Although slavery in America was legally abolished in 1865, the tension between different racial groups remained well into the 20th century and beyond. While the South continued to be a place of extreme racism and increasing violence, the North appeared to be a bit more accommodating, although still not a true area of equality. This difference can be seen in two literary works, Anne Moody’s autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi, and Nella Larsen’s novel, Passing. These illustrate the contrast between North and South, and the struggles that black women had to endure in the twentieth century.
Most of the legislation passed and movements relating to the rights of both minorities and women occurred during the twentieth century. Even in this modern era, giant leaps were taken to make equality a reality for a massive number of Americans. Following the Civil War, the majority of blacks in the South remained where they were, as their rural farming skills were really only needed in the plantations of the South. Furthermore, the former slaves considered family to be an extremely important part of one another’s lives, and didn’t want to leave family members behind by moving north.
The children of these former slaves, and many generations following, were subject to the racism that had long been in the hearts and minds of those living in the South. This racial bias can be seen blatantly in Coming of Age in Mississippi. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, blacks were treated with disdain and contempt, especially in the South. A slight contrast to this is the treatment of blacks in the North during the twentieth century. Passing tells the story of two women that could, because of their light skin tone, “pass” off as whites.
Although this is a work of fiction, it illustrates a very real way of life for blacks in the North. The northern states had long been known as a safer, more accepting place for blacks, although segregation was still in place. Letters of black migrants, circa 1917, read, “…I sure am [anxious] to make it in the north because these southern white people [are] so mean and they seems to be getting worse…” and, “…[at] many places here in this state the only thing that the black man gets is a peck of meal… and he is treated like a slave. ”
This migration reoccurs throughout the twentieth century. For example, in 1960, more than two-thirds of all African Americans lived in urban areas of the North. Cities such as Detroit and Chicago were largely populated by blacks, while whites were moving out of the urban areas and into suburbs at the time. Most of the realtors in the suburbs, in an attempt to keep up a monotonous image of perfection, found loopholes in the law to avoid renting or selling houses to blacks. This shows that the North was a more “friendly” region than the South.
The South was home to a staggering amount of riots and random violence, and there was outrage following the prohibition of segregation. Blacks were treated as inferiors in the South as well. As Moody tells of an incident at a local movie theater, she writes, about her white friends, “I had never really thought of them as white before. Now all of the sudden they were white, and their whiteness made them better than me. ” Although this had been going on for centuries in America, it was not until the twentieth century that real progress was made to change the way things were.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, from a jail cell in Alabama, “So segregation is not only politically, economically, and sociologically unsound, but is morally wrong and sinful. ” The vicious disrespect for blacks was in itself a reason to stay away from the Southern states, but many citizens had no desire to uproot their families. It wasn’t only blacks who were dealing with inequality in America during the twentieth century. Women also faced a great deal of adversity in their attempts to gain equal rights. It wasn’t until 1920 that women were even granted the right to vote.
Around this time, there was also a large amount of controversy regarding the issuing of birth control. Margaret Sanger, an advocate for the medicinal drugs, declared, “Women can develop this power only in one way; by the exercise of responsibility, by the exercise of judgment, reason, or discrimination. ” Even though the Church was against the use of birth control for religious reasons, its use had more of a connotation of power for women. Although these legal rights were granted to them, women still had an unspoken place in society.
They were to be homemakers and housewives. This image became particularly popular during the 1950s. The ideal “nuclear” family consisted of a father, mother, and children. Women that didn’t marry weren’t taken seriously, and those who got divorced weren’t either. This life, in the nuclear family, was necessary for survival for many women. A woman’s wages simply wouldn’t support her, and certainly not her children. This left women trapped – they only had one socially and financially acceptable choice for their lives.
An interesting component of this picturesque life, however, was the fact that these women and families were almost always white, especially in the South. The life that Anne Moody illustrates for her audience is nothing like the image of the nuclear family. She lives with extended family, has a mother who works, a stepfather with whom she has a strange relationship, and has a father that deserts her family to start another. This was all happening during the 1950s and 1960s, when the nuclear family was beginning to form into its standard image.
In 1959, Vice President Richard Nixon traveled to the Soviet Union to show Nikita Khrushchev a typical a view of American life. Presenting a model kitchen from a suburb, Nixon stated, “In America, we like to make life easier for women… ” This, however, was an extreme contrast to Moody’s home life. She and her mother had to work many jobs just to keep food on the table. Even the Vice President considered the typical white family to be a justifiable picture of America, while blacks in the South were struggling to get by.
Meanwhile, the black nuclear family was a bit more likely in the North, even in the 1920s. Larsen’s book describes a family of four, consisting of a mother, father, son and daughter. This image was accepted in the North, although it was considered somewhat strange. At the dances the Redfields attend, even though whites and blacks are able to be in the same room without conflict, there is still tension. Brian, Irene’s husband, says of the dances, “Pretty soon the coloured people won’t be allowed in at all, or will have to sit in the Jim Crowed sections. This shows, once again, that the North has been more accommodating for people and families of all races, even though equality was still not a reality. America had still not accepted the idea of equal rights for all men. Even though many politicians and citizens claimed to be open to racial and gender equality, the underlying slight prejudices like those that Richard Nixon inadvertently possessed were preventing many Americans from gaining the rights they deserved. Because of these prejudices, the violent citizens who were opposed to equal rights felt as though they could get away with anything.
Riots were started over the integration of schools, such as Little Rock Central High in Arkansas, as parents and townspeople shouted obscenities at the black students walking to school. One mother shouted to her white children, “Don’t stay in there with those niggers! ” This behavior was, for some reason, permissible in the American society. The lack of action taken to prevent behavior like this is why it took so long for civil rights to truly be achieved. Finally, in 1964, the United States passed Public Law 82-352 (78 Stat. 241), forbidding the discrimination on the basis of race and sex in hiring, promoting, and firing.
Not allowing Americans to discriminate against fellow Americans was the biggest step the United States took towards true equality. The twentieth century saw the greatest struggle for equality in regards of both race and gender. It also saw the greatest amount of progress for the advancement of groups experiencing prejudice on the basis of those traits. Both Larsen and Moody give descriptions of the lives of black women in America, and while their stories do contrast in relation to North v. South, both describe a life that was unequal to others because of the barriers of their skin color and sex.