In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most whites viewed African Americans as "a homogenous mass of degraded people" (Gatewood, p. 7). The African presence was perceived as a national liability in the imagined community, a "body of death" chained to the larger body politic. Despite the inability of whites to think in terms of a stratified black society, by the late nineteenth century, a small but growing African American middle class regarded its own existence as prima facie evidence of racial progress. This African American elite, whose culture and style of living often more closely resembled that of the better class of whites, shouldered the burden of "uplifting the race" during the period that the historian Rayford W. Logan has labeled "the Nadir" (1880–1915). During this turbulent era, the voting and civil rights gains of Reconstruction (1864–1876) were systematically dismantled. Confronting violence and extra-legal terrorism of often-barbaric intensity and a virulent racial discourse in which science and the rhetoric of lynching converged, these black elites sought to rehabilitate the image of the race by embodying "respectability" and an ethos of service to the masses. Believing that improvement of their material and moral condition through self-help would diminish white racism, African American elites emphasized education, achievement, and propriety as marks of personal distinction that would refute racial distinctions and establish a basis for positive black identities.
The origins of racial uplift ideology can be traced to the race relations of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (1776–1840), a period characterized by an open struggle for respectability and citizenship between various social groups, including free African Americans in the states "north of slavery." Despite such struggles, the black image in the white mind was one of incapacity and degradation. Responding to the ostracizing power of a hegemonic racial discourse that focused on black "degradation," African American elites sought to develop independent institutions that would enable free people of color to "uplift" themselves to conditions of respectability. As James Brewer Stewart writes in "Modernizing 'Difference': The Political Meanings of Color in the Free States, 1776–1840" (1999), this approach stressed "patient incrementalism, strenuous self-improvement, deference from ordinary community members, and the guidance of patriarchal leaders" (p. 694). It gave rise to many of the themes and tensions associated with later conceptions of racial uplift ideology. Facing the deep-rooted racial prejudice of this period, black leaders insisted on the responsibility of each individual to uplift all by "striving to embrace piety, practice thrift and temperance, comport one's self with well-mannered dignity, and seek all advantage that education offered" (Stewart, p. 695). African American leaders of the period sought to demonstrate cultural parity with whites of the highest attainment, to challenge judgments of black capacity based on the behavior of a "degenerate few" (p. 696) and to assert African American manhood and citizenship. Respectability connoted possession of the intellectual and literary skills necessary for African Americans to contribute their own authoritative voices as equals to the nation's ongoing civic discussions.
The evolving ideological formations and social relations of this period provide a template for the period 1870–1920. Mirroring the dynamics of this earlier historical period, efforts by African Americans to uplift themselves into conditions of respectability provoked violent resistance from the vast majority of whites, particularly in the South. The intrusion of the black body into white social space led to mythic discourses and mob violence.
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, circumstances initially favored the efforts of newly emancipated bondsmen to integrate into the civic and political affairs of the South. For a brief period, Radical Republicans experienced mild success in their efforts to extend the franchise to black Americans. A civil rights bill, passed in 1866 over President Johnson's veto, declared that former slaves were citizens of the United States and should receive equal treatment under the law. To forestall anticipated debate over the constitutionality of the law, and to further protect the newly freed blacks, the Fourteenth Amendment was passed by Congress and ratified by the necessary three-fourths of the states in 1868, making African Americans citizens of the country. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, subsequently insured that a man's right to vote could not be prohibited on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. As a consequence of these advances, African Americans served admirably in state and local governments and in the United States Congress. At the state level, they helped to create state-supported schools for blacks and whites, to liberalize suffrage, and to abolish dueling, imprisonment for debt, and punishment by the whipping post and the branding iron. They also instituted reforms in county administrations. In sum, significant progress toward the goal of granting full citizenship to blacks occurred during Reconstruction.
