Black Intellectualsby William M. Banks
“An important book, significant because it highlights the diversity and richness of Afro-American intellectual life throughout our nation’s history.” Jerry G. Watts, New York Times Book Review
Black Intellectuals offers a centuries-deep analysis of black life, beginning with the arrival of Africans as slaves, when medicine men and
“An important book, significant because it highlights the diversity and richness of Afro-American intellectual life throughout our nation’s history.” Jerry G. Watts, New York Times Book Review
Black Intellectuals offers a centuries-deep analysis of black life, beginning with the arrival of Africans as slaves, when medicine men and conjurers held ancient, powerful wisdom. Author William Banks goes on to discuss prominent figures ranging from black pioneers like Alexander Crummell, Frederick Douglass, and Anna Cooper to intellectuals of the modern age such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, E. Franklin Frazier, Toni Morrison, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. These and hundreds of other black scholars and artistsmany of them interviewed for this volumepeople an enlightened and imaginative landscape, fascinating for both its range and its diversity.
Banks (African American Studies/Univ. of California, Berkeley) takes a chronological approach, liberally lacing his history of the growth of a black intellectual class with the ideas, struggles, and contributions of talented individuals from Phillis Wheatley and Frederick Douglass to W.E.B. DuBois and Toni Morrison, and many others who are less well known. A significant black intelligent is a first emerged after the Civil War, even though legislatures provided shamefully little support for black schools. Black colleges became a haven for scholars after they discovered that even those white institutions that would educate them wouldn't hire them. Outside the academy, economic prosperity and white curiosity could intermittently help fuel creativity, as during the Harlem Renaissance. But, as Banks notes, "the market for books by black authors has always been directly linked to white interest in African American culture at the time," and when things get tough, as in the Depression, such interest can quickly evaporate. Despite precarious support inside and outside academia, black intellectuals down through the decades have been called upon to serve not merely their chosen fields but the society of blacks as a whole, serving as advocates, role models, and mentors. As legal, overt discrimination has diminished, and the black community has become more socially, economically, and politically diverse, some intellectuals have come to feel that race is not a defining element of their existence and that they no longer need to prove that they are "black enough" or repeatedly engage questions about racial inequality. The long debate over the responsibilities and goals of black intellectuals thus shows no signs of diminishing.
A welcome addition that helps fill a gap in the study of African-American history and American intellectual history.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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- New Edition
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Read an Excerpt
LAYING THE FOUNDATIONS
He [the Master] said I was going on just like my brother Bige, who had learned to read and was a preacher, and was raising the devil on the place. So after a little scorning, I stopped it, and gave up reading until I got to be 19 years old. But the more I read, the more I fought against slavery. C. H. Hall, ex-slave
And what of the slaves who were skilled? That always gets left out. Ralph Ellison
The Africans who came to North America as slaves brought with themand tried to preservetheir traditions. In West African villages they had known two intellectual types, priests and medicine men. Priests, considered intermediaries between the gods and members of the community, assumed the task of interpreting the universe and codifying and rationalizing cultural values. They were expected to explain natural phenomena such as death, disease, and drought and to function as a moral and aesthetic compass for life within the tribe. While their role varied among the thousands of tribes along Africa's west coast, peoples of the region shared a tradition that looked to a local authority to provide cultural meaning. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries slave preachers in North America carried on this priestly tradition, one familiar and important to African-born slaves.
West African medicine men possessed knowledge and insight of a different kind. They treated illnesses and ailments and passed on technical information about the physical environment. When the forces of nature threatenedthe community, villagers turned to medicine men for cures and advice. These highly valued operatives knew the artifacts, potions, or rituals necessary to fend off evil spirits and restore equanimity to tribal life. Unlike the priests, whose status was divinely endorsed, medicine men were trained specialists who learned their craft from older medicine men in the tribe.
