Richard Wright, growing up black in the Jim Crow south, wrote down his autobiographical sketch in The Ethics of Living Jim Crow, displaying racial inequality while also explaining his distressing experience of discrimination and oppression. Wright's work focuses on Jim Crow Laws, which were oppressive laws against the blacks. As such, Jim Crow Laws, which were brought by Thomas Dartmouth, were local and state laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern states of the U.S. (Little, n.p). Wright elaborates his traumatic experience about discrimination and oppression in this autobiographical sketch. For instance, in 1900, black voters were not allowed to vote, as constitutional conventions required people to vote, for example, an employer noticed one of his laborers in line to vote and fired him on the spot (Pildes 300). Jim Crow Laws isolated the blacks and this relates to Wright’s book in that it highlighted how oppressive the whites were. Therefore, it can be said that Richard Wrights, The Ethics of Living Jim Crow, illustrates and reflects his harsh childhood lessons of learning how to live in a society where whites are associated with vices of prejudice, discrimination, and oppression against blacks.
Jim Crow Laws: Race Relations
Wrights speaks about how black people experienced a society where whites were the dominant race. White people viewed themselves as superior to the blacks, which forced the blacks to act in certain ways, and more particularly, as being oppressed. Wright highlights how white people were dominant by showing the way they reacted when confronted with black people that force the black to choose a manner in which they react. At his first job at an optical company, he had to be careful to the way he responded to the white people. He had to respond with "yessirs and nosirs"(161), and he was also "very careful to pronounce my sirs distinctly"(161). Whites required respect from blacks, and in most instances, they did show respect, which is shown as oppression because the whites did not behave inferior in respect to black people. Even, the whites expected the blacks to know their inferior position in the society. Throughout his work at the optical company, Pease and Morrie were told by the boss to help Wright in his workplace. Wright felt that he was not learning much, so he to asked them for help. Morrie responded, "Whut yuh tryin' t' do, nigger, get smart?"(162) and then he went to Pease, expecting him to be more helpful but Pease also responded rudely saying , this is a white mans work around here, and you better watch yourself! (162). His coworkers wanted him to behave like a typical black man who was expected to obey white people.
The superiority that White American had over black people made the black people fear to perform certain actions. At his second job, when portering at a clothing store Wright boss and his son beat a black women for not paying rent, Wright was too scared to look at what was happening that he " watched out at the corner of my eye, never slackening the strokes of my chamois upon the brass"(164). Due to the oppression, the White American created, Wright feared to look straight to the see what was happening that made him look from the corner of his eye in order for white American not to notice. When Wright entered the store, the boss offered him cigarettes and he displayed his inner conflict of not wanting to take it but he took it because he felt he had to obey them. He reveals that they offered him cigarettes "to keep my mouth shout"(164). In this incidence, it shows his oppression as he was too scared to disobey the offer they have offered for having the cigarette and was at the same time forced in a way not to mention to anyone what has happened. These events indicate how the black were entrapped over the white people and were forced to do what the white expected of them.
Black Women and Men in the Era of Jim Crow
In response, the blacks understood their limitations in the society, that of having a less important role, which was accompanied by a fear attitude as they believed that only by doing so they would survive. The first time Wright learned about his harsh society was when he was a kid the white kids used broken bottles to fight his gangs that were using cinders. Wright that night learned the cruel reality of white peoples as he says, they were absolutely right in clouting with the broken milk bottle (160). Wright had given in to the discrimination and oppression, he understood that the white American have power over them and that they have to obey them instead of fighting back, thus accepting his inferior role in society. When Wright's mom came back home that night she said, "How come yuh awways fightin'?"(160). Wright's mother has accepted the cruelty of the society of being discriminated against and of having less importance. The mothers role in the story was to highlight that Wright had grown in a society with whites that have accepted discrimination and oppression from the whites.
