 Ibid., 2.

71 Ibid., 13.

72 Ibid., 14.

73 Ibid., 16.

74 August Wilson, “Preface to Three Plays,” The Jazz Cadence of American Culture Ed. Robert G. O’Meally (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 564.

75 Steven Garabedian, “Blues Testimony and Black Agency,” Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy 17 no. 1 (Spring 2006): 99.

76 Ibid., 100.

77 Andrew Scheiber, “From Cotton Boll to Rock ‘n’ Roll: A Brief Account of the Boll Weevil as Musical Migrant,” Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies 40, 2 (August 2009): 107.

78 Ibid.

79 Ibid.

80 Ibid., 108.

81 Ibid.

82 Ibid.

83 Adam Gussow, Seems Like Murder Here, 3-4.

84 Ibid., 195.

85 Ibid., 196.

86 Ibid., 5-6.

87 Ibid., 6, 200.

88 Ibid., 6.

89 Jane Dailey, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Bryant Simon, “Introduction,” in Jumpin’ Jim Crow: Southern Politics from the Civil War to Civil Rights, ed. Jane Dailey, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, and Bryant Simon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 5.

90 Ibid.



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