As intellectual workers, both groups played key roles in reproducing the cognitive and spiritual codes of their villages. But to Europeans foraging West Africa in search of cargo for slave ships, the often elaborate social organization in African villages was of no concern. All Africans were simply commodities. Because priests and medicine men tended to be older, few were seized by European slavers for transport to the Americas. Instead, slavers picked the strongest of the young men, those who promised to have a long and productive work life.(1) Some African women were seized to perform "woman" work, but many more women slaves ended up in the fields like men.(2)
Of the two types of intellectuals that lingered in the cultural memory of Africans, only the medicine man was compatible with the condition of plantation slavery. The priests were not to be tolerated by slaveholders, for at least two reasons. First, at a pragmatic level, the slaveholding class sought to extract as much work as possible from the Africans. In a social order based on economic definitions of worth, the idea of a reflective and nonlaboring slave was unimaginable. Second, the slaveholders strove to dominate and shape every aspect of a slave's life, and they were understandably intolerant of any authority that might compete for a slave's allegiance. Determined to acculturate Africans to the milieu of slavery, planters reasoned that the symbols and reminders of a previous existence must be eliminated. While the slaveholders could not destroy the Africans' ideas, values, and beliefs, they could neutralize the primary articulators of such thoughts and replace them with European authorities.
In slave society, however, the figure of the African medicine man resurfaced as the "conjurer." Unlike the priest, the medicine man was encouraged in slave society because he (occasionally, she) was seen by masters to be useful. Everyone at one time or another became ill, and the conjurer's knowledge of folk medicine and its applications was respected. Conjurers were technicians who could get things done and resolve concrete problemsof whites as well as blacks. The recollections of a former slave, preserved in the 1930s by a WPA oral history project, show the overlap in the function of the slave conjurers and the African medicine men. "I don't believe in conjurers because I have asked God to show me such thingsif they existedand he said, `there ain't no such thing as conjurers.' I believe in root doctors because, after all, we must depend upon some form of root or weed to cure the sick."(3) African slaves, recalling their past, thought it unwise to cross conjurers, who were believed capable of condemning people to a life of misfortune. Susan Snow, another former slave, shared with interviewers her apprehensions about conjurers:
Dey used to say my ma was a cunjer an' dey was all scared of 'er But my ma was scared o' cunjers too. I don't know nothing about it, cause old folks didn't talk to young folks in dem days an' I didn't use to be scared o' cunjers, but I's scared now, 'cause I had it done to me. I's tellin' de trufe, son, I'm as skeered of a cunjer as you is of a gatlin' gun.(4)
While the conjurer enjoyed respecteven fearin slave society, he could not satisfy the social need previously fulfilled by the priest in African societies. Distrustful of slaveholder interpretations of their prospects and reality, black slaves longed for one of their own to emerge and provide clues to the moral and spiritual dilemmas that arose in bondage.
For the slaveholders the variety and flexibility of African religious values and the status spiritual leaders enjoyed in the slave community were puzzling and vaguely threatening. To ensure the allegiance of their slaves, planters sought to shape their religious commitments. A favorite tactic was to supplant traditional African religious beliefs with a carefully constructed version of Christianity. New Testament Christianity, with its central theme of redemptive suffering, merged neatly with white material interests. In introducing Christianity to slaves, masters hoped to render them submissive and obedient to temporal powers. By carefully selecting or cultivating black religious leaders, slaveholders erected yet another cultural mechanism to control the minds of the slaves. Slave ministers could operate only with the permission of masters, and they were usually coerced into publicly parroting a version of Christianity compatible with the slave order. But underneath lay another worldview.(5) A former slave preacher understood the designs of his master, yet found opportunity to frame and manipulate the Christian message differently.
When I starts preaching I couldn't read or write and had to preach what the master told me, and he say tell them niggers iffen they obeys the master they goes to Heaven; but I knowed there's something better for them, but daren't tell them, 'cept on the sly. That I done lot's. I tells 'em iffen they keeps praying the Lord will set 'em free.(6)
Slave preachers recognized much in Scripture that supported aspirations for freedom. Yet plantation life allowed for no direct protests, or even appeals on religious grounds. Thus slave preachers turned to artful ambiguity. Slave congregations, understanding the limits of expression, developed communal codes and private references, often dismissed by white ears as incoherent. Long after slavery, ambiguity remained a key characteristic of black intellectuals, inside and outside of the religious community.
Education and Control
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, West African culture was propelled by the oral tradition. Cultural knowledge was accumulated and passed on from generation to generation through priests, respected elders, and storytellers. The socialization process for young people included sessions with elders who shared the cultural material necessary for life in the tribe. Intellectual continuity flowed not through the study of great or sacred books but through recitation, lectures, and dialogue.
