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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Segregation

Robert Gwathmey, Poll Tax Country, oil on canvas, 1945
Poll Tax Country
Life Under Segregation
- A Negro Nurse, "More Slavery at the South," essay, Independent, 25 January 1912
- Richard Wright, "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch," essay, Federal Writers' Project, 1937
- Robert Gwathmey, Poll Tax Country, oil on canvas, 1945 (PDF)

Despite its brevity, "More Slavery in the South" persuasively charts the widespread injustices afflicting African Americans. Employed as a servant since the age of ten, the author draws upon thirty years of experience—as a house-girl, chambermaid, cook, and finally a nurse—working for urban white families. In detailing the long hours, subsistence wages, and extensive duties, she makes a convincing case that despite "a nominal freedom, [black servants] are literally slaves." The unnamed narrator likewise alludes to the recurring sexual exploitation that threatened black women from their male employers. Perhaps even more horrifying is her revelation that such liaisons often transpired with full knowledge of the wives, who better tolerated a black mistress within the home rather than a white mistress outside it. Just as slave narrators relied upon a range of rhetorical strategies for engaging their audiences, so, too, does this author invoke readers' sympathy while appealing to their reason. By improving working conditions and educating their black servants, she argues, white employers would actually guarantee improved service.

The "Negro Nurse" of "More Slavery in the South" describes what it was like for an African American woman to enter the white world. Richard Wright (1908-1960) describes the even more precarious terms upon which black men entered it. In what served as the 1940 introduction to his collection of short stories, Uncle Tom's Children, and was the basis of his 1945 autobiography, Black Boy, "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow" catalogues the numerous incidents that comprised the author's "Jim Crow education." From a harsh childhood whipping and the associated fear of green lawns, which represented both the forbidden and the unattainable, to the repeated injustices experienced under white employers, the narrator records the oppressive daily reminders of segregation. Having lived in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee, he demonstrates the ubiquity of African Americans' subjugation in the South.

Painter Robert Gwathmey (1903-1988) represents that subjugation in his 1945 canvas Poll Tax Country. Born into a white working class family in Richmond, Virginia, Gwathmey often turned to black folk experience to illustrate the inequalities plaguing his native region. He graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy and taught for years at the Cooper Union in New York City. The influence of Pablo Picasso's Cubist design is evident in his use of flat, two-dimensional surfaces. In Poll Tax Country, he creates two separate planes, demarcated according to color and position. Set against a red sky, the raised structure suggests a campaign platform, while the painting's blue lower half is dominated by hunched, toiling laborers. Such sharp separation suggests both the class and racial divisions that abounded in the South and, as the title of the painting suggests, throughout the nation. (19 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. Judging from evidence in "More Slavery at the South," what are the social, economic, political, and psychological effects of segregation upon both black and white people?
  2. How do African Americans living in the South commit acts of resistance?
  3. According to the anonymous "Negro Nurse," what conditions characterize life among the poorer classes?
  4. What are the functions of the "service pan"?
  5. In what ways is "More Slavery at the South" about white people?
  6. What does the article suggest about the roles white people played in the lives of African Americans?
  7. How does Richard Wright portray the spatial dynamics of segregation?
  8. What does the "cinder environment" in which he lived suggest?
  9. What does the natural environment of trees, lawns, and hedges mean to Wright?
  10. According to "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," how and why do African Americans "play a dual role" in response to both "brutally cruel" and "subtly cruel" practices of discrimination?
  11. What does the background of Poll Tax Country suggest? What effect does it have on the viewer?
  12. How does Poll Tax Country comment on class as well as race?
  13. How does Gwathmey locate the painting in the South?

Framing Questions
  •  What constitutes segregation?
  •  How did African Americans experience it?
  •  What is the difference between segregation and separation?
  •  What are the consequences of segregation? Separation?

A Negro Nurse:   5
Wright:  13 (much white space)
Gwathmey:   1
 19 pages
Supplemental Sites
Richard Wright, in African American World (PBS)

Richard Wright, in Modern American Poetry, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Robert Gwathmey Online, from

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Image: Robert Gwathmey, Poll Tax Country, oil on canvas, 1945. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Gift of the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, 1966 (66.2303). Reproduced by permission.

1. Segregation–Separation   2. Lynching & Segregation   3. Antilynching Dramas
4. Life Under Segregation   5. The Black Psyche   6. Passing
  7. De-segregation–Integration   8. Separation & Power   9. Ambiguity of Integration

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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