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The Negro in American literature (1923)

by Benjamin Brawley

from Bookman Essays (1923)

I HAVE often wondered why someone has not written as a supplement to Lowell an essay entitled "On a Certain Condescension in Americans". Such an effort, in some small measure at least, might serve to give us a clearer estimate of ourselves.

  When the drums beat we are not likely to recall that we are the most inconsistent people in the world. We pride ourselves on spending millions for education, but the draft showed us where we stood, and we have recently been informed that we are merely a nation of sixth-graders. We still value buildings more than brains, and if you will ask the average college student to read aloud a page of Newman or Pater you will see how literate we are. We are aghast at Armenia--naturally, for in Texas we lynch ten men in twice as many days.

  We have been accused of intolerance, and a finger has been pointed at the Puritan. As a matter of fact we are exceedingly long suffering. We tolerate everything from sixteen dollar coal to our most recent Congress. We tolerate the Ku Klux Klan. A score of men were killed in Herrin in cold blood, and the authorities are paralyzed. For a sensible liberty loving people we are the most easily browbeaten and bamboozled on this planet, and no one knows this better than the politician.

  Our powerlessness, our utter futility in the face of a concrete situation is sometimes amazing. We intend well, but either we ourselves or our machinery are at fault. In our courts the conviction of a man of means does not necessarily imply a real conviction but simply a new trial. We are torn by industrial and social unrest, and for a whole session our statesmen discuss the bonus and ship subsidy with an eye to the next election. Sometimes our national honor is involved. If occasion demands we can send a million men to Europe, but not until we have been trampled upon and our rights flouted for months. Is it any wonder that our flag is not always respected abroad?

  Sometimes in our leisurely democracy we develop kindliness at an astonishing rate. Nothing can surpass our real generosity and charity. A few months ago, however, we read that the President of the United States and the Governor of Pennsylvania both interceded for the life of a dog that had been condemned to death. Dick, it appeared, was owned by an alien contrary to law. I could not help wondering about this animal that was able to call forth such remarkable weight of executive clemency. Was it white or black or brown! Did its ancestors come over in the "Mayflower"! Could its grandfather vote? Mark you this, however: you have not for these many years heard of any president's writing to a governor about a citizen who was sliced or burned to death within these United States.

  Our inconsistency does not mean that as a nation we have lost sight of our port. It does mean, however, that we wander needlessly at sea before finding it. Democracy does not always move in a straight line, and sometimes when far off its course it has to make a violent effort to find its way. While moreover we talk about democracy, the fact is that there are always with us those who want something else. In the good old days Rhode Island was the most offensive little slave dealer in the country, and we do not always stop to think that there was a time when the students at Harvard were registered in the catalogue on the basis of their social standing. Among the rockribbed families of Boston there was ever a welcome for the courtly southerner with whom trade was good and behind whom was the romance of plantations and slaves. It is not an accident that in recent discussion of the Jew and the Negro New England has again beckoned to the south. Sooner or later in such a civilization the worm turns; the underdog wriggles out of our grasp; and, the glory of democracy is that it gives him a chance to work out his freedom--and live.

  In the new day to which we have come it is necessary first of all then that we keep our faith--faith in our country, in ourselves, in humanity. Let us also as never before honor Truth--not propaganda, not the flattery of a demagogue, and not the jaundice of a hectic journalism, but simple, clear eyed Truth. This will mean that we shall have to readjust many old values and beware of all outgrown shibboleths. Our country is changing, and those persons who insist on abiding by the opinions formed twenty years ago simply insist on living in another age and another world.

  With nothing shall we have to be more careful about hasty judgment than with subjects relating to the Negro. Today there is no telling what an individual Negro may or may not do. At the close of the Civil War hardly more than one in ten could read; today illiteracy has been reduced to nearly twenty per cent, and instead of his being your tenant you may even find that the Negro you know is your landlord. The race is increasingly complex, and in some matters of music and other forms of art it is just now among the most "advanced" in the country. The Negro is naturally such an artist and he has such an innate appreciation of acting that, keeping his essential faith unchanged, he is likely to take on a new form of worship quite as easily as a new garment. Just now Bahaism is popular with the esoteric, and since the war cynicism has been developed almost to a cult.

  This, however, is only one phase of the matter. The other is that of the strange prominence of the Negro throughout the whole course of American history. In the colonial era it was the economic advantage of slavery over servitude that caused it to displace this institution as a system of labor. Two of the three compromises that entered into the making of the Constitution were prompted by the presence of the Negro in the country; the expansion of the southwest depended on his labor; and the question or the excuse of fugitives was the real key to the Seminole Wars. The Civil War was simply to determine the status of the Negro in the Republic, and the legislation after the war determined for a generation the history not only of the south but very largely of the nation as well. The later disfranchising acts have had overwhelming importance, the unfair system of national representation controlling the election of 1916 and thus the attitude of America in the World War.

  Here then are two great themes--that of the Negro's aspiration and striving, and that of his influence on the American body politic--that might reasonably engage the attention of any writer who desires seriously to base a contribution to American literature on this general topic. The first would call for treatment primarily subjective, the second for treatment largely objective; but in any case the work should be sympathetic in the broadest sense. Such treatment I regret the Negro has not had. With our bigotry and conceit on this subject as no other we have been moved by the condescension of which I spoke in the beginning. Two great fallacies still most frequently recur as major premises. One is that the education of the Negro has been a failure, and the other is that the integrity of the womanhood of the race is always open to question. It makes no difference how much evidence there may be to the contraky, any writer of the day is still likely to start off with these two assumptions. The Negro himself moreover must be either a brute or a villain; no rble more flattering can be thought of. "Othello" is not yet a popular play with American audiences, and I cannot help recalling that some years ago a Shakespearian company performing "The Merchant of Venice" in Atlanta found it advisable to leave out even the Prince of Morocco, because of local conditions.

