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Reviewed by:
  • Race in the American South: From Slavery to Civil Rights
  • Jennifer Jensen Wallach
Race in the American South: From Slavery to Civil Rights. By David Brown and Clive Webb (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007. vi plus 392 pp.).

This ambitious and impressive book is designed to support the authors' deceptively simple claim that, "The history of race is inextricably intertwined with the historical development of the American South" (337). Brown and Webb painstakingly trace the history of race construction and race relations from European, Native American, and African contact in seventeenth century Virginia up through the present. They conclude that racism was the primary factor in determining the course of southern history, impacting every facet of southern life from the economy to the expressive culture of the region.

The authors' emphasis on the primacy of race does not preclude them from considering the impact of gender and class on the social history of the region. Brown and Webb argue, for example, as does Jacquelyn Dowd Hall elsewhere, that southern white supremacy was a patriarchal system that privileged white men at the expense of white women in addition to people considered racially inferior. Although the authors are careful not to suggest that racial and gender [End Page 1051] oppression have been analogous, they convincingly demonstrate that prosperous white men were the chief beneficiaries of white supremacy.

Social class too takes on a prominent role in this study. Brown and Clive argue that while whiteness sometimes functioned as a glue, unifying whites throughout the class spectrum, racial allegiances of this kind were tenuous, fractures were apparent, and instances of biracial, class solidarity were evident. They argue, for example, that after the Civil War "for a very brief moment, class threatened to supersede race in parts of the South" (339).

Clive and Webb describe, in quick succession, the establishment of plantation agriculture and the accompanying transition to African slavery in the British colonies, the contraction and expansion of the institution of slavery during the Revolutionary and Antebellum periods, the impact of Emancipation on southern racial thinking, the contours of black resistance to white supremacy, and the role of race in shaping the contemporary South. Implicitly, they describe a "long" civil rights movement, with antecedents dating long before the emergence of the full-blown activism of the 1950s and 1960s.

This book does not necessarily stake out new interpretive ground in its sophisticated retelling of southern history. Readers familiar with the historiography of the South will not discover any individual facets of the analysis that are surprising. There are no bombshells here. Instead Brown and Webb's considerable accomplishment consists of their ability to synthesize a vast array of historiographical literature. They cover a sweeping chronological scope without sacrificing ambiguities and interpretive nuances.

Anyone who has used a textbook designed for an undergraduate survey course in history knows that broad chronological syntheses often tend towards generalizations and certitude. Remarkably, this is not the case here. Instead Brown and Webb illuminate various historical debates, largely leaving it up to their readers to evaluate the merits of various arguments.

On occasion the authors promise slightly more than they can deliver. For example, they ambitiously "strive to include all groups in this history of race in the South, not just the most populous" (2). Although they spend considerable time discussing the ways in which Native Americans fit into the racial spectrum, their treatment of groups such as the Jews and Sicilians is much more superficial, hardly justifying the blanket assertion that "by the Second World War they had become absorbed into the dominant white mainstream" (2). Furthermore, they tantalizingly mention "the rising influx of large numbers of Latin American immigrants" (333) in the final chapter, without giving the reader any insights into how this population will alter the racial landscape.

Similarly, Clive and Webb offer a thoughtful consideration of how racial categories were constructed and reconstructed during the era of slavery and its immediate aftermath, but they are less assiduous about explaining to their readers how essentialist ideas about race were deconstructed or reconstructed as a result of the civil rights movement.

However, these minor shortcomings in no way diminish the value of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 1051-1052
Launched on MUSE
2009-07-03
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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