Because literacy had not figured in West African village culture and because reading and writing were not central to their working lives, the earliest slaves were not preoccupied with it. Nor did plantation owners encourage literacy. On the contrary, most believed that slaves had no need to read and write: any slave could work well in the fields without recourse to books. Like the peasants of Europe, slaves were introduced at an early age to the routine of farming, and they were expected to spend their lives doing more or less the same kind of work.
Nonetheless, during the first century of the slave trade, the formal power and authority system of slavery permitted variability in relationships.(7) Through daily contact some masters were drawn to intelligent slaves with engaging personalities, and favored slaves were occasionally taught to read and write. The literate slaves might then be drafted for work close to the master's family. This literacy, and the power it represented, was afforded only to slaves thought to be loyal. But masters often miscalculated. The case of Nat Turner, a trusted and literate slave who led a rebellion in 1831, illustrates how a facade of acquiescence and humility could hide deep resentment and hostility well enough to fool a slaveholder.
Literacy also threatened the control and surveillance network for slaves in the South. Concern about runaways prompted slaveholders to require passes for all slaves traveling unaccompanied off the plantation. Literate slaves, however, could forge the necessary papers and escape to the North (few white patrollers could read well enough to verify the documents). Many slaves who learned to write did indeed achieve freedom by this method. The wanted posters for runaways often mentioned whether the escapee could write. For example, the following advertisement for a runaway slave appeared in the Maryland Gazette on February 27, 1755: "He is supposed to be lurking in Charles County near Bryan-town, where a mulatto woman lives, whom he has for some time called his wife; but as he is an artful fellow and can read and write, it is probable that he may endeavor to make his escape out of the Province."(8)
Anxiety about literate bondsmen stimulated South Carolina in 1740 to pass the first law prohibiting the instruction of slaves. By 1780 most southern states had followed suit. However, a growing ambivalence about slavery led to a somewhat lax enforcement of these statutes. Many prominent southerners had begun to express reservations, and several large slaveholders had freed their slaves, maintaining that slavery was incompatible with the lofty ideals of the American Revolution. Moderates like Thomas Jefferson believed that the economic forces making slavery impractical in the North would eventually destabilize slavery in the South.
In such a fluid political milieu, some slaveholders tolerated slave literacy. Others ignored the statutes for economic reasons, realizing that literate slaves could handle record keeping and business transactions, and thus increase the profits and leisure time of the planter class. The prohibitions were also ignored by pious masters who wanted their slaves to read the Bible. And there are numerous accounts of planter children enjoying "playing school" and teaching their slave playmates the rudiments of literacy. Thomas Johnson, a slave in Virginia in the mid-nineteenth century, later explained how he learned to read and write.
The youngest son of the master had a copy book. When I saw it I decided to have one like it ... [W]hen I had five cents, I went to a book store and asked for a copy book. I had made up my mind what to say if the bookseller should ask me for whom I wanted it. I intended on telling him it was for my master. I went home and began to learn from this book how to write ... but another problem presented itselfI could not spell. At night when the young master was getting his lessons, I used to choose some word I wanted to know how to spell, and say, "Master, I'll bet you can't spell `looking glass.'" He would spell it. I would exclaim, "Lor's o'er me, you can spell nice." Then I would go out and spell the word over and over again. I knew that once it was in my head it would never be got out again.(9)
Johnson eventually escaped to the North and moved to England, where he enrolled in a seminary. He returned to his native Africa as a Baptist missionary. Other accounts of slaves point to benevolent mistresses as witting, and sometimes unwitting, teachers.
It seemed, then, that literacy would inevitably grow within the slave community, but Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1783 changed all that. Up to this time, the arduous process of separating cotton fiber from seed had blunted the crop's profitability. With the cotton gin, a crop once marginal to southern agriculture assumed much greater economic significance. A vast, cheap supply of docile laborers became essential if planters were to exploit the market for cotton and reap the profits they envisioned. Consequently many southern moderates began to reassess their moral discomfort with human bondage. Most slaveholders closed ranks against any ideas or practices that would unsettle the labor pool.
