Defining the Race 1890-1930
Popular identities, whether racial or nonracial, are constructed as people define their social and political objectives. For instance, in 1848, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass took for granted that blacks were Americans when he asked his audience, “[I]f this is not mean and impudent in the extreme, for one class of Americans to ask for the removal of another class?”1 This assumption was essential to Douglass’s campaign against the American Colonization Society’s attempt to remove blacks to Africa. A few months later, he asserted that blacks were a people: “We are one people—one in general complexion, one in a common degradation, one in popular estimation.”2 Addressing northern blacks, who evidently did not identify with the slaves, he attempted to mobilize them behind the cause of southern bondsmen by asserting their oneness. Nevertheless, the two identities were compatible. Douglass believed that blacks, like the Germans and Irish, could be a people and Americans.
The same words can have different meanings. In 1880, sugar workers in Louisiana announced that “the colored people are a nation and must stand together.”3 They were not declaring independence but using a metaphor to unite a group of blacks trying to win a bitter strike. One assumes that six years afterward when the Knights of Labor came into Louisiana’s sugar fields and organized both blacks and whites, the manifestoes were different.
The sugar workers’ definition of a nation was very different from Cyril Briggs’s. Writing in 1919, Briggs thought of blacks as a people and a race. They had specific racial qualities which distinguished them from nonblacks. He thought,
The surest and quickest way to achieve the salvation of the Negro is to combine the two most likely and feasible propositions, viz.: salvation for all Negroes through the establishment of a strong, stable, independent Negro State (along the lines of our own race genius) in Africa and elsewhere; and salvation for all Negroes (as well as other oppressed people) through the establishment of a Universal Socialist Co-Operative Commonwealth.4
Unlike Douglass, he believed that a people required a nation-state of its own. Although unique, blacks were similar enough to other people to require socialism as well as a state.
In 1919, a group of striking longshoremen in Key West, Florida were less theoretical. They called themselves “honest workmen.” Their self-conception was probably related to their newspaper appeal to the citizens of the city, “especially the working classes like the members of this union who have to earn their living by the sweat of their brow.”5 Another definition was implicit in the letter of the president of their local union to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Asking for support, he said that “the principle involved means so much not only to these Negroes who are on strike but to our race in general.”6 The first appeal stressed membership in a class; the second, a race.
The different names and meanings undermine the common belief that racial identity or consciousness is fixed. The ways people define themselves are determined by their history, politics, and class. They change. The same words have conveyed vastly different meanings and encouraged diverse actions. They mean less and more than they seem. People employ strategic fictions that can be understood only in a context. They always must be understood as one element with other ideological beliefs that have nothing to do with race. And they interact with definitions made by other people, especially by those who exercise power.
John Higham observes that nineteenth-century Americans, living in island communities with minimal connections, did not demand clear definitions of Americans or of peoples. Universal ideology and local dispersal of power permitted varied patterns of ethnic assimilation.7 This was most obvious for blacks. From the vantage point of the end of the twentieth century, the condition of free blacks was not very different from that of slaves in the antebellum period. But Frederick Douglass’s appeal to the former demonstrates that many of them did not think their condition was bound with the latter, The difference between a discriminated-against free person and a slave was enormous. The ending of slavery placed a boundary, imposed by the national state, on the variety of treatment consistent with American ideology. Slave status was now outside the boundary. Because the only people who were slaves were blacks, the national definition of citizenship simultaneously redefined blacks.
White southerners yielded to the force of armies, and then to the power of black votes but refused to accept the substance of the new definition. Throughout Reconstruction black farmers and white planters contended over the meaning of the new citizenship. The struggles reached a climax during the international depression of the 1890s. Responding to a political challenge by black Republicans and white and black Populists, southern Democrats were able to redefine black citizenship and secure order through disfranchisement.8
The North was complicitous. After 1896, when its Republican leaders discovered that they did not need black southerners to maintain their national power, the party yielded to southern localism. Northerners found that disfranchisement and Jim Crow did not violate the Reconstruction amendments. Beneath the legal casuistries, they concluded that blacks, and many whites, lacked the “property, virtue, and intelligence” required for political participation.9 The historian Francis Parkman thought many northerners, too, needed order and rule by groups possessing “hereditary traditions of self-government.”10 The capitulation did not result simply from political pragmatism or reevaluation of their southern, black allies. The massive demonstrations and birth of a “European-style” labor movement in the wake of the punishing depression of 1873 had earlier proved how laboring classes could threaten civilization.
E. L. Godkin, editor of the Nation, claimed northern workers and southern blacks composed a dangerous “proletariat” who seemed to belong “to a foreign nation.” Because many of their workers were foreigners, northerners voiced fears in class, racial, and nativist language often difficult to separate. Like Godkin, many used southern nomenclature to depict the situation. Native-born residents in Bayonne, New Jersey divided the city’s population into two races: “‘white men’ and foreigners.”11 A few even looked to southern disfranchisement as a solution. However, the challenge of the foreigner, unlike that of the black southerner, was not political. Elites restructured city governments, eliminated alien voting, and erected new barriers for voters to trim popular power.12 But northern institutions were sturdier; industrialists had more room to maneuver; and they repulsed the challenge of a predominantly foreign working class without major alterations in the northern polity.
However they resolved their problems, northern and southern elites attempted to forge a new American identity using racial and class fitness as criteria. If their efforts rose feverishly during periods of depression, which were frequent in the late nineteenth century, the new definitions were rooted in more durable experiences. Industrial capitalism, national markets, and international migration now connected people who had once lived apart with minimum contact. The more interdependent they became, the greater the differences seemed to be.
Attempting to secure their power and culture, white Protestants demanded clearer definitions of Americans and the other peoples. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Western academics and publicists studied and ranked the various peoples of the world. (Europeans were always at the top of the list.) The word “race” came to mean a biological community with shared characteristics. The scientific underpinning was not so much a sign of precise knowledge as a rationale for the determination to exclude, isolate, or subordinate, whichever was appropriate. As much as they could, legally or informally, elites attempted to protect the body politic—their government, their schools, their neighborhoods—from others who might pollute it.
There is an extensive and sophisticated literature on the changing white views of blacks in this period.13 The new national consensus on black inferiority did not eliminate the diversities of the nineteenth century any more than the earlier universalist ideology had eliminated discrimination. The new southern order was not replicated in the North. And even within the South, there were variations. Race and racism were metonyms for culture and class. Because racial ideology always intersected with other ideologies and more mundane interests, its impact was not uniform. But joined with the other characteristics of the industrial system, the new racism threatened the status and future l of northern blacks, too.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, blacks, too, attempted to define more precisely who they were. Although untarnished by the purposes of racism, the way they did it was equally ideological. It also contrasted sharply with earlier black thinking.
