Today we welcome a guest post from Douglas Flowe, author of Uncontrollable Blackness: African American Men and Criminality in Jim Crow New York, out now from UNC Press.
In the wake of emancipation, black men in northern urban centers like New York faced economic isolation, marginalization, and racial violence. In response, some of those men opted to participate in underground economies, to protect themselves when law enforcement failed to do so, and to exert control over public space through force. Douglas J. Flowe traces how public racial violence, segregation in housing and leisure, and criminal stigmatization in popular culture and media fostered a sense of distress, isolation, and nihilism that made crime and violence seem like viable recourses in the face of white supremacy. He examines self-defense against state violence, crimes committed within black social spaces and intimate relationships, and the contest of white and black masculinity.
Uncontrollable Blackness is available in paper and ebook formats.
The Conundrum of Writing About Race and Crime
Writing about race and crime is very sensitive. Crime is a fraught topic on its own, but the addition of race makes it inflammatory. In Uncontrollable Blackness: African American Men and Criminality in Jim Crow New York, I attempt to tell the stories of those men who, in fact, committed illegal acts, and those whose actions were criminalized by others. It was very important to me not to reproduce the idea that black men were more likely to be criminals than other men. They most certainly were not. The goal, however, was to understand how the society surrounding them had a part in making some men seek revolutionary ways of attaining the same freedoms, resources, and respect that all Americans sought at the time. Or, how that society criminalized them, regardless of their actions. Most black men did not commit street crimes or domestic violence, nor did they always participate in underground economies. Uncontrollable Blackness is about those men who did, or those who were treated as criminals whether they were or not.
Chapter four of Uncontrollable Blackness, which looks at instances of domestic violence and crimes meant to support households, was, in many ways, the most difficult chapter to write. There are multiple stories of struggles between men and women to control their households, and a few couples whose relationships end in abandonment or tragic moments of murder. Such endings were very rare, and do not represent what typically happened in black households. The sentiments of the men in that chapter also do not represent the way all, or even most, black men thought. To be certain, most black men did not abuse their spouses, and most black couples cared for each other in ways that supported and sustained themselves and their children into the future. But, the conundrum of mentioning those rare cases when violence and abuse happened is that it may seem as if one is arguing that dysfunction was typical in black families (as some scholars of the past have wrongly contended). That is certainly not my argument. Chapter four looks at these very uncommon occurrences only to give voice to those few men and women who committed these acts when their desires for sustainable lives and stable families were stunted by the vagaries of Jim Crow. The historical record makes clear that on occasion some relationships did end in violence, and as a historian, my mission is to comprehend how issues relating to housing, job insecurity, racial violence, and legal forms of public emasculation might have informed those times.
These issues are also difficult to write about because they are not simply historical, but continuous, and therefore very painful. Since before the end of American slavery the specter of the “criminal” has been used to justify many types of inequality, and after emancipation, it has become a mark of dehumanization, one that has often doomed African Americans to exclusion, imprisonment, or a public execution. Conservative criminological views of crime have often placed the entire responsibility of actual or imagined crime at the feet of the individual and ignored the impact of broader society on the production of illegal behaviors. They have often pretended that “crime” is always an arbitrary thing that exists in a vacuum, unaffected by the biases or slanted interests of those who defined the law. Theoretical models like “Broken Windows” policing do not take into full account how the inherent and designed inequalities of capitalism, and a lopsided racial caste system, bring about situations where protest and extra-legal activities might be the only recourse for oppressed populations. They do not take into account the tremendous impact of a system of racial inequality crafted over centuries and held in place by the strength of American governance, even today.
With this in mind, my work registers the heavy weight of an unequal economic, social, and political system on the backs of African Americans. Through the use of the crucible of black criminality, a theoretical model that takes a history of enslavement and Jim Crow into account, the book argues that real or imagined black crime has been produced by a national system that places black men and women in juxtaposition to the law. More specifically, it is a system that in many ways refuses to allow black men to pursue the same life, liberty, and happiness that all Americans seek through the same pathways others use to achieve those things.
Many scholars have avoided this topic because of the danger of seeming as if one is blaming the victims by talking about crime. However, in my view, there is no better way to advocate for African American men who have been perennially labeled “criminal,” or forced onto the other side of law, than to ponder their perspectives and recognize them as historical actors, even those who willfully committed crimes. They are a part of the long struggle for equality in the African American past. For black men throughout history, being criminalized further deepened the crucible they navigated on a daily basis and made it even more difficult to enjoy the lives they worked hard to secure for themselves. And, for some of the men in Uncontrollable Blackness, underground economies and actions against a legal system that was bent against them may have been the only ways to reaffirm their citizenship and humanity in a society that attempted to deny both.
Douglas J. Flowe is assistant professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis. Follow him on Twitter.