New Narratives of Southern Manhood

Race, Masculinity and Closure in Ernest Gaines's Fiction

in Critical Survey
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  • 1 University of Richmond sjones@richmond.edu
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In A Rage For Order: Black/White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation, Joel Williamson explores the conjuncture of race, manhood, and violence peculiar to the American South. He argues that for southern white men the traditional Victorian masculine role of provider and protector was directly linked with violence because of plantation society’s ‘necessity of controlling a potentially explosive black population.’ As early as the seventeenth century, a patrol system, made up of masters and overseers enforced the laws of slavery. By the nineteenth century, the duty of patrolling was extended to all white men, who had authority over all blacks (even free blacks) and over whites who conspired with blacks. Thus a system for controlling slaves became a practice ‘of all whites controlling all blacks … a matter of race.’ The martial role white men created for themselves became entrenched, particularly in the last decades before the Civil War as slavery came under attack by northerners from without and by rebellious slaves from within. Whites created a complementary stereotype of black people as ‘simple, docile, and manageable’ who if properly handled were like children, but if improperly cared for became animals. Williamson argues that this ‘Sambo’ figure was a figment of white wishful thinking, which functioned ‘to build white egos’ while masking their fears of black rebellion.

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