In 1831 a group of slaves under the leadership of Nat Turner, who believed himself to be acting on biblical principles, took up arms and killed more than sixty whites in Southampton County, Virginia.(10) News of the uprising sent shock waves through the entire South. Beset by fear and guilt, planters reasoned that if their slaves heard about the Turner rebellion, they might plan similar actions. Measures were quickly taken to limit the information available to all blacks, both slave and free. The citizens of Southampton passed a resolution that read, "Resolved that the Education of persons of Color is inexpedient and improper as it is calculated to cause them to be dissatisfied with their condition and furnishes the slave with the means of absconding from his master."(11)
To counter the abolitionists who mailed antislavery publications to free blacks and moderate whites in the South, southern state legislatures banned such mailings. When federal courts ruled the prohibitions unconstitutional, most southern states drafted laws that made the possession of antislavery literature illegal. South Carolina's law set the tone: "A free Negro ... was to be fined $1,000 for the first offense, for the second offense fifty lashes and for the third offense death."(12)
Vigilant enforcement of the anti-literacy statutes soon became the norm. The informal education of blacks was repressed to the fullest extent possible, and the "school games" of white youths and their black pupils came to an end. As so often happens, these prohibitions only heightened curiosity about the off-limits world of reading and writing. Other efforts to restrict the social world of slaves included limits on travel between plantations and punishments for any communication between slaves and free blacks: "A gathering of more than a few slaves (usually five) away from home, unattended by a white, was an `unlawful assembly' regardless of its purpose or orderly decorum."(13)
Meanwhile, although an overwhelming majority of southern blacks in the nineteenth century were slaves, the number of free blacks in the South grew from 32,523 in 1790 to 258,346 in 1860. This population included many mulatto sons and daughters of slaveholders who had been educated on plantations and subsequently freed. Although a few of the wealthier free blacks sent their children North to be educated, most free black children lacked that opportunity. Recognizing the importance of education, a small but determined number of free parents in the larger towns and cities of the early nineteenth-century South often pooled their meager resources and funded small, frequently one-room primary schools.(14) Usually well attended, even crowded, these schools rarely went beyond the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. The teachers, some with skills scarcely superior to those of their students, made up in determination for what they lacked in training.
The success of these primary schools drew the fearful attention of white legislators. When the racial climate worsened after Nat Turner's rebellion, free blacks were powerless to defend their hardwon schools. By 1834 most southern states, especially those in the Deep South, had taken steps to shut the black schools down. In 1837 the Virginia legislature went a step further, passing a law barring the return to Virginia of black children schooled out of state. Within a few years the educational opportunities available to free blacks in Virginia had evaporated: "Before 1830 they had by private means provided schooling in every city in the state. By 1839 all the projects had been effectively cut off, and free Negroes were forced to make exiles of their children or themselves if they wanted the children to be educated."(15)
Blacks were the primary, but not the only, victims of the ruling class's denial of literacy. Controlling southerners also saw little value in literacy-based education for the white masses. In 1850 over 20 percent of the South's whites were illiterate, compared with 3 percent in the Middle Atlantic states, and 1 percent in New England.(16) Concern with literacy as a social value had entered the American consciousness, but the South lagged behind the rest of the nation in accepting public education, which would have required higher taxes. For example, Alabama took no steps to establish a statewide public school system for white children until 1854. Far beyond that date, sectional differences in the state worked against evenhanded school funding. Regions dominated by wealthy planters balked at appropriations that would have shifted their education tax payments to poorer Black Belt areas. In the ideological tradition of rugged individualism, the southern yeoman was himself contemptuous of any policies that smacked of charity. Education thus proved to be one of many areas in which less privileged southern white workers and farmers rejected policies beneficial to them in order to preserve the myths generated by the wealthy planter class. Given the general antipathy of the South to public education and the threat that literate blacks were thought to pose, blacks faced formidable odds in their quest for even basic literacy. Meyer Weinberg's phrase "compulsory ignorance" sums up the educational experience of enslaved blacks in the South.(17)
Learning in the North
From the time of American independence until 1820, most northern states made no provisions for the education of black children. Free blacks were taxed like other citizens, but their children were not allowed to attend public schools. Undaunted, small communities of northern blacks banded together to build and operate their own schools, even while they continued to agitate for public support of black education. Despite the hardship of what was essentially double taxation, and without qualified teachers or adequate books and supplies, the free black communities still managed to maintain some semblance of schooling for their children.
