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Essay: Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

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  • Published: September 8, 2021*
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  • Words: 2,471 (approx)
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  • Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
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Both the Northern and Southern states have always had sectional differences throughout their history. This began back in the colonial time period where the Northern economy differed greatly with the economy of the South. The North generally dealt with commerce and some farming whereas the South was generally plantations that made their money through cash crops. This led to the South having an increasingly large number of slaves compared to the factory workers in the North. The social atmosphere of both also differed greatly based upon the reasons for their creation. The Northern colonies were generally created for religious reasons and therefore prioritized the church in their daily lives. While the south was still religious, these colonies were mainly based upon the pursuit of profits through cash crops. These differences continued to be shown in the Civil War era. The main conflict between the two sides was slavery. The North, which rarely relied on slaves for anything and were mostly free states, wanted to abolish it. The South, by contrast, heavily employed slave labor and thought the North was trying to infringe on their states’ rights. These tensions led to the Civil War and further divisions between the North and South in their attitudes, especially around racial equality. It is also important to note how their economies continued to differ during this period. Whereas the North was heavily industrialized and manufactured goods, the South continued with a more agrarian lifestyle that led to widespread rural areas. These social and economic differences between the two sides would persist through the Second World War. This paper will compare the differences between the North and South in the era following WWII as well as critique Mudbound as an accurate reflection of this period in US history.

Before discussing the Southern lifestyle post-WWII, it is important to understand the events that led up to it. First and foremost is the Great Depression, which began in 1929 with the stock market crash. This Depression helped spark the war, in fact, especially in countries such as Germany. Their future leader, Hitler, rose to power by promising to lead them out of this global Depression and restore Germany’s glory days. These days that he referred to were pre-WWI when Germany was still an empire and enjoyed tons of wealth and prestige. Following their defeat in that war, however, they were left broke and destitute with most of their population living in poverty. This paved the way for someone such as Hitler to step in and gain power. During this time Americans were hit very hard and unemployment averaged around 13 percent between 1929 and 1939. Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, the president of the US, issued his “New Deal” policies shortly after being elected. These policies included flooding money into the US economy from the government and creating a host of public works projects that provided jobs for the unemployed and were meant to jumpstart the economy. Some examples of the creations by this program included the construction of the Hoover Dam and hundreds schools and other public buildings throughout the nation. Many of these projects would become especially important with the “Baby Boom” that occurred after WWII. However, despite all of these setbacks, America remained seemingly well prepared for the war that would quickly grip the globe. Manufacturers were still prepared to produce war and military goods and the unemployed quickly jumped at the opportunity to either enlist or grab the jobs of those drafted into service.

During the war, the American economy changed drastically, as did many around the globe such as Great Britain and France to aid the war effort. War Administration took over, which meant that the government began controlling what manufactures produced, how much of it, where it went, etc. These policies often meant only producing materials and supplies for the war effort. Other consumer goods were rarely produced during this time. Even with this, American mobilization was much less centralized than other war nations. Countries such as Britain had large councils that meticulously oversaw every part of the economy. Germany was the worst and shot people who were hoarding goods such as rubber or other supplies that could benefit their troops. America, on the other hand, never appointed a supreme council to oversee civilians or directly control the economy. Most of the regulation was done by already established legislatures that had been elected prior to the war. However, military services could still take whatever they desired from the manufacturers as long as it was for the war effort. This wartime economy would have large impacts on the returning soldiers and civilians following the war. These effects were most felt perhaps in the South, which had begun to industrialize to help support the troops and produce more goods for use overseas.

Due to these changes in the way of life and the economy, standards of living began to change as well. These changes were partly due to the price controls set on the market by the federal government. Most of these controls were set to control inflation and maintain prices at the levels they were at in 1942. Acts by the National War Labor Board that limited wartime wage increases by around 15% helped curtail inflation and stop the cost of living from skyrocketing. This led to inflation staying steady around 3.5% between 1942 and 1946 compared to the 10.3% in the sixth months prior to April 1942. However, during this war wages still rose on average around 65% which meant most American civilians enjoyed a higher standard of living than pre-war times. However, as the average standard of living rose, other areas such as the rural south faced tougher economic times. As their crops’ prices were strictly controlled by the government the marginal farmers who could barely turn a profit were forced out of business and forced into lower wage farmhand jobs. The wages of these jobs failed to rise as quickly as those of the national average which left them working long hours for very little compensation. The effects of this downturn would be felt in the South for many years following the war.

The last major change that occurred during WWII was massive population shifts throughout the nation. This was first spurred on by the nearly 15 million Americans who enlisted in the military and the 11.25 million of these who were sent overseas. This left new opportunities and jobs in the factories of the north for the unskilled laborers of the South. These jobs were especially welcoming due to the dramatic increase in wages that were mentioned above. Over 700,000 African Americans left the South in 1943 alone to look for factory jobs in the North and West. This migration was also due to the intense segregation experienced during this era in the South and their desire to escape to the more progressive North.

