The Hidden Meaning
The “Ethics of Living Jim Crow” is an autobiographical sketch based on a life of a young African American born and raised in the southern United States. The story is a narration of how the life of the young man change and how he learns to know his place in the world dominated by White people. It shows how the young Black lad relates with the white folks in different encounters while trying to fend for his family and help his mother who cooks for a living. The time of the story occurred when the state of Mississippi came up with laws prohibiting Black men from voting. The voting right, among many others, getting revoked gave more Southern states the push they needed to ensure the Black man remained inferior to White folks (Jim Crow, 2017). Most of the Black people accepted this inferiority complex because they found it impossible to escape following the discriminative nature of societal structures. However, Richard Wright does not address this dejected and sad outlook, but instead he illustrates his frustration towards the actions depicted by whites and the legal system. Wright was a master of using his literature to send a message (Zheng, 2017). In the story, we find that most Black people follow the Jim Crow laws without question furthermore solidifying the place of the white man above them. The author, who is also the narrator, has to learn these laws through personal experiences and mistakes. By portraying the extent to which the society was rotten from the law enforcement downwards, Wright becomes the eyes through which future generations see these things. Richard Wright uses irony, sarcasm, melancholy, imagery, and hyperbole to show that the unwritten meanings embedded within “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” serve as a reminder to African Americans of the treatment they endured during the early 1900’s from White people.
The “Ethics of Living Jim Crow” is an ironic title to a book that shows nothing of that manner. The title would imply that “living Jim Crow” was a sweet life with many benefits which according to Wright (1937) as, “how to live as a Negro” (p.1), which is contrary to the whole theme of the book. By giving his book an ironic title, the author hopes to enable the publication of his autobiography. Given that every industry in those times was controlled by White people, as shown in all places the author had to work and having white bosses, production of any written material would only be possible if approved by the white man. In light of this, the production of the book was only possible through covering the bruises the Black man had to endure with the righteous ways of the White man. Secondly, by using a title that is so vivid yet so pure, the author avoids confrontation with the White men. From the historical background of the time the book was written, any confrontation between a Black man and a White man, especially one done in writing, would not only lead to the death of the Black man but would probably lead to the extinction of those of his kin (Jim Crow, 2017). To avoid these probable misfortunes, the author decides to use a more indirect way to pass on his message. The hidden meaning in the title enables only the enlightened scholar and African Americans to understand the deeper meaning. This way only those that can relate to the author’s story can get the message and thus preventing information falling into the wrong hands. Additionally, Wright’s (1937) mother always told him to “. . . never, never, under any conditions, to fight with white folks again” (p. 2.) This was ironic given the treatment that Whites subjected Black people to even when they refused to fight back.
Throughout the “Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” Wright uses sarcasm twisted into praises of the white man. The prevalent use of the term “Sir” throughout the story is not as much of praise as is ridicule. The reader can feel the bitterness anytime the narrator has to address a white man as sir even those of his age. He, however, cannot openly show this displeasure as that would make him cross paths with the superiors therefore he opts to use sarcasm to cover his displeasure. When the night-watchman slapped a Black woman on the butt, and when Wright (1937) replies “,Oh, yes, sir!” he follows the reply with writing, “as much heartiness as I could muster” (p.13). Repeatedly the writer uses the word sir, which is a sign of respect, but in reality is a mockery to the White man who has to force Black men to call him using titles showing his superiority.
Further incidences of sarcasm occur when Black men hear news of the molested Black woman and instead of sympathy, show relief that the woman was alive. The Black man is painted to be glad that in their mercies, the white men only defile the defenseless Black woman and granted her life when they were in a position to take it (Wright, 1937). This to an ordinary reader would serve as praises the author is showering the white folks with, whereas in reality, it is the admission to the painful truth that white men were in positions to do as they wished and got away with it. The sarcasm in this scene makes it possible only for enlightened Black people to see this as torture to their kind and not mercy bestowed unto them by the white man. Another case of a bellboy getting castrated and ran out of town for being friends with a prostitute shows the sarcastic nature of Wright (1937) when describing what happened to the boy as, “mighty lucky” (p. 12). However gruesome the scene is and the supposed silver lining of not losing his life, Wright uses this scene as a depiction of how violent the atmosphere is in the South (Monnet, 2016).
