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Over My Shoulder #27: on Southern chivalry, from James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912)

Here’s the rules:

  1. Pick a quote of one or more paragraphs from something you’ve read, in print, over the course of the past week. (It should be something you’ve actually read, and not something that you’ve read a page of just in order to be able to post your favorite quote.)

  2. Avoid commentary above and beyond a couple sentences, more as context-setting or a sort of caption for the text than as a discussion.

  3. Quoting a passage doesn’t entail endorsement of what’s said in it. You may agree or you may not. Whether you do isn’t really the point of the exercise anyway.

Here’s the quote. This one is unusual for my Over My Shoulder quotes, in that it comes from a novel, whereas all my previous quotations came from works of nonfiction. Specifically, this is from The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, by James Weldon Johnson. It seemed particularly appropriate in light of the recent battle over how best to write the introductory paragraph for WikiPedia: Robert E. Lee.

It was over before I realized that time had elapsed. Before I could make myself believe that what I saw was really happening, I was looking at a scorched post, a smoldering fire, blackened bones, charred fragments sifting down through coils of chain; and the smell of burnt flesh–human flesh–was in my nostrils.

I walked a short distance away and sat down in order to clear my dazed mind. A great wave of humiliation and shame swept over me. Shame that I belonged to a race that could be so dealt with; and shame for my country, that it, the great example of democracy to the world, should be the only civilized, if not the only state on earth, where a human being would be burned alive. My heart turned bitter within me. I could understand why Negroes are led to sympathize with even their worst criminals and to protect them when possible. By all the impulses of normal human nature they can and should do nothing less.

Whenever I hear protests from the South that it should be left alone to deal with the Negro question, my thoughts go back to that scene of brutality and savagery. I do not see how a people that can find in its conscience any excuse whatever for slowly burning to death a human being, or for tolerating such an act, can be entrusted with the salvation of a race. Of course, there are in the South men of liberal thought who do not approve lynching, but I wonder how long they will endure the limits which are placed upon free speech. They still cower and tremble before Southern opinion. Even so late as the recent Atlanta riot those men who were brave enough to speak a word in behalf of justice and humanity felt called upon, by way of apology, to preface what they said with a glowing rhetorical tribute to the Anglo-Saxon’s superiority and to refer to the great and impassable gulf between the races fixed by the Creator at the foundation of the world. The question of the relative qualities of the two races is still an open one. The reference to the great gulf loses force in the face of the fact that there are in this country perhaps three or four million people with the blood of both races in their veins; but I fail to see the pertinency of either statement subsequent to the beating and murdering of scores of innocent people in the streets of a civilized and Christian city.

The Southern whites are in many respects a great people. Looked at from a certain point of view, they are picturesque. If one will put oneself in a romantic frame of mind, one can admire their notions of chivalry and bravery and justice. In this same frame of mind an intelligent man can go to the theatre and applaud the impossible hero, who with his single sword slays everybody in the play except the equally impossible heroine. So can an ordinary peace-loving man sit by a comfortable fire and read with enjoyment of the bloody deeds of pirates and the fierce brutality of Vikings. This is the way in which we gratify the old, underlying animal instincts and passions; but we should shudder with horror at the mere idea of such practices being realities in this day of enlightened and humanitarianized thought. The Southern whites are not yet living quite in the present age; many of their general ideas hark back to a former century, some of them to the Dark Ages. In the light of other days they are sometimes magnificent. Today they are often cruel and ludicrous.

–James Weldon Johnson (1912), The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, ISBN 0-14-018402-3, pp. 136–138.

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1 reply to Over My Shoulder #27: on Southern chivalry, from James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. labyrus

    I read through the discussion over that wikipedia article. As a student of History, I’m frankly shocked at how anti-historical some of the arguments were. This sort of highlights a lot of why I don’t trust Wikipedia when it comes to History, there’s too many computer scientests trying to write about history, and mistaking the pop culture consensus on a topic with the actual consensus of historians. A lot of wikipedia editors also don’t seem to understand that in the Historical method, a partial, primary source is much more valuable than an “impartial” secondary source.

    Just look at the article on Christopher Columbus, or any of the other Colonizers of the Americas, and you’ll find a whole lot of national myth and precious little substance. Well, actually, now that I’ve checked, the article on Columbus is significantly better than it was the last time I checked, but I think my point still stands.

    I don’t know how you managed the stamina to keep arguing with these people. I would’ve gotten sick of arguing the same point over and over pretty quickly.

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