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HIGHWAYS AND BYWAYS
OF THE
MISSISSIPPI VALLEY


WRITTEN AND ILLUSTRATED BY

CLIFTON JOHNSON

Commentary

     The Civil War had ended only 40 years prior to the publication of this book in 1906. Many blacks living at the time had formerly been slaves and many of the whites interviewed here were part of the Confederate army.  Resentment of the outcome of the Civil War still ran high at the time. Johnson recorded the words of the people he interviewed as accurately as possible, and while this allows an amazing insight into the daily life of our ancestors, it also allows for attitudes and open bigotry to be expressed that we just aren't used to hearing today.  At the time of this book, the KKK was in its ascendancy and the KKK march on Washington, D.C., was only a few years away.  Attitudes of whites toward blacks in southern America were at their lowest point since the Civil War, and whites at the time (in the North, as well as the South) openly expressed all of the bigotry and racism toward blacks created over 200 years by the institution of slavery in America.

     Read this book with and open mind and learn to 'read between the lines' of what the people are saying with what Johnson comments on later.  For example, Johnson was an educator and he constantly visited schools wherever he went.  Many whites talk about black ignorance and beastial behavior.  Johnson visits black and white schools in Mississippi and notes:

'...The free negro school was in a rickety cabin, with a big chimney right in the middle of the one room. Here sixty scholars gathered, and they filled the backless benches full and left very little open floor space. The desks that accompanied the benches were long movable affairs, with a slant on either side, so that two rows of children could sit at each desk. Underneath the desk top was a narrow shelf which served chiefly as a convenient repository for hats and sunbonnets, though chance nails driven into the rough whitewashed walls were also more or less utilized for the same purpose. Desks, benches, and teacher’s table were of cheap boards hammered together by some local carpenter, and were battered and browned by long use, and much carved by youthful jack-knives. A dog lay stretched out asleep under one of the benches when I made the school a visit, and two or three of the smaller children were creeping about the floor. In the main, the pupils were quiet and orderly. Perhaps they were somewhat daunted by the stout strap which the middle-aged woman, who was their teacher, carried ready for action over her shoulder.

The chimney had a fireplace on two sides, but the cabin walls were so thin and leaky the building could hardly have been warmed effectively. Beside the chimney, on the floor, was a bucket of water and a tin can to drink from. The teacher said the water came from a near well, and that it did not taste good and was liable to make a person sick. But I noticed the children drank often and copiously. The teacher herself and some of the girls brought water from home in bottles. Nearly all the children were barefoot. In most instances they had their dinners with them, and some walked daily from a distance of three and a half miles. Their books were shabby and few, and not many of the pupils would attain more than the bare ability to read and write and do simple sums in arithmetic. They seldom studied geography, for their parents argue    “What de use for dem to know about foreign parts? Dey ain’ gwine travel.”'


     Obviously, not the best conditions to educate children, no matter what race.  Note what Johnson says about the white school in the same town:

"The schoolhouse of the whites was the same in size and interior arrangement and furnishings as that of the blacks; but it was on the main road, and was newer, and in good repair. The fifteen or twenty attendants did not compare at all favorably in behavior with the colored children. They wriggled and twisted and had all sorts of circuses. They did not do much studying, and sometimes this one or that one would relapse into dreaminess and gaze out of the glassless window-openings to the hot sunshine and green fields." 1


     Little comment needs to be said regarding this comparison other than to note the industriousness of the children of former slaves.  The desire for education for a people denied it for generations can clearly be seen here.  Note also that the white school was only little better than the black school, but only cultural arrogance of the whites of the time allowed them to think they were better off.  Johnson hints at this throughout the book in describing the living conditions of blacks and whites, with little real difference seen.

     Another item to note is the language of the people.  Johnson appears to have had an amazing ear for dialects, and he presents all people interviewed, black and white, northerner and southerner, with as accurate a dialect as possible.  Keep this in mind when reading the interviews of the blacks he talked to.  While it appears a stereotype of black southern dialect, it does appear accurate.  As accurate as dialects he portrays for white southerners in this book and northerners in other books, anyway.

     Speaking of language, white descriptions of blacks are by today's standards extremely offensive and one would hope no one freely speaks so poorly of another person or another race.  Unfortunately, we all know that's not the case.  Bigotry is still rampant in America, just more supressed today.  This book is important to read to understand the hatred southern whites felt at the time toward their former slaves.  Constantly through this book, whites talk about blacks as things, people who were not human.  Obviously, if blacks could no longer be owned as slaves, treating them as ignorant and unable to ever be human justified the whites' treatment of blacks during slavery and beyond.  Not surprising when you think about how one group of people who once owned another group of people now had to live side by side with those same people.  After all, if you believe a certain group are inferior and not human, it helps you justify all the horrors of slavery in the past and continue to supress them politically and economically.

     Read this book as an amazing insight into our darker past.  We talk today about how far we have to go in race relations in the US, but look at how far we've come today.  Jim Crow laws are a thing of the past and interracial marriages are more common and accepted today than ever before.  We didn't arrive here overnight through miraculous enlightenment regarding our past wrongs; we got here through the courage of individuals, black and white, who realized there is a better way to live with each other.  We got here through the former slave who sent her children to that run-down school to get any kind of education, long denied to that former slave but not to her children; we got here through the freedom riders of the 1950's and those who risked their lives to register black voters; and we got here through the courage and perserverence of people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.

     Look at how far we've come in America; but keep in mind how far we still have to go....

Jeffrey Kelley  
webmaster      
www.kellscraft.com


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