The relative freedom of the northern states did not preclude the racial subordination of blacks. Even small successes in education were often countered by whites who rejected the idea of any education at all for blacks. In Ohio white mobs on several occasions destroyed schools built by blacks. The administrations of white schools that decided to integrate their student bodies and educate all qualified citizens were also stormed by furious whites. When Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire, announced in 1835 that it would accept black children, a mob of townspeople descended on the school and dragged the building into a swamp.(18) In New England in 1831 a group of black leaders and white abolitionist supporters bought land in New Haven to build a college for blacks. The plan quickly ran into opposition. So incensed were the white residents at the prospect of a black college in their midst that "on September 10, the `best citizens' of New Haven, led by the Mayor and a number of Yale professors and students, staged riots before the homes of supporters of the college. Many Negroes wished to proceed in the face of this hostility, but some timid white abolitionists withdrew their support and the college was abandoned."(19)
Despite the violence, northern blacks continued to demand support for black education, frequently invoking constitutional principles. Their most persuasive argument was the simple contention that blacks who paid taxes should be allowed access to a publicly supported school system. The hypocrisy of subjecting blacks to the same kind of injustice that sparked the American Revolution did not escape the notice of some northern legislatures, and several states managed grudging concessions. In 1844 the legislature of Ohio decreed that a portion of the taxes paid by African Americans be allocated for the education of their children. A few towns in Massachusetts permitted blacks to attend their public schools; however, segregated schoolsseparate and unequalhad become the norm for public education in the northern states by 1835. Describing the efforts of northern blacks to build educational institutions in cities, the historian Leonard Curry has concluded, "One of the remarkable accomplishments in American history is the degree to which they [blacks] marshaled their slender financial and human resources, the rapidity with which they strengthened their institutions, and the effectiveness with which they developed educational opportunities adapted to their needs." But successful as northern blacks were in extending education to blacks in the cities, a fundamental barrier to mobility remained intact. In Curry's words, "Except for a handful of individualsnotably ministers, teachers, physicians and editorsaccess to employment appeared not to be favorably affected by educational advancement"(20)
As northern blacks tried to gain educational opportunities, whites grew more afraid of the impact of free blacks on the northern economy. Abolitionists actively encouraged blacks to leave the South. But northern white workers, fearing economic competition, successfully pressured their state legislatures to pass inhibiting laws. Illinois voters endorsed by a ratio of two to one a statute outlawing the immigration of blacks. More liberal states required blacks to certify their free status or to post a good-behavior bond of up to one thousand dollars.(21)
Making a Living
Considering how few jobs awaited educated African Americans in the nineteenth century, the rewards of study were largely intrinsic: neither universities nor law firms nor publishing houses hired blacks in professional positions. School teaching, journalism, and the ministry, careers linked to segregated institutionsthat was about it.
Reform was slow in coming. In 1849 the Massachusetts supreme court ruled that blacks had no right to attend white public institutions, ensuring that the privately financed black schools would continue to need qualified teachers. In the North black communities and schools offered their teachers considerable status but meager salaries.(22) In the absence of options for any other intellectual work, however, teaching and the ministry long remained havens for learned blacks.
Within the relatively autonomous black churches, preachers enjoyed a type of freedom unavailable in the outside world. John Mercer Langston, probably the first black to attend a theological school (Oberlin College), felt that the black church provided the African American the "opportunity to be himself, to think his own thoughts, express his own convictions, make his own utterances, test his own powers."(23) After earning bachelor's and master's degrees from Oberlin, Langston studied law with a judge and in 1854 became the first black admitted to the Ohio bar. He continued to "test his own powers" after the Civil War, serving as dean of the Howard University law faculty and, later, as president of Virginia State College. When federal reconstruction policies extended the ballot to all citizens, Langston ran for and was elected to the U.S. Congress from Virginia.
Recognizing the need for well-educated and sophisticated leadership, black congregations increasingly insisted on preachers who had some formal training. Fortunately, the seminaries were less hostile to black aspirations than were secular institutions. The intellectual careers of influential men such as Charles Ray, Henry Highland Garnet, and Alexander Crummell were launched in northern seminaries.
