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Posted under: Opinion

Young, Black And Southern: How Being Born In The US After Jim Crow Expands My Perspective On Race

Race through a Joshua generation looking glass.

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My grandfather’s name was Morris, and he was made of that kind of steel that could only be forged from a lifetime spent in the mouth of America’s racial madness in the Jim Crow south during the Great Depression and the Second World. He was a big man with skin the color of rich soil, salt and pepper hair, rough hands from decades working as a laborer in the local refinery in north Baton Rouge, and a voice made raspy by cigarette smoke. His eyes were kind and his mind was sharp, even after two strokes had slowed him down. He was a hard man who delighted in me and my brother, his only grandchildren. All he had to give us was a shotgun house and decades of wisdom which flowed freely with some urgency.

“ I’m glad I lived long enough to see us have a chance to live a life where we can thrive rather than merely survive” was a favorite saying of his that he’d pull out whenever we sat on the porch of his home, not far from the banks of the Mississippi river, and talked about his life over the hum of cicadas hidden in the trees of old south Baton Rouge. As a younger man, I didn’t understand what he meant aside from an observation about how time changes. I now live in New Orleans, a short walk from the St. Charles streetcar line, and the older I have become the more I think on his words. My grandfather loved me, but I think our lived experiences were imperceptible to each other because although we were from African American Southern men, we were from two different iterations of America. 

I am a member of a particular subset of African American Xinneals and millennials who are sometimes called the Joshua generation, as we are the first generation of Blacks in the U.S. born outside of slavery or Jim Crow. So, like the Israelites led by Joshua in the Bible, I was born into the “promised land” of America after segregation. For the Joshua generation, Jim Crow is something we study in history classes. Our generation has been marked by racial moments such as the Los Angeles Riots, Hurricane Katrina, the election of Barack Obama, the rise of Black Lives Matter and, currently, the Trump administration, but not a social contract explicitly built around racism like previous generations were born, lived and died under.

When Keith Olbermann announced that Barack Obama had been elected President, I cried. I was elated but at that moment, I really missed my grandfather. He had died a few years earlier and he deserved to see that. I think many Black people felt that way about someone close to them on the night of November 4, 2008. I missed him again in the early morning hours of November 9, 2016 when Trump won the election, but for drastically different reasons. I wanted him to give me wisdom because he had lived through white supremacist terrorism and a public bigotry far worse than what Trump is capable of, so far.

As I watch the current culture war that pits the identity politics of marginalized communities and their white allies against a resurgence of white nationalism driven by the fear of reciprocity at the hands of an alliance of people of color for past deprivations, I can’t help but mull over my own lived experience in the Joshua generation. In my parents’ home, there is an oak end table lined with black and white photos of my family going back into the early 1900s. There is one particular photo of my great-great-grandfather, Thomas, and his daughters standing outside of his home. My great-grandmother, whom I knew as a boy, is among them. It is a strange feeling to realize that in all of American history that I am among the first generation of both African Americans and Americans as a whole born in a liberal democracy. I am 37 years old.

In a way, my parents are, and grandparents were, immigrants from Dixie. They were born and grew into adulthood as second class citizens in the United States under the brutal social contract called segregation. They witnessed the violent death spasms of Jim Crow with their own eyes. I think that the “facts don’t care about your feelings” mentality so embedded in the American intellectual landscape ignore how recent 154 years really is and how long the echoes of that time linger in living memory. It is true that I, at 37 years of age, knew no slaves, but in their youth, my grandparents knew men and women who had been the property of other men and women. The brutality of the Jim Crow world is too recent to be disregarded as an ancient memory.

Slavery and Jim Crow society is fused into the very DNA of the Joshua generation. My grandmother’s name was Elaine; she was lovely and made of the same kind of steel as her husband Morris. Barefoot, she stood just over five feet tall with light brown hair, hazel color eyes, skin the color of milk, a soprano singing voice and a love of an ice-cold beer on a humid Louisiana afternoon. My grandmother’s very existence was illegal in 1921 Norwood, Louisiana, because her father was white and her mother was Black. My family doesn’t quite know how she came to be and she wouldn’t talk about it when she was alive. But there are stories which assert that my great-grandmother, a seamstress in a family of sharecroppers, was coerced into a sexual liaison with the white son of the plantation’s owners; my grandmother was the result. We do know that this “relationship,” for lack of a better term, became a plaisage arrangement in which my great-grandfather financially provided for his victim and his daughter. She grew up in an America where being “mixed” was a non-sequitur to the point of her and my great grandmother having to move to Baton Rouge to avoid the scandal of my grandmother’s birth and so she could blend in with the lightskin creoles in the city. I still have white cousins out there somewhere, but I doubt they know we, the Black family produced by their ancestor’s indulgence of the Jim Crow way of things, exist. My family’s story is not unique in the south.

