Cassanello’s “To Render Invisible”: A complex and original blend of racial history and social theory

Here are a couple of quotations worth keeping in mind as we consider Robert Cassanello’s complex and ambitious — call it spatial? — history of black politics in Jacksonville from the Civil War to the Red Summer.

The first is from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant essay titled “English is a Dialect with an Army”:

Through conquest the ways of whiteness become the air. That is the whole point of conquest. But once those ways are apprehended by the conquered–as they must be–they are no longer the strict

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property of the conqueror. On the contrary you find the conquered mixing, cutting, folding, and flipping the ways of the conqueror into something that he barely recognizes and yet finds oddly compelling. And all the while the conquered still enjoys her own private home.

The second is from me, from a passage concerning Jacksonville in Age of Barbarity:

“To be black after the Civil War and before the Great War, in the eyes of modern white people like me, was to belong to a secret

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society, largely ignored from without and obscured from within.”

Cassanello’s book is subtitled “Jim Crow and Public Life in New South Jacksonville.” But that’s both overly reductive and overly broad. I think he’s really trying to understand the sentiments above using social theory of non-electoral-politics and law in populations that live in undemocratic societies. And make no mistake, black Americans lived in an undemocratic country for most of their history.

Jacksonville saw arguably America’s most effective and sustained resistance to the 80 years of Jim Crow that came before the brief period of non-violent political success we’ve mislabeled the Civil Rights movement. So it makes the perfect historical laboratory for Cassanello. You can see the core of his mission and focus on the first page of his first chapter, “Re-Ordered Spaces.”

Space as organized in a slave society in the South was

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not democratized for black political engagement or participation even for free blacks. The Civil War created a new set of circumstances for the production of space in the South because the military presence existed above local and and state government and operated as the state for the rest of the 1860s.

Those circumstances, of course, would not last. And To Render Invisible deftly chronicles the dance between the fluid circumstances of power and the endlessly re-ordered public spaces through which Jacksonville’s black population sought to exercise self-defense, control its labor, and exert political influence.

The book builds on Cassanello’s enormously valuable Florida Historical Quarterly paper, “Violence, Racial Etiquette, and African American Working Class Infrapolitics in Jacksonville during World War I.” That paper proved great help to me in writing my own book.

What gives Jacksonville its uniqueness is how long its black population managed to maintain effective political spaces — mostly related to labor — during the long descent from hopeful Reconstruction to open, undeclared race war around World War I era. Black Jacksonville did this without any formal political representation after Reconstruction.

Instead, black Jacksonville used boycotts, tentative alliances with white unions or good government factions, and sheer force of population to wield unofficial influence in its city and surroundings. White Jacksonville could not stamp out that influence.

This long rear-guard action against the effects of Redemption and later Jim Crow is the core of Cassanello’s book. And it’s too complex to put into an easy synopsis.

But three examples of the interaction of social space and political economy stick out to me:

1) Cassanello writes about marriage and inheritance regulation in the state in the wake of the overthrow of Reconstruction. The lawlessness of the lawmaking he cites largely speaks for itself:

The first statewide attempt to legally reconstruct space after Reconstruction occurred with the passage of two pieces of legislation in the spring of 1881, which targeted the private spaces

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went so far as to legally define blackness as one-eighth black blood and carried much stiffer penalties to white men marrying black women to prohibit “black” children from inheriting historically white land and property.

2) Today, Orange Park, just south of Jacksonville, is the quintessential white southern suburb. It’s an aesthetically boring hotbed of populist conservative identity politics. But that’s not how it started:

“The town of Orange Park was designed by its Northern migrants to be a place where public space could be redefined in contrast to the increasingly rigid control of public space in Jacksonville. Previously the site of the town was the location of the antebellum Mackintosh Plantation. In 1873 Harriet Beecher Stowe founded a school with some living quarters for local area African Americans that had since been abandoned. Although cotton plants in full bloom and sugar cane were the natural reminders of the property’s previous tenure, the town founders took great care to remove the artificial monuments of slavery left by the previous owners of the land. They discarded the whipping post used to publicly punish disobedient bondsmen and women, and within “a gun-shot away” town leaders built the Orange Park School. In that place they cheerfully claimed that the “the grandchildren of those who once danced and howled to the strokes of the lash of paddle now learn the lessons of liberty and peace.”

I grew up 40 minutes south of Orange Park and spent many a date at the Orange Park mall’s movie theater. I didn’t know anything about the town’s idealistic origins. It was just a place to go to Outback.

Cassanello elegantly demonstrates in that Orange Park passage how monuments define the historical and moral meaning of any space. That’s why we fight over them today and will never stop fighting over them. See Olustee. See the monuments to the “treasonous” Confederate slave power in front of courthouses and town squares all over the South.

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To Render Invisible tackles Jacksonville’s dueling Red Summer lynchings of 1919, which I also feature prominently in my book. The first was black on white, as a mob murdered a white insurance agent after he berated hack drivers for refusing to carry him. Black drivers were enforcing a boycott against white passengers to protest the recent unsolved killing of a black driver, whose last known fare had been white. Black bystanders to the lynching refused to help police investigate.

The two men finally arrested were later lynched themselves by a white mob supposedly targeting a third back man accused of a assaulting a white girl, which was, of course, one of the classic lynching catalysts.

Writes Cassanello:

“A grand jury investigation concluded that the lynching was a premeditated plot to avenge Du Bose’s murder, although the actions of the mob demonstrated more concern for sending a message to the black community…”

Messages and symbols are inseparable from politics. And to paraphrase Clausewitz, lynching is politics by other means. To Render Invisible ends with this episode, a political and social boycott turned to the outright violent conflict of a civil war in miniature. So I think it’s reasonable to infer that Cassanello, like me, sees an era ending with the post-war chaos and beginning of Great Migration. I love to praise people who agree with me.

A note on style: I tend to prefer my history character-driven, propelled by the elements of fiction. I would like to see the people who inhabited the spaces that Cassanello defines so skillfully put into motion and collide with one another. But that’s not To Render Invisible. It’s a history less of the

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city or the people who lived in the spaces than of the spaces themselves. This is an academic book. It’s study and theory, not storytelling.

That’s not a criticism. I would no more criticize Cassanello’s approach to his work than I

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would complain about getting steak at a steak house.

But there is a great novel lurking in the Jacksonville of To Render Invisible. Maybe it’s already been written, and I just don’t know about it. If not, Robert Cassanello has given aspiring authors some extremely valuable source material.

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