Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 92: Bettye Rice Hughes, A Negro Tourist in Dixie (#107)

Bettye Rice Hughes, "A Negro Tourist in Dixie" (1962) from Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1963:

I never get tired of hearing the argument that racism is over, which often goes something like this: because outright expressions of racism are looked down on or even illegal, everyone treats white and black people alike. Well, black Bettye Rice Hughes went for a bus ride through the South after inter-state segregation was outlawed, and she knows that racism isn't just about the law.

Hughes's short article summarizes ruthlessly, fitting six weeks of Southern bus travel into six pages, with telling anecdotes from various stops and general observations: the "White" and "Colored" parts of the restroom signs are covered up; white and black people still look oddly at the black woman who walks in the white people's restaurant. Some of the places she goes to solve this problem by having the one black worker coming to serve her; although my favorite anecdote might be the white waitress who agrees with some white woman that it's a shame to have to serve black people, and then, when she's alone with Hughes, starts up a totally normal conversation about where she's from, where she's going, etc.

Which makes it sound like the waitress is just someone trying to get along--she's not so big a racist that she'll object to serving Hughes; but she's not so much a protestor that she'll argue with the white patron. But we'll never really know what she is thinking, which is clear in Hughes's account for everyone she meets.

And that's the second-biggest trouble that Hughes seems to face, if we're counting the "subtle" racism of slight hostility and chilliness as her first-biggest trouble. (Again: according to a certain type of person, that doesn't count as racism since it doesn't involve the n-word.) That is, she gets through her experiment safely--but she's not really sure why. How bad is racism in the south after the Freedom Riders and the attacks by white supremacists? It's not good and more work needs to be done; but when we can't read other people's minds, it's hard to know what work to do.

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