Most black leaders who grew up during the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction had not pondered the nature of race. They considered themselves Americans in the nineteenth-century sense. Like white northerners, they thought that civilization was universal: Equal laws would reward individual merit. Northern society had ended slavery, allowed them to play significant roles in society, and promised to reward other blacks. Peter Clark, a high school principal in Cincinnati, said in 1874, “The colored people of the United States are not exotic. Centuries of residence, centuries of toil, centuries of suffering have made us Americans. In language, in civilization, in fears, and in hopes we are Americans. “14
The new industrial society threatened what the elite, composing about one-quarter of the black population, had found so attractive in northern life. Their fragile economic base, in real estate, small business, politics, and the professions was eroded by shifts in public taste, the rise of big business, and the new racism. Earlier they had confidently predicted that hard work and equal laws would also elevate the poor blacks in the North and in the South, where most blacks lived. Now they were not so certain.
They did not respond well to the challenge, because their kind of Americanism emerged from lived experience, not simple rational calculation or opportunism. Frederick Douglass was born a slave, but he became a major American and international publicist. While not all the leaders of his generation had come so far, most had moved from poverty or modest beginnings to positions of respect, culture, and some wealth. Their bourgeois ideas and life-styles and their close work and friendship with elite whites insulated them personally from most of the changes.
Their ties were often to the most reactionary Republican politicians and American businessmen. John P. Green of Ohio was a friend of John D. Rockefeller’s; George Myer, an intimate of Mark Hanna’s. They looked at the new popular attacks on business as their white friends did. Although they had urged a larger role for the government to ensure equal justice in the South, they opposed government intervention in the North because they saw no threat to democracy or opportunity from the new big businesses. These beliefs stood in the way of a relationship with progressives in the North. Their orthodox economics ruled out their support of government interventions that could have helped urban blacks; their individualism resisted institutionalized self-help that could have at least addressed the problems of many northern blacks.15
The generation retained its positions and remained an important part of the black population, although some “passed.” But the group could not negotiate a transition. Its members became insignificant factors in racial politics. Their sons and daughters chose a different course out of their lived experiences. One of them, W. E. B. Du Bois, expressed the fear that the problem of the twentieth century would be a color line, meaning “a white effort to limit black progress and development.”16
The New Intellectuals: Edward Blyden and W. E. B. Du Bois
The words “progress” and “development” were synonyms for Western civilization, propelled by the engines of capitalism. The Emancipation generation had believed that Western civilization was open to all, but the current one concluded that progress was not universal but wielded by racia1 groups and nation-states. Educated, urban, and sophisticated, they revealed in their own lives the limits being placed before them, even though they were not farmers or workers. They concluded that they would have to lead and strengthen the race.
Their determination was reinforced and broadened by a historical coincidence. The American conditions—of Jim Crow and disfranchisement—matured at the same time that Europeans were colonizing Africa. Du Bois acknowledged that Afro-Americans were Americans by citizenship, language, religion, and politics, but they were also members of a “vast historic race,” which was international. The destiny of blacks was not assimilation or “servile imitation of Anglo-Saxon culture, but a stalwart originality which shall unswervingly follow Negro ideals.” The churchman Alexander Walters declared that “in matters of race there were no geographic or national limitations.” In 1900, both men attended the first Pan-African Conference, which included blacks of the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa.17
Educated Africans had reached the same conclusion. For most of the nineteenth century, they, with British liberals, had little doubt that education, commerce, and Christianity would transform Africa, as these forces had transformed Europe. Europeans became less optimistic when economic development replaced trade and imperialism succeeded foreign relations. Europeans now found Africans barbarous by nature, not by culture. While future progress was not foreclosed, Africans required order and domination.
If the Europeans redefined Negroes or Africans (the same people) to serve their new purposes, so did Africans. Edward Blyden, professor, Liberian diplomat, adviser to British colonial officials in Sierra Leone, was the principal theorist of the new view of race. Like the Europeans, he made race the principal motor of history, and “nationality… an ordinance of nature.” “No people can rise to an influential position among nations without a distinct and efficient nationality,” he said. The task of politics and leadership was to develop what nature had decreed.18
Blyden retained the idea that bourgeois society was progressive and would improve Africa as it had improved Europe. Therefore, he accepted imperial rule. Foreign power was necessary to remove local divisions and inefficient practices. But alien races could not create an African nation. Colonial rule would permit African leaders to create the nation, the nationality, which would eventually lead to the nation-state.19
Blyden, like other nationalists of the nineteenth century, believed that states must be modern and viable, not merely independent. He valued progress more than self-determination. He proclaimed the one-ness of people who never had considered themselves part of the same nation and had existed for centuries in states ruled by other peoples. The idea of a nation-state, a state of one nation, was as alien to African history as were the Western institutions Blyden admired. This situation was not unique to Africa. Even after the unification of Italy in 1860, an Italian nationalist exclaimed, “We have made Italy: now we must make Italians.”20
But while Italian nationalists proceeded from the nation-state to create a nation, the weakness of the African elite required them to build a nation before it could achieve a nation-state. Building a nation meant altering popular culture and removing divisive sovereignties. The only way that could be done was through Western economic, military, and political power. The only way the elite could lead was to lead a colonized people. Asserting the existence of a distinctive culture, black leaders proposed to modify it radically, to make it more like European society.
Blyden never enjoyed a large personal following. His passionate belief in the future led him to minimize the conflicts and variations of the present. His conception of African greatness led to harsh evaluations of the more modest efforts of the Liberian government and African leaders in the colonies of West Africa. Yet his writing and ideas were influential because they provided a compelling, new conception of Africa and its history, which influenced Africans and Americans.21
For the moment, the formulation deferred opposition to imperialism. (And the Pan-African Conference of 1900 protested no imperialism per se but its practices.) The concept of race facilitated the unification of the African elite and the identification of its aspirations with those of all blacks. Blyden was born in the West Indies, was educated in the United States, lived and worked in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and acted as an adviser in other areas of Africa. Most of the elite’s experiences transcended colony, region, and even continent. They were mobile, united by their ambitions, closer to one another than to Africans in the countryside. The racial identification erased troublesome differences. African history before imperialism was as conflictual as European. The new idea of race removed these divisions by imagining Africa as one.
Pan-African theory accommodated to regional differences. In the United States, most of the new racialists did not look forward to a nation-state for American blacks. This realistic conclusion altered the Afro-American definition of race. While Blyden attributed to Africans all of the qualities which contemporary theorists required of peoples seeking independent nation-states and firmly rooted these in biology, the Americans were more tentative. W. E. B. Du Bois assigned to race a moral and metaphysical significance which reflected the situation of American blacks demanding justice, not independence. For Du Bois, the Negro race had a message. He spoke more often of Negro genius, literature, art, and spirituality than of efficient institutions and distinctive cultures. But if race differences were only “subtle, delicate and elusive”, working “silently,” how could they be “the central thought of all history’?” And, if they were as deep as he assumed, how was it that American blacks “minimize[d] race distinctions?” Du Bois’s explanation that Afro-Americans ignored race because its use has been to denigrate them is not convincing if race is as distinctive and central as he alleged. In practice, despite his passion, his work transformed the hierarchy and deep divisions of racial theory into the subtler and more egalitarian ones of cultural pluralism. (He studied with the same men at Harvard as Horace Kallen, the other important cultural pluralist of the period.)22
The new racial conception bridged narrower terrain in the Republic. It did not have to overcome differences in sovereignty, religion, language, and culture. American blacks were equal citizens by law in one nation; they all spoke English; most of them were Protestants. Slavery had destroyed most of the distinctions the African elite confronted. The principal barriers confronting the new theorists were those of class and region.
These differences could he considerable. Unlike most southern blacks, Du Bois, as well as Booker T. Washington, accepted southern franchise restrictions during the 1890s. Du Bois assented to “legitimate efforts to purge the ballot of ignorance, pauperism and crime,” and, like Blyden, he granted that it was “sometimes best that a partially developed people should be ruled by the best of their stronger and better neighbors for their own good.”23
During the first decade of the twentieth century, Du Bois opposed disfranchisement when he saw that it struck at the educated as well as the ignorant. Defense of the vote was important for public discourse and use in the North, but it did not modify his program for the race. Du Bois’s Anglo-Saxonism mandated racial reconstruction led by a black elite, his Talented Tenth. Black leaders, using the bonds of race, replaced American institutions as the critical civilizing ingredient. The enlarging and uniting of the Talented Tenth became the first item on his political agenda. Du Bois’s views of the majority of blacks, the race, was shaped by his elite view of progress, which the concept race obscured.
Arnold Rampersad argues that the real subject of The Souls of Black Folk (1903) was Du Bois’s “sufferings, his virtues, his gifts,”24 and, one might add, his values. Despite his sympathy, Du Bois found contemporary black life limiting, narrow, and often immoral. He validated mass potential by celebrating an aspect of slave culture, the spirituals, recognized by whites but no longer the actual culture of southern blacks; by aestheticizing black culture, he made it less threatening.25 The passion of the book—his own experience of the death of his young son and the story of the two Johns—demonstrated the current worthiness of the Talented Tenth by revealing their achievements, ambitions, and sensibilities. Du Bois ignored actual mass culture, the lived and the artful, and substituted his own imagination and elite white culture’s view of the uneducated and poor.26
In his novel The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911), a swamp characterizes the culture of the black masses; ignorance, superstition, dreams, and moral delinquency inhabit this murky region. Salvation comes through labor, the planting of cotton, whose value is taught by two young blacks trained in liberal culture. Du Bois’s portrayal paralleled Blyden’s depiction of African culture. Black elites needed to “strengthen the Negro’s character, increase his knowledge and teach him to earn a living.”27 The remedy of education, even by the well intentioned, attributed poverty to cultural imperfection and postponed equality until people were fit.
Like his Harvard teacher William James, Du Bois wanted to bring culture to the masses although James’s idea of reciprocal exchange rarely appeared in his student’s thought. Their notion of culture—the arts, refinement, formal education—was a definition of a leisured class. Gilded Age intellectuals advocated institutions of cultural uplift to restore social harmony, rent by the class conflict of the late nineteenth century. Whatever its efficacy in northern cities, it was unsuited to the reordering of social relations in the South.
Du Bois’s formulation persisted in his novel Dark Princess (1925). During the Great Depression, influenced by the anticapitalist thinking affecting many intellectuals, Du Bois advocated a black, cooperative, rural economy in the South, led by the Talented Tenth. When George Streator, a young Fisk graduate, currently working as a labor organizer, questioned the goal’s feasibility and agency, Du Bois reiterated his faith: “I do count on a Negro middle-class to usher in co-operation. I count on the fact that not all of the young Negro leaders are selfish and stupid exploiters. At any rate, either we get leadership from the best part of this class, or we get nothing.”28 Du Bois’s journalism continued to remind whites of their injustices and to advance the professional and business aspirations of the Talented Tenth, no matter how imperfect.
Du Bois held too many elite values and ideas to war against the West. Its ideals of leadership, culture, progress, and race were his, too. His passion against its injustices were those of a believer. Categories like morality and corruption, service and selfishness, implied choice. The South did not have to discriminate, the planter did not have to oppress; the capitalist did not have to exploit.
Du Bois addressed the conscience of the middle class, not its institutions. Douglass had united morality and economy when he opposed slavery. His abolitionism was harnessed to the free-labor system of the North, however imperfect, which allowed him to appeal to northern interest as well as morality. Du Bois never found a twentieth-century equivalent. As a result, his egalitarian yardstick functioned as a protest idea1 but lacked the power of substantive belief. On the other hand, his racial ideals and elite conception of the route to progress precluded an alliance with labor. (During the 1930s when many blacks became enthusiastic about the egalitarian Congress of Industrial Organizations, Du Bois acknowledged its virtues but thought it had little significance for racial progress.) In the end, his aspirations transcended equality and justice. He pursued racial greatness, a goal very difficult to define, not to say achieve.
The Racial Ideas of Southern Farmers
Black farmers defined their problems differently. One of them, Nate Shaw, analyzed his situation with some questions: “Now it’s right for me to pay you for using whats yours—your land, stock, plow, tools, fertilize. But how much should I pay? The answer ought to be closely seeked. How much is a man due to pay out? Half his crop? A third part of his crop? And how much is he due to keep for hisself’? You got a right to your part—rent; and I got a right to mine. But whose the man ought to decide how much? The one that owns the property or the one that works it” [sic].29
In 1876, David Graham, from Edgefield County, South Carolina, offered a similar analysis to a congressman who wondered why the planters wanted him “oppressed and downtrodden.” Graham told him, “In case I was rich, and all colored men was rich…how would he get his labor? He couldn’t get it as cheap as he gets it now….His interest is in keeping me poor, so that I will have to hire to some one else.”30
Shaw and Graham had a sense that they belonged to a people and knew they suffered discrimination. But their sense of discrimination was part of other experiences, alien to Du Bois. Black farmers rooted the racial question in the conflicting aspirations of landowners and workers. Shaw defined himself as “a working man.” “Whatever I had,” he said, “it come to me through my labor.”31 He took pride in his abilities and identified with other people who worked—black or white—even though he never felt comfortable with whites. He understood that illiteracy made it harder for him, and others like him but he did not believe that culture would bring deliverance. He never doubted the virtues of labor but wondered about the value of labor. The new racial formulation did not accommodate the experiences of farmers because it assumed that plantation 1abor and sharecropping did not have to be oppressive. Shaw and Graham, like many small landowners and workers, believed that accumulated property required oppressed labor.
Shaw and Graham’s conclusions had been shaped by the experiences of slavery, emancipation, and especially Reconstruction. The new Republican party, through its Union League clubs, united polity, society, and economy to protect and enhance black labor and lives. The decline of Republican politics was a crucial blow, as white Democrats well understood, to collective practices. The sharecropping system, too, encouraged more-individualistic values and methods. Added to the falling price of cotton, these changes placed overwhelming burdens on traditions of cooperation, obligation, and the power to enforce them. They were not ended but weakened.
Nate Shaw remarked, “[P]eople wont jump back on their close relationships for money, usually; they’ll go to somebody else….Dont want to press them relationships as hard as a money loan will press em.” When Shaw, after joining a sharecroppers union in 1931, decided to protest the dispossession of a friend, he described his decision in individualistic terms: “I reared like a mule in a stable, but what crazy person wouldn’t rear when he seed the man fixing to take everything he had and he knowed he didn’t owe him nothing?”32 Shaw acted alone on the basis of his conception of justice but without faith in collective action.
Traditions of collective action are formed, destroyed, reformed on new bases. The southern black communities created by Reconstruction subsequently fragmented by disfranchisement and the cotton economy. However, if few possessed a living tradition of collective action, the values of the Reconstruction tradition—the dignity of labor, economic independence, participation in the polity—and their daily experiences as farmers and workers stamped their conception of racial progress, and by implication racial identity. The imposed silence of the disfranchised farmer permitted others, black and white, to speak for him.
Marcus Garvey and the New Racial Ideas
The ideas of black intellectuals would have possessed a small constituency had they not been translated into a popular politics. Marcus Garvey brought the new organic conception of the race to the masses: not to the Shaws, but to urban workers. Garvey’s success demonstrated that the elite view received more of a hearing in the cities than in the countryside. But he discovered that a diverse urban community had various ideas about how racial bonds should be used, which implied different conceptions of the race. Attempting to put the new ideas into practice brought out many of the problems which the intellectuals could ignore.
Garvey’s idea of race was not constructed in Jamaica, where he was born in 1887. The son of a proud artisan, Garvey learned about the international situations of blacks from a group of Pan-Africans in London, where Garvey lived and worked from 1912 through 1914.33 His politics of uplift emerged partly from them and partly from the contrast between the wealth of England and the poverty of Jamaica. A politics of improvement does not emerge without the making of a comparison. Injustice may be experienced anywhere; underdevelopment, to use the contemporary word, exists only in relation to another society, judged to be developed.
Garvey’s description of the mass of Jamaicans revealed his outlook. “As a society we realize that the negro people of Jamaica need a great deal of improvement,” he wrote. “The bulk of our people are in darkness and are really unfit for good society. To the cultured mind, the bulk of our people are contemptible.”34 His own chances would be limited by the civilized world’s evaluation of the masses. Like Blyden and Du Bois, Garvey believed that popular culture needed to he altered, improved, and ultimately replaced by Western elite culture. If Garvey’s indictments of mass culture and subsequent promises of greatness were more fervid than those of Du Bois, it was simply because Garvey was simultaneously fighting to secure his own career as well us analyzing the black situation. But his new Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which he created when he returned to Jamaica in 1914, and his first project, the building of a school, never got off the ground. Garvey took a common road, migration.35
Arriving in Harlem in 1916, Garvey was impressed with Afro-American leaders, who seemed much more progressive than Jamaicans36 A new generation of Afro-Americans had begun to act on the advice of Du Bois. Industrial growth, absent from Jamaica, produced a growing movement of southern blacks into cities. The migrants provided the social and economic basis for ideals of racial solidarity, which replaced the individualism of the older generation. Less disinterested than Du Bois would have preferred, the new generation attempted to unite the race with business and institutions of uplift to help the poor.
Although the possibilities of a racial economy within the larger American economy outstripped realism, which the new leaders privately acknowledged, their pragmatism and opportunism allowed them to work in other areas, too. Some serviced immigrant communities, which often lacked professionals.17 Economically orthodox, like their fathers, most opposed the new reformers and aligned themselves with the Republican old guard. On the local level, like other ethnic politicians, they made alliances with party bosses for the favors and jobs that machines offered the faithful. Some dipped into the broader tradition of middle-class reform by attempting to set up institutions to shelter young women entering the city or advise migrants. They had not bridged the class gap, but their instruments of racial self-help had more credibility than the older elite’s individualistic prescriptions. Most of the new leaders lived and worked close to the migrants.38
Garvey’s purposes fit in very well with the new black trends. He announced that the UNIA was “doing uplift work…to bring them [the Negroes] in line with the best in our civilization.”39 But during World War I, Garvey and a growing number of young men in Harlem became more impatient and critical. The rebirth of popular politics demonstrated new ways to improve black society.
