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Black Men Across America

ISSUE:  Autumn 1930

The Negro in American Civilisation. By Charles S. Johnson and others. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $4.00. The Negro Peasant Turns Cityivard. By Louise Venable Kennedy. New York: Columbia University Press. $4.25.

a Southern person, I have been a little thick to the persuasions of Northern commentators who see our land primarily studded with the race problem. Now and then it becomes irksome for strangers to insist constantly, as it were, upon entering our houses by the back door. And while conscious that, in this day of the adding-machine and foot-rule technique, the mere feeling of a truth is hardly worth the utterance, I remain obdurate enough to preserve a conviction that many, “scientific” studies of the Negro landscape are fundamentally both romantic and sentimental.

Indeed, this view, though robustly challenged, has not entirely succumbed before even such a book as Charles S. Johnson’s “The Negro in American Civilization,” which is to all appearances the most complete and authentic symposium of data ever assembled upon black America. The volume—538 pages in length—is one of the American Social Science Series, and the fact that Howard W. Odum is the editor of the group is enough to establish the prestige of this latest study, as well as to associate it with Dr. Odum’s previous excursions into the field. Dr. Johnson is head of the department of sociology at Fisk University and was formerly editor of Opportunity and a director of research for the National Urban League. Miss Louise Ven-able Kennedy’s “The Negro Peasant Turns Cityward” elaborates one aspect of the larger book. On the points of northward migrations and urbanization, the two volumes have much material in common.

Both volumes reiterate the facets of prejudice and injustice by reason of which the Negro’s lot has fallen short of the ideal. The burden of reformation, characteristically, is placed almost wholly upon the white man, and the white man is expected to be motivated by such a power of philanthropic sympathy that his own selfish interests and racial attainments will be relegated. Such romanticism is construed without due reference to human nature. Further, there remains a question as to the absolute ill-treatment of the Negro by our not always solicitous civilization. The Negro janitor, who motors in his Ford, operates the dial of his radio, and wears natty clothing made to measure by a complex manufacturing system, would not be so fortunate, as we measure good things in our time, had not his greatgrandfather been transported from the precarious jungles of Africa to the relatively advanced rice fields of the Carolinas.

Dr. Johnson’s book is of importance because it crystallizes the points of view of the several organizations and individuals that constitute the main active interest in Negro progress. Growing as it did from the comprehensive and decidedly significant program of the National Interracial Conference in Washington in 1928, the volume presents a composite picture of the field. Traditional problems such as agriculture and industry, health, law observance, citizenship, and racial prejudice are exhaustively treated.

Certain popular fallacies are exposed. At the same time, Dr. Johnson does not fall into the error of stating new conclusions with finality. He is satisfied to prove by means of abundant data that several common dogmas are at least open to serious question. For instance, he supplies convincing evidence that the Negro’s susceptibility to certain diseases is relative rather than inherent, and that environment is perhaps the principal conditioning factor. Somewhat the same method is utilized in the intricate structure of citations touching upon the Negro’s mental capacity. While the majority, of the numerous tests appear to demonstrate clearly the inferiority of the mentality of Negro school children, Dr. Johnson justly inquires whether this delinquency may not be attributable largely to association and experience instead of entirely to racial incapacity, The points bear academic interest; furthermore, they may be experimentally serviceable in the pursuit of remedial measures.

Without doubt “The Negro in American Civilization” articulates and embodies the current leadership in racial adjustment. A section of the volume is devoted to topical discussions by Niles Carpenter, Louis I. Dublin, Raymond Pearl, Thorsten Selin, W. E. B. DuBois, and Herbert A.

Miller. The approach is never inflammatory; admirable restraint, objectivity, and good taste are apparent. While the section on citizenship and the franchise adumbrates a touch of impatience and irritation, one can allow for such an attitude.

Omission of one essential point of view may possibly detract from the completeness of the treatment. What is the feeling of the Southern white man who is above competition with the Negro and who consequently views racial problems without prejudice and, as a matter of fact, without considerable interest? To this type of person, unless he be an employer of labor, the Negro is primarily a domestic servant; the Negro shaves him and trims his hair, acts as his chauffeur, cooks most of his food, and—at tremendous hazard, if the psychologists be correct—raises most of his children.