Shortly following WWII, the South and all of America faced the Red Scare. This “Red Scare” was the fear of communism that could be seen throughout American culture in the 1940s and 50s. This coincided with the beginning of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, often seen as the face of communism. This scare was partly due to the stronger national government that had been created during WWII. By introducing income taxes and regulating prices the government began having a much stronger hold over the American economy than it did pre-WWII. This created fear and tension in America as civilians began to argue over the role of government and whether they should continue to have laissez faire economic policies or stronger, more liberal ones. During this era acts were put in place such as the one that created the Special House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, a committee meant to investigate domestic communists. Most of the infrastructure for combating domestic communism was put in place during the initial Red Scare that occurred following WWI. This scare created the FBI’s antiradicalism division alongside civilian “patriotic” organizations that continue to combat the communists on the home front. This event was important as it pitted the two American core beliefs of safety and liberty against each other. In fact, debates over the Red Scare continue today as they are relatable to current Americans’ struggles between those two ideals.

The Red Scare had a profound effect on the Southern way of life in the form of Operation Dixie. This operation was a motion by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to organize more unions in the South. Even though unions had taken hold of most the northern manufacturing, the South remained relatively unorganized. This led union officials to believe that the lower percentage of unions left the region potentially susceptible to uncontrolled northern business. The president of the CIO, Murray, thought that creating unions in the South was vital for the future of labor. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) also began a unionizing campaign in the South around this time. The CIO decided to begin their operations in the cities that expand them to more rural areas, however, it never gained steam mostly due to the Red Scare. Southern businessmen, anti-union workers, and even some from the AFL assaulted the CIO as being communists and dramatically reduced the impact of their efforts. The movement was also targeted as being anti-Christian. As Christianity and the Church played a major role in southerners’ lives in this era, these threats resounded with the workers. Many textile factories and mills began sending out anti-union newspapers to enforce their message. The inability of these attempts at unionizing slowed down the rise of manufacturing in the South and is part of the reason that it remains heavily agriculturally based to this day.

Going beyond economics, the most important social aspect of life in the 1950s in the South was the racial tensions. The figurehead of these conflicts, the KKK, led the way through their terror tactics meant to force blacks out of the South. Even though slavery had been ended with the 13th amendment, slave type practices still persisted and African Americans continued to live impoverished. An example of these practices was sharecropping, which was where white plantation owners forced recently freed slaves to work on their farms for little to no wages. As blacks could find few other places of work, they were compelled to continue to work in near slave-like conditions. These jobs were also unregulated, which meant no minimum wage or standards of work place were enforced. The KKK encouraged these practices and others that kept blacks marginalized and on the fringes of society. Another way the KKK did this was through lynching and intimidation. In the years between 1877 and 1950 over 7000 lynchings by the KKK were reported and documented. The purpose of these public beatings was to scare the blacks and keep them docile. Voting tests such as grandfather clauses and legibility tests were put into place to take more power away from the blacks. This demonstrates the heightened period of racial tensions in the South prior to the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s.
The KKK were not the only people responsible for this conflict. These racist thoughts had been permeating through decades of hate and disdain passed down from family member to family member. This is seen in cities such as Memphis that only first hired a black policeman in 1948. Even with this hiring, however, the policeman still lacked the ability to arrest a white man or woman. Music itself was also segregated in the South. Not only were blacks restricted to the upper balconies during shows and performances, the performers were given strict rules they had to follow. For example, they couldn’t stay in most hotels and were not allowed to make eye contact with white audience members during shows. Other facets of the culture were gradually becoming desegregated such as education with Little Rock, however, the hostile feelings towards blacks’ increasing power from the whites continued to simmer and burst. This led to a period of increasing violence and assaults towards blacks before the Civil Rights Movement finally succeeded in the late 60s.

Mudbound, placed mostly in the years following WWII, presents this era in American history through the eyes of a few main characters. The McAllan family, a white family who own a small farm, and the Jacksons, their black sharecroppers. However, the story is put through a unique perspective as a member of each family has recently returned from the war. This gives them an uncommon relationship for this era as they find common ground through the hardships they faced in the war. The beginning few chapters do a good job at setting the stage for the future racial conflict in the novel. The very first scene is Henry and Jamie digging a grave for their recently deceased, white father. This goes south however when they hit bones that had a chain around the ankle. This leads them to believe that they are the bones of a runaway slave who was shot and buried. Right away they say how it would anger their father knowing he was buried in a grave with a black person. This exchange shows the racial disconnect that the South had during this time and how prejudiced many white people were.

Mudbound also excels at depicting the role of women in southern society during that era. Laura, who went to college and is currently a school teacher, is constantly worried about finding a husband as that is what is the societal norm. Even though she cares less about her appearance than the other women, it becomes clear when she meets Henry that she wants to impress him with her looks. The book also depicts how she is much closer connected to her friends and feels a greater sense of belonging after she starts dating Henry. This demonstrates how women were thought of solely in the domestic sphere and not meant to excel in other facets of life. This can also be seen during the luncheon before Laura marries Henry. Henry’s sisters took the traditional path of a southern, proper lady and married into rich families that owned plantations. This leads to them having very uppity attitudes and believing college or other forms of work is beneath them. One of his sisters, Eboline, even says that college is pointless, “Unless of course you’re poor, or plain”(Jordan 31). For someone who grew up in a family that placed such emphasis on education talk like this is shocking and hurtful for Laura. She represents a more progressive lady who did not think that her only job in life was to marry a rich man, look pretty, and gossip.

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