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The Ethics of Living Jim Crow

In Richard Wright’s “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch” the author writes about his childhood and growing up in the pre- Civil Rights South. During this period the Jim Crow laws were fully in place and basically formed the Southern culture surrounding the African-Americans living in these areas. Wright forms his essay around events that happened in his own life and the lessons that he learned from those experiences about being a black person living in the South.

His essay is written in such a way that it becomes almost a primer of his experiences and the lessons that he learned from each one of them. “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” is a title that invokes images in the minds of readers of lessons that need to be learned and the idea of something ethical is directly in contradiction to the types of actions described in this essay. The main theme of Richard Wright’s essay is what his experiences living under the laws of Jim Crow in the South has taught him about the way people can treat one another and how messed up a culture can become when they are able to create their own rules.

Jim Crow is a term used to describe the segregation and discrimination that was practiced against African-Americans in the South following Reconstruction until the emergence of Civil Rights in the mid-twentieth century. Wright’s experiences in the various jobs he held show this system of keeping a black person “in their place”, as the white people in the essay reminded him. We watch as he learns about the way things are through the beating of the young black woman in the back of the store and the way the white men talk to him if he looks too long at a white prostitute.

The stories of his life are sickening and frightening. That any society would allow itself to fall to such a low place as they could single one race out to be treated as less than human is obvious in Wright’s essay. The irony of the title of Richard Wright’s essay is that it implies that there is something ethical about the conduct towards the African-Americans in the South that would be known as Jim Crow. Instead, the essay talks about all of the things that happened to Wright that, to our society, would be considered unethical and intolerable in a civilized society.

In this way, the essay is not only a primer about how a black man was treated under Jim Crow, but it becomes a statement against those types of actions, creating an essay that brings to life the deplorable treatment of black people in the South.

Works Cited

Wright, Richard. “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: an Autobiographical Sketch. ” American Stuff. New Deal Network. 19 Mar. 2007 <http://newdeal. feri. org/fwp/fwp03. htm>.

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