Fear will keep them in line

The most tragic aspect of the Jim Crow era South has to be the heightened sense of fear that black men, women, and children lived with every day. The fear of making the wrong move, saying the wrong words, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This culture of fear was held in place by the Southern whites’ air of superiority toward their black neighbors. If African Americans talked and acted “right” they would be “free” in a subservient role to the white folks. But that kind of environment created the fear, anger, and inequities that resulted in clouded judgment and behavior that seemed necessary for survival.

One terroristic method used to keep African Americans at bay trumped all others.

Postcard showing the Lynching of Jesse Washington, Waco, TX, 1916. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Lynchings meant beatings, torture, hanging, castration, and burning alive at the hands of lawless mobs. The reasoning behind lynching was to dissuade black men from raping white women. Yet, most of the people lynched were accused of a wide range of crimes other than rape.[1]  Today, a person killing someone might be able to prove it was in self defense. In Big Boy’s case in “Big Boy Leaves Home” and  Brother Mann’s in “Down By the Riverside” in Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children, taking the life of a white person to save your own was about as good as a death sentence for African Americans.

The fear of facing a lynch mob seemed to keep many blacks “in line” with white hierarchy. Bert Lewis’s brother and sister warned him about stepping out of line in “Father and Son” in Langston Hughes’s The Ways of White Folks. The grief and disappointment can be felt by Big Boy’s parents when returns home after killing a white soldier in self defense in Wright’s story from Uncle Tom’s Children. When his father’s mouth dropped open after hearing of his son’s trouble, you could feel the father’s realization that he could do nothing to prevent the mobs from coming for Big Boy. He had killed a white man in self defense after being attacked for “bothering” a white woman. His fate was sealed and all he could hope for was an escape. [2]

Bert Lewis’s refusal to be a “white folks’  nigger” [3] was in direct opposition of his family’s view “[not gettin’] nothin’ from white folks if you don’t act right.”[4]   His hurt and anger at the situation of not getting recognition from his own white father led to the white man’s blood on his hands and ultimately his lynching.  His brother Willie, who “acted right,” joined Bert in death at the hands of the lynch mobs.[5]

Perhaps the saddest example of the powerful fear that lynching evoked was seen by the farmer Mann in “Down by the Riverside.”  He had shot and killed a white man in self defense, and had been taken into custody by white soldiers. Now, Mann was technically in the hands of the law. Who knows what his fate might have been, but the fear and mistrust of whites and the unbearable fear of being lynched sent Mann running. He was gunned down by the soldiers.  The soldier recognized the irrational nature of Mann’s action and a demonstrated a crushing understanding of the dire situation of  African Americans.

“You Shouldntve run, nigger! You shouldntve run, Goddammit! You shouldntve run … “[6]


[1] Gretchen Sorin and Mary Aimonovitch, Through the Eyes of Others: African Americans and Identity in American Art, (Cooperstown, NY: Fenimore Art Museum), 40.

[2] Richard Wright,  Uncle Town’s Children, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004), 35-37.

[3] Langston Hughes, The Ways of White Folks (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 228.

[4] Ibid, 236.

[5] Ibid, 254-255.

[6] Wright, 123.

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