Charles Ray studied theology at Wesleyan University and served as minister of New York's Bethesda Congregational Church for twenty years. From his post Ray became an influential figure in the black abolitionist movement and in 1837 was named general agent of the Colored American newspaper. Henry Highland Garnet, another activist nineteenth-century leader, completed seminary training at Oneida Theological Institute in New York in 1840. In 1843 he caused a stir at the National Negro Convention by calling for active resistance to slavery, including armed rebellion if necessary.
Not all northern seminaries were receptive to black talent. In 1837 General Theological Seminary in New York City rejected Alexander Crummell's application for admission because of his race. Embittered but undaunted, Crummell studied privately with several white Episcopal theologians in New England and was eventually ordained in Philadelphia in 1844. Although Crummell joined the black intellectual clergy in calling for liberty and rights for blacks, he continued to emphasize the value of individual moral and mental development within the black community.
As the historian Benjamin Quarles says, men of the cloth dominated black leadership in the nineteenth century: "The eight Negroes who were numbered among the founders of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in May 1840 had one thing in common. They were all clergymen."(24)
In the antebellum period the original emotional revivalism of black worshipers slowly gave way to the optimism and rationalism of nineteenth-century American culture. Conversion experiences and testimonies no longer guaranteed salvation. Believers were called upon to confront social and moral ills, and the black ministry boldly placed slavery on the agenda of the American religious community.
Despite the social standing of teachers and ministers, some educated blacks had no desire to enter those professions. A few resourceful thinkers found other means to communicate their ideas to a broader public. In 1827 Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm, the first black to earn a bachelor's degree at an American university (Bowdoin College, in Maine, in 1826), founded the first black newspaper in the United States, Freedom's Journal. Published in New York, the Journal for the two years of its existence was a voice in the growing black protest movement in the North. Because the youthful editors were determined to feature material about and of special interest to free blacks, articles extolling the need for self-help and moral uprightness dominated the Journal's pages. Living in the North and being exposed to the growing influence of the press, Cornish and Russwurm hoped that their weekly would counter the vile treatment typically accorded blacks in mainstream newspapers. Confident of their abilities and intellectual perspective, the editors proclaimed, "We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us."(25) Their example was catching. By 1850, black newspapers were on the streets in most large northern cities.
Although all the papers opposed slavery, most editors reasoned that they could better promote political thinking and activity in the black community by concentrating on the problems of local readership. No theme got more space than racial uplift. Having no reason to believe that support or sympathy would be forthcoming from the white world, blacks were urged to accept the challenge of elevating the race themselves. At a time when few other organs of communication were accessible to literate African Americans, these weeklies featured articles, literary pieces, and letters to the editor. Newly literate blacks relished the chance to show off their skills and to stay abreast of current black thought.
Unfortunately, the noble intentions and hard work of the editors could not compensate for a harsh economic reality that soon weakened the black press. Although the number of literate blacks living in northern cities grew steadily until the Civil War, their communities were nonetheless impoverished and thus hard-pressed to sustain black journals. A majority of the papers closed after a few years. Even so, during their brief heyday they did demonstrate a role for independent black journalism and etch the black press on the roster of institutions that could utilize black mental talent and extend the protest tradition.
Conventions and Literary Societies
The establishment of the black church and weekly newspaper set the stage for voluntary clubs and associations among educated black elites. Full of ideas and opinions about current events and issues, educated black men and women began to congregate and discuss matters that transcended the special interests of their profession or region. Indeed, across the country, blacks often were aware of and responded to the same or similar events and trends. When the black press printed accounts and commentary on John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, thousands of blacks found themselves talking about the significance and appropriateness of the raid.(26)
The most noteworthy form of organized and voluntary association was the convention movement. Excluded from established political parties and processes but determined to protest slavery and racial subordination, educated blacks from five northern states convened in Philadelphia in 1831 to discuss the condition of black America and put forward recommendations. Soon each of the northern states was hosting its own conventions. The following call to delegates of the New York state convention in 1855 illustrates the broad purpose of the convention movement:
The undersigned, regarding the present as a favorable time for pressing the claims of the colored citizens of this State upon the consideration of our State Government, with a view to the removal of the odious and invidious disabilities imposed therein, and to gain equal political rights, take the liberty to invite their colored fellow-citizens to assemble, in State Convention, in the city of TROY on the FIRST TUESDAY of SEPTEMBER, 1855. There is a sacred obligation resting upon the colored citizens of this State, to give the ear of our Legislature no rest till every legal and political disability, with all its depressing and degrading tendencies, shall be swept from the Empire State.(27)
