Monday, April 3, 2017

30 Days a Black Man, by Bill Steigerwald

In 1948, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ray Sprigle went undercover.  He pretended to be black and traveled through the South, in order to get a first-hand look at life under Jim Crow.  His serialized reporting made a splash, exposing readers in the North to the horrors and injustices of Jim Crow.  Bill Steigerwald revisits Sprigle's audacious project in 30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story That Exposed the Jim Crow South

In a very short time, even with the knowledge that he could go home to his white family in Pittsburgh at any time, he embraced his temporary identity as a black man.  It didn't take him long start feeling alienation from whites and hatred for the South.  "He had just taken his first steps on pure Jim Crow soil.  But already he found himself feeling contempt for the white race and starting to think like a black man."  The longer he stayed in the South, and the more he saw of Jim Crow in action, the more he became "used to thinking of himself as black--and resenting the white race."

As an outsider, "the many absurdities--idiocies might be a better word" of Jim Crow were glaring to him.  White people wouldn't eat or drink after a black person, even after the dishes were washed.  Yet who prepared all the food?  Black people.  They couldn't sit next to a black person on the bus.  Yet black dentists and doctors treated white patients.  White parents would not allow their children to play with black children.  Yet many white children were raised by black domestics.

Sprigle acknowledged that racism was alive and well in all parts of the country.  But Jim Crow was entirely difference; it's "the important difference between de jure and de facto segregation. . . . In short, discrimination against the Negro in the North is usually in defiance of the law.  In the South it is enforced and maintained by the law."

Sprigle's series of stories sparked a national conversation, including commendations and rebuttals from North and South.  He was way ahead of his time, maybe too much so.  Steigerwald writes, "There's no evidence Sprigle's series dramatically changed history or radically influenced the people who where shaping it in 1948."  But his exposure of the sick and dying system of Jim Crow, "he'll go down in history as the first journalist--white or black--to strike a serious blow against segregation in the mainstream media."

Steigerwald's account is readable and enjoyable, placing Sprigle's project in historical context and giving him well-deserved credit for his work.  30 Days a Black Man is not a comprehensive history of the Jim Crow South in the post-World-War-2 era, but Steigerwald's account of Sprigle's experiences give us a unique perspective on a period of history many would like to forget.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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