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  • The Jim Crow Routine: Everyday Performances of Race, Civil Rights, and Segregation in Mississippi by Stephen A. Berrey
  • Leigh Anne Duck
Stephen A. Berrey. The Jim Crow Routine: Everyday Performances of Race, Civil Rights, and Segregation in Mississippi. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2015. 352 pp. $29.95.

The histories of “Jim Crow” and civil rights activism have been well studied, but this volume aims to intervene in the narrative frameworks that, in Berrey’s account, “we usually encounter in public memory and even in the scholarship” (4). Noting that many studies focus on the early decades of segregation and disenfranchisement—a period of extreme violence and ever-increasing constraint as these systems were established—Berrey concentrates on later decades, by which point race relations had become embedded in an array of “routines” governing interaction and access to space. “Routine,” of course, suggests regularity—the kinds of “everyday” exchanges that this volume seeks to illuminate—but it is also used to designate performances, carefully practiced forms of action and expression that can at any moment be revised. Accordingly, Berrey focuses not only on overt efforts to maintain a white supremacist social structure and the challenges to that structure, but also on what he calls “interracial intimacy.” By this he means not deep personal knowledge of and among persons—indeed, the encounters he describes typically involved efforts to efface the personhood of African Americans—but shared experiences of and attunement to cultural expectations, toward which participating parties might feel very differently. “Jim Crow,” he explains, “was a kind of theatrical production” in which white and black Mississippians had assigned lines, props, and stage directions, with accompanying (albeit differently inflected) vigilance for moments when others “did not follow the script” (219). Moving from the 1930s through the 1960s, when segregation per se was being dismantled in law and public space, Berrey describes how some of its effects and practices were already being reproduced in new ways. Berrey thus provides a narrative of U. S. racial history that is neither static nor triumphalist, and his account of how older forms of racial oppression yielded only amid an emphasis on newer ones should prove useful for the current moment—a period in which both scholars and citizens try to understand and confront the recalcitrance of racial injustice.

Scholars interested in performance studies are likely to be disappointed, as this volume does not engage substantively with theoretical work in that field. Aside from a couple of references to E. Patrick Johnson’s Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity (2003), Berrey relies on the models of sociologist Erving Goffman, who described self-presentation as a performance to be interpreted by others, and of political scientist James C. Scott, who examines the “transcripts”—public or hidden—through which dominant and subordinated groups follow or critically diverge from their socially prescribed roles. Berrey’s first chapter, in particular, constitutes a kind of “thick description” of how Jim Crow was enacted—the often symbolic structures through which spaces were designated by race; the forms [End Page 169] of behavior expected or, for African Americans, mandated in such spaces; and the possibilities for and consequences of divergence from those expectations. But this empirical account, based chiefly on oral histories and social-science commentaries on Mississippi’s race relations in the 1930s and ’40s, nonetheless has the potential to deepen future intersections between scholars in history and those in literary and cultural studies. This chapter resonates powerfully, for example, with themes Brian Norman and Piper Kendrix Williams describe as central to literature concerning segregation: where some writers encode the spatialization of race as more absolute than is suggested by the more tenuous divisions in Berrey’s archive (produced by curtains, lines of stools, and in one case, a symbolic stick), each volume foregrounds the tension created by threats and acts of violence, which may or may not emerge in the event of a cross-racial interaction that diverges from the Jim Crow script. (See Norman and Williams’s Introduction to their edited collection, “To Lie, Steal, and Dissemble: The Cultural Work of the Literature of Segregation,” in Representing Segregation: Toward an Aesthetics of Living Jim...


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pp. 169-171
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