Delegates to the conventions were recruited from the ranks of learned blacks in cities and towns. For a week each year the orators and pundits of the race held forth, launching blistering attacks on racism, African colonization, and northern discrimination. The conventions enabled eloquent African American speakers to articulate ideas to sympathetic and informed black audiences. Delegates listened intently while the best and the brightest African Americans demonstrated their grasp of American intellectual traditions. A speech by William Lambert of Michigan in 1843, attacking a proposal to deny blacks the right to vote, illustrates just such a mastery of the origins of American political philosophy:
That this right is a natural right, belonging to man, because he is a person not a thingan accountable being and not a brute. That government is a trust to be executed for the benefit of all; that its legitimate ends are the preservation of peace, the establishment of justice, the punishment of crime, and the security of rights. These principles declare eternal war against all political injustice. They condemn all Legislation violating the spirit of equality. They are the foundation of a true, and unproscriptive republican form of government and correct guides in all political action.(28)
Because no other venues were available, the conventions usually took on the air of tournaments, where orators competed with one another to enhance their reputations among their peers. The erudite delegates held many different opinions and often locked in bitter debates on the convention floor. Resolutions proposing African colonization split several national and state conventions, as did resolutions calling for slave revolts. However, the gladiatorial character of the conventions did not detract from the delegates' commitment to improve the social and political standing of black Americans.
Black conventions were more an expressive than an instrumental vehicle. Delegates sadly realized that the resolutions, however painstakingly crafted, would be ignored by state and federal authorities. Indeed, at the height of the convention movement, many northern states were moving to disenfranchise blacks. Still, the published proceedings of the conventions reveal no intellectual or spiritual acquiescence in powerlessness. On the contrary, the level of discourse confirmed the extraordinary progress of blacks in fashioning political and intellectual dialogue. If the delegates left the conventions pessimistic about the prospects for state or national legislative action, they must have been impressed with one another and the strides they had made under an oppressive national regime.
Although political and economic liberty were foremost on the agenda, learned blacks also established literary and cultural associations. In the literary societies, which were organized in all major northern cities, small groups of free blacks met weekly to discuss literature and the arts. New York City was home to the Phoenix Society, founded in 1833; Philadelphia had its Minerva Literary Association; and Baltimore's black literary devotees formed the Young Men's Mental Improvement Society for the Discussion of Moral and Philosophical Questions of All Kinds, in 1835. Like similar clubs in white society, black literary groups were committed to the prevailing cultural beliefs about moral uplift and the civilizing power of art and literature. Maria Stewart, a black writer and lecturer, spoke at Boston's Afric-American Female Intelligence Society in 1832 and challenged the audience to demonstrate "that though black your skins as spades of night, your hearts are pure and your souls are white."(29) Reflecting the bias of the period, black societies tended to follow their white counterparts in consigning cultural affairs to women. Thus, for the first time, black women played an important role in institutions for the learned.
The societies also generated a receptive audience for books by black authors. When some club members could not afford to purchase books, the societies took up collections and formed small libraries. A number of urban libraries that have survived into the twentieth century have roots in the early-nineteenth-century literary clubs.
Although limited in scope, the societies served an important function in the embryonic stages of black intellectual history. Their members reasoned that the white critical establishment could not be trusted to make fair aesthetic judgments of black art: they had seen creative works summarily rejected or dismissed as "quaint" because their creators were black. So they established their own agents of criticism, offering assessments grounded in their experiences as African Americans. For black scholars and writers, this discerning, sympathetic audience provided the commentary so necessary in intellectual work. The contention that black art could not get a fair hearing in the councils of white criticism still echoes.
Early Literary Efforts
In the eighteenth century the market for books written by black authors was quite limited. Blacks either could not read or lacked money for luxuries such as books. For various reasons, some whites may have been interested, but not enough of them existed to create a market.
Nevertheless, a few blacks did become recognized authors. Jupiter Hammon (1711-?), a slave-poet living in New York, is usually credited with being the first published black author; his poem "An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries" appeared in 1760. Steeped in religious themes, his work rarely included direct comments about his status as a slave. In the sermon "Address to the Negroes in the State of New York" Hammon's most popular workand the only piece that was reprintedhe was quite reconciled to his status as a slave.
