Autobiographies under Jim Crow

What are the strengths and weaknesses of autobiographies as evidence on the nature of black-white attitudes and relationships under Jim Crow? Answer with detailed reference to TWO key studies.


The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia describes the Jim Crow system of segregation as a ‘racial caste system’ in operation largely in southern states that not only developed anti-black laws, but also promoted social and cultural white supremacy as well as economic and political dominance.[1] With such a suppressive system in place to subjugate blacks and draw a particularly distinct colour line, it is important that in order to gain an understanding of the period, one appreciates black-white attitudes and relationships under the Jim Crow system. However, the study of history has progressively become more all-encompassing in terms of both genre and materials enabling the historian to explore an enormous wealth of sources in attempting to gauge historical truths.

Whilst traditionally the subject of history was studied by privileged white male academics, for an audience of the same concerning primarily the cultural and political ‘elite’, more recent trends within the field display a developing desire for social history. Described by S. Fielding as ‘new’ political history, there is a pressing desire by academics to study the ‘importance of popular experience and…oppressed groups’ struggles against the ruling elite’.[2] It is within this branch of social and ‘new’ political history that we begin to understand the significance of monographs on ‘self’ and personal testimonies of individual experiences. In such works, one is exposed to a multitude of emotions, attitudes and reactions that may never have come to light in a source produced for and about an external entity because often the autobiography is a work produced as much for the author’s benefit as the reader’s.

It is of the utmost importance that the Historian should comprehend both the strengths and weaknesses of autobiographies as historical evidence, specifically in the study of oppressed and less vocalised groups of society, such as coloured peoples, women and children. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is a particularly interesting example, which follows the events of the early years of Angelou’s life as a young girl. With the initial publication in 1969, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first in a series of seven chronological autobiographical accounts of Angelou’s life which each detail a different period of her life in an unusual pseudo-fictional style. Owing to its unique style and personality, the text offers some fascinating insights into the perceptions of race relations that are held by a black child.

Angelou skilfully addresses many themes within the book, including the sexual abuse of children and self-identity, however, her recollection of events concerning racial prejudice ensure the utility of the text in social history studies. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings explores both her experiences with general public attitudes concerning black-white relationships as well as more intimate encounters with both black and white peoples. In as early as the opening few pages, it is obvious that young Maya Angelou thought of black and white people in completely separate spheres by her use of categorising terms such as ‘black’ and ‘colored’ in reference to herself and others.[3] Angelou is very clear about marking herself as a ‘Black girl’; this also marks the beginning of her use of subtle, racially-fuelled imagery such as describing her own head as a watermelon.[4] Over the course of the book, it is evident that the town of Stamps is rife with prejudice and discrimination in many forms; Angelou goes as far as to assert that ‘the whites in [Stamps] were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream’.[5]

Though examples such as these grand assertions of public prejudice are useful in terms of analysing black-white attitudes and relationships under Jim Crow segregation, the specific encounters of racism that Angelou recalls from intimate situations are paramount to understanding the way in which black and white people perceived each other along with any preconceived stereotypes expected to arise and how race relations were taught. A prime example, which will be discussed further in this essay, is Angelou’s memory of her time providing maid services to a white woman, Mrs Cullinan. Viola Cullinan is often derogatory of Angelou, refusing to call her by her name and renaming her ‘Mary’ for ‘her convenience’ as well as referring to her with generalising terms such as ‘that…nigger’ in fits of anger.[6] Such a decaying of the concept of ‘self’ was a distressing and largely insulting act from the point of view of Angelou. She notes that it was well known that a Negro should not be ‘called out of his name’ since identity held great importance for African Americans.[7]

James Weldon Johnson opens his book with a similar sentiment regarding race relations. Johnson points out that ‘writers, in nearly every instance, have treated the colored American as a whole’ and that it is this inability to understand the individuality and identity of each black person as a single being and outside of the racist grouping ‘nigger’ that is hindering.[8] By analysing Johnson’s autobiography it is possible to more fully understand black-white relationships under Jim Crow. This is because where Angelou promotes black identity at the forefront of her writing, Johnson emphasises the fact that in order to completely disrobe oneself of the blinkers of expected characteristics, stereotypes and vices of viewing blacks as a group and release oneself from a racist ‘us versus them’ mindset, it is essential to comprehend the complexity of relations within the black community in addition to relations with communities outside that of the African American.

