social construct

Uplift, Accommodation, and Assimilation 1 of 2

Hollowell states that the “Talented Tenth,” Uplift & Respectability, and Race Management are the themes of the next two lectures, and honestly, I really need a little uplifting because the last four lectures have got me s h o o k.

He starts out with a quote from Alexander Crummell, an American who emigrated to Liberia, Africa. I’m not terribly familiar with Crummell outside of this lecture, but he seems like a pretty interesting guy: African nationalist, originally sought to retain Black investment in the United States, but then changed his mind toward a back-to-the-motherland sonata. Raised middle-class with educated parents, but still had his share of racism growing up.

I think the image that stuck with me most was the story that told of his schoolhouse being dragged into a swamp when some of the local yokels found out some Black learning was to occur.

Many black children left formal education at about 14 to begin work in lowly paid trades, though Crummell’s classmates were a gifted generation: one became a teacher, one a doctor, and several became ministers. Against all the odds, Crummell and two black friends were awarded places at a secondary school in New Hampshire. The local community was outraged; the school was attacked, the school house was dragged into a swamp and its three black students were driven out of town.

Hollowell talked about different people who felt it was their duty to uplift the race, but I really appreciated his attention to the word “uplift” and how the word itself was a “dynamic ideology that was imbued with that era’s gender and class conventions.”

It sounds like we’re going to have a lot to unpack.

He traces the roots of the uplift ideology, starting with the American Baptist Home Mission Society, a white effort to civilize Southern blacks. One of the leaders of the ABHMS was Henry Morehouse; he phrased the term, “Talented Tenth.” The “Talented Tenth” are the 1/10 of blacks (presumably Northern) whose duty it is to uplift the race.

Now, before I get too far into the lecture, I’m starting to wonder: What does the ABHMS consider “civilized?” To whose standard would this civilization be gauged? What will happen to some of the Christian slave cultural traditions after they’ve been approached by the ABHMS? How will the Southern black react to that? Will they accept or reject this conversion?

I think before Hollowell even gets into it, I can see that the “natural order” of things is really just an entitled classist ideology which insists that anything short of this particular method is uncivilized. Already, I can imagine how I might feel if the Church were to knock on my door, offer me schooling (great, but what are you teaching?) and require I pray the way they do, ignoring my own cultural history and practices. Well, how can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?

My guess is the pudding would be unwelcome after a while.

Hollowell talks about the role of the Church in post-war black community; it’s the provider of all social services. They were both religious and secular.

Well, in 1895, the Southern blacks formed their own society called the National Baptist Convention. This group is created by blacks for blacks and respected the cultural traditions of their history and ancestors. The NBC allowed blacks to pray the way they wanted; gave autonomy to their secular lives; allowed the sovereignty of a black press that told Bible stories the way they wanted.

The role of the Church in the freed black community is the same: provide resources, branched fraternities, banks, insurance agencies, all due to the need to be sovereign. This was all about community taking care of their own.

Out of this manifestation of community comes the American Negro Academy, a male organization which grooms the most elite black intellectuals, and devised a vision to develop an intellect within the Black community.

The National Association of Colored Women, lifting while we climb. The NACW takes the best elements of the fraternal orders before them and organize protests for civil rights. They were agitators for child welfare reform.

I don’t know if the Southern black would have been truly grateful or outrageously annoyed at all these groups trying to uplift them. On one hand, it wasn’t just about manners: the poor suffered the same injustices back then as they do today, and in many ways, much more severely. The poor often lived in actual filth: most dwellings didn’t have indoor plumbing. Handwashing was problematic at best; tuberculosis was a serious public health concern. People were hungry; people needed clothing and shoes; all these groups were there to provide the well-fare of the destitute.

Hollowell’s list of supporting documents for this lecture held two items: a short documentary called Ethnic Notions, and a paper called “Womanist Consciousness” by Elsa Barkley Brown.

I was able to watch the documentary last night, and it was probably about as upsetting as I had expected it to be.

It was layered, of course. The film was mostly a chronological historic narrative of blackface. The thing that struck me was that first the Irish were portraying themselves as blacks, but then blacks would portray themselves as blacks (which got kind of weird, obviously), but then blacks would portray themselves as Irish portraying themselves of blacks. They explained it better than I did.

Honestly, I’m not sure which part of any of that bothered me the most. Was it the celebrity culture of it? The selling out of it? The propaganda of it? The stereotyping of it? The societal implications of it?

The film talked a lot about caricatures, minstrel shows, symbols minstrels used, and entertainment as a consumer good.

In tandem with Hollowell’s thesis, there were caricature themes of brut manliness: big, burly black beasts, beating their chests, taking everything in sight as his own, including that fragile, delicate White lady you thought was your property.

There was the Mammy caricature: jovial, rosy-cheeked, well-fed, loving, her ample breasts swallow the family inside. She is so happy to serve. But then they showed photographs of the real Mammies of the late 19th-century: thin and tough, reticent; skin beaten by the sun, a quiet, bony strength that screams what her throat cannot.

Then there was the pickaninny caricature taunted by a l l i g a t o r s, which bore a strange resonance to my own life: I went to New Orleans about 20 years ago to visit the Masters program at UNO. When I returned home, one of my friends (and I’m sorry to admit I don’t recall which) gave me an alligator as a welcome-home gift. Shortly after that, my friend Dave went to a party at his friend (and my acquaintance) Karen’s house, and as a party favor, she gave out these tiny plastic babies (they were white). Dave came over for a visit, and gave me the plastic baby. I was standing near the alligator, I guess, and I put the baby in the alligator’s mouth, and that is where it has been for twenty years, 3 states, and probably 15 residences.

Imagine my actual shock as I watched this film talk at length about all the consumable goods depicting black babies being taunted, lured, and harassed by alligators in the form of postcards, drawings, and product labels.

Then there was the Uncle caricature: free, lazy, child-like, musical. Uncle never worked like he should have; he was a daydreamer. He’d like to lie by the riverside with wheat in his teeth – and maybe a small bottle of pick-me-up. Honestly, Uncle seemed like my kind of friend.

There was Black Sambo, who later teamed up with a restaurant chain and sold fluffy white pancakes to fluffy white churgoers on Sunday mornings.

How do I know that?

Because my family used to go to Sambos restaurants for pancakes when I was a kid. I always liked the boysenberry syrup. There were coloring pages of Sambo with tigers. On the back, there were riddles. Sometimes, I got a paper crown.

The way the images in this film intertwined with my own life is surreal in so many ways. It doesn’t seem like that long ago, but somehow it feels like I’m viewing my own childhood in images as antiquated as my mom’s childhood. But I have to ask myself: has it really changed that much?

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