In The Negro in the United States (1970), Rayford W. Logan links the demise of Reconstruction to the infamous Tilden-Hayes compromise of 1877. The withdrawal of federal troops from the South proved a watershed event in the subsequent disfranchisement of African Americans, leading to the low point in race relations that Logan labels as the Nadir. Without secure promises from southerners that they would faithfully observe the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, the fate of African Americans was left to the "great mass of intelligent white men" (Logan, p. 38). A series of adverse Supreme Court decisions, most notably Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), eroded the short-lived gains made by African Americans during Reconstruction. As Logan notes, "Southern state laws, railway regulations, and customs began to fix the pattern of segregation which was to become even more rigid until the middle of the twentieth century" (p. 40). But perhaps more important, this decline in political and civil rights was accompanied by an upsurge in racial violence and terrorism against African Americans. The lynch mob was commonplace in a campaign of violence and intimidation intended to disfranchise African Americans politically and socially. This occurred against the backdrop of pseudoscientific theories of racism, eugenics, and Social Darwinism. In the rhetoric of lynching and in novels of national reconciliation, African Americans were depicted as a biologically inferior and immoral race that would never achieve parity with white Americans. As they had in earlier periods, white Americans imagined a community in which black Americans were figured as "the other."
As in earlier periods, the themes and tensions of racial uplift ideology in the late nineteenth century were conceived in response to a pervasive racial discourse. In Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century, Kevin K. Gaines notes that black elites, concerned with improving the collective social fortunes of the race, placed emphasis on "self-help, racial solidarity, temperance, thrift, chastity, social purity, patriarchal authority, and the accumulation of wealth" (p. 2). Due to the network of institutions for group elevation established within antebellum free black communities and to the efforts of early leaders to uplift themselves to conditions of respectability, racial uplift ideology had indeed stressed deference from "the lower orders." (Stewart, p. 5). Despite such emphasis, uplift was initially conceived in collectivist terms. This connotation of racial uplift persisted in the wake of Emancipation, when a view of education as the key to liberation reflects its subsequent manifestation as a group struggle for freedom and social advancement.
In the post-Reconstruction era, however, uplift ideology was transformed by the imperatives of Jim Crow terror and New South economic development and by the values of a transatlantic Victorian culture. In this context, uplift became an ideology of self-help articulated mainly in racial- and middle-class-specific terms rather than in a broader, egalitarian social context. Consistent with the late Victorian emphasis on autonomous individualism and personal achievement, black elites opposed racism by pointing to class distinctions within the race as evidence of evolutionary progress. Retreating from natural-rights arguments, they regarded freedom as a reward for upright, cultured behavior. Gaines charges that an "unconscious, internalized racism" fostered an ambivalent relationship with the black masses. "Amidst legal and extralegal repression," Gaines writes, "many black elites sought status, moral authority, and recognition of their humanity by distinguishing themselves, as bourgeois agents of civilization, from the presumably undeveloped black majority; hence the phrase, so purposeful and earnest, yet so often of ambiguous significance, 'uplifting the race'" (p. 2).
According to Wilson Jeremiah Moses in The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850–1925 (1978), a distinctive feature of African American elites committed to racial improvement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the quest for gentility. African American elites argued their capacity for assimilation into the larger society by displaying external evidence of culture, refinement, and character. Guided by the rules of the "genteel performance" they regarded manners and morals, rather than material possessions, as the true measure of success and social class. Gentility forbade loud talking and laughing in public, or any behavior considered vulgar, annoying, or crude. Self-restraint, the prime attribute of gentility, important in all matters from emotion and expression to dress, was the basis for collective racial improvement. Further, black gentility dictated that "race men" rationalize personal success in terms of the collective advance of the race.
The quest for black gentility went beyond a simple emphasis on proper conduct. African American elites sought to fulfill the majority society's normative gender conventions and to adopt its sexual attitudes. Educated African Americans regarded the family and patriarchal gender relations as crucial markers of respectability and racial progress. Seeking to counter the charge of sexual immorality directed at black females, the black women's club movement adopted the motto "lifting as we climb," reflecting its efforts to elevate the race by teaching women the importance of the home and the woman's moral influence within it. In their paeans to patriarchal family life, black elites explicitly celebrated Victorian standards of genteel courtship and premarital chastity.