James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 book, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, offers a valuable insight into the nature of black-white attitudes and relationships. In contrast to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings telling the story of Angelou’s childhood, Johnson has written the fictional ‘coming of age story’ of a school boy who discovers his race in his journey to adulthood. The author originally published the work anonymously in an attempt to trick his audience into believing the nonfictional style, however, its success only become visible upon the revealing of Johnson’s already successful name. Events that Johnson describes, for instance, when the protagonist discusses the prospect of him teaching piano lessons, are valuable in terms of evaluating the nature of black-white relationships under Jim Crow. A distinct example of race lines affecting such race relations is in the fact that it is clear that for his companion ‘the thought of [his] teaching white pupils did not even remotely enter her head’.[9]

Despite being a work of fiction, some publishers of the book, such as Dover Publications, advertise it as demonstrating ‘parallels [to] Johnson’s own remarkable life’.[10] Perhaps this may suggest that a large part of the book will prove useful as evidence of the nature of black-white attitudes and relationships; this is because some incidents within the book are clearly demonstrative of actual events, even if details are fictionalised. Linda Anderson, whose work on autobiographies will be discussed further, argues that it is the intent of the author that determines the reliability of the message, and, for Johnson, his intent was to educate about the African American experience.[11]

Using Autobiographical Evidence in History

Autobiographies have been discussed at length within historical literature alongside an array of personal writings including song lyrics, poetry and oral testimonies. These types of sources are similar in that they all have a tendency to be emotionally provocative and dramatically written. Their place in academia, therefore, may appear questionable. However, it is noted by historian John Murphy that this style of history is not new; ancient history is awash with history by memory, with its most notable sources being compiled hundreds of years after the events such as Herodotus’ Histories. [12] In holding autobiographies in the same light as oral tradition, indeed they should be tried against the same criticisms. Taking the example of historical poetry, Jan Vansina disparages this type of source due to the purpose of its creation; often historical poetry would be created ‘for propaganda purposes’ meaning that it may hold a distorted or weighted version of the truth.[13] Furthermore, Vansina argues that embellishments and illusions found in this type of work ensure that the sources are not fit for analysis.[14] However, Murphy argues that the characteristics of memory, language and interpretation held by both autobiographies and oral traditions make them powerful historical sources because they are able to ‘throw light on historiographical problems in general’.[15]

Perhaps, it is more appropriate to compare autobiographies to oral tradition, to poetry and song than it is to compare it to academic writing due to the intentions of the material. Unlike Murphy, for Vladimir Nabokov, the true purpose of autobiography is to seek artistic patterns in ‘the limits of life and the nature of the world’ through an analysis of self and history.[16] Being mindful of Nabokov’s argument, it should be noted that the learning of history is not the intention of any autobiography and if any history is learned in reading an autobiographical work it would only be by chance. Therefore, the utility of autobiographies as an historic source is lessened, if not eradicated entirely. Leland De La Durantaye suggests that this perspective may offer a greater understanding of general issues though, which is more similar to Murphy’s account.

Conversely, Robert F. Sayre rejects the relationship between autobiography and artistic literature, noting that such an association belittles its significance in historical writing.[17] Furthermore, he continues, it is inappropriate to dismiss such a source due to any distortion of the truth within autobiographical writing since it is not out of line with historical writing to be ignorant of the truth or to present purposeful misrepresentation. However, more significantly, autobiography was traditionally largely didactic, as was history itself.[18] With forerunners in the genre including Benjamin Franklin and Henry Adams, Sayre asserts that the intention of autobiographies was often in the interest of progressing historical literature; it is only following the scientific revolution that academia has favoured scientific observations, leading to a neglect of moralistic and personal accounts of the past.[19] It is evident that the place of autobiographical works within history has been highly contested amongst historians. Whilst the genre can offer recollections of relationships and facts that may be inaccessible otherwise, one should be cautious of such accounts due to their reputation for embellishment and artistic licence.

Additionally, the utility of personal testimonies is stressed by Kidada E. Williams, who argues that neglecting to explore such records can leave many questions unanswered about the impact and aftermath of historical events.[20] Williams boldly asserts that there exists an ‘historical amnesia’ concerning racial violence and black history meaning that one of the best ways to extract historical truth from such periods is to analyse victim and witness testimonies.[21] Using autobiographies in this way can allow historians to gain a fuller account of black-white attitudes and relationships under Jim Crow segregation because it will reveal the way that these African American authors thought and felt about the period as well as shedding light on any elements that Williams terms ‘silences’.[22] Corresponding with Williams’ book, these testimonies, through the medium of autobiography, have the ability to retell African American history by focussing on the voices of the oppressed men, women and children.[23] In this respect, autobiographies prove to be an invaluable historical source.

