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  • Growing Up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race
  • Clara Silverstein (bio)
Growing Up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race. By Jennifer Ritterhouse University of North Carolina Press 320 pp. Cloth, $49.95; Paper, $19.95

You've got to be taught to be afraidOf people whose eyes are oddly madeAnd people whose skin is a different shadeYou've got to be carefully taught

—"You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," from the musical South Pacific,by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein

Making its Broadway debut in 1949, the musical South Pacific slipped in this pointed tune about racism to temper "Happy Talk" and "Some Enchanted Evening." Though Rodgers and Hammerstein set their musical on a tropical island during wartime, they understood all too well the American formula for perpetuating prejudice. Exactly how children are "carefully taught" is at the heart of Jennifer Ritterhouse's Growing Up Jim Crow. Another verse from the song gives a simple [End Page 91] answer: "You've got to be taught before it's too late/ before you are six or seven or eight/ to hate all the people your relatives hate."

Ritterhouse finds more nuance in her research about how black and white children developed their views about each other and about themselves during the Jim Crow era. Laws about separate drinking fountains and seating areas set the stage, but detailed rules of daily life came from racial etiquette—an old-fashioned term, but the best Ritterhouse says she could find for the unwritten rules that governed racial interactions. For instance, whites could not address African American adults as "Mister" or "Missus," and blacks were never allowed to use the front door of white homes. Even minor transgressions by blacks could lead to a lynching. "That white southerners enforced racial etiquette as a means of social control is obvious. It is also clear that most southerners, white and black, considered etiquette a better form of social control than the violence that always lay just beneath its surface," Ritterhouse writes.

Ritterhouse's focus on children of both races goes behind these scripted interactions to consider how racist attitudes are formed. For sources, she supplemented history and sociology studies with oral histories, autobiographies, newspaper accounts, and even school yearbooks. She had to look especially hard for information from whites, as few had any reason to notice, much less care, about inequalities. The discussion of methodology bogs down at times, but that methodology underpins a revealing and balanced look at children's experiences, and connects the dots between well known, individual accounts of growing up in the Jim Crow South by Richard Wright, sisters Elizabeth and Sarah Delany, Jimmy Carter, Melton McLaurin, and Sarah Patton Boyle. (Ritterhouse edited Boyle's The Desegregated Heart.)

As innocents, children didn't accept racial roles as a given and dared to ask questions and challenge rules. The answers they received—or the silence and evasions—helped keep the social order in place. Ritterhouse's extensive research turned up many vivid examples of the conflict between conscribed racial roles and more natural human relationships. Black and white children recounted playing together, then being confused by the pressure to give up their friendships as they grew older. Blacks remembered how normal childhood disputes could take on frightening repercussions if white adults became involved. Most disturbing was the willingness of white parents to bring their children to lynchings. The chapter on adolescence poignantly illustrates the dilemma of children trying to come of age within Jim Crow-era restrictions. Black narrators describe being thwarted again and again by the stereotypes that boys were shifty and violent, girls were dumb domestic helpers, and both were overly sexual. White teenagers seemed to move forward in ignorant bliss, largely unaware of their black peers unless they were taunting them.

Generally, adults of both races wanted no questions and no trouble, and so they [End Page 92] steered their children away from too much close, unstructured contact. Furthermore, middle-class blacks reared their children with an emphasis on respectability to counter the negative messages that came from white society.

Ritterhouse found powerful stories of resistance to...


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pp. 91-93
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