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