“Did he bother a white woman?”

“Naw. Ef they git erway notta woman in this town would be safe.”[1]

That line, from Richard Wright’s story “Big Boy Leaves Home,” is a glimpse at the white man’s biggest fear in the Jim Crow South. White men were constantly afraid for the safety of white women, specifically viewing black men as a threat to that safety. Like the line from “Big Boy Leaves Home,” another Wright story, “Down by the Riverside,” and Langston Hughes’ short story “Home,” white characters show that no matter what the black characters actually DID, it’s the threat that black men represent to white women that frightens them the most.

There is a scene in “Down by the Riverside” that represents this point very well. Mann, the main character, is brought in front of an army general, accused of killing a white man. As Mann is being brought to the General a mob begins to gather and one man asks, “Did he bother a white woman?” [2] Mann did shoot the white man, but the general’s concerns mimic the crowds.

“Did he bother you, Mrs. Heartfield?”

“No; not in that way.”

“The little girl?”

“No; but he came back to the house and gut us out. Ralph says he had an axe…”

“When was this?”

“Early this morning…”

“Did he bother you then, Mrs. Heartfield?”

Mann is being accused of murder, but both the general and the angry mob are more worried about what he did or did not do to the white women he came in contact with. In Langston Hughes’ “Home,” Roy is attacked for talking to a white woman, but by the time his infraction is learned by the outer edges of the mob, people are claiming that he tried to rape the woman. “The movies had just let out and the crowd, passing by and seeing, objected to a Nergo talking to a white woman- insulting a white woman- attacking a WHITE woman- RAPING A WHITE WOMAN.” [3] It is as if the mob was playing a horrible , racist game of telephone

This view of black men as sexual predators become prevalent among white Southerner’s during and after Reconstruction. With the black population now free, white’s attempted to reassert control over Southern social and political structures through Jim Crow laws and also by defaming blacks. Politicians and authors pushed ideas of white superiority and by the 1890s, it was a commonly held belief among white southerners that African Americans had become more uncivilized and savage since the ending of slavery. [4]

Thomas Dixon explained the feelings of southern white men in his popular novel The Leopard’s Spots. Dixon wrote, In every one of these soldiers’ (White Southern man’s) hearts, and over all the earth, hung the shadow of the freed Negro, transformed by the exigency of war from a Chattel, to be bought and sold, into a possible Beast to be feared and guarded. Around this dusky figure every white man’s soul was keeping its grim vigil.” [5]

Wright and Hughes show these beliefs in the actions and dialogue of their white characters, and show the terrible consequences of such thinking. In “Big Boy Leaves Home,” the children, as well as the white man, all died because of the assumption at Big Boy and the others were going to attack the young white woman. In another Langston Hughes story, “Father and Son,” it’s Bert’s argument with a white woman that causes a mob to chase him and eventually gun him down. These writers demonstrate that no matter what black men actually did, be it a crime or act of charity, they were viewed as sexual threats towards white women, thus creating a dangerous, even life threatening, situation they had no control over.

[1] Richard Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children (New York: Harper Pernennial, 2004), 53.

[2] Ibid, 118

[3] Langston Hughes, The Ways of White Folks (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 47-48.

[4] Matt Cox, “Race, Place, and Things That Eat Your Face: Racial and Cultural Stereotypes in Zombie Movies 1932-1968” (M.A. Thesis, Cooperstown Graduate Program, 2010), 16-17.

[5] Thomas Dixon,  The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden, 1865-1900 (Ridgewood, NJ: Gregg Press, 1967), 5.

Categories: mc

3 thoughts on ““Did he bother a white woman?”

  1. Great point about the intentions of violence being based on “protecting” white women. In Gretchen’s exhibition catalog for Through the Eyes of Others, we read that lynchings were justified as punishment for blacks raping white women. Of course, lynching was used as retaliation for all sorts of crimes, but the overarching issue was the protection of the white woman.

  2. In contrast, these stories show white men using black women as their property. In Hughes’ “Father and Son,” the Colonel takes Cora (although she had been attracted to him for some time). Wright portrays a rape scene in “Long Black Song,” as the white man forces himself on Sarah despite her repeated protests. White men can treat black women however they want to because this treatment fits into the prescribed social order and reasserts white domination of blacks.

  3. Nice post. I think this ties in with what we talked about the first day in class with Jack Johnson, and the threat he was for white men of his time. In fact this is noted in the Richard Wright piece “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” when Wright lists the subjects that were not to be discussed with the white men with whom he worked. Given the cultural fear and paranoia about black men’s relationships with white women, it is easy to see what Jack Johnson was a taboo subject for discussion and such a threatening figure to white men.

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