At the Dark End of the Street: Illuminating But Overly Reductive, Reviewed by Will Kitchens

book

 

For the most part, Danielle McGuire presents a powerful and coherent narrative – that black women’s testimony against sexual violence emerged as an important method of direct action, and through protest, challenged the ingrained system of white supremacy in the post-war period. Ultimately, it a strong and logical thesis, especially when applied to the testimonies of Recy Taylor, Betty Jean Owens, and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. Undoubtedly, a history of sexual violence perpetrated with impunity against black women was integral to popular protest and shifting public opinions on both the national and international stages. My primary contention with At the Dark of the Street is not the premise, but rather that – as a popular history – it is reductive, and self-servingly interprets evidence. McGuire seeks a dramatic watershed moment, a singular causal link between sexual violence and the very beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement that does not exist on its own. In her attempts to reexamine dominant Civil Rights narratives and accordingly orient black women as its central figures, I question if she has a tendency to assign historical significance to events in order to perpetuate her thesis and central claims even if there exists little evidence for such. With that being said, it is ultimately an illuminating read. It uncovers a long overlooked and ignored strain of civil rights history, but in McGuire’s efforts to closely follow her central narrative, she reduces the overall coherence and convincing nature of her entire argument.

My issue with her work – and perhaps popular histories in general – is not with her intention or general thesis, but rather that in her search for complexity she is overly reductive in her methodology and interpretation of a diverse movement and historical period. McGuire is seeking a dramatic watershed moment, a foundational link between sexual violence and the very origins of the Civil Rights Movement that does not exist. Simply, it feels as if McGuire has a thesis in mind, a point she intends to reach, and her treatment and interpretation of sources and evidence suffers accordingly. For example, McGuire asserts that the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as a reaction to a history of unimpeded, racialized sexual abuse, is often interpreted as the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Much of the gravitas she assigns women’s involvement in the broader Civil Rights Movement is completely predicated on this singular event, yet she provides no evidence of any historian or historical figure assigning it such significance. As a student with a focus on 20th century American history, I do not contest the importance of the boycotts, but rather her ability to present an unsubstantiated argument.

As Sewell writes in Historical Events as Transformations of Structures, “deciding how to bound an event is necessarily a matter of judgment”. How we choose to do such is determined by one’s perspective, and there is often more than one boundary for a single event.[1] As a popular history, McGuire seeks to present a coherent, unified thesis but in her attempts to do so, leaves room for little else. For example, McGuire only briefly mentions A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’ 1941 March on Washington, which helped ensure the passing of Executive Order 8802, which prohibited segregation in defense industries. By 1948, the Porters successfully pressured Truman to issue an executive order banning segregation in the armed forces. Clearly, a tradition of peaceful direct action had preceded the events in Montgomery, yet McGuire provides little recognition of such. Accordingly, framing the bus boycotts as the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement feels convoluted. McGuire has a point she intends to make, and her methodology and interpretation of the evidence suffers accordingly. In this context, I feel as if the book is characterized by a steadfast devotion to a single coherent narrative and thesis for readability’s sake. Ultimately, McGuire she oversteps its logical boundaries, ultimately reducing the overall impact of her argument and undermining the complexities of the movement as a whole.

As one large narrative of silence and absence, At the Dark End of the Street certainly adds to our understanding of the historiographical theme of silences. As Michel Rolph Trouillot writes, “silences are inherent in history because any single event enters history with some of its constituting parts missing. Something is always left out while something else is recorded”.[2] Accordingly, McGuire asserts that the missing piece of the civil rights narrative is the long history of unimpeded sexual abuse and the subsequent testimony and direct action of black women. Most convincingly, McGuire challenges the dominant trope of Rosa Parks as an old lady who, tired on the bus, simply refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Instead, McGuire notes “the ministers leading the mass meeting that night silenced Parks, they turned her into the kind of woman she wasn’t: a quite victim and solemn symbol…Parks was sainted and celebrated for her quiet dignity, prim demeanor, and middle-class propriety, her radicalism all but erased…”.[3] Particularly illuminating is the recognition that historical silences are not always used to marginalize an opponent. Instead, the silencing of aspects of Park’s character were essential to establishing her as a model of middle-class decorum and thus a defendant who could stand the rigors of both court and media. To be sure, an element of patriarchy and egotism may exist in this silencing, but McGuire’s work exists as a powerful testament to the conscious presentation of appearances and the use of silences to further ones own ends. Despite my issues with McGuire’s work and her own historical silences, her ability to uncover a largely ignored history is commendable and adds a welcome layer of depth to civil rights studies.