  Literature is supposed to be the reflection of the national life. Unfortunately much of our recent literature is not complimentary to the country's life. We have the best printers and publishers in the world, but the books that they are asked to produce--tales of scandal sicklied o'er with sentimentalism--should make the nation blush. A generation ago people smiled at E.P. Roe; but Roe was at least harmless. More recently we have arrived at Harold Bell Wright, but even he has been out-Heroded. If we today go over the list of writers of fiction--especially the women--and consider only those who are most outstanding, the extent to which many will be found to have declined from the ideals with which they started is astonishing. In all this welter of commercialism and sensationalism the Negro's one request of literature so far as he is concerned, is that it be fearlessly and absolutely honest. Let it portray life, realistically--just as it is, idealistically--as it ought to be, but let it cease to exploit outworn theories or be the vehicle merely of burlesque. A new age--a new world--is upon us, with new men, new visions, new desires. As never before patriotism demands that we see life clearly and see it whole.

  It is now a little more than six years ago that I contributed to "The Dial" (then in Chicago) a paper entitled "The Negro in American Fiction". In that discussion I endeavored to deal at some length with the work of several authors--notably George W. Cable, Joel Chandler Harris, Thomas Nelson Page, and Thomas Dixon--as well as with that of representative short story writers of the day who had introduced Negro characters into their work. In general I advanced the proposition that in our literature as in our social life we were largely dominated by the mob spirit. Much has happened within six years, and now that the war is four years behind us and we are trying to find the "normalcy" of which we have heard, we may not unreasonably ask if there has been any advance. At once we come face to face with the stories and sketches of E.K. Means and Octavus Roy Cohen, and these we find to be burlesque. Five other works of fiction also come to mind, however--"His Own Country" by Paul Kester, "The Shadow" by Mary White Ovington, "Birthright" by T.S. Stribling, "White and Black" by H.A. Shands, and "J. Poindexter, Colored" by Irvin S. Cobb. The last three of these books, it is interesting to observe, have all appeared within the present year, and practically every one of the five is, if not the only book, at least the first novel by its author. Taken together these books mark an advance, but one would hardly assert that they give an adequate reflection of the Negro problem in a treatment at once faithful, powerful, and tragic. "The Shadow" is honest in purpose and method. "His Own Country" and "White and Black", however, while containing much of the machinery of tragedy, both fail to be genuine epics. "Birthright", brilliant in some of its details, begs the whole question with which it undertakes to deal by its attitude on fundamentals, and the treatment of its hero is especially open to attack. J. Poindexter of Paducah, who awakens our interest and who is so thoroughly equal to the wiles and pitfalls of New York, himself advises us not to bother with the race problem. "I ain't no problem, I's a pusson," he says; "I craves to be so reguarded." To that extent he marks an advance.

  As for the race itself, because of the pressing questions incident to and resultant from the war, its literary energy has recently been given mainly to journalistic work rather than to that more imaginative. Within the last few years we have had W.E. Burghardt DuBois's collection of essays, "Darkwater", and Claude McKay's striking volume of poems, "Harlem Shadows", but in fiction nothing as poignant as Paul Laurence Dunbar's "The Sport of the Gods" has recently appeared. Several capable writers are appearing on the horizon, however, and within the next few years we may not unreasonably expect more than one work of enduring quality.

  It has well been said that to be as good as our fathers were we must be better. As the heirs of the ages it ill becomes us to represent anything but the highest standards of efficiency and the noblest ideals of faith. Our patriotism is too much capitalized; "100 per cent Americanism" too often becomes a specious cry to cover wrong. Has our melting pot been boiling too fast? Very well; let it simmer. Let us not, however, remove the ancient landmark. Let us not be so swept by the fires of bigotry or even by the glamour of industrialism that we fail to take note of men's souls. Those who have been prosperous and happy can never tell what divine gift may not be in the hands of those who have yearned and suffered. The Negro and the Jew, the Italian and the Pole--"inferior races", "scum of the earth"--exalted and uplifted, purified as we all must be, each brings something peculiar and eternal to the making of our country.

  But, say we, they have not culture. No, they have not; none of us have. Those who think they have most are likely to be the most provincial in their outlook. I think I remember hearing Professor Kittredge remark some years ago that culture is a by-product. We tabulate a certain number of facts, reflect upon a few ideas of our own, add a little religion, and incidentally it may be that after a while we impress those about us as--cultured. As a nation, however, we are still in the making, and when we have all so far to go it ill becomes any of us to scorn any man who is struggling toward the light.

  Literature should be not only history but prophecy, not only the record of our striving but also the mirror of our hopes and dreams. Let us have the forward as well as the backward look. In England we speak of the Liberalism of Lloyd George as distinct from the old Liberalism of Gladstone. Some such distinction needs to be made in our own country. The disfranchisement of any number or group of citizens, real or attempted, in the United States of America in the third decade of the twentieth century, is an anachronism. We may try to turn back the clock, but the hands of Time move inexorably forward. Let us be worthy of the new day.

  The Negro himself as the irony of American civilization is the supreme challenge to American literature. Like Banquo's ghost he will not down. All faith and hope, all love and longing, all rapture and despair, look out from the eyes of this man who is ever with us and whom we never understand. Gentle as a child, he has also the strength of Hercules. The more we think we know him the more unfathomable he is. No wonder a well known senator who maligned the Negro felt that he was paralyzed because the race prayed that God might afflict him. No wonder is it that, submerged and enthralled, the Negro still rises from the depths to cast by his magic an irresistible spell over the American mind.