The quest for black gentility, in all of its dimensions, fostered the development of the stratified African American society, "successive classes with higher and higher sexual morals," called for by W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) in The Negro American Family (1908). Defining themselves in relation to the masses, African American elites posited that the two groups were in different phases of development. "Contrasting their own adherence to the genteel performance with the crude behavior with which they credited the lower classes," writes Willard B. Gatewood in Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880–1920 (1990), the elites often "assumed the obligation of instructing the lower classes in the essentials of the genteel performance" (pp. 187–188). Others, replicating the racial fictions used to justify segregation even as they contested them, believed that little could be done to improve the collective fortunes of the race. In their minds, the measure of gentility was the distance between themselves and the masses. The tensions of racial uplift ideology are visible in Gatewood's assertion that "some aristocrats of color alternated between the uplift approach and the stratagem of placing distance between themselves and the ill-mannered masses. Or, on occasion, they attempted both approaches simultaneously" (p. 188).
Those race strategists concerned with altering the behavior of the African American masses believed that by establishing self-restraint as a communal norm, they would foster collective racial advancement. In "Black Strivings in a Twilight Civilization" (found in The Future of the Race), Cornel West examines the various "Victorian strategies" enacted by black men and women in the late ninteteenth century to accomplish their didactic aims. As a sacrificial cultural elite dedicated to improving the material and moral conditions of the race, they believed it their role to "shape and mold the values and viewpoints of the masses by managing educational and political bureaucracies" (p. 65). Further, they believed that "the effective management of institutions by the educated few for the benefit of many would promote material and spiritual progress" (p. 65).
These black Victorians created a network of religious, educational, and social institutions to prepare black Americans for citizenship participation. Albert G. Miller, in Elevating the Race: Theophilus G. Steward, Black Theology, and the Making of an African American Civil Society, 1865–1924 (2003), writes that this "civil society," comprised of "churches, the Free African Society, the Prince Hall Masons, literary societies, schools, and newspapers," provided a social space for discussion of public concerns. Created as "buffers from white society and as tools of liberation" (p. xvii), these entities formed an institutional base for African American leaders who surpassed the often hollow, abstract rhetoric of racial uplift with practical service. Their techniques of persuasion and instruction, of self-improvement and the improvement of others, were manifestations of Victorianism.
BLACK VICTORIANS: THE ORIGINS AND EVOLVING MEANINGS OF RACIAL UPLIFT IDEOLOGY
Various figures embody the contradictions associated with the ambivalent ideology of racial uplift, which included resistance to and immersion in the values of the larger white culture. Spanning the greater part of the nineteenth century, from the premodern period to the Nadir, the life of Alexander Crummell (1819–1898) typified the antebellum origins and evolving meanings of a racial uplift ideology. Examined against the backdrop of nineteenth-century racial discourse, Crummell was a "disconcerting anomaly, a black man of letters before the Civil War," in the opinion of Wilson Jeremiah Moses, author of Alexander Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent (1989). "Knowledgeable in the classics at a time when the average black American was an illiterate slave" (p. 5), Crummell graduated from Queens College, Cambridge, in 1853 and was ordained a priest of the Episcopal Church. As a civilizing missionary among black people, he embodied the deep-seated and abiding commitment to the ideals of "racial uplift, Negro improvement, African Civilization, race progress, and African development" and preached "Civilization" as the "primal need of the race" (Moses, Alexander Crummell, p. 262). Crummell spent nearly twenty years in Liberia as a missionary, an educator, and a public moralist. His lifelong project of humanistic self-cultivation, Protestant self-denial, and bourgeois self-control reflected his belief that a weak and degraded race needed moral and intellectual uplift. Because he believed that the basis for collective racial progress was the disciplined autonomous self, Crummell "associated upward social mobility with bourgeois morality, sober behavior, and temperance" (p. 217).