The New Democracy and Nationalism
The militancy of broad sectors of the American working class affected blacks, as well. The government’s announcement that workers had the right to join unions and the fall in the unemployment rate to 1.4 percent led to an upsurge of organization among blacks. The longshoremen cited at the beginning of this essay were part of the new movement. By forming a union, they were seeking “the rights that are the just rights of each and every American citizen regardless of his race or creed.” The new social democratic paths to progress were mapped out by John Riley, a black organizer for the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and a member of the International Union of Steam and Operating Engineers, who had worked in the campaign to organize packing-house workers in Chicago. Union wages and an eight-hour day would, he thought, “give the ambitious poor boy a chance to make a mark in life for himself because after he works eight hours a day, he comes home refreshed and has an opportunity to devote a certain portion of each day to mind cultivation.”40
If working-class ideology was one ingredient of black militancy, so was a new national and racial consciousness, encouraged to some degree by the Allies. Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points affirmed the principle of self-determination. In Africa, as in many other parts of the world, the mandate system embodied the Great Powers’ version of self-determination in the former German colonies. Afro-American leaders, influenced by the popular awakenings, hoped that Africans would play a greater role in the governing of the colonies. Garvey, Madame C. J. Walker, a businesswoman, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, A. Philip Randolph, the young Socialist, and a few others formed the short-lived International League of Darker Peoples in 1919 in New York to represent Africa.41
They rooted their claims in racial and democratic theory. Because there were no independence movements in Africa, the league argued that Western blacks and progressive supporters should rule an independent African state. Like Wilson, they agreed that “self-determination in Africa, of course, cannot be absolute.” Unlike the president, they rejected supervision by any of the Western powers under the mandate system. The former German colonies should be governed by a commission composed of “the educated classes of Negroes from America, the West Indies, Liberia. Hayti, Abyssinia, and the people of Japan and China and other enlightened sections of the African and European worlds.”42
Typically, Garvey argued that the white man had “no monopoly of knowledge.” Afro-Americans, he held, are “a civilized, cultured people who understand the way of civilization—the way of the world….Africans…are innocent of the ways of the civilization that rules the world.” It was therefore the obligation of Afro-Americans to save Africans from the fate of native Americans.43
Garvey often used this analogy. His invented Africa was “a great forest country, a great wilderness.” He said, “We were misinformed about Africa for three hundred years.” The ignorance was not about African culture but African wealth. But now blacks know that “Africa” is the richest continent in the world.”44 Although the basis of Afro-American rights in Africa was racial, Garvey did not advance a substantive notion of racial distinctiveness. He simply asserted the right to lead and rule on the basis of the western culture of the elite blacks and the organic bonds of race, the appropriate criteria according to the Wilsonian formula. His assumption that African and Afro-American elites should rule African people undercut democratic choice. Garvey’s vision slid over the problems that Blyden had addressed and confronted. (Garvey would eventually experience them in Liberia.)
In the end, the African agitation subsided because of its remoteness from the lives of Afro-Americans, not because of its intellectual contradictions. But the identification of self-determination and racial rule was strengthened and applied to domestic situations. The campaign for the first black assemblyman from Harlem defined democracy as racial representation.45 Some black militants who believed they were equivalents were disappointed.
Garvey was aware of the weakness of his own organization, the UNIA, which he had extended to the United States. He concluded that the ability of Afro-Americans “to move world affairs” was limited.46 Therefore, the question was not, at the moment, how to liberate Africa but how to produce power. During the war, Garvey had peppered his speeches with references to other resisting groups—the Irish, Indians, Jews. He now turned from the example of oppositional forces, whose victories were less than he and others had hoped or feared, to those who had achieved it. The Anglo-Saxon world had endured and triumphed over its diverse opponents. Western strength was built on business, a surer route to power than agitation or education, abundant commodities in the United States. Personally ambitious and socially rebellious, Garvey attempted to create the infrastructure of the racial community, animated by key western institutions. He hoped to harness the new militancy behind his elite goals.
Black Star Line and Popular Organization
Because the Black Star Line was the instrument that secured the rise and fall of Garveyism, it is useful to examine the culture of its creation. The building of ships, preeminent symbols of national power, had been the highest priority of the United States mobilization. After the war, America’s new fleet was to be the core of shipping lines capable of retaining and expanding the foreign markets American businessmen had captured during the war. American officials hoped to penetrate the British monopoly in West Africa. African and West Indian merchants welcomed proposed plans to challenge British shipping, which they thought discriminated against them. The idea of a Pan-African shipping line emerged from a culture that celebrated the importance of shipping, its profitability, and isolated a particular market among black people.47
Although initially Garvey thought the local UNIA in New York would be able to own the line, the raising of the necessary capital required appeals to the black public. The origina1 promotion of the Black Star Line was an extension of the recent popular agitation for democracy. Garvey announced that the shipping line was “to be owned by the people, and not owned and controlled by any private corporation or individual….for the fuller economic and industrial development of the race.” Garvey identified democratic ownership with racial or national ownership: “like the property of a nation or of a state, the properties of the Universal Negro Improvement Association are the people’s, hence no private dividends.” Very soon afterwards, however, the Black Star Line was forced to promise “large dividends and profits.”48
The appeal for money paraphrased the wartime sales campaigns for Liberty Bonds, which identified their purchase with democracy and citizenship. Blacks in New York had been told, “When one becomes the owner of a bond in the United States, he becomes a stockholder in the country- As a stockholder, he will feel a greater degree of interest in the welfare of the country and is entitled to greater consideration in its affairs. Invest in the stocks of Uncle Sam.” It was not very difficult to substitute the patriotism of race for that of nation. The idea of accumulating wealth through stocks and bonds had been another byproduct of the war and continued into the time of peace.49
Garvey targeted the stratum of the underemployed and educated, who held entrepreneurial ambitions. The UNIA’s call to “10,000 intelligent young Negro men and women of ambition” fell short of its goal but attracted enough people to launch the enterprise. For them, racia1 enterprise provided the chance for careers, wealth, significance, and service.50
The Black Star Line also appealed to black intellectuals like William Ferris, Joel A. Rogers, and Arthur Schomburg. In 1913, Ferris, a Yale graduate, argued it would be “only when we…carry forward our enterprises…that the other nations and races of the world will recognize us.”51 After the Black Star Line’s ships were acquired, his enthusiasm was unbounded. “We are a new people,” he said, “born out of a new day and a new circumstance.”52
Although Du Bois maintained his distance, he approved of Garvey’s work: “American Negroes can be accumulating and ministering their own capital, organize industry, join the black centers of the South Atlantic by commercial enterprise and in this way ultimately redeem Africa as a fit and free home for black men….[Garvey’s plan] is feasible.”53 But Du Bois believed that businesses had to be well run and planned. Garvey’s methods, style, and ultimately his failure ruled out anything more than approval of the goal. Nonetheless, Du Bois’s words reveal that the Black Star Line embodied many of the racia1 ideals of the 1920s.