My parents and grandparents were products of the Baton Rouge’s Black ghettos in the literal sense, as Black people could not live anywhere outside of these designated areas. They are also part of the generation of African American southerners who found gainful employment in the civil service and moved out of ghettos in search of a healthier place to raise children. I was born 14 years after the Civil Rights act of 1968 marked the end of segregation society into the integrated South. At first glance, Baton Rouge is a strange hybrid city that sits on the banks of the Mississippi River beneath an intermittent canopy of Water Oaks, and is situated between the Cajun cultural sphere of Acadiana and the Creole cultural sphere centered in New Orleans. For many, it is a place to be driven through on their way to New Orleans.

From the west bank city of Port Allen, it stretches jaggedly along the eastern shore, alternating between squalor, industry, administrative buildings, the city’s version of opulence, and is bookended by the stateliness of two different universities — one historically Black and the other predominantly white. It is simultaneously an industrial city built around one of the largest oil refineries in the world, a college town and the state capital. It is also a racially segregated place with a tension between Black and White so heavy that one can feel it on their skin and in their lungs like humidity.

Down south, identity politics is the way of things. It has always been the way of things. Baton Rouge is a city haunted by the ghosts of its historic racial struggles between its large and politically active Black underclass and it’s equally as politically active white upper class. The same city that produced H. Rap Brown and whose 1953 bus boycott provided a then unknown Martin Luther King, Jr. with the model for the protest that introduced him to the world, also produced David Duke.

I grew up in an integrated neighborhood, which was largely surrounded by woods and pastureland until I was an adolescent. I grew up alongside the white children and grandchildren of individuals who could have been eager participants in the terror that stalked my parents and grandparents. Some of those relationships were warm. Others were cold. Some were hostile. I was able to go into public spaces and enjoy public accommodation as a boy that my grandfather would not experience until he was a man well into his middle age.

More than mere movement, compared to the earlier generations of my family I was and still am a child of privilege because I was born into an integrated America, although my older family members still speak of the Black communities they came from being full of institutions and establishments long lost in the transition away from segregation. Indeed, something I have noticed from my own position, looking at the wider American society and the African American culture of my parents, is a Black culture with its own body of art, music, academic thought, theology and political science. I find the Joshua generation’s recognition of this truth is expressed in the sentiment “unapologetically Black.”

Navigating the contours of race was difficult for me because my parents and grandparents, who love me, could not advise me in how to navigate experiences they had never had; our generational circumstances were too radically different. When I was a teenager, I was asked out on a date by a white girl. My parents sent me and my brother to Catholic schools for elementary through high school. My first elementary and middle school was small, racially mixed and progressive. I grew up with the people I started with in Pre-K all the way through high school.

We attended our first parties and, later, our first school dances together. The white girl in question had known me for most of my life so, looking back, our teen-age romance was the most natural thing in the world — even in the setting of my sometimes racially balkanized high school.

I went to my father and grandfather to ask them about where the white girl and I should go when my grandfather said plainly, “You don’t need to be going out with this white girl.” Sensing that I was confused, my father said, “Nick, you have to understand that from where your granddad and I sit, this is a dangerous thing because we’ve seen Black men get hurt over this same issue. Now, you two should go to a movie as that is a great first date, but I want you to be careful, OK?”

It had never occurred to me that the color of a romantic interest could lead to my death until that moment. This was the first time I realized there was little continuity between the world the earlier generations of my family came from and the one I occupied. I realized then, and this realization has remained with me since, that I would have to translate a lot of the advice my parents gave me and, in a few circumstances, I would have to figure it out on my own. 

