Jim Crow was originally a character in a nineteenth-century minstrel show, played by a white man performing a caricature of a black man, dancing and singing silly songs. The character became standard during that century, and came to represent a stereotypical image of black inferiority. Ultimately, the term became connected to racist laws that not only deprived African Americans of their rights but also defined them as a subordinate and inferior group of people.
In 1896, the Supreme Court of the United States, in a landmark decision called Plessy v. Ferguson, upheld the concept of ‘‘separate but equal.’’ That is, the decision stated that states could segregate facilities by race so long as both African Americans and whites had equal facilities. In reality, while facilities were indeed separated, they were scarcely equal, with African Americans forced to attend inferior schools with few resources, to use restroom facilities that were substandard or nearly non-existent, and to ride in train cars and bus seats in undesirable locations, separated from whites.
Plessy v. Ferguson heralded an era in which states passed laws that impinged on every part of African American life. African Americans could not sit with white people in a theater, they could not work with white people, their children could not swim in public swimming pools with white people, nor could they eat in white-only restaurants. States even outlawed marriage between whites and African Americans. Through what were known as miscegenation laws, many states continued to ban interracial marriage until these laws were overturned by the Supreme Court in 1967.
Sports teams were also segregated, with African Americans banned from playing professional sports with white players. It was not until 1947 that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by becoming the first African American to play major league baseball. Likewise, Nat Clifton in 1951 became the first African American to play in the National Basketball League. Although the sports teams were slowly integrated, the laws dictating where team members could sleep and eat in the South were not changed immediately.
Likewise, Jim Crow laws prevented African Americans from participating in American democracy. When an African American showed up at a polling place to cast a vote, the person was often met by laws that required the person to pay a poll tax, or pass a literacy test, before being allowed to vote. As a result, few African Americans were able to make their voices heard.
As if the Jim Crow laws were not bad enough, many states did not have anti-lynching statutes on their books. As a result, young African American men in particular lived dangerous lives. Any violation of the strictly enforced code of racial etiquette could be met with a beating, tarring and feathering, or at worst, a lynching. As a result, many African Americans survived by pretending to be subservient and non-confrontational, hiding their true thoughts and intentions.
The 1954 Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka overturned Plessy v. Ferguson in regard to schools; ultimately, the decision undermined and struck down all Jim Crow laws, but not without a long and difficult struggle on the part of African Americans. On Tuesday, July 29, 2008, The House of Representatives of the United States passed a resolution apologizing to African Americans for slavery and for the Jim Crow era.
The Ku Klux Klan
The Ku Klux Klan began in the nineteenth century as a secret society of white men, who, through vigilantism and terror, attempted to control the African American population of the South by burning churches and schools and murdering those who did not adhere to strict racial etiquette designed to maintain the superior position of white people. Although the federal government broke up the Klan in the 1870s, it reemerged, according to Richard Wormser in The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, in 1915, and by the 1920s, had become a nationwide, powerful force. Many politicians were associated with the Klan during this era. In the South, police and local government officials by day were often white-robed, hooded Klan vigilantes by night.
According to Angela M. Salas, in an article appearing in College Literature, Komunyakaa’s home town of Bogalusa ‘‘had an active, intimidating Klan presence’’ during Komunyakaa’s youth and adolescence. The young basketball players in the poem ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook’’ could be targets for Klan violence, particularly as the early civil rights movement began in the mid-1950s. Tellingly, as Salas asserts, Bogalusa ‘‘was also the birthplace of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a group of African American men who exercised armed resistance to white racist oppression.’’ The tension that inheres in ‘‘Slam, Dunk, & Hook’’ between beauty and danger, then, has at its roots racial confrontation, the basketball players representing a new breed of young African Americans who refuse to be oppressed any longer.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Yusef Komunyakaa, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009