Additionally, At the Dark End of the Street touched upon important questions of how we deal with the historiographical issue of an “event” and how we interpret and assign it significance. As the book progresses, McGuire continually makes reference to black women’s attempts to reclaim their bodies as a linear predecessor of the coming women’s rights movement. Despite this, she provides no elaboration or explanation of the link that she has drawn. In this context, I question if McGuire, from a 21st century perspective, assigned significance to the role of being a woman that was not existent during the movement itself. Similarly, has she assigned significance to these particular historical events and cases in an effort to substantiate the involvement of women within the movement? Does she unjustly prioritize the bus boycotts? As McGuire is seeking these connections, I cannot help but wonder if the lens from which she attempts to view this history assigns ahistorical significance to past events. In response to the Browder case, McGuire claimed that it marked the “full arrival” of blacks as citizens. To regard blacks as full citizens in 1956 is an absolute farce and a dramatic overstatement of the advances made. McGuire seems to exhibit a clear tendency to overinflate the historical significance and impact of the events that she sees central to her thesis. This is not to diminish their value or to claim they are of none, but rather that imbedded within McGuire’s work exists a penchant for sensationalism.

Similarly, questions of how we assign significance and historicity can be applied to McGuire’s treatment of gender and identity. Simply, if McGuire had intended to analyze the civil rights movement through a gender history – has she prioritized being female as the foremost determinant of black women’s identity when they could have actually been more united in, and defined by their struggle for racial equality? Is she consciously trying to isolate a women’s movement from within the broader civil rights movement in an effort to draw the connections that uphold her thesis? Women’s testimonies were undoubtedly a form of direct action, but men testified in these trials too. Men too experienced humiliation on buses, walked to work, and were vulnerable to violence. To be clear, I am not attempting to diminish the particularly ghastly and unique relationship with the Jim Crow South that black women experienced, but rather I ask if women’s involvement in boycotts, marches, and testimonies were ever conceptualized as the actions of a woman, or were they merely seen as part of a broader racial movement in which both sides sought to fight against systemic abuse? Simply, does she historically isolate women from the broader movement in a way that never existed and they never intended?

Despite my penchant for criticality, At the Dark End of the Street is of particular importance in its ability to uncover a strand of history largely ignored, and to encourage a reexamination of the civil rights period. The history of unimpeded sexual violence prompted organization, protest, and helped to shift public opinions on both the national and world stage in the post-war context. Women’s testimonies emerged as an important method of direct action and resisting the pervasive system of white supremacy. My contention with McGuire’s work is rather its reductive nature and tendency to overlook and obscure evidence in a self-serving manner. Furthermore, At the Dark End of the Street is a testament to the powerful and diverse nature of historical silences, as well as the complex issues we deal with when assigning historical significance to “events”. McGuire’s continued, strict adherence to a singular thesis pervades the book, raises questions regarding validity of her methodology and interpretation, and ultimately undermines the overall impact of the book.

Bibliography:

McGuire, Danielle L.. At The Dark End of The Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance. New York: Vintage Books, 2011. Print.

Sewell Jr., William H.. “Historical Events as Transformations of Structures: Inventing Revolution at the Bastille.” Theory and Society 25.6 (1996): 841-881. Print.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. Print.

 


[1] Sewell, 878

[2] Trouillot, 49

[3] McGuire, 107.

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