Margaret Walker on Poverty and Racial Conflict

Chapter 5 of Margaret Walker’s Jubilee could be read on its own as an essay. It carries some of the narrative threads of the novel, but it also offers a history lesson as well as a sociology lesson in addressing the issue of why so much conflict existed between black slaves and their poor white counterparts in the Plantation Era South.

Young Vyry, the daughter and slave of a plantation master sees the suffering and the contempt one for the other between the enslaved blacks and poor whites:

Always, too, there were the poor whites, po buckra, who lived back in the pine barrens and on the rocky hills. They suffered more than the black slaves for there was no one to provide them with the rations of corn meal and salt pork which was the daily lot of the slaves, and therefore the black people were taught by their owners to have contempt for this “poor white trash.” (59)

Grimes, the plantation overseer is among those whites who is almost as poor as the slaves he commands in the fields. He goes home to a wife who “could neither read nor write,” who suffers the same fears as the slaves of not having enough to eat even in times when the “marster” has plenty, yet she says, “We’uns is poor, but thank God, we’uns is white.” (63)

Here we have the root of the social system that left its legacy of hatred to blight the whole next century and beyond. Racism has thrived on poverty and lack of education. That’s where it still holds most of its sway.

Racism has also fed on myths of the Old South. People tell stories of heroic glory days. People like to believe in an ethnocentric birthright of gentility in the Gone with the Wind fashion. Yet most white southerners are not the descendants of plantation owners. The well-to-do made up only a small percentage of the population. It’s far more like if you are white and southern that your ancestors were dirt farmers barely managing to survive.

Those dirt farmers taught their children to hate, not because they were better people than the children of slaves or even better off, but because they had nothing else. They had no one else to hold in contempt as being lower on the social scale than themselves.

Read Jubilee. Spend a little extra time on chapter 5. It’s a great chapter. Walker shows a complex understanding of the various elements creating racial divisions.

We like to think we live in a post-racial society, but it only takes a Harry Reid with an unfortunate way with words to remind us we aren’t nearly there yet.

Racism is the cause of so many of our social conflicts even today. It is everyone’s fault and everyone’s responsibility. That’s why examining and reexamining and examining again the roots of our own attitudes, inherited or otherwise, is so important. That’s why everyone should be reading Margaret Walker.

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