The Interior Lives of Black Youth
In Coming of Age in Jim Crow DC: Navigating the Politics of Everyday Life, Paula C. Austin, Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at Boston University, illuminates the interior lives of Black youth during the late Progressive and interwar years in Washington, D. C. Taking the thoughts and “musings” of young, poor and working-class Black people seriously, Austin reads against the grain of previous sociological investigations and interviews conducted by E. Franklin Frazier, one of the era’s preeminent Black sociologist and scholars, and argues that Black youth were cogent thinkers and theorists who developed strategies that helped them navigate the everyday realities of growing up in the urban landscape of Jim Crow D.C (4).While Frazier used these interviews to highlight poverty’s devastating impact on working-class and poor Black youth, Austin foregrounds how Black youth viewed themselves as narrators with an “authorial” voice and used these interviews as a platform to discuss their ideas about white supremacy, racial formation, sexuality, and gender expression (79). From this perspective, what comes through in the interviews is not a story about a pathological “culture of poverty” but young Black people’s burgeoning analytical frameworks they developed to understand themselves and their relationship with the world (57). As Austin compellingly argues, these ideas produced by Black youth collapse distinctions between “everyday survival strategies of individuals and collective resistance” (8). Indeed, Austin joins a growing wave of scholars such as Saidiya Hartman and Tina Campt who innovatively engage the archives to explore the interior lives of black people. Coming of Age demonstrates the potential of this approach to destabilize uneven power dynamics between adults and youth and opens up possibilities for revisiting other sociological studies to apply fresh interpretations.
Organized thematically, Coming of Age begins by contextualizing the ideology that informed Frazier’s research. Chapter 1 argues that sociological research conducted by Frazier and others during the late Progressive Era and interwar years was linked to Black elite ideologies of racial uplift and racial justice that often reified racist, sexist, and classist classifications of urban Black youth. Contracted by the American Youth Commission to study Black youth personality development, Frazier used these interviews to write Negro Youth at the Crossways: Their Personality Development in the Middle States which argues that racial segregation was the structural force that produced “a culture of poverty” in working-class and poor Black communities (57). That culture of poverty included what Frazier perceived as Black people’s choices to delay or reject marriage, to have premarital sex, and to join gangs. More than anything, this chapter animates power dynamics embedded into the making of any archive and, through the remaining chapters, provides scholars an example of how that power might be disrupted and challenged in ways that give weight and attention to voices which are typically silenced or ignored.
Chapter 2 argues that Black youth acutely understood the spatial and racial boundaries created by poverty and racial segregation in D.C. and by “knowingly interesting themselves into a landscape” they posed solutions for navigating, disrupting, and escaping Jim Crow (52). Fourteen-year-old Susie Morgan illustrated this in her answers to Frazier’s questions. When asked how she and her friends interacted with police officers, Susie Morgan recalled a story of her swimming in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool because her neighborhood in segregated Southwest D.C. did not have a pool. As officers attempted to arrest Morgan and her friends, Morgan recalled responding, “Good old Abraham, he said we could swim in this pool” (52). Morgan’s story demonstrates how, in Austin’s words, Black youth “reappropriated spaces beyond [their] immediate neighborhood” and sought solutions and workarounds for navigating the racialized Jim Crow capital city (49).
The third chapter foregrounds Black youths’ thinking about politics. Young Black people like Southwest D.C resident Myron Ross posited a range of political thought from preoccupations about Jim Crow’s impact on Black people’s economic future to a sincere desire for more a more robust sexual education program for youth. Ross understood, for example, that his father’s career as a Black firefighter was limited, with little room for promotion because there was only one fire house that employed Black firefighters. Showing a range of thinking, he also thought it made little sense to segregate sexual education by assigned sex at birth because nothing would be achieved if “men [knew] men’s bodies and care of them alone, and girls [only knew] women’s bodies and the care of them” (88). In other words, D.C.’s Black youth had sophisticated analytic frameworks that considered and addressed the era’s pressing political challenges.
The final chapter illustrates D.C. Black youth’s process of reflecting on their own racial, gender, class and sexuality identity formation and future dreams. As Austin argues, Black youth “seemed very aware of and could articulate how they saw and experienced these intersecting aspects of themselves” (111). While some young Black boys developed ideas that linked masculinity with sexual assault and domination, young Black girls challenged traditional gender roles and respectable notions of femininity. For example, fourteen-year-old Martha Harris dreamed of a future career as a nurse. After observing her own parents’ seemingly unhappy marriage, she concluded that she would delay marriage, connecting it with loss of career opportunities. As Austin argues, even as sociologist like Frazier viewed these ideas about gender and sexuality as pathological and specific to working-class and poor Black youth, Black girls and young Black women contributed to larger national cultural shifts where, for example, premarital sex among young people increasingly became the norm.
Coming of Age in Jim Crow DC reshapes the contours of intellectual history that have downplayed or ignored the contributions of Black youth. A more substantial conversation about how young Black people’s theorizing on race, gender, and sexuality reshaped the era’s New Negro thought would strengthen Austin’s argument. Comparing the ideas shared by D.C.’s Black youth and the Harlem Renaissance’s intellectual and artistic productions, for instance, highlights that the New Negro Movement was more than a show of (masculine) assertiveness, but it was also a movement of Black people reimagining gender roles and sexuality norms. At the same time, taking Austin’s lead, the ideas and conceptions of young Black people and their ideas during different eras should also be explored. How, for example, were Black youth thinking about themselves during the Black Power Era? How does that reshape how we think about the era? Indeed, Austin’s work opens paths and possibilities for inquires in both new and more established fields of study.
Finally, Austin reminds us that Black youth have something to say and scholars and adults owe them our attention. Even as the pandemic continues to lay bare racial health disparities among adults, Black youth are also navigating the dual realities of remote learning and state-sanctioned violence. Recent studies, for example, highlight the disproportionate impact of distance learning and police violence on young Black people. However, Black youth have responded in impactful ways demonstrating their roles as thinkers, theorists, and leaders in their own right. Taking them seriously means paying attention and listening to their voices, ideas, and solutions.permission.
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Always excellent commentary and thoughtful reading. Keep up the excellent work.
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