Thursday, January 26, 2012

Eben Miller's "Born along the Color Line"

Eben Miller teaches at Southern Maine Community College and lives in Lewiston, Maine.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Born along the Color Line: The 1933 Amenia Conference and the Rise of a National Civil Rights Movement, and reported the following:
From Page 99:
Recently plagued by symptoms of fatigue, [Abram] Harris had received a medical checkup that revealed startling but thankfully small "cloudy areas" on his lungs. Naturally he feared tuberculosis—a blight in urban black communities across the nation, another morbid consequence of segregation—but was told the spots would "disappear very shortly," he wrote, "if I get plenty of sleep, drink milk regularly, take the prescribed doses of cod-liver oil and cut down on my work." Between cod-liver oil and rest, the latter was the less palatable prescription....

All the while, the economics of the race problem beckoned. He did not "deny that you can still fight for Negro rights," he wrote his friend and Howard colleague Ralph Bunche during these weeks of convalescence, yet gaining citizenship rights would be "only half of the job." Just as the New Deal was remaking the national economy, it remained necessary for black leaders to develop a comprehensive program for the civil rights movement.
Two features in this excerpt from page 99 most struck me as supportive of Ford Madox Ford's memorable maxim—its biographical focus and its suggestion that African Americans' economic rights were as important as civil rights.

The biographical nature of this excerpt is apt; my book is a collective biography. Page 99 falls at the very end of the second chapter, which follows the early career of Abram Harris, an economist and professor at Howard University. Here details from Harris's life, such as his illness during the spring and summer of 1933 and his frustration with being so unproductive, afford an everyday perspective. But they appear without the intent of overshadowing the broader argument and momentum of the narrative. For instance, I deployed these details to underscore how committed Harris was to his scholarship. They also help to establish how anxious he would be to participate in the singular civil rigths gathering described in the following chapter. In this respect—the attempt to balance biographical details within a generation-long story about the struggle for African American freedom—this excerpt certainly reveals something of "the quality of the whole."

As does its emphasis on economic rights. A main argument appearing throughout the book is that between the 1920s and early 1950s, African Americans strived to secure equal economic opportunities along with Constitutionally-protected political and civic freedoms. Abram Harris was a key figure in this regard. During the 1920s and early 1930s, Harris sought to use his scholarship and stature as an intellectual to promote an interracial movement for economic rights, mainly among industrial laborers. Much of the rest of my book examines the influence of this outlook on the civil rights movement, especially during the Great Depression and World War II.

In each of these ways, then—illustrating the narrative strategy and highlighting a critical argument—the Ford test works with my book.
Learn more about Born along the Color Line at the Oxford University Press website.

My Book, The Movie: Born along the Color Line.

--Marshal Zeringue