Another event was when Wright was trying to defend the negro maid when a white night watchman slapped her on the buttocks. He was ashamed that he was not able to defend her as he was forced by the white watchman to say that he liked it when in reality he did not like it. The Negro maid says, “Dont be a fool! yuh couldn't help it!” (168). This shows that the blacks had to fear every consequence. The maid knew that Wright had no power against the whites, and if he opposed them, he could be subjected to violence. For this reason, Wright's work shows that the only way that the blacks would maintain peace and tranquility and their places in the society was when they fully obeyed the commands they received from whites.
Black People Suffering in Jim Crow Laws
White Americans acted in ways that showed their superiority, and their crudity thus oppressing the black people. At his second job, when mentioned previously how the white boss beat the black woman, the police "grabbed her and accused her of being drunk"(164). The black people were not even protected from the authorities like the police or government. Not only did they not have protection from the authorities but they also blamed them for being drunk which shows the harshness of the white people and the world they are trapped in. At times they would also insult them by calling them "nigger", "son-of-a-bitch" ,"lucky bastard", and " granny dodger". These were mentioned in parts of the essay when they felt the black people were exceeding their limits. The words are suppressive, thereby imposing oppression to blacks. Another incident that shows white people's superiority is when a bell-boy was forced to marry a black maid and when she gave birth the child was "lighter in complexion"(167). This indicated the black woman was raped, and that whites forcefully made blacks to do things against their will. These all actions and words show their superiority and injustice against the blacks.
Not only did the white people emotionally hurt their feelings but they also hurt them physically. The blacks were physically beaten by the whites, which was considered an act that was common at that time. The severity of the broken milk bottle that white kids used to fight, that was mentioned previously at his childhood, had injured Wright that it "bled profusely"(160). This shows how severely they injured them, but they were still lucky that they were not lynched. If black people performed or spoke in a way that disturbed the whites they would lynch them till they die. Which can be proved in a part of the essay when Richard's bike tire has been punctured. A white man offers to give him a ride. The car was filled with white young men, and Richard refuses to have a drink. The white people beat and throw him out of the truck. One of the boy points out "if yuh'd said tha' t' somebody else, yuh might've been a dead nigger now"(166). Black would be immediately killed if they disobeyed the whites, expressing how severely they were trapped. These white men revealed how superior the white people are, that being beaten was considered to be lucky. During his second job, when the white women had been beaten up Wright says, the woman stumbled out, bleeding, crying, and holding her stomach (164). She was beaten because she did not behave as the whites expected. As such, beating is a form of oppressing others, and thus, the whites, through physical harm and beating, oppressed the blacks.
Wright resists oppression because instead of accepting the situation and acting similarly to the other blacks, he learned to resist the whites. He did not observe oppressive library rules. In his mind, he understands that he is breaking the rules, but he still acts contrarily. For this reason, Wright's different thinking methods and ways, best described as the methods of Living Jim Crow are further presented towards the end of the chapter, and thus, this shows that he knew how whites oppressed the blacks.
However, Wright is very instrumental in opposing the oppressive means and methods that the whites employed to make the blacks inferior. He broke the rules in the library showing that he did not want to be oppressed by the whites, even though he knew that breaking the rules would result in him being punished. At the end of the story, when he enters the elevator, he is aware that he is supposed to remove his hat, but he does not. A white man helped him remove his hat, Wright does not say ‘thank you’ which shows his pride that he is not giving in to white people anymore which the essay foreshadows revolution. Why did Wright choose to title the piece The Ethics of Living Jim Crow? "The Ethics" in the title is ironic because instead of learning morality he learned the reality of how to live in his cruel society. In each part of his Jim Crow education, he experiences a punishment and defeat. Throughout his Jim Crow education, he learned that being beaten up is considered to be lucky because people mentioned to him how white people would kill them to death, if not lucky. Which displays in his autobiography sketch the entrapment black people are kept under.
Little, Becky. Who Was Jim Crow? August 6, 2015. Web. June 6, 2017.
Pildes, Richard. Democracy, anti-democracy, and the canon, 2000, pp. 12-27. Print.
Little Becky http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/08/150806-voting-rights-act-anniversary-jim-crow-segregation-discrimination-racism-history/
Richard H Pildes: http://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/168068/17_02_Symposium_Pildes.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
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