African Americans since 1900

A new Negro for a new century

About half of the nearly ten million African Americans living in 1900 had been born during the slavery period, and while slavery had not yet receded into the distant past, it seemed important to the former slaves and their descendants to stress the distance they had traveled from that past. Only forty years earlier, the overwhelming majority of black Americans – more than 85 percent – had belonged to and could be bought and sold by white owners, a deep-seated contradiction in one of the world’s oldest democra­cies with a founding document that declared that “all men are created equal.” “Natally alienated” (to use Orlando Patterson’s term), slaves were forced to perform unpaid labor, without any civil status that would guaran­tee them even such basic human rights as the right to marry, to raise their own children, or to learn how to read and write. Slavery was, and remained for a long time, a haunting and troubling memory, a scar of shame. Eman­cipation, which seemed like a rebirth from a state of social death, was indeed a “resurrection” from the tomb, as Frederick Douglass’s famous slave narrative had represented his own transformation from the status of a slave to that of a self-freed man.

The titles of Booker T. Washington’s A New Negro for a New Century (1900) and his autobiography Up from Slavery (1906) were also the slogans of the post-slavery era. Though W. E. B. Du Bois had many reasons to disagree with Washington, he shared the “up from slavery” mood and, in 1913, organized a gigantic pageant, The Star of Ethiopia, for the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Emancipation from slavery. It was held in the New York Armory, the same building and year in which the Armory Show exposed a general American audience to modernist art. The mode was forward-looking, and at a time when an urbanizing and modernizing country seemed to love nostalgia in all forms from dialect poetry to folk cartoons, African Americans found it difficult to participate in a fake celebration of a simpler past that

included an idealized memory of slavery complete with the stock evocation of contented black retainers and nursemaids happily ensconced in the family settings of the plantation tradition. The popular minstrel images may have suggested to many Americans a comic version of a happier past, but to many blacks these images ridiculed or trivialized what had been a painful experience. Du Bois was among many who opposed the caricaturing portrait­ure of blacks in the white press as “ ‘grinning’ Negroes, ‘happy’ Negroes,” or “Aunt Jemimas,” and the “New Negro” movement spearheaded by Alain Locke defined itself in antithesis to the minstrel imagery of a “Sambo” past. For Locke, the days of “aunties,” “uncles,” and “mammies” were the days of the “old Negro” that the “New Negro” wished to leave behind. And though Locke had few sympathies for Marcus Garvey, the West Indian-born leader of the largest social movement among African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century (the Universal Negro Improvement Associ­ation), Garvey, too, proclaimed: “The Uncle Tom nigger has got to go, and his place must be taken by the new leader of the Negro race.”1

What African Americans faced was not only an idealization of the slavery past by white Americans, but also a new and rapidly advancing system of racial segregation. Segregation curtailed more and more rights, relegated blacks to a second-class status, and created a parallel universe for them (“white separatism, black parallelism,” as the historian Darlene Clark Hine put it). The concept of “separate but equal” – maintained in political journalism as well as by Supreme Court decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) – often meant an exclusion of former slaves and their descendants from ordinary citizens’ rights and employment opportunities. It forced blacks, in fact, to inhabit a separate, inferior, and quite unequal world that became known under the name of the nineteenth-century minstrelsy act “Jim Crow.” As the literary critic Jeffrey Ferguson stressed, racial separ­ation was enacted not only concerning schools, parks, hospitals, means of transportation, residences, and marital relations, but also governing grave­yards, mental institutions, homes for the elderly, special driving hours for blacks in automobiles, and separate black and white Bibles in some courts. The deepest fear stemmed from contact between black men and white women, and even the most fleeting forms of it could provoke the most violent reactions.

Washington, Du Bois, Locke, and Garvey had different notions of the direction in which blacks should be moving forward in the twentieth century: was it through industrial or higher education? Should they strive toward uplift and self-help in the here and now, while strategically accepting segregation? Should they develop a deeper historical conscious­ness and understanding of the African past, challenge absurd segregationist restrictions, and aim for full “social equality”? Should they adopt a “politics of respectability” or one of protest? Should African Americans embrace an aesthetic of black beauty or endorse the symbolic power of black pride and the slogan “Back to Africa”? Despite their different visions, the various leaders shared a sense of the importance of leaving the slavery past behind and of tackling the new obstacles to black freedom and equality that racial segregation presented.

Updated: 18th July 2015 — 3:16 pm