Amanda's Reviews > Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South

Segregation by Robert Penn Warren
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's review
Jun 10, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction

In this slim volume, originally published as a piece in Life Magazine, Robert Penn Warren records conversations he has with residents of the American South as they are facing the inevitable Supreme Court Decision to mandate de-segregation in schools.

I was struck by the prevailing attitude among the white segregationalists that this change was inevitable-- and even morally correct-- but that it should be fought against in order to honor traditions and to fight "progress", which is in the Southern view according to Warren, the frightening "great anonymity of the modern world".
A "rich businessman", who is an active segregationalist tells Warren:
"Yes, it's our own fault. If we'd ever managed to bring ourselves to do what we ought to have done for the Negro, it would be different now, if we'd managed to educate them, get them decent housing, decent jobs."
A similar acknowledgment of the role that whites have played in the instituational subjugation of African-Americans comes from a less genteely articulate white taxi driver:
"It ain't our hate, it's the hate hung on us by the old folks dead and gone. Not I mean to criticize the old folks, they done the best they knew, but that hate, we don't know how to shuck it. We got that G_dd___ hate stuck in our craw and can't puke it up. If white folks quit shoving the ni____ down and calling him a ni____ he could maybe get to be a asset to the South and the country. But how stop shoving?"

Among the African-Americans that Warren spoke to there was also a combativeness, but in their case it was a push for progress and change. As one man says:
"My boy is happy in the Negro school where he goes. I don't want him to go to the white school and sit by your boy's side. But I'd die fighting for his right to go."
Warren describes the difficulty of the black position, the conflict between the desire to rise up and live equally among the white people and the desire to rub their faces in the success that they can achieve on their own. He writes:
"After all the patience, after all the humility, after learning and living those virtues, do I have to learn magnanimity too?"

One of the most important insights that this book gave me was the absolute necessity of the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education decision. White Southerners in the book discuss the inevitablility of integration and the rightness of it but not one of them seems willing to step up and be an individual advocate of change. One man discusses how relieved local governments will be when the decision finally comes down so that they can pin integration on the court ruling and not have to take responsibility themselves for the change. There even seems to be a distinct guiilt and even a desire for this change among people who are working actively against it. When one man is asked if he would prefer for the South to be given the opportunity to work out its own race policies, he says:
"I don't think the problem is to learn to live with the Negro....It is to learn to live with ourselves....I don't think that you can live with yourself when you are humiliating the man next to you."
I'm sure that the picture has many more ugly moments than Warren presents, and that all of these morally conflicted people lived right alongside people that are filled with the most despicable sort of crass racial hatred. But I also feel pretty sure that without the Supreme Court's moral leadership that we would be living in a world that tolerates a great deal more inequity.

Particulary in our current political climate, I hear a lot of media types mentioning the race blindness of the current generation, and how young people's insensitivity to race has helped propel Barack Obama to the incredible heights that he has achieved. I have to wonder if that "race blindness" (which I am well aware is not an absolute truth) could have been achieved if children in the 1950's had not been ordered by the highest court in our nation to sit next to one another at school.
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Reading Progress

June 10, 2008 – Shelved
Started Reading
June 12, 2008 – Shelved as: non-fiction
June 12, 2008 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Tanyakaul00 (new)

Tanyakaul00 Hi Amanda, are you reading this book as a 'reading guide" to the book club book? BTW - I enjoy your book reviews very much.


Amanda Actually I was supposed to read the book in college and never did. I was browsing around the bookshelves in my apartment, came across it and realized that it actually sounded really interesting! And it's only 66 pages long, so I thought that the idea of finishing that old assignment didn't seem like a difficult undertaking.
I'm glad you like reading the book reviews. I like to write them for myself so that I don't just forget everything that I read or what I thought about it.
See you in July!

Larry Bassett It is now four years since you wrote this review. I am a northerner moved south and trying to understand the people I am living amongst. I saw a reference to this book in another book I am reading: Away Down South . What do you think as you re-read your review at the end of 2012?

Amanda Larry: In the current fights over gay rights I often think of this book and wonder if we just need the same push from the Supreme Court to just resolve this issue once and for all for us. It seems like a similar situation to me-- where no one person is going to want to shoulder the burden of calling for the change.

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