Book review: Williams professor's memoir traces history of racial injustice


"The Making of A Racist" by Charles B. Dew, professor of American History at Williams College and renowned historian of the American South and its history of slavery, is at once a memoir of growing up in Jim Crow culture and an investigation into the antebellum world of slavery in an attempt to discover why generations of people did not see the evil they created and perpetuated.

In the first three chapters, Dew details a very clear and personal story of being reared in Jim Crow's South, receiving a thorough and effective indoctrination as a racist in a culture of institutionalized racism that flourished long after the American Civil War.

That this was ubiquitous throughout the Jim Crow South of that period is well supported through his own account. But through a series of transitions in his life, reflections on key questions that never leave him, and two "thunder claps" of awakening impasse, the author tells the greater story of profound experiences that transform his understanding and the course of his life. Through this memoir and his delving into Civil War documents in ways that unveil fresh insights, Dew unlocks a new and important upgrade in how we must continue the dialogue of honesty and progress when talking about race in America.

The memoir chapters that outline important steps in "The Making of A Racist" are courageous. Dew goes deep into the experience and shares sympathetic, but honest, portraits of his family and people who were close to him. It seems to say that knowing the history is necessary to have the discussion about race. Dew goes further back in the next chapters to examine slave trading documents from before the Civil War to investigate the minds of those who kept records and made comment.

In the chapter, The Unmaking of a Racist, the author is challenged when he arrives as a first-year student at Williams College. There he experiences conflicting feelings in his observations of races for the first time, on and off campus. He begins to see what had heretofore been veiled by his racist indoctrination, even confronting the issues with family. The resolution of that aspect of the story is one of grace and wisdom. A scholarly career in the study of race and the American South becomes his destiny. Heart-rending documents from slavery times and questions from every quarter are critical.

Article Continues After These Ads

A most important question is raised by Illinois Browning Culver an African American woman who had worked for his family: "Why do the grown-ups put so much hate in the children?" This drives the scholarship and purpose of the book: to unearth the answers and illuminate the evil of racial injustice.

Colin Harrington is the events manager at The Bookstore and Get Lit Wine Bar in Lenox. Colin welcomes reader comments at

'The Making of A Racist'

By Charles B. Dew

Published by the University of Virginia Press

200 pages


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions