Radical intimacy under Jim Crow "fascism": the queer visions of Angelo Herndon and Carson McCullers

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Author: Elizabeth A. Steeby
Date: Winter 2014
From: The Mississippi Quarterly(Vol. 67, Issue 1)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Essay
Length: 8,512 words

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Jim Crow's Heterotopias of Deviance

CARSON MCCULLERS'S NOVELLA, THE BALLAD OF THE SAD CAFE.; ENDS with a scene of a chain gang that labors from daybreak to sunset under the watchful eye of a guard, pacing their work with song.

It is music that causes the heart to broaden and the listener to grow cold with ecstasy and fright.... And what kind of gang is this that can make such music? Just twelve mortal men, seven of them black and five of them white boys from this county. Just twelve mortal men who are together. (70-71)

Men, differentiated by race but laboring side by side, were part of a penal technology that was both "free" Southern society's frightening Other and its foundation. The proximity of these African American and white men, who would otherwise be segregated from one another by the racial caste system of Jim Crow, was the source of anxiety and contention for those who found themselves part of the chain gang, as well as for those who heard their song. Segregation was predicated upon and supported by fears of racial contact, yet the social and economic structure also depended upon everyday interracial contact such as that of chain gang laborers. How then might we understand the rather queer "ecstasy" their intimacy and their music conjured for those who heard the prisoners' songs and perhaps for even the prisoners themselves? (1)

If we consider what Siobhan Somerville terms "The Queer Career of Jim Crow" (39), segregation appears as much a structured intimacy *as, a structured separation. As a legally enforced social hierarchy predicated upon racial "knowledge," Jim Crow was a system that both precluded and produced intimacies--some realized through contact, others cultivated and lived solely in the realm of fantasy. Jim Crow manufactured a sexual reality and a sexual politics that required a constant and vigilant denial and disavowal of desire, affection, violation, and familial relation. Only a very particular set of relationships would be condoned (with legitimacy reserved for heterosexual interactions between gender normative white men and women), while a vast array of behaviors and points of contact were designated as abnormal, unacceptable, and punishable perhaps to the point of death. In its obsessions with race and heteropatriarchal power, the early twentieth-century South in effect created an expansive queer geography. (2) Within that geography, as so many have attested, eye contact, tone of voice, a stray whistle, or a slight gesture might at any moment acquire the weight of sexual taboo. In this racialized sexual terrain, heterosexuality and homosociality afforded no guaranteed protection for those accused of traversing racial boundaries. Those who challenged the boundaries of race, gender, class, or sexuality might be assigned non-normative or "queer" status for any presumed infraction of the social order, and their queer behavior might at any point be deemed criminal by legal or extra-legal forces, such as the white lynch mob.

To many resistant Southerners, this homegrown authoritarian use of legal and extralegal power in the service of state homogenization...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Steeby, Elizabeth A. "Radical intimacy under Jim Crow 'fascism': the queer visions of Angelo Herndon and Carson McCullers." The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 1, 2014, p. 127+. Accessed 17 June 2021.
  

Gale Document Number: GALE|A436232544