social construct

Uplift, Accommodation, and Assimilation, 2 of 2

Hollowell starts out with a timeline, which I truly appreciate. He wants to express the point that the separation of the races through the Jim Crow laws starts around 1877, and mostly around public accommodation: transportation, education, and the fear of miscegenation.

He briefly recaps the earlier lecture, and then plays a short, scratchy, barely legible clip of Booker T. Washington giving the Atlanta Compromise.

A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal: “Water, water. We die of thirst.” The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back: “Cast down your bucket where you are.” A second time, the signal, “Water, send us water!” went up from the distressed vessel. And was answered: “Cast down your bucket where you are.” A third and fourth signal for water was answered: “Cast down your bucket where you are.” The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River.

To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land, or who underestimate the importance of preservating friendly relations with the southern white man who is their next door neighbor, I would say: “Cast down your bucket where you are.” Cast it down, making friends in every manly way of the people of all races, by whom you are surrounded.

The recording and its corresponding text reads as a parable to my ear. It makes cultural sense to use parable form as rhetoric, and I think Washington does it rather well. In this first excerpt, he plays on both sides of the argument: one side is saying they need help, and the other is asking the asker to help himself; everything he needs is right at our feet – we help ourselves when we help each other.

This play of themes is really quite brilliant. At once, Washington tells the each they need each other without calling either of them out directly. A “friendly vessel” could be either side or neither side, but for each to recognize the benefit of the other for the benefit of the whole; to be a friendly vessel is the key.

The vessels are lost, indeed. The driver of the ship thinks he is lost at sea, but it is a mirage: he is in fresh waters. The moral of the story: the river can look like a sea when you can’t see the horizon, and when you can’t see the future and mutual benefit, you will float endlessly.

Cast it down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions … No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.

Humility is the place to start when looking to uplift the better part of a race from the collective trauma of chattel slavery. Humility helps you understand your neighbor; it helps you build empathy; most importantly, it provides a means to lead by example. We never lift ourselves; we are only lifted by those around us providing the support. What Washington is proposing is that we lift by generations, one under the other, removing the pain of the past without erasing it; in fact, maybe even using it as fuel.

To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits for the prosperity of the South, were I permitted I would repeat what I say to my own race, “Cast down your bucket where you are.” Cast it down among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested in days when to have proved treacherous meant the ruin of your firesides. Cast down your bucket among these people who have, without strikes and labour wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities, and brought forth treasures from the bowels of the earth, and helped make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the South. Casting down your bucket among my people, helping and encouraging them as you are doing on these grounds, and to education of head, hand, and heart, you will find that they will buy your surplus land, make blossom the waste places in your fields, and run your factories. While doing this, you can be sure in the future, as in the past, that you and your families will be surrounded by the most patient, faithful, law-abiding, and unresentful people that the world has seen. … In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.

I think what’s most interesting here is that Washington is asking the White business owners to look to the former enslaved workforce who is already skilled and familiar rather than hiring out to foreigners. He is asking them to consider the people they already know; those who have already raised their fields and children. The question is why hadn’t they already? Why were they looking to import foreigners to do the work of the former slaves? Was it strictly guided by profit margins? What more is there?

The last line of this particular excerpt, though, really distills the thinking of the time: “ separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand…” Plessy v. Ferguson was to solidify the doctrine in just a year’s future time; Washington reinforces the sentiment hoping the Whites will agree and hire blacks, and that blacks are maybe as interested in being separated, thus Black.

It is prudent to recall that at this time there were a number of Nativists, nationalists, and separatists on all sides of the integration issue. I don’t want to speak for the Black population of the time, but thinking about it, I don’t know if I’d want to be a part of White culture so much, just that I would want to be given the same opportunities to gain wealth, access freedom, and have fair representation; I wouldn’t necessarily want to integrate. I don’t know, though; I’m looking forward to hearing more about what the black and Black population at large in the late 19th century thought.

The wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly, and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than of artificial forcing. No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. It is important and right that all privileges of the law be ours, but it is vastly more important that we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than the opportunity to spend a dollar in an opera-house.

It is important to note that while he’s asking the Whites to partner up, he’s asking the Blacks to chill out. Maybe it’s unfair to do so? Maybe it’s the right time? I’m not entirely sure, but his thesis maintains: if we can all work together, we can all profit.

Through this lecture, I can’t help but be struck by the similarity of several 20th-century landmarks and icons. Plessy v. Ferguson mirrors in many ways, the Rosa Parks action. Booker T. Washington advocates for the long, slow progress of non-violent participation, or working within the means of the overwhelming structure for individual benefit. W.E.B DuBois is the other side of the coin, much like Malcolm X was to Dr. King.: two different approaches for a similar, but not the same goal of autonomy.

I have read DuBois before, but not since college. I have forgotten what a forceful and eloquent speaker he was. I read an excerpt from Conservation of the Races, (section 14), which reinforces the split ideals that Hollowell mentions:

Here, then, is the dilemma, and it is a puzzling one, I admit. No Negro who has given earnest thought to the situation of his people in America has failed, at some time in life, to find himself at these cross-roads; has failed to ask himself at some time: What, after all, am I? Am I an American or am I a Negro? Can I be both? Or is it my duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and be an American? If I strive as a Negro, am I not perpetuating the very cleft that threatens and separates Black and White America? Is not my only possible practical aim the subduction of all that is Negro in me to the American? Does my black blood place upon me any more obligation to assert my nationality than German, or Irish or Italian blood would? 1897

Hollowell speaks of DuBois’s meditation on identity through a crossroads; feeling split in two. Hollowell quotes the “conundrum of double consciousness” from Souls of Black Folks.

“After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, – a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

W.E.B. DU BOIS, The Souls of Black Folk 1903

In 1905, a group of educated Blacks form the Niagara Movement formed on the Canadian side of the Falls and organized a list of demands which seamlessly blended with the 15 Constitutional amendments already on record. If the Constitution doesn’t protect them, then how can their neighbors? How can they, at once, be Americans and also Other?

Washington was invited to join the Niagara Movement, but he declined for political reasons. It makes sense, really; he had a lot of White support, and probably if I were him, I’d feel the weight of responsibility if that support were lost, and all those Black jobs were lost along with it.

I appreciate, however, how Hollowell mentioned that Washington funded some of these movements with “dolla dolla bills, y’all.” He might not have been able to be open about support; he might have had to funnel it through several chains of foundations and groups: a sort of Underground Railroad of the monetary sort.

The Race Riots, Springfield Illinois, 1908, which my God imagine it: a White woman accuses a black worker of assaulting her; angry mobs form and torch the joint, she recants (her boyfriend actually beat her), but it was too late. In fact, the 1908 riots, the NYC draft riots, and our current riots prompted me to seek the list of American Riots, which is quite a list, and I’m not sure if it covers absolutely every one.

In any case, out of the race riots formed a group of white and black liberals joined together to form the NAACP. DuBois joined and served as the sole Black officer. The NAACP was dedicated to the improvement of Black life, but Hollowell really brings the point home that it was mostly about blacks integrating into White society, economy and politics.

I am immediately reminded of an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment, where Gladwell makes the simple revelation that when Brown v. Board of Education was passed, that all the Black schools closed. All the Black teachers fired. All the Black kids assimilated into White classrooms with White teachers, White history, and White supremacy. Black role models: gone. Black history: gone. Black intellectuals: essentially gone.

It’s astounding to me that such a simple observation had not come to me on my own beforehand, and now I just see it so clearly everywhere I look. It’s not to say we shouldn’t have had the fight for integration of schools, just that the benefit of the fight would have been better had it gone both ways.

Here we are, nearly sixty-six years later and I think of all those White people currently in power who really could have used some Black history from a primary perspective.

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