There is a reason why America is perpetually forgetful; the reason being that history is never taught with guaranteed accuracy. Instead, it is taught with political restraint. There is a common mentality that believes children don’t need to know everything about slavery, so they just mention that it happened. Children don’t need to know everything about what we did to the Indigenous people of this land, so just teach them about how they helped the pilgrims who bravely arrived to this “newly discovered country.” And of course, children don’t need to know everything about the Jim Crow Laws, they just need to know that it wasn’t the greatest thing America did, and at its core, America is truly about “freedom for all.”
Just to prove the point, I can honestly say that I never even knew who Jim Crow was until I was assigned to write an informational article detailing what Jim Crow Laws were.
Jim Crow was a fictional character. A traveling actor by the name of Thomas D. Rice, who grew up in a racially-integrated neighborhood in Manhattan during the early 1800’s. Using his observations of Black members of the community, he created a stage character by the name of Jim Crow, and toured the United States performing this character in blackface for enthusiastic audiences who welcomed the entertaining depiction of the Black man as “lazy, stupid, inherently less human” but still capable of dancing a good jig and singing a clever song.
Well, after Rice died in 1860, the Era of Reconstruction, meant to heal the country after the Civil War and welcome back the Confederate states as graciously as possible, lead to the revelation that the ending of slavery was more a political act of war than a guarantee that Black people were going to be given equality. In fact, in order to appease the defeated Southern states, the establishment of the newly written Jim Crow Laws went so far as the Supreme Court, where it was decided in a case titled Plessy v. Ferguson that it was perfectly legal for the South to take on the principles of a “separate but equal” society.
The legacy of that fictional character of Jim Crow had leapt out of the entertainment industry and had landed in law with the specific intention of tearing down any and all possibilities for the newly-freed Black communities of America.
This Supreme Court decision allowed the Jim Crow Laws to flourish, and through that, it gave back to the country the foundation of white supremacy it always flourished upon at the expense of every minority in America. The legacy of that fictional character of Jim Crow had leapt out of the entertainment industry and had landed in law with the specific intention of tearing down any and all possibilities for the newly-freed Black communities of America.
In this newly established America, segregation became mandatory. The laws dictated that they couldn’t attend the same schools, they couldn’t use the same bathrooms, and they couldn’t read the same textbooks. They couldn’t serve in the same units in the military, and they certainly couldn’t eat in the same restaurants. Some laws became so specific as to dictating that they couldn’t look out of the same windows in a household.
But the movement of segregating America was really just the surface of this newly legislated nightmare for the Black community. While the men, women, and children had to deal with the horrors of lynchings, attacks, discrimination, and the total neglect of any and all educational and vocational institutions, state governments took meticulous care to write into legislation enough voting requirements to make it nearly impossible for members of the Black community to vote. In other words, half of the Supreme Court decision was always being ignored, as the segregation of the country was complete, and yet equality was nowhere to be found. The voice of Black America was silenced yet again due to the haunting of Jim Crow.
Now, generally speaking, history class likes to jump a hundred years in order to talk about the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Ignoring the hundred years worth of abuse, murder, and institutionalized racism that Black America had endured right after the two hundred years worth of slavery they only just escaped, your typical history teacher likes to talk about how the lovely Rosa Parks sat on a bus, and how Martin Luther King Jr. gave an inspiring speech. The teacher goes on to teach that those two moments lead to the changing of America which in its current day is a beacon of successful democracy where equality thrives and rights exist for all.
When Black America rises yet again to demand the equality promised, the laws shift ever so slightly and the government’s agenda evolves to find new ways to strip Black America of its voice, and enslave them with mass incarceration of a different kind.
You really have to go beyond your public education to educate yourself on the realities of modern day America, and the realities for Black America today have been intricately detailed by the incredible Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow, the latest chapter in Jim Crow’s legacy.
There is a pattern here that should now be visible, and that pattern is one of an insidious government’s adaptation to what should be positive social change. When the end of slavery begins, the laws adapt to justify the silencing of, and discrimination against, the Black community. When Black America rises yet again to demand the equality promised, the laws shift ever so slightly and the government’s agenda evolves to find new ways to strip Black America of its voice, and enslave them with mass incarceration of a different kind. Each historical chapter is guilty of the same thing: the gaining of free labor from millions of Black Americans at the expense of their humanity.
The remembering of history is crucial because if a pattern can be seen, then a pattern can be broken. The remembering of Jim Crow is necessary if we are to bury the consequences of his existence, and build a new world where Black America dictates its own fate without being crippled by a system programmed to tear them down.