Professor Charles Dew reflects on racism in new memoir

Professor Charles Dew grew up in the segregated South, and his new book reflects on his coming to terms with the racism in his town. Marshall Borrus/Contributing Photographer.
Professor Charles Dew grew up in the segregated South, and his new book reflects on his coming to terms with the racism in his town. Marshall Borrus/Contributing Photographer.

Likely, you’ve never had to ride in a dining car that’s been sectioned off into “colored” and “whites only” areas. But for Professor Charles Dew, who grew up in the Deep South during the height of Jim Crow laws, this kind of experience was commonplace. Dew’s latest book, The Making of a Racist, reflects his unique personal perspective on racism and the richness of the research he has dedicated his adult life to.

Dew, current Ephraim Williams Professor of American History, specializes in the history of the South and focuses on slavery in the U.S. and antebellum U.S. history. His past published works include Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph R. Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works, Bond of Iron: Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge and Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. His courses at the College reflect his study of how the racist ideologies that justified institutionalized slavery in the antebellum South came about and were carefully maintained post-Reconstruction.

As a white child in the segregated Deep South, Dew was programmed to revere the Confederacy. The Making of a Racist reflects on this experience by inviting the audience to consider the difficulties of introspection and self-consideration.

“I was trying to combine autobiography and history in a seamless way,” Dew said. This wasn’t easy, considering his formal training’s emphasis on remaining objective. “My training in graduate school was to keep myself at arm’s length from my history, that the personal wasn’t part of the process, that we were social scientists and that we should approach our subject matter that way,” Dew said.

The Making of a Racist is comprised of three chapters: “A Confederate Youth,” “The Making of a Racist” and “The Unmaking of a Racist.”

In the first chapter, Dew focuses on the unspoken rules that dictated black and white exchanges in the South during the Jim Crow era.

“Children absorb their parents’ values, and they see the way their parents interact with people across the color line,” Dew said. “You don’t shake hands, you don’t use Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. — in referring to a person of color, you use the first name. They were always to use the back door. There were a set of these racial protocols in place for years and certainly still when I was born. It’s not unnatural in the slightest for the child to accept this as the way things were meant to be.”

That being said, Dew makes no excuses for his racist upbringing. “White supremacy was a value, [and] black inferiority was a value. It was done for a purpose — to keep white privilege privileged and to keep blacks in a position of inferiority,” Dew said.

One would expect the second chapter to have been the most difficult for Dew to write, since it required him to remember ideologies long-since rejected. It was laborious for Dew to delve into his personal history. The inspiration and strength to take this leap came from co-teaching with Professor of History Leslie Brown, who passed away in August. 

“I got over censoring myself by teaching a Winter Study course with Professor Brown,” Dew said. “In January 2014 we taught a Winter Study called ‘The South in Black and White,’ and we read autobiographies alternately across the color line, for example, Lillian Smith then Anne Moody,  and we’d go back and forth. Professor Brown and I liked and respected each other, and, as we became friends, we became comfortable in each other’s presence. And I felt that I was in an environment in which I could give voice to things which I’d never talked about openly in public before — had never talked about because I was too ashamed, too embarrassed about having done that.”

As time went on, Dew became more determined to fully explore difficult topics from his past.

“As I wrote the book I decided that I had to be honest above all, and I had to say exactly what happened even if it was embarrassing, even mortifying, now,” he said. “It would not serve any purpose to sanitize what I was saying and writing, so I didn’t.”

By the final chapter of The Making of a Racist, we see a change of heart emerge in Dew’s ideology upon becoming a student at the College. His parents hadn’t considered that their son’s attending school in the Northeast would change his beliefs, and Dew’s own dislodging of these deep-seated prejudices didn’t happen overnight.

Dew remembers a history professor complicating his views on segregation:

“A newspaper editor at the beginning of my sophomore year came to speak in Chapin Hall,” he said. “He was going to defend segregation by challenging the Brown decision. In my American history class there was a passage we read quoting Lincoln in his debate with Stephen Douglas in Illinois, in which Lincoln [gave] a white supremacist speech and essentially [claimed that] white privilege [should] be honored and maintained. I used that passage in class when I argued for segregation, and my teacher Fred Rudolph singled me out and said, ‘You should be up there on stage with this newspaper editor.’ I was mortified. [The editor] was this guy [reading] out of this loose-leaf binder just page after page. And I remember thinking, ‘Is this what I’ve been defending in class?’”

Dew later found himself riding the train home for Christmas break and feeling startled by the reappearance of segregation.

“Waiters pulled a heavy green curtain across the middle of the dining car. I had been riding trains for years, and I had never noticed that before,” Dew said. “But I had a classmate in the same entry, entry E at Williams Hall, who was African American, and the thought occurred to me, ‘He could not be sitting there with me.’”

To Dew, racism is a learned behavior that is, as he put it, “passed on somewhat like a genetic trait.” But, if anything, his memoir shows that it is more than possible to break free from prejudices. In his new book, Dew demonstrates the true power of education and self-reflection.

  • David Plater

    I look forward to reading this. Charles Dew, Massachusetts native Phil Rideout, and I shared a top floor “suite” in Williams Hall in our first year. We all remain friends and occasional correspondents. I shared with Prof. Dew, too, the challenges of the ideas and cultures that Williams presented upon our admission in 1954. I chose to return to live in the South.There, we struggle, still, with our past, understanding what it was, how it shaped us, and how we are to act. I am forever grateful to those marvelous scholars and teachers in the department of history of the 1950s Williams College.