In Jim Crow Wisdom, Jonathan Scott Holloway examines how African Americans have remembered themselves and their past. His analysis spotlights various realms, from academia to popular culture to museums to his own personal story. For all the changes in African American life since 1940, particular themes keep surfacing in black memory: the scars of racial humiliation, the negotiation of class tensions, the angst over teaching children about race, and the complex question of what constitutes “home.”
Holloway considers how the mid-century professional class self-edited the overall experience of the race. Social scientists such as Ralph Bunche, Charles Johnson, and E. Franklin Frazier produced important works that presented the black condition, but they concentrated on the plight of the middle-class “proper Negro.” In popular [End Page 707] outlets such as a recurring feature in Negro Digest titled “My Most Humiliating Experience,” elite black intellectuals, politicians, and celebrities lamented personal injustices based on racial prejudice. Such narratives were acts of “forgetting,” as they obscured deeper class issues in favor of constructive tales that placed African Americans within a mainstream, middle-class, patriotic value system.
Jim Crow Wisdom further explores how popular culture presented traumatic racial memories. In John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, or the 1970 film Watermelon Man, the black body serves as a vehicle for complicated stories about the tragedies of race. In the academic world, black scholars argued for the legitimacy of black studies programs through personal memories of their professional plights.
In most chapters, Holloway sprinkles in a personal story about his family, childhood, or career, suggesting the pervasiveness of these themes in black memory. In a chapter on family silences, however, he writes entirely from a first-person perspective. He weaves a tale of discovery about his family’s past, from his grandfather’s work as a waiter in the U.S. Capitol to his father’s reluctant barrier-breaking career in the Air Force to his own experiences in predominantly white, elite environments. He, like many other African Americans, struggles with the question of what to reveal to his own children. How can he reconcile the inheritances of the past, the realities of the present, and the visions of the future?
In the epilogue, Holloway travels to Ghana, where he visits the slave castles at Elmina and Cape Coast. The holding pens have an emotional impact upon him, in a way that no scholarly work could. Yet he considers himself different from the black travelers who romanticize Africa as a motherland, as well as those who see themselves as escaping from American race relations. He is a historian, after all, asking critical questions about the stories we tell about ourselves. “If memories are the narratives that tell us who we are and tell us where we belong, if memories are the creative forces behind the formation of homes, communities, and nations, where does black memory take its people? Can black memory help African Americans find their home?” [End Page 708] (p. 228). Holloway’s artful, moving book provides no simple answer to these questions. Instead, it acknowledges how the contradictions within historical memory have lent African Americans one haven from the traumas of their past.
ARAM GOUDSOUZIAN is the chair of the Department of History at the University of Memphis and author of Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear (2014).