Coming of Age in Jim Crow DC: Navigating the Politics of Everyday Life

Held on Wednesday, February 3rd, 2021. Watch a recording and read a recap below.

Recap by Claudia Chiappa

On February 3, 2021, the Boston University Initiative on Cities (IOC) kicked off its Race, Place, and Space series with a discussion featuring Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies Paula Austin. Austin discussed her book Coming of Age in Jim Crow DC: Navigating the Politics of Everyday Life, which explores the lives of young Black men and women in Washington, DC during the 1930s. By analyzing interviews conducted by sociologist E. Franklin Frazier for his book on Black adolescent personality development in Washington, Austin examined the awareness of young Black residents to the racial and social segregation of their city. Through this archived material, Austin’s book examines the intertwined implications of children becoming adults while experiencing the limitations imposed by geographical, racial, and socio-economic issues.

The United States’ capital, considered by many as the center of democracy, has a long history of segregation and political disenfranchisement. In her research, Austin wanted to show Black youths as “thinkers, theorists, critics, and commentators,” aware not only of their adolescence but also of the limitations geography imposed on them.

Of all the aspects covered in the book, Austin was most fascinated by the awareness shown by these young men and women, their ability to “articulate their inner life and their interior thoughts.” The reality they lived in forced them to become aware of the boundaries the city imposed on them. “I was so amazed and wanted to find a way to recreate their articulations about how they were understanding themselves,” explained Austin.

While children, and sometimes even teenagers, are hardly ever thought of as self-conscious and aware, Austin noted that these young men and women had an incredible understanding of reality. During a time when sociology and psychology research was starting to create an understanding of adolescence and its implications, they could not benefit from being children and teenagers the way we are used to.

“The young people I am looking at are already adultified and criminalized,” explained Austin. “So much of the research at the time is talking about innocent childhood and they are not getting the benefit of that representation … because of their racial identities and social economic class.”

Hours spent examining these interviews and getting to know these characters led Austin to “grow attached” to them. She attempted to follow these people as they moved later in life, which sparked the idea of a newer project Austin is hoping to work on: A mapping project which outlines the migration of some of the families interviewed.

This event is part of a series on Race, Place, and Space, co-hosted by the IOC, the BU Arts Initiative, and BU Diversity & Inclusion (D&I). The series explores the ways in which racial and ethnic groups access, inhabit, occupy, shape, and are memorialized in urban contexts—as well as the ways their contemporary and historical contributions have been made invisible, disregarded, or denigrated.