H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-PCAACA@h-net.msu.edu (July, 2000)
McKay Jenkins. The South in Black and White: Race, Sex, and
Literature in the 1940s. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North
Carolina Press, 1999. 240 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8078-2491-7;
$16.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8078-4777-1.
Reviewed for H-PCAACA by Marc Seals
University of South Florida
While reading McKay Jenkins' book examining racial and sexual
identities in the South of the 1940s, one realizes that being a
white Southern author struggling with sexual identity was a complex
fate. Jenkins' object-the study of constructions of race through
culturally relevant writing-is not new, but Jenkins' focus upon the
forties, an era he contends scholars have neglected, is. Jenkins
says the 1940s are "as representative of the country's racial
struggles writ as large as any other time" (6).
Jenkins focuses on the lives and works of four Southern writers: W.
J. Cash, William Alexander Percy, Lillian Smith, and Carson
McCullers. These authors are bound by more than era and Southern
heritage-they were all controversial best-selling writers who
"considered themselves alienated by the cultural mainstream" (9).
Jenkins posits that the sexual alienation caused by the
homosexuality, bisexuality, or impotence of these white writers
placed them in a unique position socially, between the white
cultural mainstream and "blackness." In defining blackness, these
authors were also building what it meant (and means) to be white.
Jenkins tries to further "the notion that understanding whiteness is
as valid and fruitful an intellectual endeavor as understanding
Jenkins begins by exploring the historical context of race and
culture in the 1940s. He portrays the South as a region frozen in
time, stagnant since the Civil War and trying desperately to hold on
to the fading but still potent mythical cultural underpinnings.
According to Jenkins, whites in the South were of two minds
regarding blacks. While maintaining an attitude of disdain and
superiority, whites realized that the economy of the South depended
upon black labor, and that labor was increasingly migrating north.
Black soldiers returning from World War II were unwilling to return
to a life of servitude (29). Jenkins proposes that these factors set
the stage for the civil rights movement.
Jenkins then analyzes the lives and works of the above-mentioned
authors. In Cash's writing, Jenkins observes an odd contrast between
cultural revulsion and fascination with blacks. Jenkins then moves
on to analyzing Percy's 1941 memoir Lanterns on the Levee. He
draws a contrast between Percy's outward racially progressive
attitude and his choice of words and phrases that romanticize and
mythologize the old Southern aristocracy. Jenkins next addresses
the writing of Smith. Smith represents much of Jenkins' thesis-she
is white and thus represents the establishment, but she is also a
woman and a lesbian. This makes her doubly "Other." If Cash and
Percy are somewhere between whiteness and blackness, then Smith is
even more so. The text takes its strangest turn when Jenkins
addresses the early writings of McCullers, whose novels are also
full of freak shows, carnivals, and prisons-populated by the
ultimate Others. McCullers was not just isolated sexually, but also
racially; when it became known that she had the temerity to allow
blacks to visit her apartment, no white person would socialize with
It is in his conclusion that Jenkins makes the freshest arguments,
arguing that scholars have relied too heavily on black texts to
"shoulder the burden of race theory and race history" in America
(185). Because of the racial construction that depends upon the use
of the other race as a sort of mirror, we share a common and
intertwined history. This is a thought-provoking book. Jenkins is a
skilled writer, and it is difficult to put The South in Black and
White aside for long. Its ideas are haunting. Jenkins forces the
reader to look within and to examine our nation's often disturbing
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