The Black Star Line was project of a small group. The hope of profit lured many shareholders. But the UNIA, requiring more support and money, attached the agendas of others to it—the ending of lynching, the promoting of equality and industrial opportunity. The line was to be the heart of a new community. Its capital requirements had driven the UNIA to create local organizations, which would both support the shipping line and further develop the community.
But the history of the Black Star Line demonstrated that racial corporations functioned like other corporations. The ships’ workers were the first to learn this truth. Some had to sue to obtain their wages when the managers were short of funds. But shareholders and UNIA members had grievances, too. At the root of the conflicts were different priorities and conceptions of racial organization.54
Nationalist movements, like nations, often deny that the social divisions of a people are important. The central tropes of nationalist movements are families and communities. Disagreements are often misnamed squabbles and dissension; active opposition, disloyalty and treason. But nationalist movements, unlike nations, lack the power to silence critics. The UNIA’s interclass and international composition was the source of intractable problems.
In the United States, one source of conflict was competition among elites in various regions. Racial ideology could not provide answers to the question of which businesses would benefit the black world. The Los Angeles division, preferring to create enterprises close to home, not in Africa or New York, seceded.55 Other members had ideas of racial organization that flowed from working-class experiences. Some of those who joined the UNIA expected the traditional benefits of organizations they knew, like mutual-benefit associations, to provide protection from sickness and death. Early on, they compelled UNIA leaders to set aside a portion of local dues for death benefits. Their conception of racial organization was rooted in their lives as workers. Often, ownership meant home ownership, the typical form of working-class accumulation.56 Many believed that racial ties and organization should serve members directly.
The Idea of Race and Afro-Americans in the 1920s
The UNIA’s problems were one variant of the failure of the new race concept to encompass the particulars of black life. Denying the social differences among Africans and Afro-Americans by assuming racial unity destroyed the intellectual tools necessary to achieve it. The NAACP and the National Urban League also assumed that the interests of the race were one. Their actual practices acknowledged diversity because neither organization attempted to organize masses. Both organizations were led by professionals. Culturally assimilated, often second-generation college graduates, they experienced racia1 discrimination in different ways from most blacks.
A young Fisk graduate’s letter to George Haynes, the director of a wartime bureau overseeing the conditions of black labor, revealed the difference. William Kelley had taken a summer job in an automobile factory and now was looking for more permanent work:
I found that Dodge Bros. was a little hard on Negroes so I left, and went to the American Car & Foundry company here. I have done very well, and am quite satisfied with the change. The plant has been building cars for the Italian government. The contract closes Sept. 8 and of course several hundred men must go in the street. I have studied social conditions there and elsewhere, and could tell you so much. I can really appreciate the fight between capital and labor. I am now wondering if you have anything worthwhile. I don’t want to teach if I can get around it. Hard labor is all right if you are not capable of doing anything else. I hope you are able to place me somewhere.
Haynes recommended going into business. But by the mid-1920s, Kelley was the head of an Urban League chapter.57
Like other workers, Kelley discovered that discrimination varied from company to company and made adjustments. But as an educated black he had choices. Kelley learned to appreciate the fight between capital and labor and, understandably, chose to avoid it. Most workers’ did not have that option. Kelley, more than most Urban League officials, had direct experience with factory labor, but he was not a worker. Kelley was motivated as much by the search for white-collar work as by racial ideology. Like much middle class reform effort, the league was peripheral to the lives of most workers.
NAACP leaders shared similar cultural backgrounds and strategy, but their target was different. Delegating economic problems to the Urban League, they tried to remove racial barriers and regain the rights lost by southern disfranchisement. Unlike the league, the NAACP was a membership organization, but its affairs were dominated by its national leaders. Its local branches were small and inactive and by the end of the decade represented the interests of the new racia1 elites of the city.
National leaders in both organizations acted on their own agendas, unmodified by popular ratification. Their idea of equality of opportunity for meritorious individuals, the Talented Tenth, was rooted in a view that the polity was open to moral and legal arguments. They fought against those proscriptions which affected their own lives. These goals did not require popular organization or the tactics of extraconstitutional opposition. Their actions, in David Lewis’s words, consisted of “court cases, contracts, contacts, and culture.”58 Ralph Bunche concluded, “[T]he truth of the matter is that in the thinking of the Negro elite there is a tremendous gap between it and the black mass.”59
Sometimes members of the elite were aware of the gap. Alerted by the American Federation of Labor, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP dressed in workman’s clothes to investigate conditions of black laborers building dams and levees on the Mississippi. Barely able to convince a knowing landlady that he was a worker, he was horrified at what he saw. He recalled,
[W]e tended to be isolated in New York and out of touch with the very people we needed most to serve. I knew very well that the N.A.A.C.P.’s strategy of carefully selecting lawsuits and political issues and working from on high in Congress and the Supreme Court had produced many tangible benefits, but from the vantage of those muddy camps on the Mississippi, such tactics looked less meaningful than they did from the snug offices al 69 Fifth Avenue.”60
The tactics of the NAACP, or of the Urban League, were not a source of serious debate or conflict within the organizations until the 1930s.
Although Garvey’s methods were different from those of the NAACP and Urban League, his were equally nonconflictual and future oriented. If the older organizations assumed that the polity was open to moral and legal arguments, Garvey assumed that the society was open enough for blacks together to create economic power, which would then improve the status of the race. Unlike NAACP leaders, who had firmer places in American society, Garvey and many UNIA leaders were more dominated by the immediate needs to use racial organization to establish themselves. Nonetheless, both agendas flowed from elite experiences and goals: to create more opportunity for the educated.
But Garvey’s economic enterprises, more than lobbying and court cases, required popular support. Garvey’s UNIA was an interclass association, and exhortation was not powerful enough to impose the discipline and financial support that were necessary to maintain an organization of blacks with different social experiences and objectives. His attempt to keep the organization together through his own person failed.
Leaders often become symbols of nationalist movements when the bonds of community are weak and programmatic objectives capable of uniting the group are absent. In the beginning, Garvey promised concrete benefits. After 1922, he asked for loyalty. He claimed that if he was embattled, so were they. If he succeeded, so would they. He attempted, but also failed, to create a community through himself.”61
The idea that the person who looks like me represents my interests is compelling in a society where descent has been a means of social division. Yet, Huey Long’s Share the Wealth movement revealed a similar dynamic. The uniting of people of various classes with a general grievance and imprecise targets can often only be done by a charismatic leader.62
Charisma has limits. The effectiveness of Garvey’s was waning even before his imprisonment in 1925 for mail fraud. After the failure of the Black Star Line, in 1922, many, especially the prominent, left. Without big national projects, UNIA divisions turned to local businesses or local politics. Their purposes often reflected the personal interests of leaders; political goals were momentary and often opportunistic. Even though the UNIA became socially more homogeneous, the divisions steadily declined in numbers, despite the devotion of small groups. They simply took their place as one of many black organizations of the working class. The UNIA’s difficulties, therefore, did not stem simply from its interclass composition.
The motivations of Garveyites offer a clue to the weakness of the organization. The most active Garveyites were those with the steadiest work, which was usually modest. They were ambitious but pursued their goals singly The UNIA opened up a more sophisticated world for many. The locals were forums for black and white authors and activists who spoke on a wide range of racial issues, but also world culture and politics. For other Garveyites, the UNIA expressed and confirmed the experience of injustice.68
The diverse and loose motivations explain the high turnover. The UNIA was a voluntary organization, not a cult. The ceremonies and parades of UNIA gatherings affirmed achievement, ambition, and solidarity, like other fraternal parading in the 1920s. However satisfying to participants, they were not collective mobilizations for particular goals or actions. These activities were not inconsistent with the individualism that many people found in the 1920s. The UNIA was part of the era characterized by the phrase “New Negro,” a singular. Its values were not sharply delineated from other racial institutions in the new cities of the 1920s. Indeed, they were shaped by the same trends.
Black Communities in the 1920s
Black urban elites were well organized and set the agenda for black life even though they had their own social clubs, literary societies, fraternals, and churches. They led political organizations and civic associations and edited newspapers. Despite racial discrimination, they saw signs of improvement for themselves and for other blacks. The prosperity of the 1920s was oversold but not manufactured. In 1929, one leader concluded, “[T]he Negro worker’s future, all in all, is roseate and enticing.” At the same time, NAACP’s executive secretary James Weldon Johnson observed, “[T]he Negro’s situation in Harlem is with out precedent…; never has he been so securely anchored, never before has he owned the land, never before has he had so well established a community life.”64
The community life Johnson referred to was created by its elite, not its working class. (Johnson, like Du Bois, would not have expected it any other way.) He acknowledged that Harlem was “still in the process of making.” The masses lacked “cohesion” and “social organization.”65 Following the sociology of the Chicago school, Johnson thought that community solidarities would evolve over time. He viewed organization as a natural development, not a social necessity.
Johnson’s insight about mass organization was correct. While black elites had achieved national and local organization, the black working class was still in the making. Diversity of occupation and recent arrival worked against organization. By the end of the war, the majority of black men worked in factories. Nonetheless, the black working class was heterogeneous. There had been a “new” black working class, with different economic and racial experiences, at every step in the development of the northern economy since the colonial period.66 Organizational, cultural, and residential residues of earlier black patterns of work and housing made black life rich but heterogeneous and separated.
After the Civil War, many blacks, often one-third of some black communities, were skilled workers and small businessmen. They had been hard hit by the industrial transformations. Thus, a Pittsburgh firm eliminated its black iron puddlers when the company discontinued puddling. The shift to steel destroyed a craft. Some moved to other localities where puddling shops still operated. Others left the trade. Whatever their personal fate, puddling was not an option for many of them, and certainly not for their sons or new workers. The great demand was for unskilled labor, which became a permanent status, dividing the race as well as races. Blacks remained puddlers at the Penn Iron and Steel company. Their helpers, blacks too, were never promoted. Both the puddlers and the owners called them irresponsible floaters, not surprising, given the prospects of the helpers.67
Other work for blacks in the North, like personal service, was an extension of older nineteenth-century and southern work. With industrialization, these jobs were transformed to portering on Pullman cars, for men, or work in commercial laundries, for women. But longshoremen, teamsters, various railroad workers, and construction workers were also common. There was great occupational variety within cities and among cities. The growing demand, however, was for factory labor.
The large numbers who entered the factories during and after the world war to replace departing foreigners added to the diversity.68 Blacks were latecomers to northern industrialization because most of them were in the South at the time of its beginnings and maturation. Because there was no national labor market, most were isolated from information about industrial work outside their area.69 Many, like Nate Shaw, used local industry to help them stay on the land, which they did not want to leave. Others worked in southern industry, which, outside the cotton mills, was overwhelmingly black for the same reasons that northern businessmen preferred foreigners. Alabama’s mine operators “employed so many Blacks because they were a known and plentiful supply in a labor-scarce, labor-intensive industry.”70
Those who entered northern industry before World War I came from the Upper South, where small farmers had earlier become dependent upon supplementary wage labor, which often became permanent. Located in towns and cities, they had good information about work. Nonetheless, because many found opportunity, the impetus to migrate north was blunted. Northern firms that set up plants in the South using black labor had no incentive to encourage migration. And, southern planters used many coercive devices to retain their labor force.
Given an early preference for and experience with the foreign-born. northern factory owners were reluctant to experiment with the unknown. They thought that the immigrants were best suited for unskilled factory labor, which happened to be the labor they needed in this period. Social necessities and experiences were attributed to race.
Many employers altered their racial notions when they needed additional labor during World War I. They then turned to southern blacks. The numbers of northern blacks were insufficient. Then, many northern blacks had no desire to work in the factories. Only in retrospect, after the unionization of mass-production workers, do those jobs seem desirable. The dangerous and unhealthful surroundings and autocratic supervision of the typical factory were surely not very attractive to a black teamster who enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy and fresh air.
Most of the southern migrants had some urban experience, and they were Americans. Lawrence Levine associates the emergence of the blues with “the rise of a more personalized, individual-oriented ethos among Negroes at the turn of the century.” Certainly, compared to the foreign-born, the blacks were more ambitious, individualistic, and American in aspiration and thinking. One study found that blacks were more upwardly and downwardly mobile than the security-minded Poles. Black children often kept their wages, whereas foreign-born children gave them to their parents. Black parents kept their children in school longer.71
Peter Gottlieb’s interviews with migrants confirm the individualistic patterns. Most obtained jobs through personal initiative. They had high expectations about jobs and left them when they found them too limited. Yet these qualities should not be mistaken for the individualism of the middle class. Gottlieb discovered that the migrants used strategies similar to other newcomers to the city to protect themselves from the insecurities of urban working-class life. Migrants were a lot more tentative about the new northern jobs than had been previously thought.72 Whatever their intentions, they discovered through the depression of 1920-21 that northern work could be impermanent. Many probably returned to the South, at least, temporarily. Their actions were thus similar to those of the foreign-born, who, in the earlier period, returned home during depressions. The easy access to the South probably made this solution even more common. If so, the reliance on resources of kin and neighbors in the South explains the paucity of northern organization among migrants.
