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From Slavery On

ISSUE:  Winter 1932

Old Massa’s People. By Orland Kay Armstrong. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Mcrrill Company. $2.50, Brown America. By Edwin R. Embree. New York: The Viking Press. $2.50.

The first of these two books, which are interesting complements, is the result of an idea for which the author deserves a good deal of credit. He decided to make a tour of the South interviewing the few remaining Negroes who knew slavery at first hand and setting down their impressions, not only of their servitude, but of the civilization in which they spent their young years. The result of many journeyings and great industry is another glamorous picture of the Old South, in which none of the familiar elements are lacking: It would be no difficult task to abstract from many far-ranging conversations in time and space a detailed account of life on the great plantations, on many of which the fine manor houses stand today, strangely stirring monuments of a past as dead as the glories of ancient Egypt or Mohenjo-daro.

Not much of the darker side of slavery creeps into Mr. Armstrong’s book. One feels that he has not consciously neglected the more unpleasant aspects of the institution so much as that he did most of his talking with Negroes who belonged to good masters. Some of his principal characters were owned by the Custis family at Arlington, which later became the home of Robert E. Lee, some others by the Da-vises, Joseph and Jefferson, in Mississippi. Lee freed his own slaves long before the Civil War, and the Davises were conspicuously kind to theirs; one of the last of the lot, Isaiah T. Montgomery, the founder of the only exclusively Negro town in the country, Mound Bayou, in the Mississippi Delta, received in the Davis home the early training that enabled him to become a successful patriarch. Knowing something, too, of the Negro temperament, one is bound to suspect that Mr. Armstrong was told what his ex-slaves thought he wanted to hear. There are no people any more apt at this game than Negroes, and this would be especially true, of course, of the older generation, bred to “manners.” This is not to be so foolish as to say that many an ex-slave, following a universal human law, does not look back upon ante-bellum days as the best, nor to suggest that with considerate masters slavery was without attractive points.

Mr. Armstrong arranges his material chronologically, carrying the story little past the stormy days of Reconstruction. Here it may be hooked on to Mr. Embree’s, which brings the tale down to the present, with scattering and not very well unified or balanced chapters on very nearly every important phase of the activities, circumstances, and prospects of the descendants of Mr. Armstrong’s slaves. Mr. Embree is executive head of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a foundation engaged principally in attempting to improve the status of the Negro in this country; as one might expect, he is a warm partisan of the Negro, and makes bold to suggest that the day of the Black Man—or Brown Man—is yet to dawn. His title derives from an engaging theory, which is no more nor less than that the crossing of a large number of distinct tribal stocks from Africa with the Indians and whites in this country has already produced a new race—Brown America. A good deal of work has been done in this field by such men as Dr. Melville Herskovits, who has found a striking uniformity of type among Afro-Americans, although so sudden a crystallization of characteristics from so varied a series of crossings sounds a little incredible.

Infiltration of Indian blood is, of course, practically at an end; and infiltration of white blood, while certainly not yet an end, has just as certainly decreased to a very marked degree within the past two decades. It is no strain on the memory of some of us who insist that we are still young to recall how common was the possession of Negro mistresses and mulatto families by well-known citizens of Southern communities; such practices are disappearing very, rapidly.

Even though Mr. Embree’s chapters must have appeared first as magazine articles, and therefore lack unity, there is no escaping the fundamental drama that lies in his pages, drama that cannot be removed from the simplest recital of the adventurings of the colored folk who today make up one-tenth of the population of this country. (Once they were one-fifth of the total population; the proportion will inevitably decrease under existing conditions.) Less than three-quarters of a century ago, the race, vast numbers of which had been brought to this country as late as the first quarter of the nineteenth century, thanks to Eli Whitney and the Industrial Revolution in general, was almost entirely agricultural. Turned loose to make its own way with very little help and in direct contact with a swiftly-moving civilization, its progress has been little short of miraculous. Individuals have refuted utterly the popular Southern beliefs about the inherent incapacity of the Negro to learn and to succeed on his own; whole sections, numbering hundreds of thousands, have just as thoroughly refuted popular beliefs that the Negro could not stand cold climates or compete successfully in a highly organized society.

Almost overnight a vast black, brown, and yellow army moved from the cotton and tobacco fields of the South to the industrial cities of the North. There are four millions of the race now living in an urban environment! And, Mr. Embree thinks, doing as well as any one might expect, suffering as much just now from the current depression as their white fellows, but no more, and finding their adjustments not at all too difficult to make. At any rate, nothing short of a cataclysm could take them back to the South; in departing they not only helped themselves, but also did their brothers who remained behind a distinct service. Race relations began to show an improvement about the time of the exodus, and have moved steadily, forward since Southern planters began to be seriously concerned over losing their labor,

Mr. Embree’s book tells this tale. It also sketches the educational progress of the race, from the founding of the first schools down to the present. It summarizes the artistic achievements, making a little less of the vast influence of Negro music on American life than would seem justified to some observers. It relates the highly interesting stories of some exceptional individuals. It is, with all its recognition of the struggle that lies ahead of Brown America—incidentally, Mr. Embree does not labor this thesis of a new race —a hopeful book, ending upon this optimistic note:

One looks forward, a century hence, probably not without reason, to a nation prosperous, but not simply replete with an increasing flood of mechanical appliances; to a people industrious and orderly, but not worshipping drudgery or restriction, willing to exchange the extremes of puritanism and industrialism for some leisurely enjoyment of life; to a society which will welcome variety and color in a rich texture of intellectual interest, artistic expression, and emotional joy. In such a prosperous, full and variegated culture, the Brown American will be sure of a place.

A pleasantly Utopian paragraph, to be sure, and one wishes that it might be accepted without too many reservations. But whether or not this ideal state of affairs can be reached from the bottom of the present canyon in a round century, it is safe to predict that there will still be plenty of interest in the strange story of the Negro in America when the hundred years have passed.

Mr. Embree’s is not the best book on the Negro that has been written in America, as its over-enthusiastic blurbist seems to think, but it is good and exciting reading. Mr. Armstrong’s romantic effort, often rich in humor and insight, and to be treasured for its direct quotations from the old slaves, is not always happy in the author’s own connecting passages, and there are errors in names—both place and human—that should not have been allowed to pass.


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