Free, White, and…

Paul Muni (not his real name)

“The saying emerged around 1828, when property ownership was removed as a prerequisite for suffrage, and voters needed only be free, white, and 21 (and also, it needn’t be said, male). It should have died with the passing of the 15th amendment in 1870, but of course racism is stronger than the law, and by the end of the century, legislators were working to bring the two back into harmony. In 1898, when Louisiana put forward its version of the grandfather clause, a judge asserted that the new legislation was simply a way of maintaining the “right of manhood,” deserved of all men ‘free, white, and twenty-one.’”

Watching the 1932 classic film I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang with my Film and American Culture class last week, I heard this expression twice: I can do what I want because “I’m free, white, and 21.”

One time, a female character uttered it, but that shouldn’t be surprising:

“Yet it took women to popularize the phrase — or fictional women at least. The expression figures in romance narratives starting as early as 1856. Later, Dorothy Dix, the nation’s first advice columnist, would recycle it, directed to young women. If the primary sphere of influence for the white male was in the voting booth, for the disenfranchised white woman it was the home. Her privilege was narrow but vital: to choose which white male to share it with.”

In “Fugitive,” there is much to proclaim about one’s lack of freedom. How returning from the war couldn’t guarantee “James Allen” (played by “Paul Muni,” who wasn’t free to use his real name of Frederich Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund), a job in the field he wanted (engineering). How the law and the church are incapable of correctly assessing the limits that Allen is bordering.

And once he is incarcerated and slammed into a chain gang, which doesn’t mean merely chains when he and his fellow inmates are out slaving in the hot sun, but also when they eat and sleep, the constraints of freedom prove even more insidious.

Black Asheville

In the 1930’s, of course, the U.S. featured segregation in a majority of its states. That meant segregation in schools, churches, eateries, parks, hospitals, movie theaters. Cemeteries.

And prisons.

One of my students suggested that punishment in prison could have taken the form of forcing a white man to bunk with a black man. As we know, though, all crimes are not equal, and neither are the places and gangs where these crimes are punished.

So in “Fugitive” there are a couple of riveting scenes, set against the backdrop of the famous saying quoted at the beginning of this essay.

In one of these scenes, the white men, chained of course, are loaded onto a wagon that will transport them to their day’s labor: breaking rocks, again “in the hot sun.” As we watch them load, the film cuts to a parallel scene of the black inmates, chained of course, sitting on their respective wagon.

Separate but equal means many things to different people, but here in the chain gang of a Hollywood film — approximating closely what must be the reality of the day — the white and black inmates are equally numb, equally somber. Both groups appear as forerunners to the sitting or walking dead. Equal in that, but entirely separate in their wagons, their barracks, their tables.

As the foremen are readying the wagons for delivery, the film cuts again to the teams of mules that will haul this human load. As the convicts are chained across their legs, so are the mules, all systematically and thoroughly. The metaphor is heavy: convicts are no freer, perhaps less free, than the usual beasts of burden. The mules, no doubt, get better feed, though both suffer the lash of the leather strap.

Chained but Equal

My students, perhaps, are too young to get this point, this scrap of my memory: back when I was growing up, while men of either race might be said to be “ as strong as a mule,” white people often referred to black people as mules: stubborn, brutish, stupid.

The beauty and the trouble of “Fugitive” is in part that for a contemporary 30’s audience, it portrayed the segregation of these two racial groups, but also, if the audience was seeing clearly, that one group was truly no freer than the other, and that both were less free than the animal that one group often equated with the other.

Out on the rocks, James Allen braves the conditions to ask the strongest black inmate — Samson — to break his chains with his sledgehammer. Risking being caught, this “lifer” agrees to help and succeeds in breaking the white man’s leg links. This is a cooperation that bears fruit not in this film, but 30+ years later in the Tony Curtis/Sidney Poitier drama The Defiant Ones.

My baby’s got me locked up in chains.

“C’mon, c’mon, let’s work together, now now people.”

Ultimately Allen cannot escape his fate and learns that to survive, he must steal. At the film’s end, he resembles very much the darker animal that the “justice system” has tried to make him.

The film is set primarily in the South, so we are supposed to see this deeply segregated region for the backwater that it is. In classic film tropes — tropes that Alfred Hitchcock will exploit later — a wronged man is falsely imprisoned and can never escape.

Now transfer that to a wronged race, and you’ll see what, perhaps, director Mervyn leRoy and Warner Brothers Studios were searching for — what they were showing us about these prisoners and how deeply we all were, and maybe still are, shackled.


As historian James Q. Whitman writes in his recent study, Hitler’s American Model, the Nazis looked to and were inspired by America’s strict immigration policy from the late 19th Century through the 1930’s. That policy, in part, welcomed immigrants who were “free and white,” into our land of the free, the brave, and the light-skinned. Think about this in light of those barrack scenes in “Fugitive”: the ragged striped uniforms; the awful, dirty and hard bunks; the disease; the brute foremen.

There was just so much to model in our collective past.




I write about music, culture, food, and my Alabama past in One Table One World, The Riff, InTune, FanFare, SongStories, Rock n”Heavy, Counter Arts, and Pop Off.

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Terry Barr

Terry Barr

I write about music, culture, food, and my Alabama past in One Table One World, The Riff, InTune, FanFare, SongStories, Rock n”Heavy, Counter Arts, and Pop Off.

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