Most histories are written as “top-down” or “bottom-up.” Glenda Gilmore, however, uses “bottom-up” and “middle-up” in Gender and Jim Crow, a study of middle-class black women in turn-of-the-century North Carolina. In particular, she focuses on Sarah Dudley Pettey, using her to explore the social construction of race and gender as it related to (and was affected by) the politics of white supremacy.
Gilmore’s conclusions, based on her research, are twofold:
1) that the disciplines and subfields into which historians have divided history obscure the way people actually lived, and have actually aided in the burial of black resistance from our collective past, and
2) that if southern history is to be revised to portray a more realistic vision of the past, historians must include and analyze new information about African-Americans and women; understand that race and gender are socially constructed; and reconceptualize notions of what is public and what is private.
Gilmore’s use of Pettey’s evolving life to argue that both race and gender took on new and different meanings is excellent and very well done. She clearly shows how, for the black middle class, the private was public, that one private decision or action, anything not a carefully considered strategic move, could spell doom for an entire race. The public body politic was inevitably tied to the personal lives of the black middle class, especially after the disfranchisement of black males and the enfranchisement of (white) women.
(Or, why Gilmore’s chief failing doesn’t make the book a failure)
Gilmore’s one failure is not including true class analysis. However, she does explain how white supremacists — among them Furnifold Simmons, Josephus Daniels and Charles Aycock — used class divisions among whites to promote their disfranchisement rhetoric. The triple whammy of African-American men holding public office (effectively “holding dominion” over white males), rapid industrialization and urbanization, she argues, cemented in their minds the idea that black men rose to prominence only to seek out the white women. This allowed them to portray the black middle class not as progressive, industrious citizens striving for a better life, but as dangerous degenerates who sought to destroy the white race. It also allowed them to politicize working-class whites, destroying any possible biracial class alliance that might have emerged through the Populist Party or among cotton mill workers.
The “limits of the possible” is the crucial theme of the book. “What is possible?” and “what is not?” are questions she asks throughout the narrative when discussing those who stepped out of the carefully constructed idea of race and/or gender. She also raises the controversial question of how to judge those men and women whose roles were to mitigate circumstances instead of working to correct injustice. In this respect Gilmore is certainly on the “road to Memphis,” following in Jacquelyn Hall’s footsteps in trying to understand the roles southern women and African-Americans played in southern politics in the years before 1960. Most of all, however, she shows that only by studying the “politics of the oppressed” will historians be able to understand the full breadth and scope of southern history.