‘Northerners Can Be So Smug’ by Alice Childress

Childress, Alice 1956

Northerners Can Be So Smug by Alice Childress, 1956

The magic trick:

Highlighting the more nuanced picture of mid-century American race politics, South and North

One of the dangers of reading too much mid-20th-century American fiction from and about the South is to develop a real distaste for the region, at least in terms of prevalent racial attitudes of the time. And that’s fine, I guess. People can feel however they want about it, and certainly any negative impression isn’t likely skewed by the fiction; it’s real history. The danger lies in thinking that the South was the only place in America where racism reigned. Things weren’t (aren’t?) so great up North either.

Just as it’s important to recognize that the Union states in the Civil War were often just as racist in their views as the Confederacy, it’s good to remember that the North was no idyllic paradise on the road to civil rights in the 1950s. Listen to Randy Newman’s “Rednecks.” That’s a good summary right there. Or… read “Northerners Can Be So Smug,” which uses a neat format reporting the minutes of a meeting to relate the attitudes of mid-century Northern race politics. And that’s quite a trick on Childress’s part.

The selection:

One woman sittin’ behind me, whispered, “We don’t want to make them Southerners sound like no angels now.” And I said, “We got to give credit where credit is due at the same time that we’re puttin’ the blame to the South! Are we goin’ to forget the judge in Carolina that spoke up for us, are goin’ to forget how he had to leave his home for sayin’ what was on his mind?”


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