In They Left Great Marks on Me, Williams successfully combines different types of historical sources, such as poetry and newspaper articles, in order to create a fully comprehensive and more factually sound argument. Whilst it is decidedly clear that autobiographical evidence can hold a place as a valued historical source, it is useful to use an array of sources in order to gain a more complete picture. Though autobiographies are well placed to describe in great detail the attitudes and opinions of the authors, that alone is insufficient. This is especially the case when analysing the black-white attitudes and relationships under Jim Crow since there exists an expansive wealth of legal documentation, signage and photographic evidence that clearly depict a significant divisive colour line.

The Significance of Autobiographies in the Analysis of Black-White Relationships

It is significant that when analysing the utility of autobiographies, one should compare the work of both men and women, since the different sexes recall their past differently. Paul Thompson outlines the differing focusses of male and female memories in his work on oral histories, arguing that men ‘more readily talk about work, women about family life, and…feelings’.[24] Thompson quotes the observations of Isabelle Bertaux-Wiame, when he asserts that female memory is more powerful in terms of analysing relationships because they, unlike men, are more likely to consider their story part of a group narrative.[25] This theory is confirmed when comparing the works of Angelou and Johnson. Angelou frequently discusses family life and her relationships with her brother, grandmother and her mother’s partner; even in discussing her work as a maid for a white family, she focusses her memory on her attitudes towards Mrs Cullinan and Miss Glory. Johnson, on the other hand, more eagerly discusses his own personal achievements and aspirations such as his talents as a linguist and a musician developing his path, with little mention of the characters who aid his journey. Therefore, perhaps it is pertinent to be considerate of this when trying to determine the state of black-white relationships under Jim Crow.

One of the key strengths of using autobiographies in history is the ability to highlight the roles of individuals over events. Reiterating Fielding’s explanation of new political history, there is a growing focus on and desire to study social history in order to understand the relationships between peoples and contemporary attitudes.[26] As previously mentioned, Angelou’s book is significant in the way in which she addresses her relationships with others frequently and shamelessly. Angelou’s most stimulating accounts of her relationships with people of both black and white descent appear in the earlier parts of her book, as she is still learning her race and her own person. Jennifer Ritterhouse illuminates the way in which race and the knowledge of a hierarchy are taught within the home, through social interactions.[27] An acceptance of racial hierarchy and customs are, therefore, cross-generational as they are passed through teachings of racial etiquette. Angelou’s upbringing as a child of the South did not stray from this hypothesis. Her education with regards to the appropriate way in which to speak to her white superiors came largely from her grandmother in Stamps, since these were the ‘safe’ methods of interracial communications.[28] ‘Momma’ did not believe that ‘whitefolks could be talked to at all without risking one’s life’ and taught that ‘they couldn’t be spoken to insolently…even in their absence’.[29]

In this case, Angelou’s autobiography proves to be of great value in terms of assessing black-white relationships since it provides an intimate event which can act as evidence for some theories of race. In addition to proving Ritterhouse’s theory for learning racial etiquette, one may also be directed to Stetson Kennedy’s 1990 account of the expectations of interracial etiquette. Angelou confirms academic expectations concerning the peculiar etiquette between the black and white races under Jim Crow. Kennedy outlines the way in which there were separate customs for ‘dealing with persons of another race’ and that ‘what you have been taught is proper behaviour in human relations…is altogether taboo in interracial relations.’[30] It was to risk your own life, to be an African American acting above their granted societal position; such was the advice of Angelou’s grandmother some fifty years prior to Kennedy’s writing.[31]

                Though autobiographies can prove useful in both providing such evidence and highlighting the place of individuals and relationships within history, it is pertinent to be wary of their weaknesses. For instance, it is not implausible that within a piece that discusses one’s life from one’s own perspective, there may exist bias and evidence of self-promotion. Trevor Lummis argues that whilst it is important that the historian does not neglect the significance of personal accounts of history, it is necessary to compile first-hand sources with all other available evidence in order to detect bias.[32] He continues, self-motivation, self-justification and self-promotion are largely limiting factors in these types of works, though this should by no means lessen their import.[33] Johnson’s autobiography is almost overwhelmingly dedicated to self-praise; most events throughout the book are attributed to his ‘talent for languages as well as for music’; the protagonist frequently refers to his ‘talent’ with more appreciation of it than of his relationship with others.[34] It is the responsibility of the analyst to ensure cross-referencing reduces the effect of such favouritisms, and enables them to utilise only details of historical significance. Equally, an historian should allow for any distortion of truth due to memory fault, as well as purposeful misrepresentation, taking into account the distance of time between the event and the writing.

