Fall Books (1924)

Fall Books (1924)

Walter White has written in “The Fire in the Flint” a good, stirring story and a strong bit of propaganda against the white Klansman and the black pussyfoot. White knows his Georgia from A to Z. There is not a single incident or a single character in the book which has not its prototype in real life today. All Mr. White’s white people are not villains nor are all his Negroes saints, but one gets a thrilling sense of the devilish tangle that involves good and evil in the southern South.

Perhaps most significant however is the fact that a book like this can at last be printed. For years a flood of filth about the Negro has poured out of the South while no northern firm would consider a book telling even temperately the well-known and widely proven facts concerning the Negro. Subtly and slowly the change has come and Mr. White has been among the first to sense it and to persist courageously and doggedly in having his say.

Of course one can criticise any book and particularly a first one. Perhaps on the economic side Mr. White succumbs too easily to the common mistake of piling the blame of southern wickedness on the “poor whites” and absolving the aristocrats and former slave holders. This is, of course, based on the propaganda which the sons and daughters of slave-barons have spread, but it is far from true. On the human and artistic side, with the possible exception of the younger brother, Mr. White’s characters do not live and breathe and compel our sympathy. They are more like labeled figures on a chess board. But despite all this, this story goes and the reader goes with it and that is the first business of a story.

“The Southern Oligarchy” by William H. Skaggs is the most important volume that has come out of the white south since the Civil War. Every intelligent Negro should buy it and own it, even if it does cost five dollars. It is an astonishing vindication of our cause. It is written by a white southerner born and bred in Alabama and it traces the history of oligarchical government in the South from the beginning of slavery down to the present time. While the book is in no sense a pro-Negro document (rather it is distinctly a treatise to defend the poor white), nevertheless Mr. Skaggs’ incidental defense of the Negro is remarkable. He says for instance: “An epitome of the Negro’s history since his emancipation will show conclusively that his civic and industrial progress has been most remarkable. The truth of this assertion can be proven not only by the records which are available to all intelligent people, who are seeking the truth, but also by the testimony of the most intelligent and reputable white men of the Southern States.”

He declares in regard to disfranchisement that “the plans of the leaders of the Oligarchy were not primarily to shut out the Negro vote. The Negro had ceased to vote. The first and essential purpose of further encroachment on the liberties of the people was to make the Oligarchy more secure in its control of the Government. Ballot-box stuffing and other forms of corrupt practices had become so common that every branch of State and county administration was notoriously corrupt and, in many places, important official positions were held by corrupt politicians and their incompetent subordinates. Crimes were increasing and the South was prostrated under the rule of a privileged class of spoilsmen whose gain in power was in proportion to the public loss of moral stamina, intelligence, civic virtue and patriotism.” Later on he says: “The sins of carpet-bag rule in the South, as shown in a preceding chapter, were not the result of Negro enfranchisement, nor has the Negro been disfranchised to prevent a recurrence of carpet-bag rule. The Negro was disfranchised for the same reason that the poor white man was disfranchised. It was to prevent any united and organized opposition to the corrupt and lawless practices of the Oligarchy which rules in the South without regard to the rights of the white man or the black man.”

He quotes the Alabama Education Commission: “We need not refer to conditions before the war except to repeat that even. as far back as 1840 there were proportionately fewer illiterates among the white population than there are today. The Constitution of 1868, though enacted by a so-called ‘carpet-bag’ government, dealt with the subject of education in a manner far more liberal and infinitely better calculated to promote general intelligence than does either the Constitution of 1875 or that of 1901.” And he places the blame for this as follows: “These delinquencies of the South are not due to poverty, nor to unusual financial burdens of these States; nor are these conditions the result of indifference on the part of the great mass of the people, white or colored. The cause of backwardness is found in the antiquated social and economic systems, the gross inefficiency, mismanagement and corruption of an Oligarchy that desires neither liberty nor enlightenment for the people.”

As to crime he says that the “South may be called the nursery of crimes in America. The migratory criminal population of the United States may be traced from the Southern States to every part of the country. The highest record of defalcations and embezzlements is found in those sections of the South where election frauds, and other corrupt practices, have been notorious. In the same communities, peonage has prevailed in the most aggravated form; lynchings, race riots and the most appalling crimes had occurred in those communities where corrupt practices and vice have been most flagrant.”

As to lynching he says: “It has been asserted time and time again that the lynching evil in the South was necessary to protect the women of the South. This base, spiteful libel on the Negro has been proclaimed in Congress, in political campaigns, on the lecture platform, written in books and dramatized. For example, in a speech in the city of Boston, in 1919, former Governor Emmett O’Neal of Alabama, said: ‘The lynching evil in the South had its origin in the revolutionary conditions created by Reconstruction.’ The assertion quoted from the former Governor of Alabama has been the rallying shibboleth of the leaders of a provincial and lawless Oligarchy for more than half a century, and it is the most wicked and pernicious slander that ever misled the American people. …”

Finally, remember that all these statements are backed by page after page of statistics, quotations from official documents and court decisions filling 444 pages of reading matter to which is appended a careful index of 27 pages. A final quotation will give the spirit of the book so far as the black man is concerned: “Racial friction in the Southern States is not the result of economic or moral decline, nor is it due to the vice or lawlessness of the Negro. The Negro in America is not degenerating. He is advancing along all lines that make for a higher and better civilization. Never has there been a race whose leaders, almost without exception, have struggled with more patience and forbearance, or more heroically, than the leaders of the Negroes in the maintenance of peace between two races.”

Americans who would like to understand the race problem between Englishmen and Indians will read with pleasure “A Passage to India” by E. M. Forster. The first hundred pages or so are a little dull and sometimes affected; then the novel suddenly swings into its stride and becomes a tremendous epic of racial clash held down to earth by honesty and subtle insight such as few novelists ever used. All these people, Dr. Aziz, Miss Quested, Ronny, Fielding, and Professor Godbole, are singularly human. To American Negroes the book is vivid even in its contrasts—the basing of all real racial clash on sex, the policy of insult and humiliation, the hyperbole and unpunctuality of the colored folk, and the close combination of religion, humor and tragedy. We know it all.

Citation: Du Bois, W.E.B. 1924. “Fall Books.” The Crisis. 291(1):13.