Crummell was the founder and first president of the American Negro Academy (ANA) in 1897, and perhaps the ideological parent of W. E. B. Du Bois, who expressed similar concerns with uplifting the race through character building and the elevation of moral life. Willard B. Gatewood writes that the objectives of the ANA were "the promotion of Negro culture and unity through literary and scholarly works, aid of youths of genius in the attainment of high culture, the establishment of historical and literary archives, and assistance to publications that vindicated the race from racial assault" (Aristocrats of Color, p. 218). Consistent with Victorian strategies of racial uplift, the role of the educated figures invited to join the academy was to shape and direct the behavior of the crude masses. Such an elite was needed as an indigenous missionary force, as bearers of culture that would guide the race in the creation of a black civilization.
The death of Crummell and Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) in the 1890s left Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) and W. E. B. Du Bois as black America's most visible leaders in the project of racial uplift. Their seemingly antagonistic race strategies similarly reflected the values of Victorian culture. Typically, scholars contrast Du Bois's belief in liberal culture with Washington's views on agriculture. Washington's "pedagogy of the oppressed," reflecting the influence of Samuel Chapman Armstrong, his Hampton mentor, was designed to rehabilitate the rural peasantry. Educated at Fisk and Harvard Universities, Du Bois believed that liberal culture was essential for an educated citizenry. Washington associated Du Bois with an artificial class that violated natural laws by being so detached from productive labor. Du Bois charged that Washington's gospel of work and money threatened to overshadow the higher aims of life.
In reality, as William Toll points out in The Resurgence of Race: Black Social Theory from Reconstruction to the Pan-African Conferences (1979), Washington's program of "social rehabilitation" and Du Bois's strategy of "cultural revitalization" were alternate conceptions of racial uplift. Both men believed that the backwardness of the masses necessitated a specially trained elite to expunge the social primitivism that was the product of the slave experience and to combat the stigma attached to the race. Both promoted Victorian ideals associated with modernization—a high valuation of time, a concern with rational order, and, above all, sense of moral urgency. And, as Daniel Walker Howe notes in "Victorian Culture in America" (1976), both Washington and Du Bois "taught people to work hard, to postpone gratification, to repress themselves sexually, to 'improve' themselves, to be sober, conscientious, even compulsive" (p. 17).
Impatient with mere book learning, Washington taught black students the dignity of toil so that they might benefit from the modernization of the region. In his most famous public utterance on the virtue of work, Washington counseled black Americans to cast down their buckets in "agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions" (p. 153). Preaching the "Gospel of Wealth," the "Wizard of Tuskegee" believed that discipline—both individually and collectively—was necessary for the race to become part of the world capitalist economy. Washington created a rigid daily schedule at Tuskegee in order to foster habits of self-discipline. Consistent with the collective sensibility of racial uplift ideology, he believed that individual self-control would foster a pattern of communal organization.
Du Bois's more academic moralizing and his program of cultural revitalization were products of a didacticism that assumed that everyone would benefit from the pursuit of "culture." Addressing "the Negro Problem" in "The Conservation of Races," he spoke of the need to correct "the immorality, crime and laziness among the Negroes themselves, which still remains as a heritage from slavery" (A Reader, p. 27). Preaching the "Gospel of Sacrifice" in The Souls of Black Folk, and from the pages of The Crisis, he called for a "talented tenth" to "scatter civilization among a people whose ignorance was not simply of letters, but of life itself " (The Souls of Black Folk, p. 81).