Nevertheless, writing from memory offers the opportunity to explore an area of history that may have otherwise been forgotten by presenting a new angle for analysis. Despite any self-glorification that may appear to consume the novel, Johnson’s representation of the path of a black man and his relations with peoples of both black and white descent during an era of Jim Crow segregation was a pioneering work that offers insights into African American attitudes from the period. His pseudo-nonfictional work explores the experiences of a white man with a black mother and therefore, enables us to compare his being both accepted and rejected by both races at different points. Through this unusual narration, Johnson is able to more fully discuss what he terms the ‘Negro question’ and the black-white relationships under Jim Crow. The protagonist is able to easily discuss with a fellow African American the future progression of the race into a status of possible equality, but also, a short while later, receive the sentiments of a white Texan gentleman as he condemns people of colour into an eternal state of inferiority and subjugation.[35] In this sense, Johnson’s novel is a very powerful source as evidence on the nature of black-white attitudes under Jim Crow.

One of the greatest criticisms of modern autobiographies that significantly applies to Johnson’s work is that this type of literature may be written for commercial purposes and as such may generate scandalous content in order to generate sales. Lummis explains the issue of commerciality by asserting that in order for a publisher to deem the text valuable enough to invest in, it must provoke interest in the general public; this may incite a desire in the author to exaggerate and distort the truth.[36] Whilst posing as nonfictional, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is, at least in part, undoubtedly falsified. Whilst current publishers, such as Dover Publications, claim that the novel is based on Johnson’s own experiences, it is impossible to ascertain the extent to which the book was fabricated.[37] Furthermore, whilst it is significant that this genre places emphasis on the role of emotions and attitudes, it is important that one is wary of the effect of emotive language on an audience. Emotive language used as a literary device to dramatise a described event, particularly in an attempt to generate sales, may or may not reduce the utility of the source in gauging attitudes and relationships between the races. Michael Clark presents the argument that whilst scientific language promotes proven facts as ‘truth’, emotive language proffers ‘truth’ as something that is both morally correct and necessary.[38] Any poetic language and artistic licence used in creating Johnson’s ‘autobiography’ therefore only aids in helping the historian understand black-white attitudes and, subsequently, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a valuable historical source.


Over the course of this essay, it has become clear that there are many strengths and weaknesses to consider when using autobiographies as evidence on the nature of black-white attitudes and relationships under Jim Crow.  Firstly, one should appreciate the ability of human memory to shed light on facts and events that documentation has been blind to, especially in terms of intimate events such as those in Angelou’s childhood. Willams’ description of ‘historical amnesia’ extends further than her own work on racial violence, and can easily be applied to any instance where existing theoretical histories would benefit from personal experience – Angelou’s autobiography is particularly powerful when taken in conjunction with Jennifer Ritterhouse’s writings on the how race is taught.[39]

Furthermore, it is important to be mindful of that in using autobiographies to analyse interracial relationships within the Jim Crow system, they ought to be studied as part of a collection alongside existing texts on race theory, demographic documentation, cultural relics, such as segregation signage, and other oral testimonies. This is because it is only by providing an analysis of a complete set of historical sources that one can begin to gain a more complete comprehension of the period. In particular, it is pertinent to be wary of any fault in memory or purposeful misrepresentations of the truth in histories of the self. This is because it is not uncommon that one might improve the commerciality of the text by generating scandalous content, or indeed, to distort the factuality of the narrative in an act of self-promotion or self-justification. Nevertheless, the genre of autobiography acts as powerful historical evidence in terms of offering a voice to the oppressed, this is especially significant in studying black attitudes towards their relationships with whites under the Jim Crow culture.