Black workers whose roots in the North were deeper shared the burdens of class through the cultural traditions of mutualism, reciprocity, and spiritual consolation. These protections often existed outside formal organization. Individual ambitions became secondary when hardship—illness, death, unemployment—struck families. Friends and even local merchants would lend a hand when hard times or individual misfortune, which all knew, struck. At their best, and one should not romanticize them, these traditions sheltered the individual from the insecurities of working-class life.73
Because historians often study one ethnic or racial group they tend to make kin-related and neighborhood support systems a function of ethnicity. But Alexander Keyssar has found the same culture among the American and ethnic working class of Massachusetts.74 It also existed among different ethnic and racial groups who happened to be neighbors. Nevertheless, the system was imperfect. For many workers, the instability of labor markets made movement a better strategy than mutualism.
For others, unions provided protection, but the decline of the labor movement precluded that solution for most. The power of capital during the 1920s led to defensive strategies. The AFL made little effort to organize the unskilled and those who labored in factories. The weakness of existing unions affected all workers. A former black grievance officer of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers in Warren, Ohio, spoke for many when he said, “Why should I pay dues to the union if my wages get cut anyway?”75
The ingredients of black life could have been packaged differently. But the 1920s were dominated by the hegemony of the “new capitalism” and the weakness of popular politics and organizations. Racial organizations—the UNIA, NAACP, the National Urban League and others—reflected the larger balance of power, not simply black traditions and particularities. Their belief in economic progress, despite the existence of racial discrimination, and sense of racial community, translated into individualistic methods, were very much embedded in the larger culture of the 1920s.
The Demise of the Organic Model
The various forms of community building dominated black politics from the 1890s until the Great Depression, which destroyed the hopes of the Talented Tenth as well as black workers and farmers. As the New Deal state assumed more of a responsibility for providing work and training, racial leaders no longer attempted to create the racial community by relying upon racial bonds to uplift the black population or create businesses to produce jobs and power. They demanded that blacks participate in all government programs or that black workers have the right to join unions.
The demand for jobs, relief, and higher wages recognized the social needs of the black population without mediation and focused black effort on precise targets: the government, the corporation. Becoming more substantial and incorporating working-class issues, politics became the basis for community organization, like the earlier politics of Reconstruction in the South or the later politics of the civil rights movement. The paternalistic relationship between black elites and workers was modified as the weight of the newly politicized voters altered black politics. Leaders spoke less about the special culture of the Negro and more about the social programs for farmers, workers, or the unemployed.
The new language facilitated other bonds and identifications that cut across race. To join an interracial union does not erase racial consciousness but does modify it. With the new power of labor, black leaders not only found new allies but also began to acknowledge the fact that workers, as well as elites, could produce power. When asked why he joined and became an active leader in the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, one black explained, “I guess I was impressed by the success of the C.I.O. in other fields. The idea was sweeping the country and I was swept along with it.”76
These new trends were often first articulated by new leaders from the black working class and younger intellectuals—Abram Harris, John Davis, Ralph Bunche, E. Franklin Frazier, Sterling Brown. A black journalist claimed, “[T]he new position Negro labor has won…has been gained in spite of the older leadership. “77 Like the Emancipation generation at the turn of the century, many established leaders made the transition with difficulty. Garvey and Du Bois never made it.
However incomplete, especially in the South where most blacks still lived, the union movement and new national state created the institutional framework for working-class security and the social and political recognition that ethnic and racial groups had tried to create alone. Neither the racial bonds of elites nor those of workers were able to provide the protections of politics and union organization. The ethnic organizations of the foreign-born were no more successful. The current fashion of viewing American history as an arena of ethnic and racial groups each propelling itself upward often ignores the key actors—broader political movements and economic change—because they are not unique to the group.78
As politics changed, the organic model that had dominated black thought since the 1890s lost its power to persuade. Blyden, Du Bois, and Garvey had invented a view of the race to support a politics that addressed the elite discrimination they faced. Like all ideologies, their view of race attempted to interpret the world and direct behavior. Models and goals were taken from Western elite culture. Black elites imagined the majority of Afro-Americans passive and in need of their leadership. The NAACP and Urban League claimed to represent the race by default. Garvey assumed racial bonds that did not exist. Wedded to modern progress, all, in effect, urged shuttling resources—material or moral—within the group. The extreme portrait of social autarchy was impossible to execute, even for its most fervent adherents. Blacks in the United States were too entwined in American life.
The organic model had emerged at a time when popular organization, especially that of Afro-Americans, was particularly weak. The model and the institutions stemming from it reflected that balance of power within the race and the larger society as it deferred the grievances of black farmers, migrants, and workers and filtered out the common experiences blacks increasingly shared with other farmers, migrants, and workers. These social experiences came to the fore in the 1930s in American and Afro-American culture.
It is not surprising, therefore, that there was less race theorizing during the Great Depression. Claude McKay concluded that such efforts seemed “just a waste of intellectual energy” to him.79 And many blacks easily accepted the working-class identity of the new unionism or the populist ideology of the New Deal and defined themselves in it.80 A black taxicab driver voted for the Democrats because, he said, they “favor the little man, and I’ve been a little man all of my life.”81 People did not cease using racial language; it simply meant different things from what it had in the earlier period because people had new ideas of progress, new experiences, new allies, and new politics.
The defining of people of African descent has always been, and remains, associated with the contemporary political purposes. Even when the definition invokes history, it reflects current ideas from the larger culture more than the black past and its traditions, formed by diverse status, region, class, and a four-century residence in the most dynamic region of the world. The literature of definition has been vast because Afro-American history has been at the center of some of the most important events in American history.82 And the word race has been the principal ideological construct which Americans, black and white, have used to confront the numerous questions stemming from the existence and unraveling of slavery. But the persistence of the term is not equivalent to biological or historical continuity. The search for single, autonomous, and authentic traditions in Afro-American history reflects current politics and essentialist intellectual trends.83 To give racial identities and language transhistorical meaning is to enter the realm of metaphysics or imagination.