Traced to its origins, however, Du Bois's notion of cultural revitalization was not mutually exclusive with Washington's program of social rehabilitation. William Toll notes that Du Bois's spiritual mentor Alexander Crummell emphasized the dignity of skilled labor and "tied individual achievement to racial rebirth" (p. 40). Indeed, Crummell's "particular proposals—to learn trades, to work humbly when young, to save money, to buy farms—could have provided the philosophical basis for Booker T. Washington" (Toll, p. 40). But Crummell's praise of skilled labor was tempered by his defense of the "'natural right' of all persons to aspire to occupations commensurate with their talents" (p. 40). In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois would similarly argue the need to "teach workers to work, teach thinkers to think" (p. 72). Like Crummell, Du Bois embraced the need for broader training in order to combat racial stereotypes.
Clearly, both Du Bois and Washington wanted to refine and cultivate persons of African descent. Despite their celebrated differences, the two principal architects of racial uplift strategies during the Nadir shared a fundamental belief that ignorance was the major obstacle to black advancement. As Cornel West notes in The Future of the Race, Victorian strategies of racial uplift were predicated on the assumption that if "the black masses were educated—in order to acquire skills and culture—black America would thrive" (p. 60).
Because of their obvious roles in the formation of African American civil society Washington and Du Bois often eclipse black women who were equally committed to uplifting the race. The masculinist imperatives of uplift, however, not only barred black women like Anna Julia Cooper (1858–1964) from inclusion in organizations such as the ANA, it asked black women to choose racial concerns over those of gender. In 1897, the year the ANA was founded, Cooper, the daughter of a former slave woman and her white master, was a teacher of mathematics and science at Washington Colored High School in the District of Columbia. She would later serve as principal and teacher of classics at this institution, which was successively known as the M Street School and finally as Dunbar High School. The venerable institution was famous for the learning of its teachers and its role in preparing the children of black elites for the rigors of top-rank northern universities. With a B.A. and an M.A. from Oberlin College, Cooper rivaled her male counterparts in the ANA.
Cooper was known, however, for her firm stances on issues of the day, as well as her commitment to improving the collective fortunes of black women. Dismissed as the school's principal by forces committed to vocational and industrial training, she earned a Ph.D. from the University of Paris at the age of sixty-seven. Anticipating the themes and classical allusiveness of Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, Cooper's A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South (1892) challenged male attitudes regarding the dictates of gentility. Using domesticity as a site of resistance she critiqued both male patriarchy and the hypocrisy of the suffrage movement. Cooper sought the moral and educational elevation of black womanhood as the "vital element in the regeneration and progress of a race" (p. 9). Arguing for black women to lead the way in the redemption of the racial family, she embodied purity and piety if not submissiveness.
Black women like Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954) and Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931) also contested the attitudes of men who believed that higher education or public visibility somehow "unsexed" women. The daughter of Robert Church, a wealthy man from Memphis, Terrell, like Cooper, encountered opposition to her educational aspirations. Her decision to teach at Wilberforce College led her father to threaten disinheritance. Ultimately married to Robert Terrell, an influential judge in Washington, D.C., the "capital of the colored aristocracy" (Gatewood, p. 39), she subverted the traditional housewife's role in order to engage in activist pursuits. Ida B. Wells-Barnett's work as an anti-lynching crusader did not always enjoy the blessing of black male leaders, who felt it inappropriate for her to assume such a role. The difficulties encountered by these women further illustrate the tensions inherent within racial uplift ideology and its inability to foster progressive change.
The values associated with racial uplift ideology declined significantly after World War I, due in part to changes associated with industrialization and urbanization, but perhaps in greater measure to changes in the black aristocracy. As a new generation of prosperous black businesspeople, politicians, and professionals emerged that placed less emphasis on the pursuit of gentility, the prestige and influence of an older black upper class eroded.