Lastly, one of the most significant debates regarding the utility of autobiographies as an historical source is whether or not they should be considered a wholly artistic source. Some historians, such as Sayre, suggest that this is a perspective which should be avoided in order to not detract from the use of autobiographies as an academic source.[40] However, as noted by Clark, artistic sources and those that exhibit the author’s true attitudes towards the event can be a very useful angle, particularly for a social historian.[41] John Murphy concurs, adding that memory and interpretation are powerful tools that can allow historians to access a subject from a whole new perspective.[42]

To conclude, in this modern culture of exacerbating racial violence, Loic Wacquant asserts that, as opposed to progressing from the periods of enslavement and Jim Crow segregation, we have simply entered a new stage in which a disproportionate mass incarceration of black males presents an entirely new social issue.[43] There exists a continuing issue in black-white relationships, and, according to Wacquant, this is still under the influence of Jim Crow.  It would be beneficial to the future of African American studies for contemporary victims, such as the friends and relatives of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, to record their personal experiences regarding racial prejudices and the new Jim Crow. James Weldon Johnson, despite possible criticisms regarding the truth behind his novel, enables historians to more completely understand the experience of a man hindered by his own race and Maya Angelou explains the reality of black-white attitudes and relationships behind the theoretical literature provided by academic historians. It is within the dissimilarities of the sources that historians can best discover new material that will allow them to more completely immerse themselves in the past. Such is the strength of autobiographies as historical evidence.

[1] D. Pilgrim, ‘What was Jim Crow?’, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, (2000) <; [accessed 9th January 2015]

[2] S. Fielding, ‘Political History’, Making History, <; [accessed 7th January 2015]

[3] M. Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (London: Virago Press, 2007), pp. 1-6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Angelou, Caged Bird, p.53.

[6] Angelou, Caged Bird, pp.118-120.

[7] Ibid.

[8] J. W. Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, (New York: Dover Publications, 1995), p.vii.

[9] Johnson, The Autobiography, p.32.

[10] P. Smith, in J. W. Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, (New York: Dover Publications, 1995), outside rear cover.

[11] L. Anderson, Autobiography, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), pp.2-3.

  1. Smith, in J. W. Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, (New York: Dover Publications, 1995), p.iii.

[12] J. Murphy, ‘The Voice of Memory: History, Autobiography and Oral Memory’, Historical Studies, 22.87 (1986), p.157.

[13] J. Vansina, Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology, (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2009), pp.148-149.

[14] Ibid.

[15] J. Murphy, ‘The Voice of Memory: History, Autobiography and Oral Memory’, Historical Studies, 22.87 (1986), p.157.

[16] L. De La Durantaye, ‘The True Purpose of Autobiography, or the Fate of Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory’, in M. DiBattista and E. Wittman (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.167-168.

[17] R. F. Sayre, ‘American Autobiography and History’, in M. DiBattista and E. Wittman (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.102-114.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] K. E. Williams, They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I, (New York: New York University Press, 2012), pp.3-5.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Williams, They Left Great Marks, p.7.

[24] P. Thompson, Voice of the Past: Oral History, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp.173-183.

[25] Ibid.

[26] S. Fielding, ‘Political History’, Making History, <; [accessed 7th January 2015]

[27] J. Ritterhouse, Growing up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), pp.55-56.

[28] Angelou, Caged Bird, p.51.

[29] Ibid.

[30] S. Kennedy, Jim Crow Guide to the U.S.A.: The Laws, Customs and Etiquette Governing the Conduct of Nonwhites and Other Minorities as Second-Class Citizens, (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1990), pp.203-204.

[31] Ibid.

[32] T. Lummis, Listening to History: The Authenticity of Oral Evidence, (New Jersey: Barnes & Noble Books, 1998), pp.83-84.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Johnson, The Autobiography, p.33.

[35] Johnson, The Autobiography, pp.70-81.

[36] Lummis, Listening to History, pp.83-84.

[37] P. Smith, in J. W. Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, (New York: Dover Publications, 1995), outside rear cover.

[38] M. Clark, ‘The Genealogy of Coherence and the Rhetoric of History in American New Criticism’, in R. Fleming and M. Payne (eds), Criticism, History, and Intertextuality, (New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1988), pp.37-38.

[39] Williams, They Left Great Marks, pp.3-5.

[40] R. F. Sayre, ‘American Autobiography and History’, in M. DiBattista and E. Wittman (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.102-114.

[41] M. Clark, ‘The Genealogy of Coherence and the Rhetoric of History in American New Criticism’, in R. Fleming and M. Payne (eds), Criticism, History, and Intertextuality, (New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1988), pp.37-38.

[42] J. Murphy, ‘The Voice of Memory: History, Autobiography and Oral Memory’, Historical Studies, 22.87 (1986), p.157.

[43] Loic Wacquant, ‘From Slavery to Mass Incarceration: Rethinking the ‘Race Question’ in the US’, New Left Review, 13 (Jan-Feb 2002), pp.41-42.

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