Now I acknowledge that liberty is a great thing, and worth seeking for, if we can get it honestly; and by our good conduct prevail upon our masters to set us free: though for my own part I do not wish to be free, ... for many of us who are grown up slaves, and have always had masters to take care of us, should hardly know how to take care of themselves; and it may be for our own comfort to remain as we are.(30)
In the same address he encouraged blacks to learn to read so as to absorb the Bible's wisdom. (The goodwill of masters that allowed Hammon to learn to read and write, and eventually get his work published, did not extend to giving him his liberty.) Hammon's poetry and prose were firmly rooted in the American literary tradition of the period, and his use of black speech cadences in his poems was innovative, but his apologies for slavery diminished his stature among later black authors and critics.
The career of Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) also reflects the particular predicament of slaves who had to modulate their literary voices. Brought to Massachusetts from Africa as a slave in 1761, Wheatley was sold to a genteel and wealthy New England family. Purchased to be the personal servant of John Wheatley's wife, young Phillis soon impressed the family with her rapid mastery of English. Under the influence of the pious Wheatleys, she absorbed the Calvinist Methodist tradition. Before long she was composing verses that caught the attention of local literati.
Wheatley's poor health and status as a household servant afforded her the leisure to write. After her debut and subsequent acclaim as a poet, John Wheatley arranged for her to accompany his son to England, where, he believed, the climate would be better for her health. In England, in 1773, she received considerable attention as a novelty; despiteor perhaps because ofher slave status, Wheatley was praised by the aristocracy. Her mastery of the form and style of English sentimental verse astounded the local arbiters of culture. "An Elegy Poem on the Death of George Whitefield," her poem on a famous and influential figure of the Great Awakening, had appeared in 1770 and was quickly reprinted in several editions. Her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in 1773. Wheatley's European sojourn was cut short when she returned to New England to care for her ailing mistress.
When her owner died, Wheatley was freed. Soon she married a free black, John Peters. According to one biographer, "her husband was proud and irresponsible, and not only estranged his wife's white friends from her, but also forced poverty upon her and upon the three children she bore him."(31) Cut off from the material security she had enjoyed in the home of a wealthy New England merchant, Wheatley found her new life difficult. Former friends who had subscribed to her books no longer offered assistance, and the growing din of revolution diverted attention from the slave-poet. Among her last works was a tribute to the American Revolution and its concern for liberty. She died at the age of thirty-one in 1784.
Wheatley occasionally referred to herself as African in origin but generally avoided comments about slavery and its effects. Like Hammon and other black authors of the period, she recognized that there were limits to what blacks could say in print. Modern readers have criticized the absence of protest in these early black poets, yet the mere existence of a black poet symbolized a challenge to whites who doubted blacks' creative ability. Moreover, a close and sympathetic reading of the texts of Hammon and Wheatley reveals their clever use of irony and ambiguity to question the morality of slavery. Consider the following lines by Wheatley:
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song Wonder from whence my love of freedom sprung, Whence flow these wishes for the common good, By feeling hearts alone best understood, I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate Was snatched from Afric's fancied happy seat.
Surely, in the words of a critic, "`Seeming cruel' and `fancied happy' give her away as not believing in the cruelty of the fate that had dragged thousands of her race into bondage in America nor in the happiness of their former freedom in Africa."(32) Just as the slave preachers had resorted to ambiguity, Wheatley and Hammon relied on irony to convey a coded message. As we will see, twentieth-century writers like Zora Hurston, Chester Himes, and Ishmael Reed would continue to refine the ironic mode as a tool for social criticism. Other black thinkers were less veiled than Hammon and Wheatley. Writing in 1788 under the pseudonym Othello, a former slave living in the North left no doubt about his intentions:
It is neither the vanity of being an author, nor a sudden and capricious gust of humanity, which has prompted this present design [writing]. It has long been conceived and long been the principal subject of my thoughts. Ever since an indulgent master rewarded my youthful services with freedom and supplied me at a very early age with the means of acquiring knowledge, I have laboured to understand the true principles, on which the liberties of mankind are founded, and to possess myself of the language of this country, in order to plead the cause of those who were once my fellow slaves, and if possible to make my freedom, in some degree, the instrument of their deliverance.(33)
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