Southern Cultures 10.2 (2004) 7-18
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Caste and Class Revisited
William R. Ferris
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"I was alone, and being alone on a social investigation was very hard to explain to people in Southerntown. Since I was a stranger and, in their eyes, 'a Yankee,' they were very likely to think something else about me, that I might be a labor organizer or something." John Dollard, Yale, 1975. Photographs courtesy of the William R. Ferris Collection in Wilson Library at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
John Dollard's Caste and Class in a Southern Town was first published in 1937 and offers a thoughtful view from the psychologist's perspective of how caste and class shaped race relations in the Deep South. Dollard's interest in class was influenced by William Lloyd Warner, a sociologist and anthropologist who applied class structure to sociological studies of American society in works like his Social Class in America (1949).
Dollard spent five months in Indianola, Mississippi, doing field research for his study. Anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker had done research in Indianola earlier, and her study After Freedom (1939) is also an important study of the period. While Dollard and Powdermaker wrote their studies of Indianola, an interracial team of sociologist anthropologists that included Allison Davis, Burleigh B. Gardner, and Mary R. Gardner wrote Deep South (1941), an impressive [End Page 7] study of race relations in Natchez, Mississippi. These three books, focusing on Indianola and Natchez, Mississippi, are classic works in the fields of sociology and southern studies, and each remains in print today.
As a folklore graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in the late sixties, I relied heavily on all of these books in developing my research on black folklore in the Mississippi Delta. I found it interesting that while Dollard was deeply moved by black gospel music in Indianola, he never mentions the blues. Indianola is the birthplace of B. B. King, who was nine years old when Dollard lived in his hometown.
While he worked in Indianola, Dollard stayed in a boarding house that was operated by Mary Kathleen Craig Claiborne. Claiborne's son Craig was fourteen at the time, and forty-eight years later he recalled Dollard's visit in Craig Claiborne's A Feast Made for Laughter: A Memoir With Recipes (Doubleday, 1982):
One of the most distinguished roomers and boarders in my mother's house was a scholarly gentleman, well known in academic circles, the late Dr. John Dollard, a highly praised Yale psychologist and social scientist. Dr. Dollard had come to Indianola to do research on a book called Caste and Class in a Southern Town and with what might have been an uncanny sense of direction or perception, had chosen my house as his base of operation.
Dr. Dollard, a patient, kindly, amiable man was, of course, a Yankee and thus had a "funny accent." The other boarders did not take kindly to him for no other reason than that he was an "outsider." In the beginning he criticized the cooking of the greens, complaining that there was not a vitamin left in the lot. And as a result of his well-intentioned explanations and at the base encouragement of the other boarders, my mother willingly committed one of the most wicked acts of her life. Dr. Dollard was placed at a bridge table, covered, of course, with linen, and set with sterling, and he was served a mess of raw greens that he ate with considerable and admirable composure and lack of resentment. Always the detached and critical observer, I found my mother's role in this little game almost intolerable, although I said nothing.
Odd coincidences have occurred often in my life. One day, a decade or so ago, I wandered into the photographic studio where portraits bearing the title New York Times Studio were taken. I glanced at an assignment sheet and saw the name John Dollard, Yale.
As I walked out, John walked in.
"John," I said, "I'm Craig...