The Crucible of Race

Essay by hasso August 2009

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Some subjects are so complex that they require fresh interpretations every generation as new material emerges and historical methodologies and viewpoints change.

Since the civil rights upheavals of the 1950's and 1960's, the subjects of black history and race relations have been probed by a virtual army of historians. The total corpus of literature on this topic has indeed grown so large that Joel Williamson does not include a bibliography in The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation and largely confines his notes to archival and primary materials. The mountain of diverse monographs and articles published on America's racial dilemmas suggest that it is time for books that offer broad perspectives rather than narrow foci. In The Crucible of Race, Williamson presents a broadranging, yet carefully crafted, overview of a region that has undergone several major racial upheavals. It is a book as crucial to understanding racial dynamics in the 1980's as C.

Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) was for a past generation.

Williamson both pays homage to Woodward and notes that his book offers a revisionist interpretation of race relations in the South since emancipation. His objective, however, is neither to assault nor revise Woodward's original thesis. In fact, at times the author seems to ignore or bypass perspectives advanced by the lion of Southern historians three decades ago. Actually, he fashions fresh perspectives by not letting the work of the master confine, guide, or impinge upon his own effort to tell the story as accurately as possible. Williamson simply views the subject from another perspective, one that synthesizes new research and derives benefits from both the scholarship and national experiences since 1955.

Joel Williamson, himself a native Southerner, combines trenchant analysis with a gift for narrative detail to confront...