This kind of man represents the ruling class in the South, where four-fifths of the Negroes still reside; consequently, the future of the Negro race rests largely in his keeping. In the vocations entailing racial competition which impinge upon his regular experience, he exhibits no preference for the white man. Rather, the reverse is true. He prefers the colored barber, the colored cook, waiter, and nurse girl, the Negro caddy on the golf course, and frequently the colored laundress and janitor. His preferences are based upon superior performance. The case for the Negro has always been flung at his face by means of arguments which lie wholly outside his perspective. After all, he possesses a natural regard for his own class and racial integrity. Therefore he ignores the arguments of those interested in Negro welfare, and his attitude, if expressed, is ignored by, them. This mutual unconcern will not advance the aims which the National Interracial Conference believes desirable.

I lived for some years in an Alabama town where eastern Congregationalists maintained a large Negro college; there was no contact whatever between white members of the faculty and the leading citizens of the town. The Southern white people considered the Northerners dangerous revolutionists, meddlers, and “nigger lovers.” What the retaliatory expressions of the faculty members were I do not know, but they must have been uncomplimentary. Dr. Johnson quotes from E. B. Reuter the observation that the problem of racial attitudes is that of “defining relations in terms tolerable to the members of each racial group.”

As a source book, Dr. Johnson’s compilation is invaluable. It contains a wealth of documentation and statistical material. Masses of data have been collated and directed against a richly cultivated background. The studious scholarship of the book, however, is by no means oppressive; there is the ever present relief of skillful and vigorous interpretation. The work, while serious and purposeful, is not grim.

A delightful chapter describes parallels between the medical superstitions of the Negro and the beliefs of other primitives. The first chapter outlining the backgrounds of slavery, though drawn largely from such authorities as U. B. Phillips and Rupert Vance, is highly illuminating. In other parts of the book, one finds amusement in the outraged alarm of Cleveland residents suddenly faced with the actuality of Negro neighbors, as well as in such instances as that of the Nashville steam laundry wagons which haunt the campus of Fisk University flying banners with the legend, “No Negro Work Accepted.” The reported Kolbs revolt in Alabama in 1892, when the upper class white people are said to have aligned themselves with Negro voters to prevent political inundation by the small farmers, is another rather ironical episode which is instantly, instructive.

In its emphasis upon the economic basis of the principal movements conditioning the Negro in this country, “The Negro in American Civilization” is at the crux of the matter. The same pervading effect of industrial changes is also the central thread in “The Negro Peasant Turns Cityward.” Dr. Johnson shows how the Negroes were first brought to Virginia in 1619 to fill an economic need. The landed proprietors were helpless before the task of clearing and planting their vast acreages. At first the Africans were not slaves in a legal sense, though their status naturally was not greatly affected by the passage of laws making them private property. Dr. Johnson elucidates the theory that many of the current prejudices against the Negro are survivals of propaganda launched in order to justify the peonage statutes.

As under the Roman and Egyptian systems, slavery, did not necessarily entail degradation; Negro slaves were sometimes graduates of such universities as Princeton and were competent teachers of the young men belonging to the highest social classes; others were physicians of repute, or artisans of such ability as to drive the white competitors from the field. As the slave-owning families moved into new territories, the small white farmers were pushed into the hills. This economic factor, together with unequal competition in the trades, is responsible, as Dr. Johnson points out, for the implications of such current expressions as “the white man’s party” and “white supremacy.” It is fundamental for one to understand that racial adjustment is at core a labor problem, which has in this democratic era assumed malignant political affiliations.

The South’s early economic advantage over the North consisted of a cheap and docile labor supply. Miss Kennedy’s book treats the problems which have arisen in northern cities as the unequal balance of agriculture and industry has drawn more than two million Negroes to these centers since 1920. In the manufacturing centers of the North, still partially under the sway, of abolitionist propaganda of the type effused by Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Ward Beecher, and Horace Greeley, the natural labor jealousies have been aggravated and made really serious by the presence of a social problem. For the Negro has been led to expect social equality in the North.

The unfortunate thing about popular propaganda is that its effects remain long after its purpose has been achieved. Such was the case with the sentimental and romantic emotionalism spread about the Negro in Civil War days. Black hopes doomed to disappointment will result if the Negro today depends upon that emotionalism to direct his future. Already, on the higher planes of scholarship and the arts, the Negro has made his mark. On the lower planes, let him stand upon his own merits, neither weeping too piteously. nor demanding too bitterly, and meet the conditions of reality as well as he is able. Toward that end “The Negro in American Civilization” and “The Negro Peasant Turns Cityward” are undoubtedly landmarks and assurances.


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