THE AESTHETICS OF RACIAL UPLIFT
The values of racial uplift influenced both the aesthetic mandates and the themes of African American expression from the post-Reconstruction era up through the New Negro Movement of the 1920s. Because they shared in and lived life according to the dominant values of the larger society, a crucial force in black expression was the interaction of racism and the middle-class character of black writers. Reflecting the tensions and ambiguities of racial uplift, ambivalence was a key structural element of African American expression. Even those writers known for their celebrations of black folk culture, such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911), Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906), and Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858–1932), viewed art as an instrument of social change. Their attempts to gain "civil rights by copyrights" (Lewis, p. 13) reflected their faith that literary endeavor would challenge white beliefs in black inferiority. Protest and gentility, the development of inner virtue through the cultivation of proper thoughts and feelings, were key characteristics during a period of literary assimilationism. While striving for assimilation into the larger white culture, however, many black elites worried that the race would lose its identity in the process. As a result, many African American writers found themselves committed, simultaneously and paradoxically, to the "racial ideal," that is, a belief that blacks exhibited a clear "racial particularity" and therefore had a distinctive message for humanity. The resultant tensions—between the desire to put the best foot forward and the desire to celebrate the black folk tradition—shaped the literature of black writers.
This tension is apparent in stories like Charles Waddell Chesnutt's "The Wife of His Youth" (1899). Due to his genius for social leadership Mr. Ryder is regarded as dean of the "Blue Veins" (a term that refers to the light skin color possessed by many of the elite African Americans). Maligned for its "colorphobia," the group nonetheless views its purpose as that of racial uplift. Having distanced himself from his folk past and his former identity as "Sam Taylor," Ryder exhibits the accoutrements of culture: a fine house, social standing, and an affinity for European literature. Ryder dramatizes the tensions of racial uplift:
"I have no race prejudice," he would say, "but we people of mixed blood are ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black. The one doesn't want us yet, but may take us in time. The other would welcome us, but it would be for us a backward step." (P. 7)
The story finds Mr. Ryder on the eve of his engagement to Molly Dixon, a near-white widow who embodies the virtues of domestic gentility. Perusing a volume of Tennyson in search of quotations appropriate to the occasion, Ryder is interrupted by "'Liza Jane," the wife of his youth, who has searched faithfully for her husband for over twenty years. In contrast with Molly Dixon, she is old, and her garments suggest a life of servitude. Further, she is "very black," indeed, "so black that her toothless gums, revealed when she opened her mouth to speak, were not red, but blue." As "a bit of the old plantation life" (p. 10), she compels Mr. Ryder to choose between an elite conception of racial uplift that values class distinctions as evidence of progress or a more democratic conception that defends the humanity of the "folk." Ryder's choice, made possible by 'Liza Jane's genteel virtue, is ultimately one for racial unity versus the politics of respectability.
The unnamed narrator in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) by James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) similarly embodies the tensions inherent in racial uplift ideology—between the desire for assimilation and a belief in black distinctiveness. As a "perfect little aristocrat" who acknowledges his aversion to being classed with other black students, he feels a tinge of race pride when "Shiny" gives a wonderful speech. This pride causes him "to form wild dreams of bringing glory and honour to the Negro race" (p. 46). Trained as a classical pianist, he is the race genius who can create symphonic scores from rag-time. His efforts to tame and routinize the folk spirit are compromised, however, by his ambivalence toward the black masses. Describing his initial encounter with the "folk," he confesses, "the unkempt appearance, the shambling slouching gait and loud talk and laughter of these people aroused in me a feeling of almost repulsion" (p. 56). Throughout the text, Johnson's narrator contrasts his own gentility with the crude behavior of the lower classes and alternates between the uplift approach and that of distancing himself from the black masses. His desire to explicate black folk culture is certainly a project of racial uplift. His unwillingness to identify with a despised people, however, leads him, by the novel's end, to forfeit his "birthright" for "a mess of pottage" (p. 211).
An understanding of racial uplift ideology furnishes a useful way of examining African American literary expression from the post-Reconstruction era well into the 1930s. During the Harlem Renaissance, however, younger artists and intellectuals like Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, and Wallace Henry Thurman rejected the aesthetic mandates inherent in racial uplift while examining its myriad contradictions.
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Jeffrey R. Williams