This is what members of the Joshua generation are currently doing: attempting to adapt concepts and references from the past while inventing new ideas altogether to describe our complex present. The end of Jim Crow marked the end of state sponsored resistance against America as a creole culture born of a multiplicity of diverse people. The Joshua generation is the product of this unencumbered creolization. Creolization produces new identities because it is the result of people coming together in a cultural exchange. Like the rest of the western hemisphere, this is the American story. Both the anti-racist left and the alt-right grapple with this reality. This is why ideas like “intersectionality” are so popular among the anti-racist left; they come the closest to describing and accepting lived experience in a creole culture. This is also why the alt-right has embraced creole culture’s polar opposite idea of “blood and soil”; they reject the creole culture they were born into.

Of course, creolization will not rid America of racism. Just as new ethnicities are born from creole communities, new racisms are too; but to assert that America is not a creole society is a lie. The racial front of the culture war has always been between those who embrace diversity birthing new identities and those who wish to maintain “purity.”

Something that older generations have yet to realize is the inherent messiness that comes with diversity because racial borders blur the longer people are in contact with one another — this is simply part of the lived experience of the Joshua generation. Messiness is important because it recognizes inconvenient realities such as the racism between and within communities of color, how different communities of color have different histories with the white power structure, and how white supremacy has been written into laws for centuries as central to any understanding of how race functions in America. Nuance and context are messy things, but both are key in navigating America’s creole reality.

The proper context for understanding American race relations is this: Jim Crow ended 50 years ago. Before the passage of the various Civil Rights laws, the goal of a great deal of domestic policy in the United States was the continuance of white caste rule. Until this point, America was neither a republic nor an actual democracy; it was a caste-based society dressed in a democratic facade. America was founded as a slave state. In order to protect the status quo, many states ­resorted to state-sponsored terrorism — this is still in living memory for millions of people. Down south, we exist in the aftermath of a decades-long failed white nationalist terror campaign.

Has there been progress since the end of Jim Crow? Of course, and it is intellectually dishonest to assert otherwise. America has transitioned from a race as caste society into one where systemic racism is, or should be, considered a national threat. The messy truth is that millions of Americans still suffer because of pervasive racism and there has been transformative progress in race relations since the collapse of Jim Crow, but we still live with unspoken and uncomfortable truths. The Joshua generation is trying to give the unspoken substance.

One of the more uncomfortable truths of race relations is that the racism of the dominant group and the racism of the dominated group are not the same. For white racists, the inferiority of people of color sits at the center of a cosmology which justifies their dominance; their intellectual project is finding any proof to buttress this claim. For racists of color, racism most commonly manifests as resentment.

My grandfather was a gentle man with whom I have many childhood memories of fishing and Sunday afternoon drives down the sunbathed river road nestled between the levee and the seemingly endless green fields of the floodplain. He also hated white people because white society on all levels had made his life hard. He was a genuine “colored man” born in 1916 who had to navigate the America where lynching, pogroms and pauperization were the facts of life for Black people. My grandfather kept a house full of guns “in case those Klansmen ever get it in their minds to try and test me and mine.” Frankly, his life experiences were impossible for me to grasp until I got older and he, my grandmother and my parents began teaching me how to accept the goodwill of white allies and resist the emotional corrosion that came from the everyday slights from white racists.

Today, we call these slights microaggressions, and it would turn out this was one subject that I would not need to translate the older generations of my family’s experience for a new world. While some thinkers and academics dismiss complaints about microaggressions as symptomatic of a victimhood culture, in reality, microaggressions can be radicalizing agents because they accumulate until they become macro level resentment.

How much racism can people experience before they lash out? Modern microaggressions are only micro in comparison to the macroaggressions people like my grandfather went through during Jim Crow. Such anger being dismissed as “snow flaking” festers until it becomes racism itself.

If identity and lived experience form the politics of later life, then is it any wonder that the politics of race are shifting as the Joshua generation ascends to positions of cultural prominence? The identity politics of the Joshua generation seeks to enunciate a politics that reconciles proximity to a living history of human bondage with events like the election of the first Black President. Notions like anti-blackness, misogynoir, intersectionality, borderlands, allyship and ideas yet to be articulated will become part of the new pop cultural lexicon of race as the Joshua generation inherit the society — until the next generation begins to describe their own time and the cycle begins again somewhere in the promised land.

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Nicholas Mitchell is a research fellow at Loyola University New Orleans specializing in Race and Racism. His articles have appeared in the TImes-Picayune, the goodmen project and alternet.

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Nicholas Mitchell is an essayist and critical race scholar practitioner. His articles have appeared in the TImes-Picayune, the goodmen project, and alternet.