Monday, February 15, 2010

Stephen Tuck's "We Ain't What We Ought To Be"

Stephen Tuck is University Lecturer in American History, Pembroke College, Oxford University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, We Ain't What We Ought To Be: The Black Freedom Struggle from Emancipation to Obama, and reported the following:
Page 99:
In many ways, the final appeals for justice underlined just how weak black southerners had become. In South Carolina, the elderly Robert Smalls took his place as one of just six black delegates, out of 106, at the 1895 state constitutional convention called to introduce a literacy test. For comparison, there were seventy-one black delegates to the 1868 convention. With typical bravery, he spoke up. The Democratic Charleston News and Courier reported somewhat wistfully on the last hurrah of an old foe: “No one can fail to be impressed with Gen Smalls’ earnest protestation, before God.” Maybe so, but delegates failed to be moved. All but the six black delegates voted for disfranchisement. Smalls refused to sign the new constitution. When the convention proposed not to pay the travel costs of anyone who refused, Smalls — in a final gesture of defiance — said “he would rather walk home than sign.” As it turned out, in the rush to disfranchisement the convention failed to vote down his costs.

In a sign of changing times, Democratic publicists — not black southerners, as during Reconstruction — now used southern white violence to appeal to the nation as a whole. It worked. Outlook magazine — a liberal religious journal founded by former abolitionists — published a roundtable on the Atlanta riot. Writing as the “northern black” voice, women’s reformer Carrie Clifford pointed out that violence was “directed at the ... progressive negro [and not] the vicious negro” and reminded white Christians of the command to love thy (Negro) neighbor. But the response of a “southern white” laid the blame for the violence at the feet of black men: “If there had been no assaults upon white women there would have been no mobs.” The editor concluded by calling for black self-restraint, thus accepting the demonization of black men as debased criminals. In the light of the riot, Clifford reckoned the “lecture to blacks on self-restraint becomes indeed a roaring farce.”

To win support, black critics of white supremacy looked abroad. The foremost anti-lynching campaigner of the day, Ida B. Wells, traveled to England. Born a slave and orphaned in her teens, Wells began her career as a teacher while she supported her siblings. She then switched to journalism, and in 1889 she was elected as the first woman secretary of the Afro-American Press Association. Fortune reckoned “she has plenty of nerve; she is smart as a steel trap, and she has no sympathy with humbug.”

Though Wells had long challenged racism (she once bit a conductor who threw her off a segregated train, and then sued the company), it was the lynching of three friends in Memphis on account of their business success that prompted her campaign. She thundered that the charge of rape was a “threadbare lie” — most lynchings were not on account of interracial sex; and where sexual encounters did occur, it was to satisfy white women’s longings rather than black men’s lust.

Both the message and the messenger (a single black woman with a confrontational style) provoked far more criticism than support among white Americans. Her enemies — who included some nervous black leaders — called her a “black harlot.” Not so in England. During a four month tour in 1894, Wells gave over a hundred lectures, breakfasted with MPs in the Houses of Parliament, was interviewed by leading newspapers, and inspired the formation of an influential anti-lynching committee. By now a celebrity, Wells took the opportunity to denounce the leading American white women’s temperance leader, Frances Willard, who happened to be in Britain at the same time. Willard was a social reformer who did not condone lynching, but to boost her cause she criticized black men for their love of “demon rum” and their resulting lust for pure white women.
Sure enough, the p99 test works rather well. The first paragraph reminds us that the long struggle for freedom was not one of inexorable progress, that white supremacy was about more than vigilante violence, and that black resistance continued in downturns. Ultimately what mattered most was not the desire or even strategies of African Americans to seek meaningful freedom, but who had the power to pursue their agenda -- by the late c19th century, the celebrated civil war slave runaway Robert Smalls (who had stolen his confederate ship) could not hope to turn back the juggernaut of white supremacy. This power struggle, between those seeking liberation and those opposed to it, is the main organising theme of the book, and what accounts for the shifting power balance is what makes the African American freedom struggle so fascinating, perplexing and instructive. (The fact that that the convention ended up in such a rush also reminds us how messy and chaotic -- how human -- politics and race often was.)

The second paragraph points us to the fluidity of racism -- where Southern white violence had prompted many white northerners to support freed slaves after the Civil War, the very same violence was now seen as a reaction to black sex crimes ... and thus a reason to endorse white supremacy and segregation. The multiple constructions of race stereotypes throughout the period show the utility of race, and thus its power.

The third and fourth paragraphs show that black Americans placed their struggle in a global frame -- the celebrated campaigner Ida B. Wells took her campaign to England, to good effect. Again, sex and race are inextricably intertwined. Wells claimed that any interracial sex was on account of white women's longings. Meanwhile, criticism of Wells focussed on the fact that here was a single black woman speaking out of place. The fact that she used her platform abroad to land a punch on a leading white women's reformer also points to the complex relationship between black and white women reformers throughout the period, and the narrow ground black women often found themselves on, caught between a (male) race struggle and a (white) womens' movement. What struck me is how often black women managed to clearly espouse a call for full human rights that transcended the narrower agendas of many reform movements.
Learn more about We Ain't What We Ought To Be at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue