*Editor’s Note: Daniel Brook, author of “The Accident of Color,” this week makes a tour of Memphis and North Mississippi.
Today, Thursday June 27, at 6 p.m., Brook will read and sign copies of “The Accident of Color” at Novel Bookstore, in Memphis. Tomorrow, Friday June 28, in Oxford, he will read and sign copies of his book at Off-Square Books, at 5:30 p.m. On Saturday, June 29, in the Mississippi Delta, at Turnrow Book Co. in Greenwood, he will read and sign copies of his book at 2 p.m.
New Orleans sometimes seems an outpost of the carefree, Creole Caribbean. At other times it is the deeply racist citadel of a state that lies farther south than Mississippi.
Charleston is the charming city that gave birth to Low Country cuisine, with its seafood and fresh vegetables and African roots. It is also the secessionist hotbed where dyspeptic slaveowners decided that their honor and their cause demanded that they fire the first shot of the Civil War.
“The Accident of Color,” by David Brook, examines the checkered history of race and racism in these two Southern cities. The book focuses on Reconstruction and Redemption, the period in which the end of slavery unsettled traditional Southern society, until white politicians won back control with chicanery and violence. Yet this is not simply a chapter of Southern history. It is a study in how racial animus disrupted societies that were often open, even liberal.
In 1835, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that whiteness did not depend upon race. Whatever the actual “admixture of Negro blood,” the court held, someone who was deemed white by others and “exercised the privileges of a white man” counted as white: “ A man of worth, honesty, industry and respectability should have the rank of a white man, while a vagabond of the same degree of blood should be confined to the inferior caste.”
Outsiders who visited Charleston – and even more so, New Orleans – were puzzled by the intricate racial distinctions that natives drew. At concerts, citizens who looked English sat in the second balcony, assigned to mulattoes, while dark-skinned listeners who were reputed to have Spanish blood took their place on the first balcony, among whites.
New Orleans’ most notable Confederate soldier was Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the artillery general who trained the cannon that fired on Fort Sumter. “Beauregard, with his bronzed skin and regal cheekbones, looked more like a general from a Mexican army than an American one,” Brook comments. He was a “white Creole,” with a dark complexion that his family ascribed (whatever others suspected) to descent from Italian nobility.
Before the war, differences in skin color mattered less than the distinction between free and slave. After the war, the dividing line was drawn between those who lacked black blood (or could deny it), and those to whom blackness was reputed. Race does not create racism, Brook argues. Rather, racism creates race. “With race-based rights now the law of the land, racism was real even if race was not.”
“At one time, mulattoes who looked like whites used to do what they wanted to do,” one black Southerner recalled. “But after the Jim Crow laws made everything strict . . . we got to the place where they had to identify themselves as a race.”
Brook illustrates that the imposition of Jim Crow white supremacy, like its dismantling by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, was a huge, complicated event that moved by fits and starts.
Sometimes black authority was suddenly shattered by riots, by shootings – by pitched street battles, with white militiamen storming government buildings. Other times it eroded slowly, over decades, as black policemen retired and were replaced by white men. It had a quiet upper-class bias: the “black” legislators of Reconstruction were mostly well-off “Creoles of color,” or members of the Brown Fellowship Society, “the mixed-race relatives of Charleston’s leading white families.”
Often the race war was fueled by desperate hypocrisy. In early 1875, when white “Regulators” began turning dark-skinned children out of New Orleans public schools, one teenaged girl frightened them off. She was not a Negro, she told them; she was the daughter of their leader, Davidson Penn. Her name (how significant!) was Blanche. Census-takers listed Blanche as white, but her mother was a young quadroon woman. Her father, the former Confederate colonel who headed the paramilitary White League, was himself “so dark in his features that he was beyond racial suspicion only on account of his vociferous white supremacism.”
In Charleston, a running battle raged over black admissions to the University of South Carolina. In New Orleans, racial issues were fought out over streetcar seating – leading finally to Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that black travelers could be required to move to “separate but equal” railroad cars.
Homer Plessy, the traveler in question, would not have counted as black in South Carolina. (The South Carolina “Black Code” declared that anyone with more than one-eighth Negro blood was black. Plessy had one black great-grandparent; by Jim Crow’s insidious math, he was an octoroon, but nothing more.) On the 1920 census, he would be classified as white. His lawyers argued that railroad seating should be color-blind: race was so evasive and illusory a concept that it should not be used to create a second-class category of citizenship. Brook underlines this argument in his closing pages:
“In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional . . . . But the Brown decision was not a complete posthumous victory for Homer Plessy. The Kansas plaintiffs in Brown argued that Americans had different races but should all be treated equally nonetheless. Homer Plessy of New Orleans had argued a far more radical point – that Americans didn’t have distinct races. We had all been mixing for centuries, whether we acknowledged it openly or not.”
American attempts to understand race supply a history of absurdities and mirthless ironies. Brook, born in Brooklyn, now lives and writes in New Orleans – an epicenter of this engagement. He has written a clear-eyed, provocative, and remarkably readable book.
“The Accident of Color: A Story of Race in Reconstruction.” By Daniel Brook. W.W. Norton & Company. 344 pp. $27.95.
Allen Boyer is Book Editor for HottyToddy.com.