She Failed to Act Like a Negro Should Act

“We venture to say that fully ninety per cent of all the race troubles in the South are the result of the Negro forgetting his place. If the black man will stay where he belongs, act like a Negro should act, work like a Negro should work, talk like a Negro should talk, and study like a Negro should study, there will be very few riots, fights or clashes.” (Leon Litwack, Trouble In Mind, 1999, First Vintage Books Edition, New York, p.179).

The article in Litwack’s book appeared in the Shreveport (Louisiana) Times in 1919 as justification for the white race resorting to violence against the black population, in Shreveport, Louisiana. But it was also applicable throughout the South. It was part of the white man’s rules of racial etiquette. Blacks were expected to follow the rules as defined by white society. When white folks approached, you got off the sidewalk, even if it meant walking in mud. You always bowed your head and never dared to look white folks in the eye, is only one example of the many rules that Blacks were expected to follow out of deference to the “superior race.”

Professor Leon F. Litwack writes, in his historical account of the Jim Crow years, Trouble In Mind, about what happened when a Black man failed to follow the rules of racial etiquette in the South: “Rufus Moncrief made one mistake, when on his way home from work he encountered a group of white men. He did not display the expected humble demeanor and seemed reluctant to pull off his hat to them when they spoke to him. The men beat him badly, and soon other whites joined in the attack, some of them severing Moncrief’s limbs with a saw. They dragged what remained of him to a nearby tree and strung him up as they continued to mutilate his body.” (Litwack, p. 308) According to the white man’s rules of racial etiquette, Rufus failed to act like a Negro should act, and had to pay the ultimate penalty.

In 1913, in Valdosta Georgia, Mary Turner failed to act like a Negro should act when she set out to seek justice for her husband, who had recently been lynched. For her actions, the eight month pregnant Mary was the victim of a white mob, “determined to teach her a lesson.” After tying her ankles together they hung her from a tree, head downward. Dousing her clothes with gasoline, they burned them from her body. While she was still alive, someone used a knife ordinarily reserved for splitting hogs to cut open the woman’s abdomen. The infant fell prematurely from her womb to the ground and cried briefly, whereupon a member in the mob crushed the baby’s head with the heel of his boot. (Litwack, p. 288)
One hundred years later, on a road in Texas a young, educated and confident Black woman, Sandra Bland, was pulled over by a Texas Highway Patrolman on what can be considered a very weak offense. When Trooper Brian T. Encina asked Sandra to put out her cigarette while he appeared to be writing her a ticket, she told him no. It is at this point that southern history raised its ugly, racist head and smacked Sandra right in the face. Southern history tells us that Sandra failed “to act like a Negro should act.” She had the audacity to tell a white man wearing a uniform, that no law prohibited her from smoking a cigarette in her car. But she broke the hundred-year rule of white racial etiquette, when she failed to adhere to the trooper’s demand. But maybe she didn’t know those rules were still in effect, in the minds of many southern whites.

Over the years since the Shreveport article, many Blacks have failed to adhere to the white man’s rule of racial etiquette. Emmit Till defied that rule and paid the ultimate price with his life. Medgar Evers defied that rule and was shot in the back. Thousands of Blacks defied that rule during the Civil Rights Movement and were beaten by southern police. Trayvon Martin defied that rule; Michael Brown defied that rule; and dozens of other young Blacks have defied that rule and all are dead. Despite the constant exposure of violent police tactics against Blacks, they continue to happen because some of these white police officers still feel a sense of superiority over all Blacks, and when the white rule of racial etiquette is broken they are compelled to punish the violator.
Ms. Bland evidently believed in the Constitution, and she thought all others shared her confidence that the document could protect her from being harmed when exercising her rights. What she didn’t realize is that the rules of racial etiquette will trump that Constitution every time. Whenever in direct conflict with the white man’s rules of racial etiquette, it is easily dismissed. The one constant throughout this country’s history has been that rule, and white policemen are demonstrating to us, as Blacks, their loyalty to it over loyalty to the Constitution.

6 thoughts on “She Failed to Act Like a Negro Should Act

  1. An Activist Abroad

    Poignantly and powerfully written. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge on what is a tragic and senseless continuation of the degradation of black people. When will this racism and hatred end? I feel deep sense of sadness and despair and pray for all those who face oppression.

