Review: To ‘Joy my Freedom by Tera W. Hunter
Title: To ‘Joy my Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War
Author: Hunter, Tera W.
Length: 322 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, History, Politics, Race
Publisher / Year: Harvard University Press / 1997
Source: From Amazon.ca
Why I Read It: The eighth read for The Real Help project project with Amanda.
Date Read: 15/01/12
Note: This is a project initiated by Amanda and I to read the books recommended by the Association of Black Women Historians as alternatives to The Help. Please see the dedicated page I created for more information and for a schedule. We are hoping that more readers join us and we are also looking for others to host discussions. For discussion of this title, do visit Amanda’s post.
In this book Hunter tells us the story, very fully researched and well-written, of five decades in the lives of black women in Atlanta. Starting shortly after the civil war and the migration of freed slaves to the cities of the south, including Atlanta, and ending with the migration of black men and women to Northern cities during World War I, Hunter provides a full and well-rounded view of life. Through the book Hunter discusses the civil war, reconstruction, political action and rights, worker’s rights, racism, sexism, classism, the growth of Jim Crow, lives outside of work in terms of activities and options, healthy, and more. Throughout she includes numerous quotes and discusses the lives of real women who lived during the period, giving voice to so many of the traditionally voiceless.
The biggest take away from this book is the extreme lack of options available to African Americans in Atlanta and the rest of the United States during the Jim Crow years. After the civil war prospects seemed fantastic but white fear ensured that the white majority population did everything they could to try to police the lives and bodies of African Americans and keep them dependent. For example, in policing options available for socializing outside of work hours, white workers were attempting to exert their control over the bodies and energy that they continued ‘theirs’.
The criminalization of a wide range of social behaviors framed as public health issues betrayed the frustrations of employers constantly foiled by intractable workers. The persistent efforts of employers to make domestic workers’ actions on and off the job an important part of civic debates is a testament to the resilient community infrastructure, autonomous spaces, and everyday resistance that were created by working-class-women. (page 212)
In a concerted effort between media, law enforcement, citizens, and elected officials a culture was codified into law that denied basic rights to a large group of citizens. In a resounding reminder of the importance of the media and the hold that even false reports have over us, especially when we see them over and over, Hunter links the race riot of 1906 with the large amount of negative articles the papers had been publishing (falsely) about black men raping white women. She says on page 127:
By sounding the clarion for black male castration and female sterilization in its stories leading up to the riot, the newspaper had induced the mob to link racial and sexual hysteria. [...] Despite the fact that the reported cases of rape were later to be proved groundless, the riot would go down in infamy as a quest for the preservation of white female dignity.
One thing that I appreciated about this book is that it didn’t gloss over controversial or unpleasant facts such as the racism that black washerwomen showed against Chinese owned laundries. More such examples are the classism showed by the African Americans who were more well off, and the colorism that was prevalent in some areas. By incorporating all facts from history and showing a rounded picture like this I found it much easier to see the characters are real people who lived their own complicated lives.
Definitely a book that I would highly recommend to all who are interested in politics, racial justice, or history. It is one of the most all-encompassing books I’ve read in some time and exceptionally well-written. Do check out Amanda’s post for discussion of the book.