American History as It Happened

MODULE FIVE: 1930-1945


1. In Document Two, what is meant by “in this matter a white woman’s word is law”?

In matters of a black man allegedly raping a white woman (a Southern white man’s deepest fear and outrage), a white woman’s word was, in fact, above the law. As proven in this particular case, and many others like it, a white woman’s word trumped any and all evidence to the contrary.

Another approach to answering this question might be to say that two separate and unequal societies would be completely against the values codified in the US Constitution. In other words, an apartheid United States is unacceptable because it is strictly unconstitutional. And since discrimination and segregation are the vehicles leading the country to this outcome, all Americans are threatened.

2. In the cartoon that accompanies Document 2 (2A), note three visual indicators suggesting the defendant will not get a fair trial.

In the cartoon, the following visual indicators can be identified: the jury is made up of all white men; they are all looking down on the black man, quite literally, and also by way of their smug superiority. Their facial expressions reveal that they have already decided his fate. In addition, the “thirteenth juror” is a ghostly apparition dressed in the costume of the KKK. This specter is larger than the human jurors, and clearly presides over them. The cartoonist labels him “Race Hatred,” but the label wasn’t really necessary. The spirit pervades the entire proceeding. Finally, the countenance of the defendant makes it clear that he knows very well what his fate will be.

3. Documents One and Five refer to African American achievements in literature. What does the 1930 review of the Langston Hughes novel emphasize about the depiction of American blacks, and how does it compare to the comments made in the review, seven years later, of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”?

Personal responses will vary. In both reviews, however, there is affirmation of the authors’ ability to capture authentic voices of the black community. V.F. Calverton’s review of “Not Without Laughter” begins by complimenting Hughes for continuing a trend that Calverton believes is important, and which he attributes to a few other black authors—incisive depiction of the lives of the everyday African American community instead of a small group of wealthy black elite. Calverton praises Hughes’ ability to enter into his characters’ “inner realities.” In Sterling A. Brown’s review of what came to be regarded as Zora Neale Hurston’s seminal novel, he positively notes her use of African American dialect, calling it “earthy and touching poetry.” He also points out that Hurston’s characters are not “naïve primitives,” but rather have “human needs and frailties.”

4. In Document Five, what does Sterling A. Brown mean by his statement, “the Negro novel is as unachievable as the Great American Novel”?

Just as no one work of fiction could ever possibly sum up the American experience—also known as the “Great American Novel”—neither could any single novel reveal the totality of African American experience.