  2. jeriwil

    Another page from the hymnal, Stay in Your Place bears likeness to the post, “She Failed to Act like a Negro Should Act”. Thematically, the old hymn book’s title also reflected the untimely death of Sandra Bland. In fact, Ms. Bland’s challenging interaction and verbal exchange with the police officer veered in a manner contrarian to the sounds of silence embedded in the “crooked room” status of black women in society. Melissa Harris-Perry in her publication, Sister Citizen brought forth the argument that shed light on the subject. Simply stated, the “crooked room” status evolved from a field dependence study involving the politics of gender and race stereotypes. It is society’s power structure where the politics of race, gender and stereotypes play out to the public.
    In one study, subjects were placed in a crooked chair in a crooked room and then asked to align themselves vertically. Some perceived themselves as straight only in relation to their surroundings. They saw themselves as straight simply because they were aligned with images that were equally tilted. They twisted and turned becoming contortionists as they followed the contours of the lines in this designated crooked room.
    When the rooms tilted, they, too, tilted, thus remaining upright in following the tilt of the room. But they were upright as long as they remained within those restricted tilted or crooked boundaries set by society at large. For, the goal of the power structure was to maintain the status quo in the politics of race and gender stereotypes. They proliferate like crawling mold in these crooked rooms with negative images that diminish and/or belittle or subordinate groups.
    In another study, another group managed to get themselves more or less upright regardless of how crooked the surrounding images. They sought realignment of themselves in order to bring about change inside these crooked rooms. Their vertical positions were counter to the tilted and crookedness of the rooms set aside. The imagery in the studies speaks volumes in matters pertaining to derogative nature of race and gender, along with their accompanying politicization.
    The plight of Ms. Bland mirrored the aforementioned field dependence studies. Both were centered on the difficulties encountered in trying to stand upright in a crooked room—the crooked room of politics, gender and race. These studies noted that the internal, psychological, emotional, and personal experiences of black women are inherently political. In Ms. Bland’s encounter with the officer, she wrestled with the politicization of derogatory assumptions about her character and identity, which have always been a front burner with black women. In addition, these assumptions clearly shaped the social world that black women, such as Ms Bland had to accommodate or resist in an effort to preserve her authentic self and to secure recognition as a citizen.
    Not necessarily in sequence in mentioning a few verses from the hymn on the status of black women in the crooked room concept, one example stood out. Notwithstanding her rightfully and repeatedly questioning her being apprehended, with no response coming forth, the political power seething with race, gender, and stereotypes within the roadside crooked room swirled with threats of bodily harm. Nonetheless, in her resistance she had tilted and bent herself—a virtual contortionist she became—to fit the warped distortion and politicization of black females in an effort go get on to her mission at the nearby university.
    To no avail, Ms. Bland had tried to accommodate the officer; however, he saw fit to create tension where there really had been no need. Her readiness to sign a warning ticket with the suggestion: “You do your job” or something to that effect; that did not bode well with him. Chit-chat ensued with his asking her to put out her cigarette. And in turn, both abrasively and bewilderedly, she refused and questioned the command. And so the politics of gender continued, thus leading to a confrontation and an act of resistance, despite her already having aligned herself with the embedded political parameters of “the crooked room”.
    Needless to say, Sandra Bland’s death came because she dared to preserve her authentic self and secure recognition as a citizen who had tried to accommodate and accept the citation despite its not being warranted. And in the attempt, she was met with the status quo in the politics of race and gender stereotypes that proliferate in these “crooked rooms” where negative images continue to diminish and or belittle subordinate groups.
    The officer’s behavior mirrored a cultural image of a people impaled on their cultural history like a butterfly on a pin, incapable of seeing or changing and aligning their behavior with the changing of attitudes which had prevailed in a long, long, ago musty, staid old age of southern cultural mores. In his duty as an officer he had not learned how to release himself from that period, thus others such as Ms. Bland become victims of past cultural wrongs. Perhaps prosecution will help Officer Encinia release himself from what he had failed to learn from his cultural past still trapped in historical memory, where “at an unbelievable human expense”, atrocities continue to create cultural calamities, indeed, rooted in a “lost cause”.
    And by the way, as a reminder, Serena and Venus have continuously stood upright in crooked rooms, whacking away at those rotting beams supporting the politicization of sex, gender and race stereotype images still hovering in the sports arenas and other institutions of similar standing.

    Jerelyne Castleberry Williams

  3. It is the responsibility of the Negro to abstain from engagement in Black History Month. It is not necessary for the Negro to have the entire month of February to learn about the history of his ancestors or celebrate the historical accomplishments of people that look like him.

  4. Pingback: The Ataxic Body: Or How to Write about Ego Death, When Your Social Body Does Not Exist by C. Davida Ingram | The James Franco Review

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