Review: Segregation

Segregation by Robert Penn Warren

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I was about to mention that, for whatever reason, I have a hard time imagining Warren as male, but it has recently been brought to my attention that his name is, in fact, Robert Penn Warren, not Robin Penn Warren. I imagine this oversight occurred because my professor’s first name is Robin and I have an uncontrollable urge to gender-flip everything. (Thus why Jailbreak the Patriarchy is my jam.) I also don’t know that much about Warren, beyond the fact a film version of All the King’s Men was released several years back. But, of course, that’s why I’m taking this class on Southern history: to fill in my (considerable) blank spots.

Segregation is Robert Penn Warren’s record of Southern responses to the decision of Brown v. Board of Education. As he travels through the south, he interviews both whites and blacks of varying class, all in an attempt to lay out why they believe what they believe. He talks to the staunchest pro-segregationists, careful moderates, and progressives hellbent on moving forward, piecing out their hopes and fears in a nation that’s turning upside down quicker than the South can, according to many of its white residents, deal with it.

Segregation is more of a pamphlet than anything else. It began life as an article in Life entitled “Divided South Searches Its Soul” in the July 9th, 1956 issue, and was subsequently expanded and published as a book the following month. Warren’s relationship with the South and segregation is an interesting one. At Vanderbilt as an undergraduate, Warren and a circle of fellow writers called themselves the Southern Agrarians and published the pro-agriculture manifesto I’ll Take My Stand. Warren’s contribution, “The Briar Patch”, actually defended segregation as an institution. (Somewhere in this part of his history, All The King’s Men is published and wins the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for Literature.) The Life article was something of a recantation of his younger views, and the publication of Segregation made him a very visible pro-integration writer. Warren would go on to publish a collection of interviewers with civil rights leaders, Who Speaks for the Negro?, further entrenching him on the pro-integration side of the civil rights movement. Given his own evolution on the subject, Warren had clear ideas about what would and would not work in the struggle to integrate.

But not much of it comes out here. True, Warren interviews himself at the end and proposes gradualism as the proper track. (As my professor says, how much more gradual can you get than one little girl in one first grade class in one school? We were unimpressed.) But for the most part, Warren dedicates his own voice to observation, allowing his subjects to speak for themselves. None of them are named, but none of them need to be. We meet people from all across the board on the issue, from a young white male hitchhiker Warren meets who responds to the simple question of “I heard there’s trouble where you’re from” with a sudden blast of hatred, to a black man who thinks it could all work out if people didn’t get too violent or passionate about it, to a white woman who knows she’s prejudiced but prays everyday to change.

Finding the hate is the easy part, of course. Warren tries, quietly, to piece out exactly what motivates their hate; there’s a harrowing moment when a man finally says that he simply doesn’t know. Hate like this—hatred of the other, hatred of change—is always based in fear. And here, we see white people fear the changing fortunes of black people, both white and black Southerns fear the Northern press (Shades of Fire in a Canebrake, no? This is, after all, only a decade on) and the oncoming wave of change. A few interviewees frame it as a states’ right issue (shades of the Civil War, no? This is, after all, only a few generations on), but, at its heart, it’s about how people respond to the disorientation of a new world order. (Sadly, it’s often with hate and violence.) Warren’s writings on the South facing a brave new world remind me of this post on the Weekly Sift, “The Distress of the Privileged”. But it’s too simple to categorize Warren’s interviewees as solely conservative whites and progressive blacks. The most hopeful piece in the whole, well, piece comes when Warren interviews an old friend of his, who admits to his own prejudices quite freely. “My old friend is an honest man,” Warren writes. “He will face his own discomfort. He will not try to ease it by passing libel laws to stop discussion or by firing professors” (55).

And that, of course, is the difference between fearful hate and actual growth. We all have prejudices, but it’s facing our own discomfort head-on and not screaming that we’re not prejudiced, we’re not, weren’t not, but… until we’re red in the face that allows us to move past it in a meaningful way. Segregation is, of course, a book about a very specific time in American history, but it’s also got universal implications. My 1994 copy’s introduction sees William Bedford Clark quote Walker Percy and note that this is “news that stays news” (vi)—this, of course, meaning not only racial tension in America, but how the privileged and oppressed react to progress.

Bottom line: Segregation sees Robert Penn Warren step aside and let his interviewees, interviewed shortly after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, discuss their hatreds, fears, and hopes as the civil rights movement pushes on. It’s a specific moment in time, of course, but one with universal implications, as we see, towards the end, people accept their own prejudices as their own responsibilities—not anybody else’s, and certainly not the government’s.

I bought this used book off of Amazon.

4 thoughts on “Review: Segregation

  1. One of these days I should do a little mini reading project about the ramifications of Brown v. Board. A lot has been written about its positive and negative side effects on public education over the years, and I think it would be cool to read, like, this plus Acting White plus, I don’t know, some other thing. TBD. I would do that reading project except I know I would lose steam in the middle and get depressed and have to read James Herriot for a while to cheer up.

  2. You might have mixed up Robert Penn Warren with the actress Robin Wright (Penn), who dropped her former married name after divorcing Sean Penn.

    I’m really glad to have read it. I think so much of what happened during that time gets filtered with the hazy filter of Hollywood-ized sentimentality, so it’s refreshing to hear it (mostly) directly from the mouths of Southerners.

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