From a young age, the author’s life like that of all other Black kids was filled with emptiness. The author first experiences this despair when he gets hurt while fighting the white boys in Arkansas and all his Black friends abandon him (Wright, 1937). When he gets home and informs his mother of his predicament, he gets a whopping from the one person in the world he hoped would understand him. This incident plants a seed of despair in his heart and even drives him to question his place in life when he tries to sleep and, “each time closing his eyes seeing monstrous white faces” (Wright, 1937, p.3). The helplessness is further shown in the skimpy yard in his hometown upon which only cedars could grow. The barren land upon which the young lad grew up serves as an illustration of the void in every Black person’s life. Further melancholy is seen in the Black maid that the writer has to walk home with after work on one day. The white night watchman inappropriately touches this lady. The maid is defenseless, and so is the author. However, displeased he was with the action of the watchman he could do nothing especially with the maniac white watchman bragging of killing two Black men in self-defense.
The “Ethics of Living Jim Crow is nothing if not a collection of images of lives lived and those lost in the vain quest of race superiority. These images are not literal but somewhat descriptive, made so by the utmost reflection by Wright. From the onset of the story, the events are developed around a scene of settlement in which both White people and Black people lived, separated by both distance and conditions. The Black man is said to live by the railroads on barren land upon which only cedars grew whereas white men lived in pleasantly shaped housed surrounded by green yards and fences and trees (Wright, 1937). This image of the settlement shows how the lives of both races drastically differ from each other. The life of Black people being fruitless and barren lacking even in life itself while that of the White people show a depiction of a signaling success and meaning to life. Just as the Black boys were able to make do with the cedars for their games, the Black people in this society to have to use the scrapes to make meaning out of their miserable lives. The long distance between the Black people’s settlement and that of the white people is symbolic imagery. The geographical distance stands for the huge difference in both importance and purpose between the Black and the White people. The distance also shows the disparity in ideologies and social and economic statuses. The situation depicting this case is seen when a police officer ignores when a Black woman is dragged into a white men’s establishment against her will but later arrests the same woman purportedly for drinking and public nudity knowing well what had led her to her condition. This imagery however vivid and has to be covered with a nod and a ‘yes sir’ from the author to avoid further bloodshed.
In describing the events that happen to both him and other African Americans, the author tends to add more to the story. This is an art, with which Wright aims to capture the attention of his readers making them more interested in his story. By painting it as such, the writer is thereby able to convince the audience that his cause was justifiable and therefore worth following. Hyperbole was the best way that the author could paint the animosity by White men without actually causing more trouble. He thereby concentrates more on the gravity of the deeds rather than the evil ways of the inflictor of these pains thus avoiding an attack on the white men while still criticizing their actions (Monet, 2006).
Overall, the “Ethics of Living Jim Crow” is not only a clear representation of Southern American history but also enlightenment to people of both Black and White races that they can co-exist peacefully. Wrights work is a blueprint showing how African Americans can overcome oppression in hopes of maintaining their values (Shelby, 2012). At the end of the story, Wright shows that Black people can not only share in similar jobs, but also in knowledge. This was the case with the narrator and the White Roman Catholic allowing him to borrow books from the library using a White name. The peaceful relationship between the Catholic and the author seem to bear more positive results than the fighting could ever bring. With knowledge from the books, the author can decipher the moral gray areas and be in a position to stand up for his rights without stepping on the white man’s toes. Wright’s ability to nest hidden lessons within his writing shows how important it was to give future African American’s a memento of life under the Jim Crow laws.