Sunday, 4 October 2020

Book Review: West of Jim Crow: The Fight Against California's Color Line by Lynn Hudson ★★★★☆

I know very little about American civil rights history from the late 19th to early 20th century. This is not surprising; my focus has primarily been on Africa (especially South Africa) and on genocides in the 20th century. It has been interesting to learn that anti-miscegenation laws and job-colour bars weren't the invention of Apartheid South Africa but originated in North America. Specifically, a set of so-called Jim Crow laws emerged in America from about 1880 that sought to enforce racial segregation and these laws would be a highly influential on laws adopted by South Africa.

West of Jim Crow: The Fight Against California's Color Line by Lynn M. Hudson | Book Review

In West of Jim Crow: The Fight Against California's Color Line, Lynn M Hudson focuses on the African Americans who moved to California to escape Jim Crow, expecting freedom and the benefits of full citizenship but instead realising that Jim Crow and racial segregation were all too present in the west.

This is not simply a recounting of the racism, fear-mongering and obsession with eugenics that featured so prominently in white society for the century after the Reconstruction Era (although these are mentioned in some detail throughout the book). West of Jim Crow is about the tireless efforts of Black Americans to assert their citizen rights, establish respectability, secure equal opportunities and protect their men and women from the scourge of lynching and the rise of the KKK.

It is also notably about the role of Black women, their agency and the significant roles they took in journalism, activism and other roles to secure their rights both as women and as human beings. As Lynn M Hudson remarks on many occasions, just because there is little in the written records about Black women's struggles for freedom and activism, does not mean there wasn't significant agency and activism present.

West of Jim Crow is structured around six chapters, each concentrating on a specific event in Californian history:

  • Reconstruction: the initial gains and setbacks in the period following the Civil War, with the rise of Jim Crow and associated Jim Crow entertainments and minstrelsy
  • The Panama Pacific International Exposition: a look at the systematic erasure of civil rights gains, the emergence of the NAACP, the popularity of Birth of a Nation and the rise of eugenics
  • The Rise and Fall of Allensworth: the town founded by and for African Americans, doomed to fail because of misrepresentation, geographical and environmental issues
  • On Lynching: an account of the events that divided a country into those who supported lynching and those who were appalled by it; eerily prescient of Trump, tiki-torch marches and the gun lobby
  • On the Ku Klux Klan: fighting arson and intimidation while the KKK infiltrated law enforcement and local government in California
  • The Fight to Desegregate Pasadena's Municipal Swimming Pools: how activists began to use the damages of Jim Crow to argue for civil rights, winning the Pasadena pool case and later the Brown v Board of Education case

West of Jim Crow: The Fight Against California's Color Line by Lynn M. Hudson | Book ReviewWest of Jim Crow covers an incredible wealth of information and provides an interesting, readable account of African American history in California. Initially I felt a bit exhausted by the repetitive, circular mode of writing, featuring titbits and breadcrumbs followed by elaboration and exposition. I've noticed that this form of writing is favoured by many historians and while it can be taxing to read, the truth is it is preferable to a dry, linear account and also aids significantly in the reader's retention and comprehension of historical information.

Despite this small reservation, I give West of Jim Crow an excellent four out of five stars and highly recommend to those wishing to know about this particular area of Black history.

★★★★☆

West of Jim Crow: The Fight Against California's Color Line is available to purchase from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk (disclosure: affiliate links. I will earn a small amount if you purchase using these links, at no additional cost to you).

My thanks to University of Illinois Press and Netgalley for advance, electronic copy of this book.

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